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Critical Essay by Carol Franko
SOURCE: "Authority, Truthtelling, and Parody: Doris Lessing and 'the Book,'" in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 255-85.
In the following essay, Franko examines "Lessing's ambivalent attitude toward canonical authorities" by focusing on the ways in which the narrators of her novels and short stories—including The Golden Notebook, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, and "The Sun Between Their Feet"—use and view language.
It's O.K. to hate your mom, it's in the book. (Lessing, The Golden Notebook)
What is the function of the story-teller? [Heide Ziegler and Christopher Bigsby, "Doris Lessing," The Radical Imagination and the Literary Tradition: Interviews with English and American Novelists, 1982]
Photographs or sketches of Doris Lessing (her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun) adorn the covers of her books and perhaps are intended to support her image as wise woman and stern prophet. Description of Lessing's prose as "magisterial" and "confident" function like these book-jackets, presenting a consolidated essence true to the source but missing what I find most interesting about Lessing's fiction. Lessing's narrative voices are often confident—sometimes intrusively so, sometimes snootily so. However, such voices also betray their struggle to assert this author-ity. The parodic moments in her fiction intensify the preoccupation of her narrators with the "contested, and contesting" nature of their words in relation to those of others [the quoted words come from Mikhail Bakhtin, "Discourse in the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Holquist, 1981]. Gary Saul Morson has remarked pithily that "Parody is the etiology of utterance" [The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky's "Diary of a Writer" and the Traditions of Literary Utopia, 1981]. Lessing uses parody in various ways to give her own etiology of the origins and contexts of discourse and to tell with authority her truths about life and language.
The phrase "Doris Lessing and the Book" stands for Lessing's ambivalent attitude toward canonical authorities. By "the Book" I mean first of all the written word, with all of its associations with religious, legal, and other institutional authorities, and the intertextuality that Lessing, like all writers, must negotiate. But with Lessing, meanings of "the Book" must extend to language itself because she continually thematizes language in her fiction, a fact that is sometimes overlooked in the ongoing debate over whether Lessing has always been or has never been a "realist" writer.
The following quotations suggest what Lessing shares with one great realist: a desire to writer truthfully because such writing is an authoritative as well as a responsible social act:
I aspire to give … a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind. The mirror is doubtless defective … the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much bound to tell you … what that reflection is, as if I were in the witness-box narrating my experience on oath…. dreading nothing … but falsity…. Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult. (George Eliot, Adam Bede, Ch. 17)
I wouldn't say that … now [wouldn't say that "it is not merely a question of preventing an evil but strengthening a vision of good that will defeat evil," from "A Small Personal Voice," Lessing's oft-quoted essay from 1956] because I don't know what good and evil is. But the way I think now is that if writers … write really truthfully (it is very hard you know to be truthful, actually) you will find that you are expressing other people. (Ziegler and Bigsby)
The contemplations in chapter 17 of Adam Bede are a relatively rare occurrence in George Eliot's fiction, and her narrator does not doubt language so much as her own powers to use it truthfully. In contrast, in (to list some examples) the Children of Violence series, The Golden Notebook, and the Canopus in Argos novels, Lessing's narrators continually remark on language, continually suggest that language and the discourses that construct identity have great power, but that they do not tell the truth. Lessing never relinquishes the goal of truthtelling, and to approach it she takes up two worldviews: a Marxist and a mystical orientation.
Lessing's narrators often view language from a Marxist perspective, one that unmasks language as the partner of oppressive and lying ideologies. Martha Quest, for example, details the heroine's subjectivity as a battleground of discourses, both the ones written down in the books and newspapers she's always reading and the ones inscribed in her "blood." Lessing also critiques language from a mystical perspective that asserts an extra-linguistic knowledge and experience. Thus Anna Wulf comes to believe that
real experience can't be described…. A row of asterisks, like an old-fashioned novel, might be better. Or a symbol of some kind, a circle perhaps, or a square. Anything … but not words. The people who have been … in the place in themselves where words, patterns, order, dissolve, will know what I mean and the others won't. [The Golden Notebook]
As far as her personal beliefs can be gauged, Lessing has moved from an interest in a Marxist metanarrative to an involvement with sufism. However, both the Marxist and mystical critiques of discourse have been evident in her fiction all along.
Lessing, then, wants to write truthfully about the power of language to construct experience and its inadequacy to convey "real" experience. This puts her narrators in a position Bakhtin would relish: the main way they establish their authority in relation to "the Book" is by calling attention to the contextual nature of discourse, thereby disarming potential criticism and implying that their utterances transcend dialogism. Lessing's strategies for giving authority to her narrators develop toward this all-purpose double-voicedness that Bakhtin describes as a dialogic relationship with "one's own utterance as a whole":
Dialogic relationships are also possible toward one's own utterance as a whole, toward its separate parts and toward an individual word within it, if we … speak with an inner reservation … as if limiting our own authorship or dividing it in two. [Problems in Dostoevsky's Poetics, 1984]
This double-voiced stance toward one's utterance extends the activity of parody. Parody reminds us that the words with which we strive to shape our own intentions are "always half someone else's" (Bakhtin, "Discourse"). In "The Sun Between Their Feet," Lessing uses parody in a traditional "realistic" exposure of the falseness of official discourse. The Golden Notebook contains a more ambivalent, even duplicitous use of parody both as theme and technique. Anna Wulf, the writer-protagonist, is drawn to parody, yet deplores its complicity in what she terms the "wrong tone"; meanwhile parody makes possible her progress as a writer and a social being. Like "The Sun Between Their Feet" and The Golden Notebook, Briefing for a Descent into Hell suggests that we must take responsibility for coauthoring the discourses that shape social and private reality. Briefing, however, displays neither the "innocent" narrative authority of the African story nor the ambivalence toward parody of [The Golden Notebook]. Its narrator garners authority by emphasizing the paradox that there is no escape from "the Book," no human reality that isn't shaped by narratives, and that the words we use in stories can only point imperfectly to reality. The parodist is thus the only truthteller, since she reminds us that "parody" is the only way to talk or write—this being Lessing's version of the authority that comes from having a dialogic relationship with one's utterance as utterance.
Nothing much happens in Lessing's African story, "The Sun Between Their Feet." In this story about watching and telling, an anonymous narrator watches some beetles and describes their efforts to form a ball of dung, presumably around their eggs, and roll it up and down a hill. The narrator watches for a long time in the hot African sun, from midmorning until late afternoon brings a thunderstorm. Her attitude toward the beetles combines amusement and sympathy. Early in her vigil, she moves from sitting above the beetles to crouching behind them on the grass. Later, the sun beating down on her head, she attempts to hurry their progress by scooping up beetles and ball and placing them on a smaller hill. But the beetles return to their steeper choice, demonstrating the narrator's dry remark that "it is not for us to criticise the processes of nature."
This account of "The Sun Between Their Feet" leaves out two crucial elements: the opening paragraph that situates the setting in relation to colonial history, and the narrator's references to and quotations from a text she calls "the book," which comments on the behavior of dung beetles. From the opening paragraph we learn that the narrator is exploring some wild land behind a train station. There is a road leading from the train station to a deserted Roman Catholic Mission. Beyond the church, this land of granite boulders, which is a Native Reserve (because useless to white farmers, one presumes) appears impassable. But the narrator finds a way in and remarks that
people had made use of this wilderness. For one thing there were the remains of earth and rock defences built by the Mashona against the Matabele when they came raiding after cattle and women before Rhodes put an end to all that. For another, the undersurfaces of the great boulders were covered with Bushman paintings.
In a few sentences the narrator sums up the history of Homo sapiens in this landscape, and then moves to the dung beetles, whose "history" of ball-rolling reaches back to the Egyptians (who named them sacred) and beyond. "The Sun Between Their Feet" is not just a story about watching and telling; it is also about narrative authority and about reading. Aligning herself with the African landscape, with its nonhuman inhabitants, and with "the processes of nature," the narrator detaches herself from mere human concerns (even while conveying her anger at British imperialism in southern Africa). She further develops her authority by her parody of "the book" that purports to explain the beetles; in this way she asserts her independence of the printed page.
The narrator's language becomes exuberant when she describes the dung beetles. Here two beetles are making their ball:
One had set his back legs over a bit of dung and was heaving and levering at it. The other, with a fast rolling movement, the same that a hen makes settling roused feathers over eggs, was using his body to form the ball…. Both beetles assaulted it …, frantic with creation, seizing it between their back legs, spinning it, rolling it under them…. [When it got away from them, they] start[ed] again on the mother-pile of muck.
The amused tone and maternal imagery meshed with mock-heroic diction are typical of the narrator's descriptions of the beetles, which contrast dramatically with that of the written authority that she first mentions after the above description:
The book says that dung beetles form a ball of dung, lay their eggs in it, search for a gentle slope, roll the ball up it, and then allow it to roll down again so that in the process of rolling 'the pellet becomes compacted.'
The more the narrator describes what she sees, the more ludicrous such formulations become. The beetles she watches never "allow" their ball to roll down a slope; rather, they keep losing the ball and "plunging" after it. When the narrator positions herself on the grass so that she can "view the ascent through their eyes," she sees that the beetles are not "search[ing] for a gentle slope" (the book's phrase) but have selected "a savage mountain." When she tries to transfer them to a little hill, they "mother" their ball "patiently back to the mountain's foot." The narrator then quotes the book again: "The slope is chosen,' says the book, 'by a beautiful instinct.'" Maybe so, but the book is too removed from its subject to convey this truth. When read alongside the narrator's vivid reporting of what she sees, the book's account loses credibility. It falsifies the reality of the dung beetles (the Scarabaeus, or Aleuchus sacer, as the book informs), these beetles who were sacred to the Egyptians because they hold "the symbol of the sun between their busy stupid feet."
Nature's storyteller (my facetious epithet for Lessing's narrator) thus confidently performs "the dual role of the parodist as reader and author of another's work" [Margaret A. Rose, Parody//Meta-Fiction: An Analysis of Parody as a Critical Mirror to the Writing and Reception of Fiction, 1979]. She reveals the inadequacy of "the book" by quoting it "in too much context" (Morson). She does something similar in the terse opening paragraph when she notes that this land once witnessed the warfare of the Mashona and Matabele peoples "before Rhodes put an end to all that"—this phrase both a mocking echo of any knowing British colonialist and a grim statement of fact, since the whites did "put an end" to indigenous cultures in southern Africa. The narrator thus establishes herself as a skeptical truthteller, no respecter of imperialists like Rhodes nor of written authorities like the unnamed book that tamely misses the energy of the dung beetles. What follows is speculation about a third way that Lessing's storyteller usurps the authority of "the Book," now represented by Albert Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus" [in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O'Brien, 1961].
Rather like the State of Nature in social contract theory that apparently harbors only adult male humans, there are no bugs, no sun, and no mothers in "The Myth of Sisyphus," although there is earth (on the "earth-clotted hands" of Sisyphus). The setting (nominally the Greek underworld) is an existential paring down of life to one man, one rock, one mountain, and one sympathetic viewer/teller. Camus's narrator imagines that Sisyphus takes his punishment of "futile and hopeless labor" and turns it into a triumph, by claiming it as his own, and thus elevating his story to tragedy: "If this myth is tragic, [it] is because its hero is conscious." The narrator further explains that like the old, blind Oedipus, Sisyphus discovers the intimate connection between absurdity, tragedy, and joy. The stubborn hopefulness of Camus's story ("The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart" ["Myth of Sisyphus"]) combined with its insistence on the absurdity of existence is a frequent theme in Lessing's fiction. In The Golden Notebook, a novel that unbuilds so many certainties, allusions to "The Myth of Sisyphus" function in a rather strained manner to assert the value of "small painful … courage" [The Golden Notebook], of social consciousness, and of "find[ing] the means to proceed beyond nihilism" (Camus, "Preface").
While it is never mentioned in "The Sun Between Their Feet," it is impossible not to think of "The Myth of Sisyphus," and not to notice the contrast between Camus's tragic hero, always dignified in his labor, and Lessing's comic ones, always ridiculous as they "bundle" themselves after their ball:
I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. (Camus, "Myth")
"The slope is chosen," says the book, "by a beautiful instinct, so that the ball of dung comes to rest in a spot suitable for the hatching of the new generation of sacred insect." (Lessing, "Sun")
They clung on to … their treasure with the desperation of stupidity … It was difficult to imagine the perfect shining globe the ball had been—… now … a bit of refuse … Tomorrow … [when] the sun had come out, they would again labour and heave a fresh ball of dung. ("Sun")
Lessing's narrator, battling rival voices who have written of "her" subject matter, reveals the text that treats the beetles as too piously abstract, and "The Myth of Sisyphus" as too human-centered, valuing only tragic consciousness and not comic vitality. She writes the myth of an absurd universe as the account of creatures at once earthy and sacred, as the story of life going on in its "stupid" way.
Despite their difference of genre, setting, etc., "The Sun Between Their Feet" and The Golden Notebook are both about narrative authority and truthtelling in conflict with "the Book(s)" of powerful discourses. The narrator of "Sun" positions her discourse in opposition to inadequacies of "the printed page" and in conjunction with the authority of fact and presence, as if her story were not also a text; parody is simply the tool she uses to discover the partial vision of other narrators. In her "Introduction" to The Golden Notebook (published in 1971, nine years after the novel first appeared) Lessing takes a similar stance toward textuality, asserting that truth exists as much in oral traditions as in books and criticizing the authority of literary critics, themselves molded by educations that overvalue whatever "Book" represents current dogma. Like the narrator of "Sun" presenting her account as somehow separate from textuality, Lessing defines her novel through its independence of novelistic discourse and even of language—it is "new"; it contains "rawer material" than other works she has written, material that she has managed to convey before it "shaped itself into thought and pattern"; and its structure speaks a "wordless statement."
This last oft-quoted phrase provokes skepticism in me. How can "wordless statement" sum up a fiction that features a writer-protagonist who defines herself through her preoccupation with words, texts, and the problem of representation? One of the paradoxes of [The Golden Notebook] is that while so much of what we read is supposedly a private discourse—that of Anna Wulf's notebooks—Anna's comments to herself become, for readers other than Anna, authorial and authoritative voices that shape our responses to her texts. Anna is author, reader, reviewer, parodist, and critic of her own texts. Early in [The Golden Notebook] Lessing gives a vivid image of this authority: Anna is pictured sitting at her desk "looking down at the four notebooks as if she were a general on the top of a mountain, watching her armies deploy in the valley below."
Here is a sketch of "Anna Wulf" in relation to the macro text of The Golden Notebook: Anna is a character in the novel Free Women, which is divided into five sections; section one opens the macro text, section 5 closes it. Anna also appears in the "first person," as the author of four autobiographical notebooks (the Black one is about her experiences in Africa during WWII and in London with the filmmakers who want to use the commercially successful novel she wrote about the African years, the Red records her history with the British Communist party, the Yellow includes the draft of a novel, and the Blue is an experimental diary), each divided into four sections. She also authors "The Golden Notebook" after she has closed down her other journals; this document is the penultimate section of the macro text. The inner Golden Notebook reveals that the Anna of the notebooks is apparently the author of Free Women (which now appears as her semiautobiographical fiction). The character Saul Green (who appears in the Yellow and Blue notebooks as well as the Golden one) gives her the subject matter and first sentence of Free Women (she reciprocates, giving Saul the first sentence of a novel that he completes). The last section of Free Women thus follows the revelation that it is not the encompassing text it seems; despite the fact that it "physically" frames the macro text, it is "really" an embedded text.
This "Mobius-strip" structure, with its multiple inscription of Anna Wulf, resists finalizing interpretations that would make a false whole of Lessing's novel [see Molly Hite, The Other Side of The Story: Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Narrative, 1989]. Yet criticism on The Golden Notebook demonstrates that it is hard to avoid discussing Anna as though she were a single, coherent character. The earnest tone of Lessing's novel adds to this difficulty; Anna's painfully honest introspection, for example, makes it hard to keep "her" fragmented fictionality in mind. The Anna Wulf explored here, then, is one of several. This Anna desires a "wordless statement," in a different sense (I think) than Lessing uses it in the "Introduction." This Anna is the voice of a negative narrative authority, the writer who is also the master reader, she who prefaces, interrupts, concludes, and/or later remarks on her texts by explaining their aesthetic and moral failings. This Anna comments that language is "thinning" in the face of modern reality. However, the way she describes her distrust of her medium suggests that language is really too thick for her liking—too thick with the poisoned intentions of others, too thick with old, outworn definitions, and just too thick, that is, not a transparent medium for the "real thing."
This Anna is leery of parody, by definition a thick discourse. At first she welcomes "angry parody" for its critical, unmasking function, and uses it not only against the "enemy" without—the commodifiers of art, for example—but also the enemy within her own texts. In Black 1, Anna's parodic film synopsis of her novel Frontiers of War uncovers what she judges to be the "immoral" emotion that generated it, a "lying nostalgia" that promotes war and that sells books and movies. This early episode exemplifies Anna's ambivalent relations with parodic discourse. Parody marks her distance from others, a distance that is a mixed blessing: no one else finds her novel immoral, so Anna's self-judgment ironically results in moral isolation. At the same time, parody makes vivid her complicity with the desires and intentions of others, reminding her that she does not have complete control over her meanings; nostalgia, for example, creeps in.
Parody, soon mutates from critical tool to a term Anna uses to condemn her writing when it exhibits symptoms of the two moral and intellectual diseases of Cold War society: nostalgia and its "first cousin," the cynicism she calls the wrong tone:
I am again falling into the wrong tone—and yet I hate that tone, and yet we all lived inside it for … years…. It was self-punishing, a locking of feeling, an inability or a refusal to fit conflicting things together to make a whole; so that one can live inside it, no matter how terrible. The refusal means one can neither change nor destroy.
Throughout Black 1, Anna breaks the flow of her narrative to comment that she is falling into the wrong tones of nostalgia or cynicism; she makes similar commentaries in her Yellow and Blue notebooks (on the falseness of fiction and her failure to "just record" daily truths). This self-critique enhances her credibility and makes us self-conscious about our responses to her text: why haven't we noticed the false or blocked feeling? But we may also start thinking about how strict Anna is with her writing, and about how difficult it is to achieve a tone that is not contaminated by unwanted influences—indeed, perhaps it is impossible. Furthermore, if Anna, as model reader, presents reading as a process of looking back and discovering what is wrong with a previously written text, what is to prevent her (or Lessing's readers) from applying the same logic to her passages of self-critique? This question becomes more urgent when we consider that parody, which Anna comes to label "false art," and which (in Yellow 4) she makes quite a point of excluding from her writing, is what finally enables her to enact her vocation as writer/representative of her time and to affirm the agency of responsible, reflective, empathic people like herself—the "boulder-pushers," as she comes to call them.
Anna is torn between individualist and interdependent ideals of the writer's self, between being an "owner" of her words and intentions, a self who takes responsibility but who is vulnerable to isolation, cynicism and/or self-hatred; and an interdependent sharer of selves, experiences, meanings, a self who can say "we" in an uncomfortably literal way but who may fail to distinguish between "real" feeling and nostalgia and whose capacity for empathy could become psychosis. Although I am keenly aware of the simplification involved, I think it is the individualist Anna, the owner/purifier/unmasker of meanings, who "speaks" narrative authority. The second, interdependent version of the writer's self is a theme and a presence—sometimes threatening, sometimes idealized—in Anna's notebooks. This "we-Anna" who shares selves and experiences literally represents "her" time. Furthermore, although "she" does not speak except through the critical, self-conscious Anna, the utopic potential "she" represents is the main reason for Anna's clinging to sometimes simplistic notions of truth and reality and for her desire to expel alien voices from her discourse.
"There is something new in the world." This statement, part of an eloquent speech Anna makes to her psychiatrist, declares that she does not want to contain all of her experiences in timeless archetypes, and that she thinks the modern world must be understood as possessing new powers, both of destruction (the H-bomb and the mind control practiced by the modern media are her two examples) and construction, a golden-age building of "a life that isn't full of hatred and fear and envy and competition every minute of the night and the day." Anna's developing mystical attitude that "real experience can't be described" in language is both something Lessing believes and Anna's most drastic effort to protect this utopic potential that she senses, for example, in the new lives many women are leading, despite the pains and dangers of these lives. By arguing that these new truths cannot be described in existing terms, Anna prevents them from being contained and falsified. However, since Anna still regards herself as a representative, she is not content with just sensing these truths herself. The "new" must be communicated.
"If I could say we, really meaning it, I wouldn't be here, would I?" Anna's pithy question, directed to her psychoanalyst [The Golden Notebook], evokes several aspects of Anna's alienation: her disillusionment with communism, which like the capitalism she also despises is by its dishonesty vitiating a sense of "we"; her growing belief that fiction writing does not represent but rather evades and deforms reality, thus further severing her connections with a "we"; and, finally, her sense that words themselves are losing their meaning by becoming divorced from intention—she cannot tell, for example, when other writers are using parody, and similarly, her parodies are read "straight." Anna's resulting double bind—her need to communicate new communal truths versus her need to rid her discourse of a diseased dialogism—leads to a dramatic self-censorship: Anna uses her negative narrative authority to reject one mode of writing after another and thus to close down her four notebooks. The following is her closing down of the Yellow notebook, the one she uses for drafts of novels and stories:
'Jeez, Mike,' [Dave] said, you'll write it someday, for us all.'… 'You'll write … how our souls were ruined here on the snow-white Manhattan pavement, the capitalist-money-mammon hound-of-hell hot on our heels?' 'Gee, Dave, I love you,' I said … [and] hit him … square to the jaw-bone, stammering with love-for-the world, love-for-my-friends, for the Daves and the Mikes and the Buddies….
If I've gone back to pastiche, then it's time to stop. [The yellow notebook ended here with a double black line.] ([The Golden Notebook]; final brackets are Lessing's)
Anna's dismissal of her parody of "buddy-love" ignores how thick it is with her preoccupations, with her fear and hatred of the commodification of art and her need as an artist to speak for her peers, an act that is a kind of "love-for-the-world." In this sense, Mike and his pals speak for her, even though the parody also expresses her impatience with a view of the artist as (American) macho male whose closest relations are with other guys. Finally, with its cartoon embodiment of cool parodist aping self-indulgent confessor, Anna's "pastiche" arguably signals a transformation of her obsession with nostalgia and cynicism, those twin components of the "wrong tone." How could anything be more sentimental and cynical than this? Yet what language should be used to convey the desire for an unalienated, meaningful existence, one that contains occasional explosions of positive feeling ("I hit him then, square to the jaw-bone")? What discourse would pass Anna's test? Anna of the negative narrative authority teaches me to be skeptical of her passages of self-critique; thus, I read her buddy-love parody not as evidence of her moral and artistic exhaustion but as an exaggerated preview of her strategies in the inner Golden Notebook.
In her "Introduction," Lessing takes special pains to discuss the inner Golden Notebook, offended that early treatments of the novel ignored its importance. She claims that in this section readers "can no longer distinguish between what is Saul and what is Anna, and between them and the other people in the book." Lessing's statement implies that we could identify a choral voice in the inner Golden Notebook, maybe something like the symphonic voice in Woolf's The Waves. It's more accurate to say that in the inner Golden Notebook (and in the fourth section of the Blue notebook that precedes it) Anna Wulf creates a dialogue between her individualistic self who strives to purge language of poisonous contexts and her communal, perhaps extra-linguistic self who experiences reality without the boundaries drawn by her critical intelligence. This intersubjective sharing of experience seems to be what Lessing has in mind when she claims paradoxically that the reification of characters into types (according to class, gender, politics) throughout the novel co-exists with a salutary mingling of identities: "They [the types] have also reflected each other, been aspects of each other, given birth to each other's thoughts and behavior—are each other, form wholes" ("Intro"). The two sections that detail Anna Wulf's and Saul Green's relationship (Blue 4 and the inner Golden Notebook) bring this intersubjective reality to a climax. Anna and Saul (an American writer and disillusioned leftist currently having a breakdown) here embody both the collective madness of their time—bent on war and annihilation—and the utopic potential of transformed personal/political relations; specifically, Anna seems to "catch" Saul's sickness. In these sections Anna is "invaded" by soldiers, peasants, people from her African past, and she realizes that Saul is continually experiencing analogous invasions. We learn that in their constant fighting, she and Saul are speaking the words of others; they are "possessed," forced to be representatives: of men versus women, left versus right, working class versus middle class. When they agree to part, a separation Anna is convinced is necessary to her sanity, they believe that they will always be connected to each other—like brother and sister (Anna's view), or like being on the same team (Saul's expression).
The necessary but dangerous intersubjectivity conveyed in the inner Golden Notebook "unlocks" feeling, enabling Anna and Saul "to fit conflicting things together to make a whole." This denouement is achieved through a parodic revisiting of the sentimental and cynical "wrong tone" that has haunted Anna's notebooks. Anna transcends the false, blocked feeling of the wrong tone not by producing a merging of voices (in which her readers "can no longer distinguish between … Saul and … Anna, [or] between them and the other people in the book" ["Intro"]) but by living and writing with a heightened, parodic self-consciousness. Saul participates in the process whereby Anna both parodies and reaffirms her moral and aesthetic concern to be truthful to reality, and he is going through an analogous process; however, we are always aware that Anna is the recorder/translator of their adventures in breakdown/breakthrough.
As they experience the feelings of each other and of people around the world, Anna and Saul are aware that they are living out "parodies": Anna, for example enacts a "boo-hoo" parody of the tragically jealous, scorned woman, while Saul is alternately the heartless rake and the good American boy. This self-conscious parodying is radically different from other places in the novel where characters unwittingly ossify into grotesque parodies of various modern "types." Anna's narrative highlights one consequence of hers and Saul's self-awareness; they act out the parodies, and thus finish them, "butto[n] them up." However, parody does not just help Anna and Saul discard outworn patterns; it also enables them to "earn" an affirmation of values that have come to seem naive or old-fashioned in the complications and disillusionments of Cold War modernity—values like empathy, courage, endurance.
Anna's progress toward reaffirming these values is furthered by her mental encounters with a "disinterested" yet "controlling personality," a part of herself whom she calls "the projectionist," and who appears in a male persona, a version of Saul. Anna sees the projectionist as a destructively cynical figure. This is odd because she also describes him as the part of herself who refuses to let her give into madness and who forces her to re-view the texts that make up her past, thus at once allowing her to affirm that her life is "still there" and asking her to re-write the emphases that she has placed on various events. In a sequence thick with Anna's characteristic dilemmas, the projectionist asks her "And what makes you think that the emphasis you have put on it [on a series of scenes from her past] is the correct emphasis?" Anna hears a "parodic twang" in the word "correct," a parody of both "the Marxist jargon-word correct" and of "a primness, like that of a schoolteacher." Although the projectionist is thus parodying what I have been calling Anna's negative narrative authority over her texts, he apparently does want her to scrutinize the correctness of her emphases. He shows her a series of films, "Directed by Anna Wulf" that parody the "convention[al], well-made,… glossy" quality of her narratives. This episode leaves Anna with a "feeling of nausea" which she interprets as "the strain of trying to expand one's limits beyond what has been possible." I would add that much of the strain is due to the complex use of parody she is asking herself to make: she is to continue to doubt the truth of her writing while at the same time recognizing the conventional, limited form of her self-critique.
Anna's further adventures with the projectionist come after a crucial passage in which she anticipates (i.e., recognizes that she already knows) what he will teach her next. These moments of "knowing" things have characterized her encounters with "craziness and timelessness," and they have convinced her that "the place in [oneself] where words, patterns, order, dissolve" is a more primary reality than any truth that words can convey. However, in a reversal of logic, Anna muses that "the conditions of [this reality] existing at all" may depend on people "preserv[ing] the forms, creat[ing] the patterns," which suggests that language may help produce the reality it fails to represent truthfully. Armed with this paradox and with the exhortation to parody both her writing and her self-critique, Anna re-views the film of her life, which reveals a new emphasis. It now rushes past previous high points and lingers over secondary characters who are captured in moments of sad or stubborn endurance. Anna sees she is redefining heroism as the "small, painful sort of courage which is at the root of every life, because injustice and cruelty is at the root of life."
These new "films" are truer than the previous ones, but they are still conventional—still thick constructions, not mere windows for truth—and thus can be historicized and parodied: Anna notes that they have "a rough, crude, rather jerky quality" that she names "realistic" and that reminds her of "early Russian or German" films. Anna's reaffirmation of basic values in these films is echoed by Saul, who comes back from one of his walks determined to articulate a utopian blueprint for him and Anna to follow. Like Anna's recognition that her efforts to capture reality are at best necessary rituals, Saul admits the absurdity of his assuming the role of "pedagogue," but he still insists that he and Anna and others "around in the world" are "part of the team" ("I hate teams," says Anna), that they need to "rely on each other" and "believe in our beautiful, impossible blueprints." His speech is a return to humanist faith via absurdity and despair, but also via parody, something Anna indirectly acknowledges: she compares his "moral axioms" to "mottoes out of Christmas crackers," but she also notes that he is now performing his rake's persona as a "gallant parody."
Thus parody as discourse and attitude becomes crucial for giving utopic possibility a voice and a "book" in The Golden Notebook. Parody allows Anna to say "we" and "really mean it" without losing the critical "I" who still uses under protest a language always steeped in others' intentions and always inadequate to the "truth." Parody also allows Anna and Saul to be friends, sister and brother, part of a team—quite an achievement in a novel that explores the modern war between the sexes. Finally, this utopic use of parody results in Lessing revisioning the "book" as artifact. The materiality or object-ness of the inner Golden Notebook is emphasized: we are told how Anna spots it in a shop, how Saul covets it and tries to appropriate it by writing a verse/curse in it, how it records the topics and first sentences that Anna and Saul give to one another for their future projects, and finally, how, after Anna gives Saul the notebook, her handwriting gives way to his. This portrayal of an "embodied" intertextuality suggests that the team Anna and Saul are on is engaged in literally remaking the books of culture.
If we try to ride the mobius strip of The Golden Notebook to some kind of closure, it appears that the Anna Wulf who has the extraordinary experiences recorded in the inner Golden Notebook goes on to write Free Women, a flat, "realistic" novel, whose parodic section titles are quietly funny—for example, the heading for Free Women 2 reads "Two visits, some telephone calls and a tragedy," and the one for Free Women 4 includes the phrase, "Anna does not feel herself." Of course, in a realist gesture toward narrative authority, one of the points Lessing was making with her structure was how the mess and complexity of the notebooks (real life) gets translated/confined into the "absolutely whole conventional novel" of Free Women, a conventionality that Lessing says is "always a lie" ["A Talk with Doris Lessing," in A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, Interviews, edited by Paul Schlueter, 1974]. Briefing for a Descent Into Hell expands Anna Wulf's/Doris Lessing's skepticism of language and literary form, suggesting that the conviction that all language use is a necessary but inadequate ritual fosters a "Maryrose attitude" toward genre. Maryrose, the lovable but inaccessible woman featured in Anna's Black notebooks, typically cuts through the intellectualizing of Anna's circle with the question "What's wrong with that?" [The Golden Notebook]. With its pastiche of realism, fantasy, myth, and science fiction, the hybrid structure of Briefing for a Descent Into Hell implies a "what's wrong with it" attitude: if all language is inadequate, this amalgam that Lessing terms "inner space fiction" is no more and no less ridiculous than the parodic realism of Free Women. Indeed, perhaps its more explicit novelizing of language's inadequacy makes it more truthful and hence more authoritative.
The plot of Briefing for a Descent into Hell draws on a contemporary trope: the conflict between institutional mental health and the individual psyche. Protagonist Charles Watkins (Professor of Classics, Cambridge), has amnesia and has been admitted as John Doe into a London psychiatric hospital. As we learn through his fragmented first-person narrative, Charles is experiencing himself as the archetypal quester. He fears "sleep," meaning normal consciousness. His dreams take him on a journey around the southern Atlantic in pursuit of a crystal space ship. When this crystal picks him up, he has visions about a web of being; he sees the earth from the vastness of space and watches the history of the crust of life on it. These visions bring Charles to the brink of recovering an alien memory of his identity and purpose. His narrative becomes increasingly ambiguous as he, or someone, relates two parodic versions of how the "gods" worry about humanity and so periodically send envoys to hell (earth). Meanwhile two psychiatrists debate Charles's case in terse memos. The sinister "Dr. X" uses an experimental drug which puts Charles in a coma and then insists on electric shock treatment, which the nice "Dr. Y" delays as long as possible. However, Y's humaneness leaves him no more open than X to Charles's efforts to explain the reality of his dreams. Letters from Charles's wife, friends, and a former lover further complicate our knowledge of him. Charles decides to have the shock therapy so that X and Y will let him leave the hospital. He also hopes it will allow him to recover the tantalizing remainder of his dream-answers. Not surprisingly, though, the electric shock instead returns him to his Charles Watkins identity, his socially acceptable self that finds all the visionary concerns distasteful and embarrassing.
My reading focuses on a paradigmatic section of this complex structure, one that modulates from a meditation on language and myth through two versions of how the gods attempt to intervene in human life. The conference-of-the-gods opens with an acknowledgment that is also an indictment of the Book—"I gotta use words when I talk to you," a line from T. S. Eliot's "Sweeney Agonistes"—followed by an interpretation: "Probably that sequence of words, I've got to use words, is a definition of all literature, seen from a different perspective." It's not clear whether Charles or a new voice makes this authoritative gloss on Eliot's line. If we assume that Charles is the narrator, we must acknowledge that his tone and function have shifted, from breathless voyager to confident explainer.
The indeterminacy of the narrator enacts the main theme of the novel: interdependence. In the passage preceding the conference Charles/Odysseus reaches a climax of insight:
A divorce there has been … between the "I" and the "We,"… and I (who am not I, but part of a whole composed of other human beings as they are of me) … am … spinning back … towards a catastrophe … when the microbes … [were] knocked out of their true understanding, so that ever since most have said, I, I, I … and cannot … say, We.
With his acceptance of the catastrophic myth that explains Earth's atomized individuality Charles has achieved a new, nonhuman coherence. No longer "I" but "we," he has shed earthly perspectives of time and space:
I'm on the other side of the Catastrophe … before it. Though I'm free … to say "after," since like "up and down" it is … entirely how you look at it…. But man-wise … I am before the crash … in … air that rings with harmony…. I, voyager, Odysseus bound for home at last.
Charles expresses his "we" identity in a hybrid myth combining Odysseus's trip home with the visionary claim of interdependence and both with the science-fictional Castastrophe. He speaks in a moment of complete faith, from "within" the hybrid vision. We can choose to read the conference-of-the-gods as told by Charles, who is now "we," and who, with his account of the Descent Team, may be remembering his "real" identity. But we can also read it as an authorial voice (that I will refer to as an androgynous s/he) that has fused with Charles's but is distinct from his in a crucial way: this voice does not speak from "within" vision and myth; rather s/he engages readers in the task of reconstructing myths, rendering her discourse authoritative by openly participating in storytelling as version-making.
The conference-on-the-gods section contains two versions of one story: Near the end of the twentieth century Earth is going through a catastrophic period, and the gods must once more "descend" to Earth with the by-now-hackneyed message: "That there is a Harmony and that if they wish to prosper they must keep in step and, obey its Laws. Quite so." The narrator prefaces this story with a discussion of the Greco-Roman pantheon, modeling how to use stories and myths. S/he advocates at once taking them literally and regarding them skeptically and enacts this double transaction in self-consciously dialogic prose:
Enmeshed like a chord in Bach, part of a disc as exquisitely coloured as a jelly fish … made up of sun and planets and baby planets[,]… looking at the thing from any point of view but Earth Time, it is possible a change of emphasis from Saturn to Jupiter involving a change in all conditions on Earth and taking centuries (our time) may perhaps have had to find its message thus: That Jupiter fought Saturn (or Zeus, Chronos) [and] … defeated him, and thereafter Jupiter was God to Earth. But here is a thought … not for the first time—of course, not, there is no thought for the first time—why God? The … most kingly and, so they say, most benign of planets whose rays envelop Earth in justice … and [touch] … humanity, that grey mould struggling for survival in its struggling green scum…. And on Mount Olympus bearded Jove, or Jupiter, lorded it over the subsidiary Gods—not without a certain magnificent tetchiness. But why Father?… Who is our Father?… None other than the sun, whose name is the deep chord underlying all others, Father, Sun, Amen … as the Christians still pray. Why not Father sun, as Lord on Olympus …?… Of course, man cannot look directly at his Sun. Gods go in disguise, even now, as then they were, or might be, Pillars of fire—Forcefields, Wavelengths, Presences. It is possible that the Sun, like other monarchs, needs deputies, and who more suitable than Jupiter…. After all, Sun is … on an equal basis with the other stars, chiming in key with them, and having its chief business with them—for this is nothing if not a hierarchical universe, like it or not, fellow democrats.
This passage "explains" the pantheon, thus setting the stage for the conferences that follow, but it also evokes Lessing's ongoing debates on language and reality. Several strategies are evident: merging of sensory imagery (music and color); frequent use of the subjunctive; skeptical asides; juxtaposition of mythical and scientific diction; and punctuation of lofty subject matter with lowly diction. These dialogic strategies embody the narrator's suggestion that the definition of literature is inseparable from the riddle that there is a reality "beyond" language that nonetheless must be conveyed "through" language ("I gotta use words"). Indeed, the narrator's protracted unfolding of how "Sun" has been represented by lesser deities is probably intended as a little allegory, or another version, of this riddle. This passage and the entire conference-of-the-gods section demonstrate that the authoritative storyteller can offset the tendency of language to deprive reality of its complexity by bringing into play the dialogic and myth-making potentials of language. The narrator's techniques—especially the subjunctive ("it is possible," "may perhaps") and the skeptical asides ("so they say")—make readers a partner in the process of reconstructing myths. Our participation in this ambivalent stance toward language affects our response to the two versions of the gods' conference and "descent." We recognize that both are parodic, but because they are set in the context of the search for ways to communicate ineffable reality, we take a double attitude toward them: they are ridiculous; they are true.
The first version of the gods' conference contains several elements that imply a deliberate awkwardness: (1) the didactic message is spelled out in a dialogue (between Mercury and Minerva); (2) the allegorical characters are "fleshed out" with descriptions that are stilted translations of homeric epithets (e.g., Minerva admits to Mercury, "Only an idiot gets into an argument with the Master of Words"); (3) with several references to evolution and progress, the tone is vaguely and bombastically "Victorian." This version emphasizes how Minerva (like her Greek counterpart Athena in The Odyssey) wants to help humanity. She scolds Mercury that it is time to descend to Earth again. They banter, alluding to such myths of origin as the theft of fire and the eating of forbidden fruit. Mercury, god of thieves, curiosity, communication and progress, accuses Minerva, pegged as austere Justice, of wanting to trade roles with him. Mercury then descends, "and the Battalions of Progress are strengthened for the fight." The narrator breaks in, dismissing this "whimsical" version for one in the "contemporary mode," which
is much to be preferred, thus: that Earth is due to receive a pattern of impulses from the planet nearest the Sun…. As a result, the Permanent Staff on Earth are reinforced and
was convened on Venus, and had delegates from as far away as Pluto and Neptune…. The Sun Himself was represented…. Minna Erve was in the Chair.
This excerpt again suggests that the narrator is trying to be awkward, the "modern" names Minna Erve and Merk only the most obvious instances. The parodied sources are more apparent here: science fiction, crudely construed, with some James Bond elements. Exposition comes awkwardly through a film: the Descent Team is shown one called Forecast, which details Earth's catastrophic condition. As in the first version, there are attempts to make comedy from the traditional traits of the gods. The humor is strained, the message of Earth's danger and need by now familiar: why then this second version of the gods' council?
In some ways this "contemporary" account of the gods' interest in human affairs, which comes halfway through the novel, is the heart of Briefing for a Descent into Hell. It offers a heroic explanation and cure to Charles's insanity: he is a member of a Descent Team, and his amnesia and visions represent his effort to shed his Charles Watkins identity and remember his "true" purpose as messenger of the gods. Merk's descriptions of what the Descent Team will suffer in the "Poisonous Hell" of Earth echo Charles's condition: amnesia, feelings of loss and disorientation, experiencing "waking up" as illness. Moreover, Merk's references to "the Briefing" of the Descent Team echoes the title of the novel (as do references to hell and descent in this section) and may seem to offer a "key" to Briefing for a Descent into Hell as an intelligible, aesthetic, and thematic whole: "Which brings me to the final point…. There is to be no Briefing…. You'd be bound to forget every word…. No, you will carry Sealed Orders…. brainprints." However, Merk's insistence that "There is to be no Briefing" contradicts Lessing's title in a parodic gesture that reminds us of the ubiquitousness of versions and of an intrusive narrator who wants us to participate in the making and unmaking of stories and myths, all the while keeping in mind the inadequacy of language to convey reality.
Lessing here offers what might be termed a "quixotic" parody of language, Marthe Robert has used the term "quixotic" to describe an attitude toward literary conventions or social ideals that replaces the "categorical either/or of satire with a distressing and carried to the limits of the absurd"—hence the quixotic writer inscribes genres or ideals with "piety and irony, respect and humor, admiration and criticism, compassion and rigor" [The Old and The New: From "Don Quixote" to Kafka, translated by Carol Cosman, 1977]. These quixotic "ands" apply equally well to "The Sun Between their Feet" and to the inner Golden Notebook, to Nature's Storyteller's amused reverence for the dung beetles and to Anna's and Saul's serious joking about their faith in utopic possibility. The narrator of the conference-of-the gods section is more radically quixotic, however. This section is the "heart" of Briefing for a Descent into Hell not just because it may reveal the "true" biography of Charles but also because it represents most dramatically the novel's quixotic "both/and" approach toward language and narrative in general. Language and narrative are used parodically and seriously—hence the awkward versions of the gods' conference (parodies of parodies) that draw attention to their status as "pastiche" even while they reiterate the serious theme of interdependence and the human failure to perceive it. Just as the novel as a whole ends with Charles recovering his conventional, limited memory, the conference-of-the-gods section ends by fading into an obstetrics ward where a crying newborn is being told to sleep, "like a good baby." The "I" here, who experiences itself as a baby "knock[ed] over the head with sleepers, soothers, syrups, drugs and medicines," could be Charles, or any one of the Descent Team, or just anyone. Charles's parodic/heroic alternative biography thus ends with a reminder of the Sisyphean "againness" of failure in any quest.
The maternal reporter of "The Sun Between their Feet" affirms her revision of the Sisyphean myth without acknowledging that her utterance has any other "etiology" than her detached yet empathic participation in the grand materiality of the beetles, laboring up and tumbling down their mountain under the African sun. The printed word is not to be trusted, but neither does it represent much of a threat to the truth. Simply by quoting "the Book" parodically, in the context of the dung beetles' real activity, Nature's Storyteller reveals it as pathetically removed from their "stupid" yet "shining" participation in creation, energy, life ("Sun"). The Anna Wulf who reads her texts with an eye for their envelopment in the "wrong tone" cannot assume authority so easily nor affirm her similar values so emphatically: she does not trust hers or anyone's discourse, and she cannot use iconoclastic parody without thinking of how it is tainted with the Book that it mocks. And yet, caught in the absurd dilemma of laboring to extricate her discourse from a poisonous dialogism so that she can convey the utopic potential of intersubjectivity, Anna makes her Sisyphean progress only via the dialogic, quixotic medium of parody. Parody allows her to inscribe for herself the empathic detachment that comes "naturally" to Nature's Storyteller; it allows the "golden intertextuality" of hers and Saul's notebook, an artifact that suggests that the Book can be made anew.
There is nothing new under "bearded Jove, or Jupiter … [or] Father sun" for the narrator of the conference-of-the-gods section of Briefing for a Descent into Hell, no escape from the Book for this version-making storyteller who speaks as an anonymous, androgynous "we," and whose originality/authority resides in a tolerant but persistent thematizing of the inadequacy of language and the slipperiness of myth (Briefing). "There was a general brightening and steadying of their individual atmosphere, forcefields or auras." This multiple-choice description of how his majesty "Sun" affects Merk and others exemplifies the quixotic use of language as parody and reporting. The mix of "science" and "mysticism" in such passages has a mixed effect on the credibility of the narrator's "contemporary" rendering of the conference; if it is like a B movie, it also exemplifies how storytelling can undermine exclusionary world views. Thus we can trust this narrator not because s/he is superior to the printed word, nor because s/he feels guilty for contributing to the distortions of reality in the Book, but because s/he is always reminding us that if "parody" is the only way to use language, then the parodist is the only truthteller. And if there is "no thought," or story, "for the first time" (Briefing), there is also no end to the author-parodist's creative dung-hauling/boulder-pushing of old stories that still need to be told.
This section contains 9,204 words
(approx. 31 pages at 300 words per page)