by Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in the Southern Review, October 1973.
It is a bright, fresh, cold day in London, one of those excellent winter days that seem to promise spring. But it is already spring here, by the calendar, the spring of 1972, not winter, and one’s expectations are slightly thrown off—everything has been blooming here for months, and now trees are in full leaf, the sun is a very powerful presence in the sky, but still it is strangely cold, as if time were in a permanent suspension. Walking along Shoot-Up Hill in Kilburn, London, I am aware of people’s steamy breaths—in mid-May!—and as always I am a little disconcerted by the busyness of main thoroughfares, the continual stream of taxis and shiny red double-decker buses and private automobiles, and the quiet that attends this commotion. It seems so unexpected, the absence of horns, the absence of noise.
Americans in London are disoriented by the paradox of such enormous numbers of people crowded into small areas without obvious intrusions upon one another, or even obvious visual displays of their crowdedness. It is usually the case that a one-minute walk off a busy road will bring one to absolute quiet—the pastoral improbability of Green Park, which is exactly like the country and even smells like the country, a few seconds stroll from Piccadilly on one side and the Mall on the other—and Doris Lessing’s home, only a few hundred yards from Kilburn High Road, incredibly quiet and private, as remote a setting as any home deep in the country. She lives in the top-floor flat of a handsome, sturdy, three-storied house on Kingscroft Road, a short, curving street of single and semi-detached homes, with brick or stone walls that shield their gardens from the street. There is a fragrant smell of newly-mown grass in the air, and the profusion of flowers and full-leafed trees seem out of place in the cold. Upstairs, the large room that serves Mrs. Lessing as both a dining room and a workroom looks out upon a yard of trees, delicate foliage that is illuminated by sunshine just as I am shown into the room.It is a room of spacious proportions: at one end a wide windowsill given over to trays of small plants, at the other end an immense writing desk covered with books and papers. The flat—fairly large by London standards—is well-lived-in and comfortable, filled with Mrs. Lessing’s own furniture, rugs, pillows, and many shelves and tables of books.Doris Lessing is direct, womanly, very charming. She wears her long, graying black hair drawn into a bun at the back of her head; her face is slender and attractive, exactly the face of the photographs, the “Doris Lessing” I had been reading and admiring for so long. Meeting her at last I felt almost faint—certainly unreal—turning transparent myself in the presence of this totally defined, self-confident, gracious woman. I had arrived at Kilburn half an hour early, in order to wander around, to see the neighborhood in which she lived; and now, meeting her at last, I marveled at how easily the space between us had been crossed. Surely everything must seem to me a little enchanted.
When I had left the Kilburn Underground station, however, I had paused at a news agent’s stand to read in amazement of the attempted assassination of George Wallace. I explained to Mrs. Lessing that I was still stunned by the news—that I hardly knew what to think—that I felt depressed and confused by this latest act of violence. And, like many Americans in foreign countries, I felt a sense of shame.
Mrs. Lessing spoke very sympathetically of the problems of violence in contemporary culture, especially in America. “But everyone had guns when I was a child, on the farm,” she said, referring to her childhood in Southern Rhodesia. “They went out and shot snakes; it seemed quite natural, to kill. No one ever seemed to ask: Why? Why kill? It seemed entirely natural.” She asked me some very perceptive questions about the political climate in the United States: whether anyone would take Wallace’s place (since it seemed, this morning, that Wallace might not recover), whether I thought the long, courageous years of effort of the antiwar protesters had really done much good? She seems more sympathetic, generally, with the United States—or with the liberal consciousness of the United States—than with England; when I remarked upon this, she said that her writing seemed to her better understood in the United States.
“In England, if you publish regularly, you tend to be written off,” she said. “In America, one has the impression of critics scrutinizing each performance—as if regarding one’s efforts at leaping hurdles, overcoming obstacles, with interest.”
I asked about the response in England to a recent novel, the very unusual Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971). “The readers who best understood it were the young,” she said.
Briefing for a Descent into Hell is “inner space fiction” (Mrs. Lessing’s category), and shows a remarkable sympathy with the “broken-down” psyche. It is the record of the breakdown of a professor of classics, his experience of a visionary, archetypal world of myth and drama, his treatment at the hands of conventional psychiatrists, and his subsequent—and ironic—recovery into the mean, narrow, self-denying world of the “sane.” An afterword by the author makes the fascinating observation that the defining of the “extraordinarily perceptive” human being as abnormal—he must have “something wrong with him”—is the only response one can expect, at present, from conventional medical practitioners. I asked Mrs. Lessing if she were sympathetic with the work of Ronald Laing, whose ideas resemble her own.
“Yes. We were both exploring the phenomenon of the unclassifiable experience, the psychological ‘breaking-through’ that the conventional world judges as mad. I think Laing must have been very courageous, to question the basic assumptions of his profession from the inside…. In America, the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, in The Manufacture of Madness, has made similar claims. He has taken a very revolutionary position.”
(Szasz, radical indeed, has demanded that the “mentally disturbed” be given full civil rights, including the right to be arrested and tried for their crimes, not treated as “sick”; he believes that “medical intervention” is simply a method of control of individuals at odds with the system, and that it is altogether too easy for psychiatrists and other powerful individuals to diagnose as “mentally ill” people whom they simply dislike.)
Mrs. Lessing has known people who have experienced apparently “mystical” insights. After the publication of that iconoclastic book, The Golden Notebook (1962), she received many letters from people who have been in mental asylums or who have undergone conventional psychiatric treatment but who, in Mrs. Lessing’s opinion, were not really insane—not “sick” at all.
I asked whether the terms “mystical” and “visionary” weren’t misleading, and whether these experiences were not quite natural—normal.
“I think so, yes,” she said. “Except that one is cautioned against speaking of them. People very commonly experience things they are afraid to admit to, being frightened of the label of “insane” or “sick” there are no adequate categories for this kind of experience.”
Because this is a problem I am encountering in my own writing, I asked Mrs. Lessing whether she felt it was extremely difficult to convey the sense of a “mystical” experience in the framework of fiction, of any kind of work intended to communicate naturalistically to a large audience. She agreed, saying that in England, at least, there is a tendency for reviewers to dismiss viewpoints that are not their own, that seem outside the ordinary response. I mentioned that Colin Wilson, in treating most sympathetically the writings of the American psychologist Abraham Maslow (in his New Pathways in Psychology: Maslow and the Post-Freudian Revolution), received at least one review that attempted to dismiss him as “clever,” and that I believed this quite symptomatic of English literary reviews in general. Mrs. Lessing, who has met Colin Wilson, said that reviewers and critics have been intent upon paying him back for his early, immediate success with The Outsider, written when he was only twenty-three; but that he is erudite, very energetic, and an important writer. However, critical response to a book like his, or any book which attempts to deal sympathetically with so-called “mystical” experiences, will meet opposition from the status quo.
One of the far-reaching consequences of Doris Lessing’s two recent books, Briefing and The Four-Gated City, will be to relate the “mystical” experience to ordinary life, to show that the apparently sick—the “legally insane— members of our society may, in fact, be in touch with a deeper, more poetic, more human reality than the apparently healthy. But both novels are difficult ones, and have baffled many intelligent readers. When I first read The Four-Gated City, in order to review it for the Saturday Review, I was astonished at the author’s audacity in taking a naturalistic heroine into a naturalistic setting, subjecting her to extraordinary experiences, and bringing her not only up to the present day but into the future—to her death near the end of the twentieth century. I could not recall ever having read a novel like this. And it is the more iconoclastic in that the novel is the last of a five-part series, Children of Violence, begun in 1952, tracing the life of Martha Quest, an obviously autobiographical heroine.
I asked Mrs. Lessing what she was working on at present, if she were continuing this exploration of the soul; but she said that, no, in a way she might be accused of a slight “regression,” in that the novel she has just finished concerns a woman whose marriage has disintegrated and whose life is suddenly hollow, without meaning. “The title is The Summer Before the Dark, and the woman in it, the woman who loses her husband, goes to pieces in a way I’ve witnessed women go to pieces.” Her own marriages, she mentioned, were not very “permanent,” and did not permanently affect her; but this phenomenon of a woman so totally defined by her marriage has long interested her. More immediately, she was planning a collection of short stories: the American edition to be called The Temptation of Jack Orknay, and the English edition The Story of an Unmarrying Man. She was arranging a visit to the United States for a series of five lectures, to be delivered at The New School, and she was very much looking forward to the trip—she wanted to visit friends, and to travel, if possible, to the Southwest.
Her last trip to the United States was in 1969, when she gave a number of lectures at various universities. At that time she met Kurt Vonnegut, “a bloke I got on with very well,” whose writing she admires immensely. This struck me as rather surprising, since to me Doris Lessing’s writing is of a much more substantial, “literary” nature than Vonnegut’s; but their similar concerns for the madness of society, its self-destructive tendencies, would account for her enthusiasm. She spoke of having heard that Vonnegut did not plan to write any more—which I hadn’t heard, myself—and that this distressed her; she thought he was very good, indeed. She mentioned Slaughterhouse Five as an especially impressive book of his.
Less surprisingly, she felt a kinship with Norman Mailer, and believed that the critical treatment he received for Barbary Shore and The Deer Park was quite unjustified; “they’re good books,” she said. I mentioned that the exciting thing about Mailer—sometimes incidental to the aesthetic quality of his work—was his complete identification with the era in which he lives, his desire to affect radically the consciousness of the times, to dramatize himself as a spiritual representative of the times and its contradictions, and that this sense of a mission was evident in her writing as well. “In beginning the Martha Quest series, you could not possibly have known how it would end; and the sympathetic reader, following Martha’s life, cannot help but be transformed, along with Martha,” I said. Mrs. Lessing was understandably reticent about her own writing—and perhaps I embarrassed her by my own enthusiasm, though I did not tell her that she was quite mistaken in her feeling that her writing might not have the effect she desired: The Golden Notebook alone has radically changed the consciousness of many young women. Was there anyone else with whom she felt a kinship? She mentioned Saul Bellow, and of course D. H. Lawrence, and the African writer Nadine Gordimer (Mrs. Lessing cannot return to the country of her childhood and girlhood, Southern Rhodesia, because she is a “prohibited immigrant”; homesick for the veldt, she had her daughter send her several color photographs of African flowers, which are on display in her flat). At the back of her mind, she said, is a work “about two men in prison” which she is not writing (as Kurt Vonnegut was “not writing” for decades the story of the Dresden fire bombing which is the ostensible subject of Slaughterhouse Five); perhaps this work, which she may someday do, is related to her South African background.
What most excited her about America was, during her visit, the spirit of liberality and energy in the young. She gave a lecture at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1969, when that university was in a state of turmoil (a condition that the national press unaccountably overlooked, focusing news stories on Columbia and Berkeley), then flew to Stony Brook, which, though hardly a radical institution at the time, immediately erupted into student riots and rampages, brought on by a long history of police harassment over drugs. After visiting these two universities, Mrs. Lessing was scheduled to fly to—of all places—Berkeley, where she gave another lecture. She was most favorably impressed by the students, and young people in general, with whom she became acquainted. I asked her if she might like to teach full-time, but she said she would hesitate to take on a position of such responsibility (she had been offered a handsome job at City College, which she declined with regret), partly because she considered her own academic background somewhat meager. “I ended my formal education at the age of fourteen, and before that I really learned very little,” she said. It struck me as amazing: a woman whose books constitute a staggering accomplishment, who is, herself, undisputably a major figure in English literature of the twentieth century—should hesitate to teach in a university! It is rather as if a resurrected Kafka, shy, unobstrusive, humble, should insist that his works be taught by anyone else, any ordinary academic with ordinary academic qualifications, sensing himself somehow not equal to what he represents. Perhaps there is some truth to it. But I was forced to realize how thoroughly oppressive the world of professional “education” really is; how it locks out either overtly or in effect the natural genius whose background appears not to have been sufficient.
Mrs. Lessing said that connections between English writers and universities were quite rare, but that in the United States it seemed very common. I explained that this was because of the existence of creative writing programs in the United States, which were not narrowly “academic,” but which allowed a writer-in-residence to meet with students once or twice a week, giving him much time for his own work. In England, many writers are forced to work in publishing houses or on magazines. The publishing world in London, Mrs. Lessing said, is always changing; editors are always switching publishers, publishing houses disappear and new ones appear. In fact, she told me news I hadn’t heard (and probably would not have heard, since I am in a kind of dream world here, strangely out of contact with local literary events), concerning the paperback reprint house which publishes us both, Panther: the two top editors quit this week and are going to form their own publishing house. When I expressed surprise, she told me that this sort of thing is always happening. New York City, though also restive, is not quite so bad.
Mrs. Lessing’s American publisher is Knopf, and her editor the well-known Bob Gottlieb, with whom she enjoys working very much, She moved with Gottlieb when he left Simon and Schuster, and thinks he is an excellent editor; he helped arrange for her lecture series. I asked her if she was pleased, generally, with her writing and with its public response. Strangely, she replied that she sometimes had to force herself to write—that she often was overcome by the probable “pointlessness” of the whole thing. I asked Mrs. Lessing if she meant that her own writing seemed to her sometimes futile, or was it the role of literature in society.
“I suppose one begins with the idea of transforming society,” she said, “through literature and then, when nothing happens, one feels a sense of failure. But then the question is simply why did one feel he might change society? Change anything? In any case, one keeps going.”
I told Mrs. Lessing that her writing has worked to transform many individuals, and that individuals, though apparently isolated, do, in fact, constitute society. Her own writing, in my opinion, does not exist in a vacuum, but reinforces and is reinforced by the writing of some of her important (and nonliterary) contemporaries—Ronald Laing, Abraham Maslow, Buckminster Fuller, Barry Commoner—and many other critics of the “self-destructing society.”
“Yet one does question the very premises of literature, at times,” Mrs. Lessing said. “Has anything changed? Will anything change? The vocal opposition to the war in Vietnam, in America—has it forced any real change?”
“I think there have been changes, alterations of consciousness,” I said.
Mrs. Lessing received my opinion respectfully, but it seemed clear that she did not share it. She went on to remark that she felt rather out of touch with current writing since she kept to herself, generally, and did not make any attempt to keep up with all that was being written. She asked me about the English writers I admired. When I told her that I very much liked Naipaul’s In a Free State, she agreed that Naipaul was an excellent writer. “But somehow I don’t feel a rapport with him, the kind of sympathy I feel for someone like Vonnegut, even though he writes about a part of the world, Africa, I know very well.”
Of the younger English writers I admired, only Margaret Drabble was a familiar name to Mrs. Lessing. She liked Miss Drabble’s writing but had not yet read The Needle’s Eye; I told her that I thought this novel shared some important themes with her own work—the conscious “creating” of a set of values by which people can live, albeit in a difficult, tragically diminished urban world.
“Well, whether literature accomplishes anything or not,” Mrs. Lessing said, “we do keep going.”
When I left Mrs. Lessing’s flat and walked back down the hill to the Underground station, I felt even more strongly that sense of suspension, of unreality. It seemed to me one of the mysterious paradoxes of life, the inability of the truly gifted, the prophetic “geniuses” (an unforgivable but necessary word) to comprehend themselves, their places in history: rare indeed is the self-recognized and self-defined person like Yeats, who seems to have come to terms not only with his creative productivity but with his destiny. Doris Lessing, the warm, poised, immensely interesting woman with whom I had just spent two hours, does not yet know that she is Doris Lessing.
Yet it is natural, I suppose, for her not to know or to guess how much The Golden Notebook (predating and superseding even the most sophisticated of all the “women’s liberation” works) meant to young women of my generation; how beautifully the craftsmanship of her many short stories illuminated lives, the most secret and guarded of private lives, in a style that was never self-conscious or contrived. She could not gauge how The Four-Gated City, evidently a difficult novel for her to write, would work to transform our consciousness not only of the ecological disaster we are facing, the self-annihilating madness of our society which brands its critics as “mad,” but also of the possibilities of the open form of the novel itself. Never superficially experimental, Mrs. Lessing’s writing is profoundly experimental—exploratory—in its effort to alter our expectations about life and about the range of our own consciousness.
Her books, especially the Martha Quest series, The Golden Notebook, and Briefing for a Descent into Hell, have traced an evolutionary progress of the soul, which to some extent transforms the reader as he reads. I think it is true of our greatest writers that their effect on us is delayed, that it may take years for us to understand what they have done to us. Doris Lessing possesses a unique sensitivity, writing out of her own intense experience, her own subjectivity, but at the same time writing out of the spirit of the times. This is a gift that cannot be analyzed; it must only be honored.
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.