Science Fiction Studies

#56 = Volume 19, Part 1 = March 1992

Phyllis Sternberg Perrakis

Touring Lessing's Fictional World

Jeanette King. Doris Lessing. NY: Edward Arnold (Routledge, Chapman & Hall), 1990. x+117. $9.95 paper.
Jean Pickering. Understanding Doris Lessing. Columbia: South Carolina UP, 1990. ix+225. $24.95 cloth, $12.95 paper.

Two recent introductory studies of Doris Lessing's fiction attempt to present the full range of her novels to date. Both Jeanette King and Jean Pickering aim at making coherent for the student and general reader the widely divergent techniques and themes that Lessing has used in her 40-year writing career. SF fans will be interested in the way King and Pickering integrate Lessing's earlier novels with CANOPUS IN ARGOS, the five-volume SF series. Both studies suggest that the defamiliarization so prominent in the Canopus series had its birth in the realistic novels of the early volumes of the CHILDREN OF VIOLENCE series in the 1950s.

King's survey is the more limited one, concentrating on those novels which "mark significant stages" in Lessing's career and emphasizing "the variety of formal experiments" that Lessing has attempted (ix). King's study also has the advantages and disadvantages of relying on a particular theoretical approach which incorporates Lacanian psychoanalytic theory with a feminist-political approach that situates Lessing's perspective on the margins of Western European culture, because of both her gender and her colonial upbringing. This approach works particularly well for those works centered on a split heroine whose psychic division also functions as a symbol for political and social psychosis. Here King's psychoanalytic treatment of the relationship between the repressed self and the conforming self provides her with useful tools for dissecting the internal divisions of characters like Mary Turner in The Grass is Singing (1950), Martha Quest in the novel of the same name (1952), and Alice Mellings in The Good Terrorist (1985).

A good example of the usefulness of King's theoretical approach is her discussion of the relationship between language and identity in Martha Quest, the first volume of CHILDREN OF VIOLENCE. After noting that Martha, like Mary Turner before her, is self-divided, King locates this fissure in the relationship between Martha's split-off visionary dreams of wholeness and union with the universe and her everyday behavior. Assuming that her visionary feelings represent Martha's repressed self, King then questions whether her rebellious attitudes toward the conventions of her society can be called a conformist self. She describes how on one level Martha rejects the traditions and values of British culture embedded in 19th-century British literature on which she--as well as the rest of the British colonists--has been raised. Seeing a group of black prisoners walk by, she realizes how inadequate and ineffectual the "indignation" found in novels has been to alter or prevent these atrocities. But on another level Martha's belief in herself as a rebel, able to reject the unjust attitudes of her society and to shape her own destiny, is also the product of these same 19th-century novels in their stress on the autonomy of the individual. Similarly, Martha's other "ideal image" of herself--that of the romantic heroine or, in its social manifestation, the "heroine in the trenches"--also comes out of the same 19th-century tradition. King argues that Martha is subjected not only to her fate, but to "the language she uses and thus...the values and beliefs inscribed in it." Hence both Martha's image of herself as rebel and her romantic daydreams are false self-images. Furthermore, because part of her longs for acceptance, her rebelliousness is "often displaced onto more socially accepted goals, in particular the traditionally sanctioned goal of women, romantic love." Hence Martha "desires to be 'claimed' and 'possessed' by a man, even while--intellectually--rejecting such attitudes, and feeling totally alienated from her lovers" (17). King concludes that "by refusing to acknowledge the operation of ideology, Martha's intended rebellion is thus negated," and she finds herself "involved in repeated acts of self-betrayal" (19).

King is less successful in analyzing later novels where Lessing suggests ways of healing the psychic split of her protagonist. This is not surprising since Lessing deliberately searches in these works for new structures which will circumvent her readers' usual assumptions about the basis of their identity. Thus when King begins to discuss The Four-Gated City (1969), the last volume of CHILDREN OF VIOLENCE, she is uncomfortable with the ending, wherein Martha's earlier, split-off visionary experiences come into their own. This ending, King notes, seems to "advocate the Sufi view that we must change the inner consciousness before society, shifting away from the Marxist view that social and economic change must come first" (34). She questions both this "turning away from political commitment to the inner life," noting that some readers may find it "a form of reactionary romanticism" and "the process undergone by Martha--her 'setting free into impersonality'" (34). To King it seems to indicate Lessing's "surrender of her belief in individuality, in a subjectivity privileged by its uniqueness, whereas we expect the resolutions of a Bildungsroman to provide the central character with a highly developed sense of self" (34-35). This is a somewhat ironic objection since King has earlier questioned the sense of self which is the product of the world of the Bildungsroman.

King's uneasiness with Lessing's move into unfamiliar psychic territory is even more obvious in her interpretation of the Canopus series. She is troubled by how traditional these most experimental of Lessing's fictions are. Lessing's concern with drawing on the "'sacred literatures of all races and nations' explain creation, evolution and humanity's place in the universe" implies for King "a concern with constants of human behaviour and thought, whereas science fiction is more often concerned with the particular features of contemporary society" (70). This is surely an unnecessarily limited view of both SF and Lessing's Canopus series. But King's biggest problem with her reading of the Canopus series, especially Shikasta (1979), is that she identifies Canopean attitudes too closely with those of the author and fails to see that the shapes of these books often indicate that Canopus itself is changing and evolving.

King begins her discussion of Shikasta by offering an excellent, up to a point, account of its complex structure. Describing the "anti-novel" nature of its construction as a "set of archives purporting to be instructional rather than entertaining," she shows how the first half of the book focuses on "the behaviours of social groups, races, or species" (73) rather than individuals. When we are given individual characters in the second half of the book, the emphasis is on the "limitations of this perspective." Finally King notes that "the narrative method of the novel suggests, therefore, how not to read the text--not to focus on personal, subjective motivation and individualistic psychology" (74). But King is much less effective in her analysis of Lessing's positive objectives which she identifies as a wholesale attack on Western individuality and any kind of ideological commitment.

Structurally King's analysis falls short as she misses the larger purpose for which the Canopean archivists assembled the collection of documents that comprise the novel: to offer a revisionist account of Canopus's attitude toward Shikasta. The crucial factor that King overlooks is how the attitude of the main Canopean narrator, Johor, changes toward Shikasta over the course of his three visits to the colony (cf. my "The Marriage of Inner and Outer Space in Doris Lessing's Shikasta," SFS 17:231-38, #51, July 1990). In particular, Johor adds new narrative materials during his last visit to give his readers a better feel for the "atmosphere" of Shikasta. Not seeing that Shikasta's ultimate shape engages readers in a gradual experience of redefining their assumptions, first about Shikasta and then about the infallibility of Johor, King overemphasizes the didactic tone of the book and hence, understandably, fears that the "unity offered as an alternative to individualism, may seem instead to be a new totalitarianism" (80). But to give King her due, at the end of her discussion she questions her own reading: "Is the reader, then, expected to be as alert to Canopus's ideological assumptions as to those of Shikasta? Is the final irony of the novel that the reader has to deconstruct Canopus itself?" (81).

Looking at the series as a whole, King sees a tension between its metaphorical forms, which suggest universal, eternal significance and the "urgency" of its themes. But King's reading of the timelessness of metaphoric or fabular stories as reactionary and authoritarian is, again, too limited. The defamiliarized structures and fables that Lessing has created offer the reader a much more dynamic reading experience than King assumes. In piecing together their puzzling narratives, readers, ideally, gradually discover that their shape is itself a metaphor for Lessing's vision of how people change and for the interconnectedness of all aspects of the cosmos. In general, King's analyses give penetrating insights into some of the ills Lessing attacks, but are more obscure about the larger remedies her works subtly embody.

Turning to Pickering's study, we find that her strengths are in exactly those areas where King is weak. To begin with, Pickering's is a much more comprehensive study, covering all of Lessing's novels and some short stories and non-fiction as well. She also draws much more fully on earlier Lessing criticism. In general her ability to show interesting links between ostensibly very different kinds of novels in this large oeuvre makes her study far more helpful than King's as an introduction to Lessing.

Beginning with an excellent overview, Pickering constantly suggests some of the various permutations in presentation and significance of favorite Lessing relationships and images. Her discussion of the evolution of the image of the city on the veld is a good example of this. Furthermore, Pickering is especially strong in following from one novel to the next the process whereby Martha Quest slowly achieves integration in the CHILDREN OF VIOLENCE series. She is equally good in following Lessing's later thematic and technical evolution. Being less tied to a particular theoretical approach than King and more receptive to what is new in Lessing's vision, Pickering is better able to follow Lessing's movement first into characters' psyches and then out into space.

Speaking of Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), the first of the three "inner space" novels written between the two major series, Pickering notes that here "the element of transcendence present in Martha Quest's visionary experiences on the veld has reappeared in a new formulation" (130). While the structure of Briefing "resembles that of The Golden Notebook" (1962), "Charles's madness is both less personal and less connected with the outer world that Anna's; it is more archetypal, less historical"(125, 126). Furthermore, she notes how "the shape of Briefing," with its "multiple narratives," "parallels its meaning" (127, 128). "The elaborate interconnections between disparate narratives...point to the hidden harmony which humanity has lost sight of in the false selves determined by the collective" (129). Finally she suggests how Briefing is a bridge between Lessing's inner- and outer-space novels. While the aims of the Cosmic Whole in Briefing only come to us through the apparently mad wanderings of the mind of Charles Watkins, they will be presented "undisguised" "without the mediation of the psychiatric hospital" in the Canopus series.

In writing on the Canopus series, Pickering nicely complements King's more structural approach by concentrating on the concepts of "nature, civilization, history, and necessity" (142). She notes that "in Canopus necessity [which] appears to be a function of Cosmic Harmony...[is] a view extended into space, of the city on the veld, which holds both nature and civilization in a dynamic whole" (142-43). While Pickering, like King, notes some deterministic features of Shikasta, she also points out that "there is some suggestion that individuals bear responsibility--if not for their state, at least for transcending it" (146). Hence she notes that "individuals may escape from Shikasta by their own efforts....This route seems to be a kind of Jungian individuation or an exercise in Sufi mysticism, much like the 'work' Martha Quest does under Lynda Coleridge's tutelage in The Four-Gated City" (146).

However, Pickering, like King, fails to see the structure of Shikasta clearly. It is not until her discussion of The Making of the Representative of Planet 8 (1982) that she speaks of the limits of Canopean power, and it is not until the last volume that she questions whether Canopean rhetoric can be totally trusted. Furthermore, she misreads the time sequence in the last half of the novel, claiming that the Canopean Johor is incarnated into Shikastan reality following "a nuclear catastrophe [which] wipes out civilization, leaving only one percent of the population alive on a polluted planet" (144). In fact, Johor comes into Shikasta as George Sherban before the nuclear catastrope she speaks of and plays a crucial role in limiting the effects of that catastrophe by helping to save various sensitive individuals for the world that remains.

In her discussion of the Canopus series, as in the book as a whole, Pickering's strength lies in her ability to make connections between the different novels. For example, she compares The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980) with Making, noting that not only do the two novels share a fabular form but that also in both cases a protagonist or group-protagonist is pushed or chooses to force herself or itself to enter a realm beyond the physical--A1.Ith moves toward Zone 2 and the representatives toward the pole. Later Pickering will compare Making with The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984), this time showing how the theme of aging and dying, which is treated globally and spiritually in Making, is given a more familiar personal and emotional depiction in the Diaries. With the aid of these connections Pickering is able to present Lessing's dizzying changes in narrative technique with a remarkable coherence. On the whole Pickering's study is a reliable and insightful guide through Lessing's varied fictional landscape.

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