Lessing, Doris 1919–
Lessing is a British novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, and poet who was born in Persia and raised in Rhodesia. Her work is informed by an overriding concern for racial justice and autonomy for women in a white male-dominated society. Lessing began her career as a realist, and her early novels exhibit a fervent belief in communism, which she later renounced. Primarily a novelist, Lessing has also written some well-received short stories, many of which revolve around her African experiences. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Robert S. Ryf
[Briefing For a Descent Into Hell] seems to me to be an important synthesis of central aspects of The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City and in some ways to constitute [Lessing's] most mature vision thus far of the ultimate nature of human experience. (p. 193)
To center initially on the question of mental disturbance is natural enough for both reviewer and reader; after all, Charles is a patient at a mental hospital throughout the novel. But to remain centered on this aspect of it, or on the related needs for understanding, compassion, and reform is, it seems to me, to miss the central import of the novel and the position it occupies in Lessing's major fiction.
Her own cryptic description of the book may have been misleading. In an interview while she was at work on it, she described it as "a mad, dreamlike book, completely different from anything I have done before."
Yes and no. Certainly it is different from her other novels in plot and in its use of several media through which to bring us the story. Yet as one moves through the book and, in particular, contemplates it afterward, one is aware of important resonances. For one thing, this novel, as do her other two major ones, stands squarely in the context of twentieth-century literature, and reflects, as do they, most of the principal concerns of the literary consciousness of our time, concerns shared, in various particulars, by most major modern novelists. The nature of the self and of consciousness, the gulf between inner and outer states, the emphasis on myth and archetypal patterns of experience—these are familiar enough landmarks. Additionally, the concerns Lessing has shown, elsewhere and here, with the dehumanizing aspects of society, with conditioning as a result of political structures, and with the consequent difficulties of surviving as persons, place her in the mainstream of the contemporary tradition. More particularly, her concentration, in Briefing, on the nature and problem of language itself, its use as subject as well as vehicle of communication, its inadequacies, the paradox of the use of language to get us beyond language, the attempt to communicate what is recognized to be incommunicable, these latter considerations relate her closely to such twentieth-century poets as Eliot. It is surely more than a coincidence that Charles finds himself more than once beset by Sweeney's problem: "I gotta use words when I talk to you."
But what connects Briefing importantly to her other two major novels, and what reflects her most mature vision, it seems to me, is the movement beyond ideology, which takes shape in the emerging opposition to and final rejection of categories, and the recognition of the primacy of experiential insights and values as against abstract knowledge and norms. (pp. 194-95)
[The] circularity of structure [in Briefing For a Descent Into Hell] embodies both good and bad news about human experience. The great cycles of moon, myth, and man are reassuring, but there is no escape from them. Indeed, a central portent of the book seems to me to be that there is no Utopia, no magic place. We must somehow make it where we are.
Structure also embodies central motifs. The theme of descent of course pervades the book. The descent of the gods implies the divine element of man, but it is a divinity stifled by man himself, and by his institutions. Charles, one of these...
(The entire section is 3,821 words.)