Don’t Just Remember Doris Lessing as a Feminist Icon

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Nov. 18 2013 2:13 PM

Lessing Is More

Lessing was right to deny that The Golden Notebook was a feminist masterpiece.

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Like Wright, Lessing was sometimes possessed by a holy rage; The Golden Notebook was only the best-known of a remarkable series of novels, my favorite of them is The Summer Before the Dark (1973), designed to reveal how horrid—and yet how hollow—were the chains that held her readers to their neighborhoods, their jobs, their beliefs , and their marriages (especially their marriages). But she also shares plenty, more than is usually acknowledged, with the madcap, firecracker-tossing Ellison—more than just an allergy to “party-line” solutions to tricky political problems. She reminds me of the sly subversion of Ellison at his best (but he only had one novel!) because I don’t know a writer who’s better at turning seemingly open-and-shut cases on their head, leaving readers suddenly realizing that they must, after all, believe the opposite of what they thought they believed.

In Pursuit of the English (1960), for example, is one of the funniest insider-outsider satires I’ve ever read. Rather than starting her memoir (or is it a mock-memoir?) with a predictable assault on British snobbery—I’m poor, friendless and colonial, while they’re rich old and comfortable—she becomes fixated on the number of people who go to great lengths to explain to her that they are not English: My grandmother was Welsh!; Can’t you see how brown I look in the sun? etc. etc. Nobody in England is really English, she eventually concludes.

It’s a mark of how deadpan her satire is that she really seems to mean it. Lessing may be two-thirds Wright and Ellison, but she is also at least one-third Jonathan Swift. Everything she writes could read as a kind of creepy “Modest Proposal.” If youth gangs show up in the park across from your apartment, that may be because the world is ending (Julie Christie was awesome as the nameless heroine in the movie of that one); if the world were divided up into a peaceful matriarchy and a berserker war-zone, then a marriage between leaders would be the logical solution. Lessing’s antic you-could-not-possibly-make-this-stuff-up weirdness—e.g., a planet on which a jaded overlord manipulates various short-lived societies into carrying out hundreds of variations on the French Revolution on—makes her fiction far more memorable, and durable than it would be if it really were (as devotes and enemies of the Golden Notebook often assert) a straightforward manifesto for political equality between the sexes.

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Last year I wrote an article praising Lessing for “feeling like a Stoic.” Faced with white-hot feelings of her characters, she always remains, always wants her readers to remain, surprisingly cool. She doesn’t hate the emotions, she knows that the world runs on them (that’s what those multiple French Revolutions are for—to see what passions like rage, love, and resentment might actually be good for).

Her much-maligned turn toward both Sufism and “space fiction” (developments that Gore Vidal and Joan Didion were especially cruel about was completely consistent with what made her fiction great from the get-go. Lessing has always had an iron-clad conviction that the best way to make sense of other people’s passions was to dial one’s own feelings back. Feel their pain: sure, yes, but only by first making the stoical decision that one’s own pain shouldn’t get in the way of a rational response to the lunacy that surrounded one.

Even though she writes about characters who rave and plead, who fall in love and set out to kill, who sin and renounce and generally run the gamut of passionate states, you can always feel Lessing herself, standing back and trying to get the details just right. Wilkie Collins and the Victorian “sensation novelists” were praised for affecting readers like “pounded ice dropped down the back of the neck.” Lessing is anti-sensational: She wants her readers as cool as her, looking down on life from a thousand feet up.

The novels I love, like The Fifth Child and The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (Philip Glass made an opera of that one) are experiments. She writes them because she wants to see what will change about a life if one fact changes (say that you have a child who seems to be the incarnation of pure evil, or say that your world will be frozen solid in 10 years). But also, more importantly, an experiment in how readers will react to such a change.

I love that her final novel, Alfred and Emily, (2008) is a thought-experiment in what would have happened to Lessing’s own parents (ill-matched in life, she explains in a preface) had been allowed to make better marriages, and be happy. Part of Lessing’s point is that in such a world Lessing herself would not exist. Imagine not being, she tells her reader, even imagine yourself not being, and then notice how life goes on anyway.

Well, now she doesn’t exist; and yes, she’s right, it still does. But we needed her. Hell, I even needed her to formulate that thought experiment about what it would mean to do without her. If Auden is right that at a writer’s death she “becomes [her] admirers,” then a lot of us have quite a job ahead of us. Becoming even a very little piece of Doris Lessing strikes me as hard work.

John Plotz’s first children’s book, Time and the Tapestry, is due out from Bunker Hill Publishing in April 2014. He recently began work on The Recalcitrants, a book about irritable, unfashionable, prescient and largely forgotten writers unhappily trapped inside “the American century.”

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