Doris Lessing and the Search for Self.

I was 22 years old when I first read Doris Lessing. It was her first book, The Grass is Singing, set in Rhodesia in the 1940’s amongst hardscrabble farmers struggling against their own alienation and inexperience to make a living. Knowing something about her background even back then when it was more fashionable to read her, I read the text as more than a little autobiographical. The plot of the book was a murder mystery in reverse. Mary Turner, the wife of Dick Turner has been murdered, and a “houseboy” Moses has already confessed to the crime. What struck me was the direct compelling writing that drove the plot towards its gruesome end with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Inverting the plot so as to name the killer first focused the book on motivation- not on who did it, but why they did it. It was all down to a question of identities. Who were these people, really? It was as if Doris Lessing was saying through the book: Here is the world I came from. I know these people. I lived among them. They were poor, white, enmeshed in a kind of abhorrent officially sanctioned racism called apartheid, and, in the midst of this bleak political landscape in the supremely beautiful land of Rhodesia. The story was grim and heartbreaking, a story of the disastrous fall from grace of two white Rhodesian farmers caught in a downward spiral of failed dreams, loveless relationships, cruelty, madness, disappointment, and then murder.

The book was just so damn clever. The fact we are presented with an inverted murder mystery where the reader is left to tease out the mysteries of the human heart and the human psyche seems to focus on a theme that runs right across most if not all of the authors work: the quest for self, for our deepest drives and motivations. Why did Moses kill Mary? Where did Moses get his scar? What pushed them to such extremities? What made these people engage in this terrible dance of death and poverty and brutal race relations? It was clear these protagonists were as unable to flourish as their farm. (See for Lessing describing colonial traditions) This was due to the social and political climate in Rhodesia, and of course, ineptitude. They seemed to be really bad farmers, in fact Dick admitted as much. Also, they had no idea who they were in Rhodesia. They did not fit into local society, nor could they make a success of their lives. As they were not themselves; as they could never be themselves, at least not in Rhodesia in the 40’s, their fates were somewhat determined by these circumstances. It was this search for identity at the core of the novel that led me to begin seriously reading Lessing.

Looking over The Grass is Singing decades later I see it still as a dreadfully sad book. I still see it as almost too autobiographical in many ways. I had read more about Lessing after I finished the novel and now I could clearly see where the plot came from and how it developed in her mind. That being the case, this masterpiece of writing hooked me on Doris Lessing as a writer to read most carefully. I began hunting for and reading her books. Like her characters I too had an inner life so very different from the outer social self I presented to the world.

Within a year or two I had devoured the Canopus in Argos novels, being a science fiction junkie since I was about twelve or so. These books, heavily influenced by Sufism, focused more on the development of societies from an alien standpoint, their structures, influences on individual freedoms, and how these societies developed and were influenced by aliens over eons. So strictly, as they didn’t focus on the hard science of the story, they could be regarded more as space fiction, something Lessing emphasized more than once. After this I read The Good Terrorist, where two differing lifestyles are struggled with: the terrible things done in acts of terrorism counterpointed with the demands of domesticity and the rhythms of everyday life. Then, after reading of Alice’s attempts to bridge bourgeois ideology with her radical terrorist leanings, soon afterwards, I bought the mind bendingly different, disturbingly compelling, Briefing for a Descent into Hell. It was a devastating book that introduced me on a deeper level to Doris Lessing the psychonaut who traverses the outer reaches of human consciousness and experience, whereby we journeyed across the inner space time landscapes of Professor Charles Watkins’ mind and soul and deeply fragmented inner self. Watkins was lost and alone within his own inescapable subjectivity that he longs to transcend and evolve beyond. Is he mentally ill or transitioning from one self to another? Who is this self he was given, or indeed we are given socially? Who are we in relation to one another? Is there more than one self? We meet so many Charlie Watkins in Briefing for a Descent into Hell, this hell which is his inner universe. The gods are depicted with many faces and selves, so why not we? Here Professor Watkins breaks down, his social self disintegrates, and we are presented with the pieces in the alternate reality of his deep subconscious. Who was Watkins? Did we meet the real Charlie Watkins in this surreal Dantesque psychic landscape? Should he be allowed to continue on this journey or should he be ‘healed’ with medication in the hospital? This was a question that bothered me as I could find no place for myself in the world.

Around this time I was in my thirties, married, lost in suburbia with a soulless corporate job in a phone company and I was confused and still in search of myself. Then, one day in a second hand bookshop, I picked up The Golden Notebook. This cubistic novel, built from different ‘notebooks’ and clippings and fragments, is about the life, memories, and writings of Anna Wulf in the 1950s. Here the theme of breakdown, healing, what reality was and is, were all examined in a riveting, compassionate, and clever way. Anna, the writer protagonist, records the differing aspects of herself on four separate notebooks, all of which she seeks to unify into one notebook, the big one, the golden notebook of the title. At the time of writing Lessing was reeling with the realization amongst so many left wing intellectuals and activists that Stalin was responsible for around forty million deaths. (See: The Day That Stalin Died: news was devastating on one level, and yet on another level, she felt nothing the day he died. Soon she left the party and then, six years afterwards, The Golden Notebook came out. Again I identified with her disillusionment. With the demise of any overarching belief system from one’s life, at first the experience is a kind of blank, then slowly over time one experiences the all-encompassing consequences of discovering that one’s belief systems were founded on nothing substantial. Lessing, a former activist, divorced, personally and ideologically lost, felt the inner fragmentation of her world and sought to find a literary remedy for her pain and loss of direction. I saw my life reflected in these notebooks, these alternate tales of parallel lives that constituted Wulf’s self. I reveled in the counter point of differing styles all vying with one another as they emerged from the notebooks that were used to fuse together in the golden notebook which went to build up what constituted the novel. These notebooks were Anna’s differing selves, novels within novels building up complex and at time contrapuntal narratives like some kind of Bach work whereby voices in apparent discordance actually converge to give a higher more complex beauty. It was a kind of act of artistic salvation that seemed to me to be the only real solution to the quest for the self. It is in telling our stories, telling the truth about ourselves, the uncomfortable, dirty, at times lost, hurt, confused and vulnerable truths about ourselves that we discover who we are. It is in the telling of our story, however incoherent and fragmented that story might be that we discover our story. It is in the midst of the discord and differing lives we live that we are most truly who we are. In The Golden Notebook Lessing made a timeless artefact of our often fragmentary lives. The idea of a breakdown, in the sense of a loss of sense of self and a major depressive episode is seen as something bleak, painful, but if seen as something of a breakthrough rather than breakdown, might be ultimately redemptive. After the failed experiment with communism, her rejection of party politics, the end of her marriages, Lessing took a route that opened even more to her, the journey inwards.

Lessing discusses in the first volume of her autobiography just how it’s possible that an intelligent person like her could have believed the things she did at the time (communism, collectivism, dictatorship of the proletariat, etc.), and indeed the extent and detail of her MI5 file shows how skeptical British intelligence was as to whether or not she really had given up on her support of communism. (See ) “Facts are easy,” she replies in her autobiography (P. 19) “It is the atmospheres that made them possible that are elusive.” And “I know it’s hard to understand without being immersed in the poisoned air of then.” One detects an embarrassment about what she held to be true back when she was a younger less experienced person, a common experience of anyone who recall the sometimes naïve safe belief systems one embraces, alas, all to easily in a youthful search for truth and the comforts of a kind of easy certainty.

In the end of course there are no easy certainties. Any journey to self is a complex one, filled with setbacks and disappointments and false trails, at times disaster. However, according to first volume of her autobiography (p.20), Lessing’s journey to the centre of herself was greatly assisted by psychedelics, which surprised me. She says she took mescaline once, and that when she did she was aided by two friends who monitored both her and the right amount of the drug she was taking. The journey was eventful. What she discovered was just how strong in her was what she referred to as the Hostess character. This is the person one meets when you see Lessing interviewed or giving lectures, being chatty, friendly, and warm, engaging, “a public person for public use”. And apparently she was rabbiting away to her two friends in an increasingly scatty manner while high. But deep inside she saw herself, a creature within the within she refers to as The Observer. This is the place she says “here I retreat to, take refuge, when I think that my life will be public property and there is nothing I can do about it. (P. 20)” This is her most secret place, and here, in this ultimate loneliness, this most private of inner worlds, she is safe, alone truly herself. If there was ever a time on her quest for what we loosely call the self, from the fifty or so books this most brilliant and prolific of writers wrote about from the most distant of worlds to a bitter life under Rhodesian apartheid, it appears that here, under the influence of a drug that has inspired writers and thinkers and mystics alike, she talks about finding herself: “Me, I, this feeling of me.(p.20)” This most inviolable of inner selves manifested itself to her, never to be accessed by anyone other than herself, amidst joy and intense childlike weeping and a desire to cradle this little inner child as one would an infant (P.21). Unfortunately we do not read of what effect this had on her long term, but reading what she wrote about the trip in her autobiography, this “feeling of me” seems to be her realization of a central self, her golden notebook if you will, a gratifying existential experience of coming home, something that remained with her at least until the time of her writing her autobiography (p.21). In fact, Lessing goes further than that. She describes using mescaline as an experience of “being born” a phrase she says is from the sixties, but one she deploys to express the radical nature of this experience, its gravity, it’s transcendental quality. Her first birth was a difficult one. This one was apparently not so traumatic. It was revelatory, healing and transforming, if you will, and certainly for me an entirely new aspect to this endlessly intriguing and challenging writer.

Works Mentioned:

Lessing, Doris, The Grass is Singing, Fourth Estate Ltd (17 Jan. 2013), ISBN-13: 978-0007498802

Lessing, Doris, Canopus in Argos: Archives, Vintage (December 29, 1992), ISBN-13: 978-0679741848

Lessing, Doris, The Good Terrorist, Vintage (March 25, 2008), ISBN-13: 978-0307389961

Lessing, Doris, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Vintage (July 14, 2009), ISBN-13: 978-0307390615

Lessing, Doris, The Golden Notebook, (February 3rd 1999), Harper Perennial Modern Classics

ISBN13: 978-0060931407

Lessing, Doris, Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949, (September 1st 1995) by Harper Perennial Modern Classics, ISBN13: 978-0060926649