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Critical Essay by Katherine Fishburn
SOURCE: "Wor(l)ds within Words: Doris Lessing as Meta-Fictionist and Meta-Physician," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 186-205.
In the following essay, Fishburn contends that Lessing's novels are highly complex, subtly self-conscious "metafictions" and that "Lessing has never truly been the realist (we) critics thought her … [she only masqueraded as one."]
—A book which does not contain its counter-book is considered incomplete.
Jorge Luis Borges
Although Doris Lessing is probably best known as the author of The Golden Notebook, I think it is safe to say that most critics would not characterize the bulk of her fiction as formally experimental or even up-to-date. In fact, with the possible exception of Canopus in Argos, they would probably consign her fiction to the venerable but old-fashioned school of expressive realism. Widespread as this perception of Lessing has been, I would argue that it has had the unforeseen consequence of deflecting critical attention away from those very qualities of her fiction that serve to undermine and de(con)struct realistic texts. Quite ironically it is a perception that Lessing herself has fostered—and one that helps to explain why she has enjoyed such popularity with her readers. It was in her own 1957 manifesto, "The Small Personal Voice," after all, that Lessing claimed the aesthetic principles of nineteenth-century realism as her own, thus helping to confirm what her readers had already discovered: Doris Lessing was a novelist of the old school who could give shape and meaning to their lives—an old-fashioned novelist with a contemporary point of view. Lest it appear that I think Lessing's work has only appealed to an unsophisticated band of readers who were incapable of reading her correctly, let me hasten to add that I count myself among those who originally saw her as a realist. I also recognize that she has been read for a variety of reasons. But I still think the initial appeal of her fiction lay in its abundance of likable, intelligent, and perceptive heroines. Unlike the bitches, witches, vacuous virgins, and man-eating troglo/dykes of far too much contemporary men's fiction, the characters Lessing has created have been both realistically portrayed and easy to identify with. Sometimes, as in the case of Martha Quest, the shock of recognition was almost too much to bear, but in the main readers loved seeing themselves in print—and loved this nervy new novelist who allowed them this unaccustomed privilege. Given these reasons, which are as much emotional as intellectual, was it any wonder her readers missed all the other things she was up to?
Because most readers saw her as the realist she claimed to be, they remained blind to all the subversive (fictional) activity she was engaged in. In short, she had created a fiction of herself as writer that was in direct conflict with the kind of fiction she was writing. So compelling was the fiction "Lessing-as-realist," most readers missed the point of The Golden Notebook when it was first published in 1962. Although there were narrative hints aplenty that something extraordinary was afoot, most critics regarded the text as yet another portrait of contemporary women—a convoluted portrait, perhaps, but one that still lent itself to New Critical interpretations. Finally, in despair at being so gratuitously misunderstood, Lessing appended the now famous 1971 "Preface" to her novel, in which she tells us that her "major aim was to shape a book which would make its own comment, a wordless statement: to talk through the way it was shaped." But even then readers refused to relinquish their original perception of her as a realist par excellence. So when she published Briefing for a Descent into Hell in 1969, the critics tried to ignore it; and when she announced that The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) was her "attempt at autobiography," the critics pretended they had not heard her. Still clinging to their original view of Lessing, readers were shocked to the very core when their beloved realist announced with the publication of Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta in 1979 that she had embarked on what would become an entire series of science fiction novels. How could she do this to us? readers and critics alike asked rhetorically. Where was the Lessing they had known and loved all these years? The answer, of course, as Martha Quest discovered near the end of The Four-Gated City, was "Here, where else, you fool, you poor fool, where else has [she] been, ever."
For, as I intend to argue in this paper, Doris Lessing has never truly been the realist (we) critics thought her. She has only masqueraded as one, an authorial Wulf in sheep's clothing. Behind the mask, she has always been a metafictionist, a writer of self-conscious fiction. As Patricia Waugh describes it, metafiction is fundamentally "the construction of a fictional illusion … and the laying bare of that illusion" [Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, 1984]. "Metafiction sets up an opposition, not to ostensibly 'objective' facts in the 'real' world, but to the language of the realistic novel which has sustained and endorsed such a view of reality" (Waugh). In showing us how literary fiction creates its imaginary worlds, Waugh explains, "metafiction helps us to understand how the reality we live day by day is similarly constructed, similarly 'written.'" In short, it reminds us that both history and reality are "provisional"—that we no longer inhabit "a world of eternal verities but a series of constructions, artifices, impermanent structures" (Waugh). The "formal self-consciousness" characteristic of metafiction can range anywhere from the limited (like that of Muriel Spark) to the all-embracing (like that of Raymond Federman), with many steps in between. The chronology of Lessing's earlier writing roughly reflects this range, moving from the limited metafictional aspects of The Grass is Singing to the all-embracing metafiction of The Golden Notebook. Although it is true that her first few novels display only a minimal self-consciousness, the metafiction has always been there. As far back as the 1950s, for example, she was already trying to communicate the essential fictionality of reality itself by calling attention to the power and the provisionality of our language systems, be they political, social, or mythic. But readers have been so enchanted by the fact that this fiction mirrors their own reality, they have failed to see that—all along—the narrative mirror has been also held up to itself.
In The Grass is Singing (1950), for example, the story of Mary Turner's breakdown and the unkind behavior of her neighbors is so emotionally charged that it is easy to overlook the book's metafictional qualities. But contrary to the reviews it got, this novel is more than a riveting account of a woman's tragic deterioration. And, contrary to what an earlier critic has suggested, it is also something more than "a little novel about the emotions" seen through a Marxist lens. [In an endnote, Fishburn continues: "My observation is not meant to fault this essay, which argues its point quite effectively. By showing the dialectical tension between Mary and her society, in fact, it helps to prepare the critical ground for my own argument. Zak argues that Mary Turner, like other modernist figures, 'suffers [from] schizophrenic impoverishment'; but unlike most modernist texts 'the novel itself keeps before us … the nature of the world from which Mary is compelled to withdraw.' I take Zak's ideas one step further by arguing that the dialectic is portrayed with a degree of formal self-consciousness that calls attention to the fictionality of the world Mary withdraws from."] As textually innocent as it might appear, The Grass is Singing is a self-conscious novel that de(con)structs the two-storied edifice of apart-heid and domestic bliss. It is not insignificant to Lessing's purpose here that the heroine is destroyed by a combination of racial mythologies and domestic fictions (what Betty Friedan calls the "feminine mystique" in her 1963 book of that name). For both, to one degree or another, dehumanize their participants by forcing them to function less as individuals than as ideas. Thus it is central to the twisted mythology of apartheid that blacks are racially and incorrigibly inferior to whites, an assumption that inspires all sorts of neurotic vigilance among the whites who must constantly monitor one another to maintain the myth of their own superiority. And it is central to the feminine mystique that women find happiness and identity only in marriage, where they subordinate themselves to their husbands. As a classic example of metafiction, Lessing's text simultaneously invokes and de(con)structs these two social myths that bring her heroine not the status they promise but only grief and pain.
As long as Mary is relatively young, she is relatively safe from social pressures, allowed to play the role of social butterfly while she fills her days with parties, dances, and other forms of impersonal socializing. But as she ages it soon becomes clear that she needs to be brought into line, because she is "not playing her part, for she did not get married" (emphasis added). In other words, she is not living up to the idea(l)s of what a woman should do with her life. Once her friends notice this failure, they gossip endlessly about what kind of a person she is, finally driving her to look for a husband to prove that they are wrong in thinking "Something missing somewhere." This effort to silence her friends forces her into a marriage she really does not want and ruins her "casual friendship" with other people. In short, after overhearing her friends' unkind gossip, "Mary's idea of herself was destroyed and she was not fitted to re-create herself" (emphasis added). Faced with the bleak reality of living on the veld with a hopelessly inept farmer, Mary tries valiantly to make a go of it. But there is no happy ending for this marriage. For various complex reasons, Mary cannot endure married life with Dick Turner. At one point, she tries to escape by returning to town; like other unhappy wives before her, "she dressed, packed a suitcase, and left a note for him, quite in the traditional way" (emphasis added). But escape is not in the script. So Dick brings her back to the farm—to lone-liness, despair, and death.
Once she is back, her psychological problems become so severe that she no longer acts like a white person is "supposed" to act in racist South Africa. At this point her society's defense mechanism automatically clicks into place, leaving her lost and vulnerable. Under the circumstances, the only person left for her to turn to is Moses, her black houseservant, with whom she develops a forbidden, latently sexual friendship. Bizarre as the relationship becomes, it does involve some expression of simple human kindness. But because the fiction of apartheid is nothing if not perverse, Mary is not allowed to seek comfort from her black servant—even after all the whites have deserted her. Having broken the rules, she must be punished. And the punishment is death—at her servant's hands. Although it is true that Mary suffers from severe mental disorders and Moses's motives are never spelled out, her death is a direct result of their forbidden friendship. In short, Mary is acceptable to her society for only as long as she is willing to inhabit the political fictions of apartheid and maintain the appearance of marital happiness. When she rejects these fictions by preferring the company of her black houseboy to that of her husband, Mary sentences herself to death. Her murder, therefore, serves the double purpose of vindicating her society's fear of black violence and silencing a dangerous nonconformist. As far as Mary is concerned, the victory of her white society is unconditional, sealed by her death. But as far as Lessing's readers are concerned, it is an empty victory. Although all of Mary's neighbors, near and far, rally round in their common fears, we as readers do not share their condemnation of the poor woman. Instead, we join Lessing in condemning Mary's society. In so doing we join her in de(con)structing the institution of apartheid and the myths that would sustain it. For in a striking example of narrative economy, Lessing has exposed the absolute corruption central to the fiction of apartheid by using the black servant to enforce the white code. And by placing the events in the context of a domestic tragedy, she has also de(con)structed the myth of happy endings—the myth of the romance—for it is this myth that lies behind Mary's own destruction.
The clues to this book's metafictionality and the source of much of its bitter irony lie in the way Lessing describes how her heroine chooses to live by the social script when she could have chosen to remain single and "become a person on her own account." But theoretically free as Mary Turner is to reject the conventional script, in reality she does not appear to have either the strength or the imagination to write her own. So even though she eventually behaves in a rebellious fashion, she does so less out of a sense of purpose than out of a sense of hopelessness and desperation. It is not her behavior we should model ourselves after, therefore, but the text itself as it successfully challenges two of the Western world's most cherished fictions. As a story, in other words, it disappoints our desire for a happy ending. But as a text, it explains why happy endings do not work.
The critical context provided by Rachel Blau DuPlessis's Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (1985) is helpful here. DuPlessis works from the premise that "narrative structures and subjects are like working apparatuses of ideology, factories for the 'natural' and 'fantastic' meanings by which we live." As this statement suggests, DuPlessis finds the relationship between fiction and reality to be a two-way street. Narrative is informed by ideology, and social conventions act "like a 'script,' which suggests sequences of action and choice." In searching for evidence of ideology in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction about women, DuPlessis found a telling pattern to its endings. For the most part, these novels ended either in the heroine's marriage or in her death. In other words, the fiction warned women to abide by social expectations of the time. If the heroine married, all well and good, she could have a happy ending. But if the heroine refused to marry for whatever reason, the novel (and thus society) "punished" her by killing her off or portraying her as insane. But scripts can be rewritten and what has been constructed by language can also be de(con)structed by it. Thus DuPlessis finds in much twentieth-century women's fiction the "invention of strategies that sever the narrative from formerly conventional strategies of fiction and consciousness"; this is what she calls "writing beyond the ending." These strategies range anywhere from the "rupture of story" (such as that found in Olive Schreiner's 1883 The Story of an African Farm) to the creation of "collective protagonists" (such as those found in women's speculative fiction). As this range suggests, some of the strategies are more successful than others in liberating women from old scripts. In Lessing's novel, for example, as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 "The Yellow Wall-Paper," the de(con)struction of restrictive narratives occurs at the heroine's expense. In fact, in some respects, the fate of Lessing's heroine is worse than that of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century heroines. For, unlike the pattern DuPlessis found in earlier novels where the heroine is subjected to either marriage or death or insanity, this novel subjects its heroine to all three fates. As we have seen, even though The Grass is Singing does not technically end with marriage, nonetheless it is the heroine's decision to marry that destroys her.
The bitter irony in Lessing's story is just this: Mary goes insane and is murdered precisely because she abided by social conventions. It is true, of course, that she does break her racist culture's code of behavior for whites. For this, she can expect to be punished and is. But because breaking the code means treating a black person like the human being he is, the irony of Mary's situation is intensified. In effect, she is punished both for honoring and breaking illusions. She cannot win. Thus the book reveals itself as metafiction, reminding us of the punishment in store for those who violate society's fondest fictions of racial superiority. And in its tragic conclusion, when Moses murders Mary, the book effectively lays bare the illusion of marital happiness and the fictions that would maintain it. For it is as clear as anything that Mary welcomes this release from bondage.
A similar metafictional critique of marriage can be seen in Lessing's story, "To Room Nineteen." Here both Susan and Matthew Rawlings construct a kind of blueprint marriage for themselves, a "marriage that was grounded in intelligence." For a while everything goes swimmingly. They both have good jobs; for two years they spend their time "giving parties and going to them, being a popular young married couple, and then Susan became pregnant, she gave up her job, and they bought a house in Richmond." "And so they lived with their four children in their gardened house in Richmond and were happy. They had everything they had wanted and had planned for. And yet …". (Lessing's ellipsis). Suddenly the text begins to question what their reason for living rests on. Their children? Matthew's job? Their love? "Yes, it was around this point, their love, that the whole extraordinary structure revolved … And if one felt that it simply was not strong enough, important enough, to support it all, well whose fault was that?" Even with this sense of their love's inadequacy, they muddle along, trying desperately not to make the same mistakes they see their friends making. But try as they will to preserve the form, as soon as the children leave home, this perfect marriage begins finally to take its toll on Susan. No longer able to avoid the consequences of participating in a conventional marriage, Susan slowly goes mad and eventually kills herself—demonstrating once again that abiding by the social scripts can drive a woman crazy.
In her second novel, Martha Quest (1952), Lessing continues her criticism of social conventions and institutions, reminding us that they are but fictions—powerful but provisional. And here she more obviously uses the novel to comment on itself. In the very title she chose, she violates the traditional quest narrative by naming a woman as hero. As Joanna Russ's oft-cited essay reminds us, male plots don't work for women. In "What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can't Write" [in Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Susan Koppelman Cornillon, 1972], Russ effectively defamiliarizes old plots by reversing the roles of heroines and heroes. Her revisions are quite amusing and very instructive; for example: "Two strong women battle for supremacy in the early West." "A young man who unwisely puts success in business before his personal fulfillment loses his masculinity and ends up as a neurotic, lonely eunuch." Is it any wonder, then, that Martha cannot get on with her life? What is a heroine to do? According to Rachel Brownstein, the answer is simple: the heroine gets married. In Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels, Brownstein argues that the heroine's "quest is to be recognized in all her significance, to have her worth made real by being approved. When, at the end, this is done, she is transformed …" In short, she becomes a bride: "the very image of a heroine. For a heroine is just that, an image; novel heroines, like novel readers, are often women who want to become heroines" (Brownstein, emphasis added). But because Martha simultaneously desires and dreads the role, becoming a heroine is not quite so simple for her. She is romantic enough to long for dissolution in love, yet she is sensible and skeptical enough to realize that a marriage like her mother's will not bring her the wholeness, happiness, and recognition promised by romantic fiction. In short, she is a modern girl caught in a traditional script: becoming a bride may be her fate as heroine, but there is no guarantee she will like it. When the novel ends in Martha's marriage to Douglas Knowell, therefore, it is most assuredly not a happy ending. But it is the conventional happy ending, one she seems almost doomed to accept. For the "main thing about the heroine," writes Brownstein, "is that hers is always the same old story." In sum, the "idea of becoming a heroine marries the female protagonist to the marriage plot, and it marries the woman who reads to fiction" (Brownstein, emphasis added).
The relationship between "novel heroines" and "novel readers" that Brownstein discusses is nowhere made clearer than in Martha Quest where Lessing continually demonstrates that her heroine has been (de)formed by fiction—by all her reading. Among the authors Martha reads are Havelock Ellis, Engels, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Whitman, and Thoreau, taking from them a fragmentary romantic view of life that has no practical connection to the world around her. Not only do these "authorities" (as she sees them) fail to help her make sense of her world, they have failed to give her suitable role models to pattern her life after. And even when she and her husband try to abide by "the book," their sexual experiments are mechanical and unfulfilling. Martha's perceptions of reality are both correct and incorrect. On the one hand, she knows intuitively that external reality is a kind of fiction (a metafictional concept). But the fiction she tries to impose on it is a literary fiction, one based almost entirely on her reading. Thus, according to the novels she has read, a farm should be "orderly, compact, cultivated." When she looks at her parents' farm, what she sees is the wild, encroaching bush, against which the "fields were a timid intrusion." Is she to believe what she had read or what she sees? Is she to do what she is told or what she wants? Unfortunately for her, she believes what she reads and does what she is told. Instead of fulfilling the heroic promise of her name, by the end of the novel Martha has been trapped by a system she despises and fears. She is a knight-errant who has gone nowhere. She is a quester without a grail, married to a know-all who knows nothing. She is, in short, a heroine.
In the ironically titled A Proper Marriage (1954), Lessing continues to de(con)struct the fiction of wedded bliss that has managed to seduce even the skeptical and uncooperative Martha Quest. As she did in The Grass is Singing, here too Lessing shows the interaction between the social and the political fictions that are operative in her heroine's life, highlighting the emptiness of Martha's marriage against the apparently more meaningful political activities of her leftist friends. In this novel also, Martha turns to books for aid in understanding her life. Unhappily married to the callow and rather insensitive Douggie Knowell, she relies on various "handbooks" to explain the situation, taking considerable comfort in the fact that her problems are the universal problems of women. After she and Douglas make love without contraceptives, for example, she angrily quotes the "book of words" to him that it is now too late to stop "those little dragons" of his (emphasis added). Hoping to make sense of her life and her marriage, she kneels by the bookcase: "Books. Words. There must surely be some pattern of words which would neatly and safely cage what she felt—isolate her emotions so that she could look at them from outside" (emphasis added).
As dependent as she is on books to help her, when she thinks it is likely she will at some point become her mother all over again, she "had no words to express this sense of appalling fatality which menaced everyone, her mother as well as herself" (emphasis added). One reason she has no words could lie in Martha's "half-formulated though that the novelists had not caught up with life; for there was no doubt that the sort of things she or Stella or Alice talked about found no reflection in literature." This surely is a broad textual hint that Lessing herself is in the process of creating a new kind of literature—a new fiction where women like Martha (and presumably like Lessing herself) can find themselves. Not only does Martha continually make reference to fiction and books, so does the narrator (speaking, one presumes, for the author herself). In a paragraph that describes how Martha is deeply affected by "an unsympathetic description of a character similar to her own in a novel," the narrator remarks that "it is of no use for artists to insist … that their productions are only 'a divine play' or 'a reflection from the creative fires of irony,' etc., etc." Later, describing Martha's revulsion to Douglas, the narrator states: "There is a type of woman—although whether she is a modern phenomenon or has always existed is not a question for novelists—who cannot bear to be found wanting physically" (emphasis added). Remarking on some of these scenes, DuPlessis notes that these early novels "undertake the discrediting of the conventional life of women—in romance, marriages, affairs, motherhood, the nuclear family, and other family ties." But she apparently does not see that this discrediting amounts to a metafictional attack on the fictions of romance, marriage, affairs, etc. Yet the attack permeates the entire series—slyly but unremittingly undermining the authority of all fictions.
One way it consistently undermines fictional constructs is by showing how inadequate they are in helping Martha complete her quest for meaning and selfhood. For whichever way she turns, be it to the myths of romance or those of politics, she is doomed to disappointment—as we see in A Ripple from the Storm (1958), where Lessing invokes the familiar (and by now self-parodic) metalanguage of Marxism to make it even more abundantly clear how language systems seduce and isolate her heroine. In this novel, Lessing returns more openly to the thematic concerns of The Grass is Singing, where she juxtaposed the failures of marriage to those of politics. But here the politics under attack are the politics of the Left, those of the communist sympathizers. Just as Martha Quest fairly shimmers with allusions to romantic love, A Ripple from the Storm reeks with Marxist jargon, as various "comrades" try to impose their vision of the future on a basically indifferent society. Thus we are treated to such gems of rhetoric as Anton's claim that he and his comrades have "the responsibility to be living in a time when mankind takes the first great step forward from the barbarity and chaos of unplanned production to the sunlight of socialism." Or his statement, repeated so often as to become a parodic motif, "'Comrades, it seems clear that we must analyze the situation.'" It is not insignificant that Martha marries this communist orator—thus merging the two themes. For Anton proves to be as inept a husband and lover as he is a communist, leaving Martha once more longing for "that man who must surely be somewhere close and who would allow her to be herself."
Although it is our major socio-political language systems that bear the brunt of Lessing's attack in these first four novels, literary fiction itself does not escape unscathed. By suggesting that her heroines have been formed by the books they read, for example, Lessing demonstrates in no uncertain terms exactly how conventional novels work to entrap and subdue women—thus helping to reinforce Rachel Blau DuPlessis's premise that "ideology is coiled … in narrative structure." But what can be used to defend an ideology can also be used to attack it. When Lessing uses narrative to discredit and dismantle socio-political fictions, therefore, she is in effect uncoiling the narrative—discrediting and dismantling the traditional literary fictions of realism itself, turning a former ally of social reality into its enemy.
If I am correct in reading these books as metafiction, why have we missed it before? I think because Lessing herself still claimed as late as 1957 [in "The Small Personal Voice"] that realism was the "highest form of prose writing" an author could choose and because she virtually buried her metafiction in such conventional looking novels. Why would she do this? In part, because her models were the nineteenth-century realists she so esteemed. And as a self-taught writer, it was only reasonable that she should at least try to emulate them. But I think even as she tried to model her writing after them, she knew intuitively it would never work. After all, how could nineteenth-century European realism begin to accommodate the ideas of an unrepentantly rebellious twentieth-century South African woman? It boggles the mind even to consider the possibility of confining Lessing to the restrictive codes of traditional realism. Although she herself might not have been able to articulate the problems she was having with realism in the 1950s, I think on some level she knew precisely what they were and why she had them. What she wrote, therefore, was a kind of reluctant or pseudorealism, a realism that contained the seeds of its own destruction. In short, what she wrote was metafiction—but metafiction of a fairly limited kind, not the fullblown metafiction of her later years. One rebels, after all, as best one can. So Lessing rebelled first of all against what she knew best: the fictions of marriage and apartheid. And, ironically enough, it was probably the ideas she gleaned from European realism that helped her make this initial break with her country's socio-political systems.
Lessing's early dissatisfaction with form can be seen in a quick comparison between Martha Quest and Emma (1816). When Jane Austen ends Emma with her heroine's marriage to the appropriately named Mr. Knightley, the irony is only situational, a reflection of Emma's youthful self-deception. Given her time and circumstances, it is probably best for Emma to marry Knightley; it is, therefore, a marriage we can all take pleasure in. But when Martha Quest marries the falsely named Douggie Knowell, the irony is both situational and generic: a reflection of Martha's failed rebellion and an implicit commentary on happy endings and the comic mode itself. It is not delightful that Martha is hoisted by her own petard; it is dreadful. It is most assuredly not a marriage for any of us to take pleasure in. In this novel Lessing merely implies metafictional contradiction. She could not yet see her way clear to "write beyond the ending," to use Rachel Blau DuPlessis's felicitous phrase. She could only indicate the inadequacy of traditional endings. She was limited in what she could do with Martha at the end, I would suggest, because old stories maintain a terrible grip on the imagination. Just as Martha was haunted in life by what she calls "the nightmare repetition" [A Proper Marriage] of women's fate, Lessing herself was still haunted by traditional realism. If Martha had refused to marry, what would she have done instead? It was a question Lessing could not yet answer.
It was only later, when she had fully mastered her craft, that she could rebel openly against the same fictions she had tried at first to model herself after. It was only then that she could invent her own tradition—providing firm support for Jorge Luis Borges's contention that "every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future." [In an endnote, Fishburn cites Jorge Luis Borges, "Kafka and His Precursors," in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, 1964. "Borges prefaces this remark with the following assertion: 'If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist.'"] Just as Kafka is seen in Borges's story to have invented his own precursors, revealing each of them in a striking new light, so too has Lessing invented hers. It has been a tradition that Borges himself would have appreciated, moving as it does both backward and forward in time, backward to the subversive women writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (only just now being revealed to us) and forward to those of the late twentieth. [In an endnote, Fishburn continues: "How many rereadings of early women's fiction have been made possible by the fact of Lessing's work? We shall never know, of course, but the literary criticism that has made these rereadings possible did not emerge in a vacuum, and I suspect that Lessing herself can be given some of the credit for freeing her critics from some of the traditional thought patterns we inherited from our instructors and their texts."] But it is also the case, I believe, that Lessing has created her own private tradition, limited to her own works. That is, the more she writes, the more we see in what she has already written. To be specific, once Lessing began to write beyond the ending, we suddenly realized she had been challenging it all along. And how did Lessing finally rupture the story? She turned her heroine into an author. In effect, she turned her into an updated version of herself. Finding in her own life an unconventional, unencumbered model for her fiction, she could finally free herself from Dickens and Tolstoy. It may be ironic, but it is hardly unexpected, that the writers who helped Lessing escape South Africa would become the second intellectual prison she had to break out of. For no fiction could contain her—not even her own.
Because of the political independence she had tenaciously maintained for herself in her earlier novels, by the time she came to write The Golden Notebook (1962), Lessing had established an intellectual base from which to critique all language systems. She says in the preface and elsewhere that writing this novel changed her, but she never spells out exactly how. One way it surely changed her was to liberate her once and for all from "the highest form of prose writing" and all those antediluvian literary ancestors she had been shackled with from birth. After several preliminary skirmishes in her first four novels, suddenly she could declare all-out guerrilla war: fully armed with craft and a newly defined purpose, she was finally in a position to subvert literary fiction in the same way she had been subverting social fictions all her life. But The Golden Notebook not only openly overthrows realistic fiction, it also implicitly undermines the status of everyday reality itself—a covert narrative action that would become a full-fledged assault in just a few years. But before Lessing could grapple directly with epistemological questions, she had to free an earlier heroine from the fictional prison she had constructed for her. Having completed The Golden Notebook, it was time to prepare Martha's escape from South Africa by naming and demolishing the social and political fictions that for too long had kept her heroine feeling "landlocked," a feeling which Lessing describes in the novel of that name. Once she got Martha out of Africa, it was easy; for she had made the break herself. Having herself left two husbands, two children, and an entire continent, it was getting easier all the time to write new plots for her own life. The least she could do for Martha was to bring her along. In The Four-Gated City (1969), she did just this. She broke the hold South Africa had on her fiction and transported her heroine to new shores and new adventures. In London Martha was free to explore new kinds of reality and so was the novel she lived in. As evidence of Martha's new status as free agent, Lessing unleashed a veritable Babel of language systems—including character sketches, Dorothy's lists, Martha's notes about madness and visionary insights—and let them, in Waugh's terms, "compete for privilege." Topping it all off was an apocalyptic science-fiction ending that catapulted her socalled "realistic" novel into the future.
Completely free from the restrictive fictions of historical realism and political systems, Lessing could then forthrightly challenge the fiction of reality itself—as she does in Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), a text that refuses to account for its competing fictional worlds. By presenting one of these realities exclusively through the narrative eye/I of one character, she reminds us that reality is what we "say" it is. By portraying two competing coequal realities, which both depend on language for their existence, she reminds us that fiction and reality have the same provisional ontological status. Then in The Summer Before the Dark (1973) Lessing reminds us again of the failed fictions of domesticity. Like Lessing's earlier heroines, Kate Brown too has been seduced and abandoned by marital happiness. The novel is replete with hints of its metafictionality. The language systems here consist of the "blueprints" for marriage Kate and her husband draw up, the "false" language of memory, and the symbolic language of dreams. And Kate's expertise is, after all, as a translator; to the people who hire her "she was language." Using her new status and job as a way to break the stultifying pattern of her marriage, Kate learns to live beyond the ending by heeding the message of her dreams, thus replacing one language system with another more meaningful one. A similar but more profound doubling of realities takes place in The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). Here Lessing describes the life of an anonymous woman who is able to live in two alternate worlds, one a rough sketch of the near future, another a combination of the recent past and a dream world. As strange and incomprehensible as some of this book is, Lessing nonetheless continues to identify it as her "attempt at autobiography." By identifying it as such, she invites us to read it metafictionally as a commentary on the form itself—strongly implying that anyone's life story is (merely) fiction. But the book is also a commentary on the fictionality of reality itself—which, as Waugh reminds us, is the ultimate message inherent in all metafiction.
It probably goes without saying that the entire Canopus in Argos (1979–1983) series is metafictional, focusing as it does on chroniclers, editors, and narrators, as well as a myriad of competing language systems (reports, histories, letters, diaries, political rhetoric, propaganda, songs, etc.). This series, as I argue in The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing (1985), is written in such a way that it calls attention to its own rhetorical devices, making self-conscious readers of us. At the same time, Lessing challenges the assumptions and principles of some of our most powerful language systems—the institutions of religion, politics, and science. Her purpose in these five novels, as in Briefing for a Descent into Hell and The Memoirs of a Survivor, is to question the fabric of reality itself. Drawing on the principles of Eastern mysticism and those of particle physics, Lessing uses her fiction to challenge the Cartesian dualities that inform the Western world's concept of reality. In short, these books remind us that what we take for reality is only fiction—a familiar but entirely provisional construct—and what we take for "realism" is only an attempt to shore up the fiction of reality. In short, they are metafiction at its best. And it is precisely because these seven novels are all so clearly metafictional that we have finally been able to see the less obvious metafiction in Lessing's other novels.
Having established the metafictional aspects of Lessing's earlier novels, this leaves three later books to account for. The first two, The Diary of a Good Neighbor (1983) and If the Old Could … (1984)—republished together under the title The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984)—consist of novels that are disguised as diaries, written by a novelist disguised as a journalist disguised as an editor and author of romantic fiction, who quite self-consciously writes the diaries we read as novels. By writing these novels under the pseudonym "Jane Somers" Lessing has managed to turn herself into a fiction; as she says in the introduction to the single volume, "as Jane Somers I wrote in ways that Doris Lessing cannot." The third book is another metafictional novel craftily disguised as realism. But just as Briefing and Memoirs contain their own internal contradictory texts, so too does The Good Terrorist (1985). Its heroine, having identified herself as a terrorist by repudiating her parents' bourgeois life, nonetheless still speaks in their voice—complaining after one political demonstration, for example, that she hadn't got "her money's worth." Her combination of double-vision and double-speak occurs in another scene, when she sees a group of blue-collar workers in a restaurant. At first she feels warmly toward them, thinking "The salt of the earth!" Then she notices their greasy food and thinks "Cholesterol." Seeing what they are reading, she finally dismisses them with the phrase "Only lumpens." At another point, she characterizes the middle class as "Bloody, filthy accumulating … creeps"—only to reflect shortly afterwards that one of her co-tenants "hasn't got the expertise of the middle class."
Although she tries very hard to become a terrorist like her friends, she is the one who phones in a warning about the bomb they are about to set off. And the same world that her co-conspirators would destroy without thought or remorse, Alice tries valiantly to resurrect in the guise of the house they live in. In so doing, she symbolizes the "good terrorist" in Lessing herself. For as we have seen, throughout her writing career, Lessing has engaged in political terrorism of a literary kind by using the conventions of fiction against themselves. Unlike poor Alice's somewhat feeble efforts, Lessing's terrorism has also been epistemological, a direct challenge to our sense of reality. As drastic as her purpose has been, however, she has often housed her ideas in very domestic-looking fiction. In fact, she has frequently used a house itself as the symbol of psychological or ontological change. So what might appear in this novel to be a fairly innocent account of a misguided terrorist is another in a long line of books with a revolutionary purpose. Seen in the context of Lessing's other fiction, the house that Alice brings back to life/repairs/renovates/renews is the house of fiction/politics/society/reality that Lessing herself brings back to life/repairs/renovates/renews.
In her efforts to heal, Alice is also symbolic of Lessing. Although Alice does not succeed in healing society at large, she does save her suicidal comrade from death. And she also saves the house they have been living in; for, after she renovates it, the Council decides to convert it to flats rather than demolishing it as once planned. The house really symbolizes Alice's function in the story. For without being fully aware of the significance of her acts, she is trying to do some good in saving this lovely old building. But in doing so, she gets little help or encouragement from either friends or Council in trying to get it repaired. In short, to borrow a phrase from Stanley Fish, she is a character equivalent of the kind of author he calls the "good physician." As Fish uses the term in Self-Consuming Artifacts, the "metaphor of the good physician" describes an author who has the intention of telling "patients what they don't want to hear in the hope that by forcing them to see themselves clearly, they may be moved to change the selves they see." It is clearly a term that is applicable to Lessing's purpose in this novel. As she has done so often before, in this account of failed terrorism Lessing illuminates our faults—trying as so often to heal the body politic by telling us what we do not want to hear.
But Lessing is not just the "good physician" in this novel; she is also, as elsewhere, the good meta-physician: one who deals with questions of ultimate reality and the nature of knowledge itself. As a good meta-fictionist, from her first novel to her latest, she continues to tantalize us with the thought that all reality is but fiction—from our fondest dreams to our greatest fears. And in The Diaries of Jane Somers she reminds us that even Doris Lessing is a fiction—as is the Lessing of this paper. The paradox that she has so loved to play with is that she has been forced to use fiction to de(con)struct the fictions we live in. It is only fitting, therefore, that she free us from her own fictional constructs by de(con)structing them. Thus she has simultaneously held a fictional mirror to her readers' lives and broken that mirror in an effort to free us from its frame. Rather than looking to her early fiction only for self-portraits we would do well, therefore, to look to it for narrative instruction on how to break the codes that would constrain us—be they social, political, or literary. Mary Turner, Martha Quest, and Susan Rawlings might have been seduced by the script, but their author was not. Instead of repeating the old pre-scriptive and pro-scriptive conventions found in realistic fiction, Lessing has invented her own narrative strategies for subverting them. In so doing, she has given readers invaluable de-scriptions of how to rewrite fiction to suit ourselves. Readers and writers alike—men and women both—would all do well to embrace Doris Lessing not as "their realist" but as "their metafictionist"—a code-breaker par excellence.
But is she doing something that is all that different from other women writers today?
I think not. For, after all, much contemporary women's fiction is quite overtly metafictional. Maureen Howard's elegant Expensive Habits (1986) is metafictional in much the way E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel (1971) is. Dyan Sheldon wittily challenges myths of love and romance in Victim of Love (1982), which also contains a story within a story that is written by the protagonist's husband—himself a would-be novelist. In The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983), Fay Weldon gives a brutally amusing twist to the story of how a wronged wife prevails over the "other woman" by quite literally becoming her. Alice Walker clearly "writes beyond the ending" in Meridian (1976), where she rejects both the old storylines and the old myths about being female and black. Angela Carter reconstructs old fairy tales from a feminist perspective in The Bloody Chamber and Other Adult Tales (1979). Joanna Russ does the same thing for science fiction in her classic novel The Female Man (1975). Maxine Hong Kingston reinvents the autobiography in The Woman Warrior (1976) by focusing less on herself than on her female ancestors, making stories up when history is incomplete. Monique Wittig throws out the basis of most realistic fiction, including plot and character, in her feminist utopian novel Les Guérillères (1969). Iris Murdoch warns us of the dangers of seeing other people's lives as fiction in The Unicorn (1963), where two of the main characters both believe they are participating in a modern-day fairy tale—as, of course they are! And Anita Brookner invites the smudging of distinctions between fiction and reality in Look at Me (1983), where we watch the narrator give novelistic form to the events of her "real" life.
But as clearly as these books are metafictional, there are others, like some of Lessing's work, that are less clearly so. One problem in identifying them, as Molly Hite suggests in a recent [unpublished] paper on Lessing, has been that critics haven't known quite what to look for. Trapped by the tradition of male metafictional writers, we have not yet seen what constitutes women's metafiction. The problem is compounded by the fact that critics haven't always known what women's realistic fiction amounts to either, trapped as we have been by what Roland Barthes calls the doxa. In "Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Fiction," Nancy K. Miller reviews the way women's novels have been dismissed when they did not conform to the requirements of the doxa or the principle of vraisemblance, which she translates as "plausibility" ["Emphasis Added" is in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, edited by Elaine Showalter, 1985]. Defining the term as "an effect of reading through a grid of concordance," she suggests: "If no maxim is available to account for a particular piece of behavior, that behavior is read as unmotivated and unconvincing." Fiction that dares to violate the maxim, therefore, runs the risk of being dismissed as implausible and unworthy of serious critical attention. She concludes by arguing that "the plots of women's literature are not about 'life' and solutions in any therapeutic sense, nor should they be. They are about the plots of literature itself, about the constraints the maxim places on rendering a female life in fiction." In short, she implies that all women's writing is metafictional, because it all, in one respect or another, comments on the fictions we read or the fictions we live by. This view finds support in Joanna Russ's previously mentioned essay in which she reminds us that most of our traditional plots are male plots and thus not available to women. It also finds support in Rachel Blau DuPlessis's idea that twentieth-century women writers are breaking out of the old scripts and writing beyond the ending. In telling their own stories—inventing their own plots—could not all women, then, be writing metafiction?
I suggest they are. I propose, therefore, that we work from the premise that all women's fiction, until proven otherwise, is metafictional.
It is true that some feminist critics have expressed serious reservations about adopting the term. Molly Hite, for example, cautions feminist critics to adopt it only after they have carefully considered whether it is indeed one they want to appropriate from a "male and masculinist tradition." Although her reservations are valid ones, I have two reasons for urging the immediate adoption of the term. The first reason is the political one described by Nina Auerbach in "Engorging the Patriarchy," where she urges women to "absorb the patriarchy before it embraces—and abandons—us into invisibility" [see Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship, edited by Shari Benstock, 1987]. By appropriating the concept of "metafiction" in the way I have suggested, feminist criticism would have the opportunity, in effect, to regard "male metafiction" as a subspecies of "women's fiction"—or, to borrow the French term, one example of the many subversive, disruptive discourses known as l'écriture féminine. [In an endnote, Fishburn states that the phrase comes from Julia Kristeva; Fishburn also cites significant essays on the subject: Ann Rosalind Jones, "Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l'Écriture féminine," in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (1985); Toril Moi, "Marginality and Subversion: Julia Kristeva," in her Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1985); and Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora et al. (1980).] The second reason I would urge us to adopt the term is that it is so well suited to describe the de(con)structive activity of women's fiction, especially because it helps to draw theory and practice together. For, ultimately, metafiction is a liberating concept, empowering us to rewrite all the fictions of our lives—even the doxa. [In an endnote, Fishburn continues: "In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (trans. Richard Howard [New York: Hill and Wang, 1977]), Barthes defines the Doxa as 'Public Opinion, the mind of the majority, petit bourgeois Consensus, the Voice of Nature, the Violence of Prejudice.' What he says of the 'two monstrous modes of rhetorical domination: Reign and Triumph' is also suggestive for the project of women's metafiction. The Doxa he describes as being 'content to reign; it diffuses, blurs; it is a legal, a natural dominance.' In contrast, 'militant language, whether revolutionary or religious … is a triumphant language: each action of the discourse is a triumph à l'antique: the victors and the defeated enemies are made to parade past.' Although he is speaking of social discourses here, it would appear that women's metafiction could be described as a kind of 'militant language,' a discourse that parades its victory over its defeated enemies by rupturing the very texts that would silence it."] Like Lessing's early novels, models are everywhere waiting to be unmasked. Once we give them our attention, we will see that hidden in even the most innocent seeming texts are more than paper tigers. Behind the mask of women's realism we will find texts that contain their countertexts, fictions that contain their anti-fictions, wor(l)ds within words without end.
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