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Doris Lessing:  Mysticism and Sexual Politics

Since the Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing’s work has concerned itself with a potent mixture of politics, sexuality and religion in an attempt, not only to describe the moral and intellectual climate of our time (to adapt one of her own phrases), but to suggest what we have to do about it. She is a historical novelist, then, and a moralist, but that makes her sound excessively Victorian.  Neither the morality or the technique suggests that, even if the largeness of ambition or the seriousness does.  (Not to mention the image of the sage projected by her publisher’s more recent photograph.)

For a while, Doris Lessing was a member of the Communist Party, which she left in 1956, along with many of her generation of Left intellectuals, including Edward Thompson and Margot Heinemann.  She was on the committee organising the first Aldermaston March in 1958.  In the early 1960s she expressed her dissatisfaction with radical politics and their trendier adherents, and began investigating Sufism.  This, combined with the psychology of Jung and R.D. Laing, overlays, rather than simply replaces, political analysis in her novels of the 1960s and ‘70s.  Her Preface to The Sirian Experiments (1981) states:  ‘Once upon a time, when I was young, I believed things easily, both religious and political;  now I believe less and less.  But I wonder about more...’.[1]  That describes one trajectory of Doris Lessing’s ideas.

Her treatment of sexuality has not actually changed that much from the early African stories.  What has changed is the context in which she has been read.  In the 1971 preface to the reprint of The Golden Notebook she claimed, ‘This book was written as if the attitudes that have been created by the Women’s Liberation movements already existed’.[2]  Ten years later, in an essay collection written entirely by women, Elizabeth Wilson suggested that in many ways what Doris Lessing writes is the antithesis of what Women’s Liberation is about, mainly because she rejects the political arena and takes her heroines out of it, but also because she is so resolutely heterosexual, and so sexuality, in her novels, can only be a response to a man.[3]  I think this demonstrates how much recent feminist thinking on sexuality has taken the homoerotic route, one that has never much appealed to Doris Lessing; and perhaps also reinforces Lessing’s own assertion, also in that preface, that categories are misleading - though her suspicion of theorising, dogmatising and labelling is that of a novelist whose characters are always attempting precisely that.

From what I have described, there are four potential ‘master-codes’ for describing and accounting for experience in Lessing’s fiction:  Marxism, Sufism, psychology and feminism.  One question I want to ask is whether we can apply Occam’s razor to this list;  or whether there is another code which we can import to fit them together.  But this would be an idle exercise for a novelist without also considering the questions of realism and representation in her work.  It is not as if there is ideology on the one hand, and technique on the other;  they are both ways of seeing things, and seeing through things.  And it is one of the virtues of Lessing’s work that she sees questions of representation, of how appropriate a traditional, nineteenth century kind of ‘realism’ is, for example, as part of an effort to understand which is comparable to that of the psychology or the political activist.  She has never been much of a stylist, if by ‘style’ one means the elegant shaping of a sentence;  her styles are patently strategies for dealing with the matters in hand.  It may be that she has deliberately cultivated a rough simplicity of style to guard against the characteristic Modernist and Symbolist strategy of defying the world by retreating into a world of art;  though of course in writing The Golden Notebook as a ‘metafiction’, a book about writing a novel, and in fragmenting the narrative line with multiple points of view, she is very close to some of the Modernist experiments with narrative.[4]

Narrative is also crucial to our understanding of sexuality - I mean here identity perceived sexually.  I find Stephen Heath’s argument, in The Sexual Fix, particularly useful here.  In this passage he is commenting on a Victorian memoir, Walter’s My Secret Life:

    Walter runs through women, encounter after encounter, in order to know, to try to be sure, to grasp an elusive certainty and resolve the question of his identity as a man;  the sexual is the problematic foundation of human being, the site and the trouble of existence as an individual. We have entered the age of sexuality.[5]

This is the starting point for our modern sense of sexuality, surely;  the reason for anxiety about it is not so much that we are anxious about reproducing ourselves (though all those early twentieth century texts about sterility and lost sons might lead us to think so) but that if we haven’t got a grasp on our sexuality we have an identity crisis;  or, even more sweepingly, if we have an identity crisis, it must be due to a crisis in our sexuality.  This is what has come to dominate our fictions, our way of understanding ourselves. The novel which ends in marriage - the characteristic romance ending from the eighteenth century on - validates the individuals concerned in both public and private identities.  The concern with purely private sexuality makes identity a disturbingly privatised matter.  Women in Love may be a pivotal text here;  not just the field of interest hinted at by the title, but also the fact that it begins with a country house wedding, and one which marks the decline of that institution, and moves quickly to examine the uprooted ‘free women’, Ursula and Gudrun, who stand in contrast to all that is represented by country house values old and new.  Anna and Molly in The Golden Notebook are their successors.

Here is Stephen Heath again, exploring how sexuality as self-knowledge finds its way into contemporary fiction:

    I may do this and that in society but I am only really me in bed, confronting my own sexuality, stripped down to purity of self and experience.  John Updike expresses it perfectly in his Marry Me: ‘Jerry and Sally made love lucidly, like Adam and Eve when the human world was of two halves purely’;  Adam and Eve, two halves purely, matched in flawless complementarity, ‘the original man and woman’.  That is where we should be, where we should find ourselves;  the novels, their stories, tell of the problems of the achievement of such truth....[6]

But hang on;  isn’t that where Christians (sexologists or not) should be?  Doesn’t Updike, with his Presbyterian connections and all, remind us that Adam and Eve’s story should write us more authoritatively than any novelist?  Sexuality means choosing our story carefully.  The trouble with the modern story of sexuality, and particularly the last twenty years, is the climax.  Or, to use a less narrative word, the orgasm.

    She understood suddenly that she would never come with this man.  She thought: for women like me, integrity isn’t chastity, it isn’t fidelity, it isn’t any of the old words.  Integrity is the orgasm.  That is something I haven’t any control over.[7]

Thus Ella in the Yellow Notebook section of The Golden Notebook.  That, of course, is a novel Anna is writing, about love - though once she says it’s about suicide.  And a deliberate flattening of character from ‘Free Women’, which is the core narrative of The Golden Notebook, is noticeable;  so there are several steps between the discussions of the Yellow Notebook and ‘Doris Lessing’s theory of the orgasm’, should that exist.  But it’s the place to start.  Not least because Anna also considers sex as a problem of writing in it: ‘Sex.  The difficulty of writing about sex, for women, is that sex is best when not thought about, not analysed.’[8]  This is contrasted to the analytic, mechanical approach of men, not just in the creations of the Yellow Notebook, but even in Saul, lover and doppelganger of the Golden Notebook section, where everything cracks up, but also, at least provisionally, comes together again.  Anna, having objected to the passive in the phrase ‘getting laid’, attacks Saul further:

    I said: ‘The other day you were talking about how you fought, with your American friends, about the way language degraded sex - you described yourself as the original puritan, Saul Galahad to the defence, but you talk about getting laid, you never say a woman, you say a broad, a lay, a baby, a doll, a bird, you talk about butts and boobs, every time you mention a woman I see her either as a sort of window-dresser’s dummy or as a heap of dismembered parts, breasts, or legs and buttocks...’

    After a while he said, very dry:  ‘It’s the first time in my life I’ve been accused of being anti-feminist.  It’d interest you to know that I’m the only American male I know who doesn’t accuse American women of all the sexual sins in the calendar, do you imagine I don’t know that I don’t know that men blame women for their inadequacies?’

    Well, and of course that softened me, stopped my anger.[9]

‘Of course’?  Anna is, of course, ‘hopelessly in love with this man’, and they are both close to cracking up.  In fact, the accusation remains, against the language of sexual performance, because it involves a breaking up of the body just as much as the emotions.

It’s a powerful criticism, but it points to a real dilemma in Doris Lessing’s position.  There are times when there is a Manichean division between the sexes, with the man being mechanical, aggressive, faithless, obsessed with performance and the woman more honest, emotional and integrated in her love. But there is also a sense that the woman needs to be completed by the man;  even if the fulfilment of that need is destructive as often as healing.

How far is this a metaphysical perception, and how far is it seen as a historical dilemma, particular to the 1950s on which most of The Golden Notebook concentrates?  In the first ‘Free Women’ section Molly and Anna argue about the value of ‘little novels about the emotions’ in the context of Communist Party criticism of them (it is 1957), and Anna asserts, ‘If marxism means anything, it means that a little novel about the emotions should reflect “what’s real” since the emotions are a function and a product of society.’[10]  Later she confesses to Michael that ‘somewhere in the back of my mind when I joined the Party was a need for wholeness, for an end to the split, divided, unsatisfactory way we all live.  Yet joining the Party intensified the split.’[11]  Part of the wholeness that Anna is searching for is wholeness of understanding, a wholeness which is contradicted by the ironies and complicities that are necessary in following the Party line.  Marx said that the point was not to understand, but to change things;  the extension of this in Communist Party practice has been to define truth (the party line) as what is most useful to the process of change.  The problem for Marxists outside Communist countries has tended to be that the attractions of Marxism, either intellectual (the promise of understanding what’s going on) or moral (the promise of a change to something better for the oppressed), aren’t always reflected in the Party line.  That was the dilemma of the Western Communist parties, particularly after Hungary, and it is that which Doris Lessing charts in the early pages of The Golden Notebook.  What we have learned to call sexual politics is a clue;  but it doesn’t necessarily trump all the other explanations.  Anna and her friends echo the claim of our contemporary world that sex is the last private act, the place where we can still be honestly, authentically ourselves.  But even there, words like ‘technique’ betray the industrialization of sex;  and roles with even more complicated histories are acted out, even in the bastion of privacy, the bed. It can be a place of dissolution just as surely as integration;  and that’s even before we start investigating the consequences of becoming ‘one flesh’ with more than one person.

Anna’s next recourse in her attempt to stop falling apart is psychotherapy.  Now, psychoanalysis and Marxism have often gone hand in hand, but it’s usually been Freudian analysis.  For all the inadequacies of ‘Mother Sugar’ and her dream analyses, the choice of a Jungian rather than a Freudian psychology is a crucial move for Doris Lessing, towards the metaphysical.  Let’s try a few crude contrasts:  Freud was an atheist, Jung a pantheist;  Freud’s method is deconstructive, Jung’s structuralist;  Freud exposes myths, Jung collects and promulgates them. It’s not that Lessing altogether abandons Freud - she uses his model of child development, metaphorically, in the Canopus in Argos sequence.  But going for Jung first means going for a more ineffable sense of unity, and a sense of normality which is not so much defined by the society she lives in, but something more, perhaps the collective unconscious, perhaps the ‘oceanic experience’, where you feel at one with everything.

In the period between The Golden Notebook and Shikasta, the first of the new series, Doris Lessing marries some of the approaches of anti-psychiatry and Sufism.  By ‘anti-psychiatry’ I’m thinking particularly of the work of R.D. Laing, whose analysis of a schizophrenic episode as a transformational experience, potentially deeper and truer than ‘normality’, is one way of seeing the experience of Charles in Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971).  Her debt to Sufism is more complex, but we might stress two aspects.  One is to the teaching story, particularly those associated with the Mulla Nasruddin, where a story, or a joke, is used as a lever to open the perceptions.  They are simple stories with (potentially) many layers of significance;  it is less fashionable to think of the Gospel parables in this way now, but there are some obvious parallels.  To give an example:  a story which appears in The Four-Gated City (1969) tells of Nasruddin seeing a hawk for the first time, when his previous experience of birds had been confined to sparrows.  ‘You poor bird’, he said, and trimmed its beak, talons and feathers.  ‘That’s better;  now you look more like a bird.’  The simple, rough surface of writing is even more accentuated now in Lessing’s work as a result of her attempt to make her novels more like teaching stories.  But that story also points to her other interest in Sufism, that of hidden human potential.  Idries Shah, her teacher, writes:

    The Sufis claim that a certain kind of mental and other activity can produce, under special conditions and with particular efforts, what is termed a higher working of the mind, leading to special perceptions whose apparatus is latent in the ordinary man.  Sufism is therefore the transcending of ordinary limitations.[12]

Sufism is often described as the mystical wing of Islam, but this connection is not stressed in Shah’s work;  and in any case, mystics of many religions have much in common, even those, like Buddhists, who don’t seem to be theist. Ann Scott, in a perceptive essay on the subject, notes Doris Lessing’s reluctance to talk of God or Allah;  and sees three strands in her religion - Christian narrative and imagery (cf Martha Quest and the mystic’s interpretation of the Martha and Mary episode in Luke), Sufi narrative and ideas, and ‘an agnostic or non-theistic mysticism’.[13]  Ann Scott’s conclusion, that Doris Lessing’s interest is in transcending ordinary limitations, not least those of language, in order to see and see through reality, is persuasive;  and she also makes clear why Sufism is a good place to start for religious syncretism, a position which Lessing seems to advocate in the preface to Shikasta. But that preface also hints at the extent to which the sequence hints at a more theist universe.  Take this, for example:

    Shikasta hasas its starting point, like many others of the genre, the Old Testament.  It is our habit to dismiss the Old Testament altogether because Jehovah does not think or behave like a social worker.  H.G. Wells said that when man cries out his little ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’ to God, it is as if a leveret were to snuggle up to a lion on a dark night.[14]

The agents of Canopus and the combination of supervised evolution and cosmic providence all point to the role of God in this imagined cosmology as being very like Teilhard de Chardin’s, an ultimately benevolent force of change at every level who, however inscrutable in his purposes, none the less has a human face.  (This is not to judge, either way, as to whether Doris Lessing believes in God these days.)  It is important to notice that Doris Lessing’s ‘mythic method’, unlike those of the Modernists, seems to regard change as desirable, even if fearful to those undergoing it.

Within this sequence, The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980) appears as a fable of sexuality.  At the heart of it is the contrast between the female Zone Three, represented by Al.Ith, and the masculine Zone Four, represented by Ben Ata.  We could draw up a table of the contrasts - Zone Three is vegetarian, Zone Four meat-eating, and so on. But their love-making is essential for ‘fusing the imaginations of two realms’.[15]  Al.Ith is clearly the emotional teacher - though she has certain perceptions of the animal world, for example, which even the experienced horseman/warrior has to bow to.  But the book is not simply a demonstration of the superiority of female perception;  it is only when the two lovers are in harmony that the drum - a sort of music of the spheres - is heard.  Later, Ben Ata has to take his perceptions to Queen Vahshi of Zone Five, and release her zone from its warlike, plundering role.  The end point is not, then, the faithful love between Ben Ata and Al.Ith but the opening of frontiers.

    There was a lightness, a freshness, and an enquiry and a remaking and an inspiration where there had been only stagnation.  And closed frontiers.[16]

Perhaps, then, the gender archetypes are only a starting point.  Certainly she is always emphasizing how this story is retold in the subsequent history of the zones;  it is a story of origins, not just of how things ought to be for the inhabitants of the Zones.  The description by Marsha Rowe illuminates this further:

    Since the character predicates by which Al.Ith and Ben Ata define themselves differ according to their two zones, she is also breaking the false solidity between the self and the social.  She is questioning whether the sense of the self as unique is illusory...at another level, the sum of the zones represents the self.[17]

So then, does The Marriages represent a solution to the dilemmas of Lessing’s earlier work, a mystical way out of the public/private divide which avoids the usual isolationist and ahistorical tendencies of such a move?  It is true that her ‘total solution’ has a mythopoeic neatness - each of the zones, two to five, represent one of the four elements;  Marsha Rowe identifies Al.Ith’s palace as a mandala (also a favourite image of Jung’s), and so on.  I’m not sure that she has got very much further with her notions of feminity and masculinity, issues which are now at the forefront of discussions of sexuality. But the biggest question for me at the end of The Marriages was, why the separation between Al.Ith and Ben Ata? A healthy suspicion of rosy sunset endings?  A suspicion of the institution of marriage as the ultimate validation of sexual identity?  We remember that, for St. Paul, marriage was also an image for the union between God and the church.  It may be that, for Doris Lessing, hesitation about one feeds hesitation about the other.  As she says, finely and poignantly, at the end of The Making of the Representative for Planet 8

    It seems to me that we do not know nearly enough about ourselves;  that we do not often enough wonder if our lives, or some events and times in our lives, may not be analogues or metaphors or echoes of evolvements and happenings going on in other people? - or animals? - even forests or oceans or rocks? - in this world of ours or, even, in worlds or dimensions elsewhere.[18]

How one gets from there to Colossians 1:17 - all things hang together in Christ - is beyond my scope.  What she has made clearer to me is that sexual expression may be part of that movement.  The biblical word ‘knowing’ is not a euphemism; as Ben Ata learns, painfully, it is to do with understanding.  How to stretch that understanding beyond the limits of a simply sexual identity is properly the task of a prophet to a privatised world.  The curious dialogue between relentless, painful honesty and a habit of analogy which, it must be admitted, sometimes strains credulity, is Doris Lessing’s signal contribution to that task.  As her recent fictions demonstrate, we have to take our bodies with us when we attempt to transcend our current limitations, and many of our society’s ingrained attitudes, too.  Harmony is not just sexual harmony; but it includes it.

Roger Pooley
April 1985


[1]       Doris Lessing, The Sirian Experiments (St. Albans:  Granada, 1982), p.9.

[2]              Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (St. Albans:  Panther, 1973), p.9 (abbreviated below as GN).

[3]       Elizabeth Wilson, ‘Yesterday’s Heroines:  on reading Lessing and de Beauvoir’, in Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives: Reading and Rereading Doris Lessing, ed. Jenny Taylor (Boston & London:  RKP, 1982), pp.57-74.

[4]       The ‘metafiction’ idea comes from Roberta Rudenstein, The Novelistic Vision of Doris Lessing (Urbana:  U. of Illinois Press, 1979), ch.4.

[5]       Stephen Heath, The Sexual Fix (London:  Macmillan, 1982), p.16.

[6]       Ibid., pp.101-2.

[7]       GN, p.322.

[8]       GN, p.219.

[9]       GN, pp.541-2.

[10]      GN, p.61.

[11]      GN, p.171.

[12]      Idries Sha, The Way of the Sufi (Harmondsworth:  Penguin, 1974), pp.14-15.

[13]      Ann Scott, ‘Sufism, mysticism and politics, in Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives, p.183.

[14]      Doris Lessing, Shikasta (London:  Cape, 1979), p.x.

[15]      Doris Lessing, The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (St. Albans: Granada, 1981), p.49.

[16]      Ibid., p.299.

[17]      Marsha Rowe, ‘If you mate a swan and a gander, who will ride?’ in Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives, p.199.

[18]      Doris Lessing, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (London: Cape, 1982), pp.144-5.

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