The Adventures of Doris Lessing

It is as if some gauze or screen has been dissolved away from life, that was dulling it, and like Miranda you want to say, What a brave new world! You don’t remember feeling like this, because, younger, habit or the press of necessity prevented. You are taken, shaken, by moments when the improbability of our lives comes over you like a fever. Everything is remarkable, people, living, events present themselves to you with the immediacy of players in some barbarous and splendid drama that it seems we are part of. You have been given new eyes.
—Doris Lessing, Time Bites
Doris Lessing, who turned eighty-seven in October, is telling us what “old” feels like. Not a believer in “the golden age of youth,” she “shudders” at the very idea of living through her teens again, even her twenties. Since she left Africa for England more than half a century ago, a single mother and a high school dropout with a wardrobe full of avatars—angry young woman, mother superior, bad-news bear, bodhisattva—she has published an astonishing fifty-five books. Although Time Bites is her first collection of articles, lectures, book reviews, and broadcasts, The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog is her twenty-fifth novel. Nor does the fact that she’s four inches shorter than she used to be make her a shrinking violet. “Old” is as nice as she gets in Time Bites. Her default mode is usually imperious, as if ex cathedrawere the normal respiration of her intelligence.
With a muster more of adjectives than argument, she admires the great in their shallow graves (Jane Austen, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, Bulgakov); promotes some personal favorites (Christina Stead, George Meredith, Muriel Spark); scolds us for neglecting others (Anna Kavan, Jaan Kross, Tarjei Vesaas); gets huffy about our provincial ignorance of a Sanskrit folktale cycle, The Fables of Bidpai; and chats up autobiography (Casanova, Cellini), Stone Age civilizations (Knossos, Catal Hoyuk), cults (Cromwell, the Red Guards, al-Qaeda), and Ecclesiastes (“the thundering magnificence” of the King James version). She has a genuine affection for the composer Philip Glass, who turned two of her “space fictions” into operas, and for the editor William Phillips, even if his name is twice shamefully misspelled. But for every lovely fugitive impression (“the first men probably did not know where their thoughts ended and the consciousness of beasts began”), there is a snide kick at “militant feminists,” and for every gut-wrenching account of the agony of Zimbabwe, a couple of twaddles about the “tyranny” of “Political Correctness.”
What makes Time Bites nonetheless a valuable addition to the Lessing index is its account of her finding her way to Sufi mysticism in the late 1960s. Loyal readers who have followed her out of Africa into celebrity are all too aware that a different Doris finished off the fifth and final volume of her “Children of Violence” series, The Four-Gated City (1969). It was as if Martha Quest, until then Lessing’s alter ego and doppelgänger in the series, had somehow got hold of a copy of The Golden Notebook, been desolated to discover the bankruptcy of every master narrative of Western Civ from Euclidean geometry to class war to the Oedipus complex, and then battered her way headfirst through the library wall into a prehistoric realm of memory, myth, madness, and genetic mutation. Or as if, in the yellow house in the south of France, Gauguin had turned suddenly into Van Gogh.
What happened? Her two volumes of autobiography aren’t much help, escorting her only up to The Golden Notebook in 1962. And instead of a third volume, she published a novel, The Sweetest Dream (2001), ostensibly picking up where the autobiographies left off but fictionalized so as to avoid “possible hurt to vulnerable people”—and possible libel suits. So she got to be cranky about Communists, feminists, journalists, shoplifters, progressive schools, conversion experiences, and grief therapy—but aside from the obligatory reference to yarrow stalks and the I Ching, the raptures of the deep went unmentioned.
For a while, encouraged by one of her biographers, some of us saw The Four-Gated City itself as a conversion experience, from the mystifications of Marx and a market economy to the mystagogies of R.D. Laing and mescaline. Time Bites makes it clear that we were wrong. After quitting the Communist Party and finishing The Golden Notebook, she needed to reupholster her own spacious mind. From William Butler Yeats, Saint John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich to Buddhism and the Bhagavad-Gita, she was looking for something “that mirrored certain conclusions and discoveries I had made for myself…. It could not possibly be, I decided, that I was the only person with these thoughts.” What she found, courtesy of Idries Shah, was the poets and sages of a 1,300-year-old current of Islamic thinking that sought, through otherworldliness, a strenuous spiritual calisthenics of pilgrimage, sleeplessness, fasting, and ecstatic dance, and a kick-the-can pedagogy of parables, aphorisms, fables, verses, and jokes, to see past mere appearances to the hidden reality and transcendent dimension of human life.
Meet the Iranian philosopher Suhrawardi, with his bouillabaisse of Persian, hermetic, and Greek ideas. And the Spanish mystic Ibn al-Arabi, with his Bezels of Wisdom and his vision of an incarnate Sophia, the divine Wisdom. And the jurist and theologian al-Ghazali, who first told the tale of the Seven Valleys the pilgrim soul must cross toward annihilation of the self. As well as poets like ‘Attar, who elaborated on this ineffable topography in his Parliament of Birds, and Rumi, who founded an Order of Whirling Dervishes, the Mawlawiyyah. From al-Muqaddasi’s Revelation of the Secrets of the Birds and Flowers and Saadi’s Rose Garden to The Exploits of the Incomparable Mullah Nasrudin, Sufi literature is associative, intuitive, witty, respectful, transparent, and transcendent, preaching harmony, immanence, and the interconnectedness of all forms of organic life. What it seemed to say to a Lessing who had given up radical hope is that nothing is permanent, but neither will anything ever really change.
After the passionate indignation and furious intelligence of the African stories, The Grass Is Singing (1950), and the first four “Children of Violence” novels, when Martha went through that wall out of politics and psychiatry into dancing atoms and blue lights, Lessing stopped playing by the old narrative rules. From the apocalyptic vision in The Four-Gated City of an ancient metropolis, a clairvoyant priesthood, and emancipating mutants, there would follow Charles Watkins’s tortured apprehension of himself inBriefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) as a splinter of the consciousness of superior beings beamed down from Venus; the frantic efforts by the nameless narrator of The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) to protect the girl-child Emily by hiding her in the patterned carpets and hanging gardens of a parallel universe; and the late-Seventies space-fiction series “Canopus in Argos,” in which earthlings were watched over and trifled with for millions of years by three separate intergalactic empires in five different evolutionary time zones.
In a preface to the first of these sci-fis, Shikasta: Re: Colonized Planet 5, Lessing suggested that “a single mind” wrote the Torah, the Apocrypha, the New Testament, and the Koran, as well as the liturgies of the Dogon (a tribe in Mali) and Popol Vuh (the sacred book of the Mayans). In a preface to the third, The Sirian Experiments, envious of physicists who got to play with black holes, white dwarves, and charmed quarks, she skyjacked a flying saucer: “As for UFOs,” she explained, “we may hardly disbelieve in what is so plentifully vouched for by so many sound, responsible, sensible people, scientific and secular.” It’s easy to see now that the do-good Canopeans were as much Sufi sages as they were golden Greeks.
At least temporarily, critical realism and social coherence went out the window in favor of biological mysticism, a collective unconscious, and lots of weather metaphors. The excruciating subjectivity of the modern predicament would resolve itself in a remedial reading of such sacred texts as The Cloud of Unknowing, the Book of Revelation, and the Upanishads. Thereafter, for every conventional novel like The Good Terrorist(1985), with its IRA wannabes, or Love, Again(1996), her sexy romp in the theater world, she would publish a fabulist shadow fiction like The Fifth Child (1988), about a Neanderthal baby in modern London against whom his own siblings locked their bedroom doors at night, or Mara and Dann (1999), set at the end of an ice age in a distant future of drowned cities and murderous tribes.
I believe that the chief gift from Africa to writers, white and black, is the continent itself, its presence which for some people is like an old fever, latent always in their blood; or like an old wound throbbing in the bones as the air changes. That is not a place to visit unless one chooses to be an exile ever afterwards from an inexplicable majestic silence lying just over the border of memory or of thought. Africa gives you the knowledge that man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape.
—Doris Lessing, Preface to African Stories
Nineteen pages into The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, Mara dies giving birth. So much for the resourceful heroine of Mara and Dann, the plucky Mahondi princess on the run with her crazy brother from the drought-stricken heart of Ifrik to the ice cliffs of the Middle Sea, with whom, in a future as immeasurable and remote as the prehistoric past, we had crossed half a continent of white bones, singing beetles, and burning sand, only a step ahead of famine, scorpions, slavers, and death squads. Except for poppy smoke and banshee wail, Lessing is done with her.
So much too for what Lessing called an “adventure,” but which added up, by nudge, wink, and ninja kick, to something more original. It’s not just that Mara and Dann seemed to rehearse all of immemorial Africa—savannas, gorges, femurs, shamans, soldiers, refugees, empires, necrologies, genocides, and other affidavits of atrocity—and to catalog as well volcanic cataclysms in deep readings of ice caps, carbon clouds, and fossil dumps. It seemed also to rehearse every which way we tell these stories, in chronicles, almanacs, calendars, scriptures, theses, and screed, before deciding to be a fairy tale and apologue.
Thus as the ice grip on Yerrup thawed and desert gained everywhere in Ifrik, we followed seven-year-old Mara and three-year-old Dann from the murder of their parents, their abduction by strangers, and their childhood in hiding, on a rough passage north into the traumatic experience of barracks, brothels, and prisons; of earthquakes, flash floods, fire storms, civil war, and slave labor. While competent Mara made cheese, candles, and community, bipolar Dann, between losing his sister in a game of chance and losing his mind to drugs, killed enough civilians to become a general. “Immensities” troubled their dreams, and humiliating intuitions of their own “smallness,” as well as garbled tales from ancient texts about operatically unhappy characters with names like Mam Bova and Ankrena. But when they finally got north enough—Morocco? Tunisia?—to arrive at the legendary “Centre,” they found priestly clerks awaiting their prophesied appearance, out of drought, into rainbows.
Mara and Dann fabled itself to a fare-thee-well. There was a magic cloak, a designated nemesis, gold coins, evil twins, black towers, even a labyrinth, a counterplot, and a restoration fantasy. Not that Lessing, a Sister Grimm, admits of happy endings. If her 1999 novel accused its century of specializing in refugees, in forced relocations of the outcast and anathematized, it never suggested that any other century had been nicer. If Dann’s ancestors seemed to him omniscient (“There were people once—they knew everything. They knew about the stars…they could talk to each other through the air…compared to them we are beetles”), yet these know-it-alls, staring up from drowned cities, immured like woolly mammoths in blue ice, were just as dead as their epigoni. After 12,000 years of civilization, war was still the end of every story, “the ways of war became crueller and more terrible,” and a punishing ice age was what we deserved.
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