A golden writer

December 5, 2013

Megan Behrent looks at the life and legacy of groundbreaking novelist Doris Lessing.

ON NOVEMBER 17, the feminist movement lost one of its most influential literary figures and one of the most important political writers of the 20th century with the death of Doris Lessing at 94 years old.

Despite her disavowal of the feminist movement, Lessing's 1962 The Golden Notebook became a "feminist bible." It was radical in both form and content, and had a profound impact on millions of women. Lessing was an extremely prolific writer, but it was this groundbreaking book that, more than anything else, cemented her fame and lasting political and literary legacy.

The impact Lessing had on millions of women was immense. Lisa Allardice, in a recent article for the Guardian, remembered that of all the distinguished writers invited as guests to the Guardian Review book club, "[O]nly Lessing achieved the distinction of a spontaneous standing ovation upon entering the room...'I read your book in 1964 when I was 20,' one woman said, almost tearfully, 'and you saved my life,' a sentiment echoed by women of all ages in the room."

Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing (Elke Wetzig)

Born in 1919 in Iran (then Persia), Doris Lessing's family moved to Southern Rhodesia when she was 5 years old. It was here that Lessing was first introduced to radical politics through her participation in anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles, protesting the "color bar" laws and ultimately joining the South African Communist Party. Lessing's first novel, The Grass is Singing, published in 1950, is a powerful book that exposes the racist exploitation of Africans by white colonials through the relationship between a white farmer's wife and her Black servant.

The manuscript of this novel was in her bag when she left for England at the age of 30, leaving behind her life as a wife and mother, which had become increasingly stultifying--and choosing instead to pursue her ideals and a life of non-conformity with friends and comrades. In England, Lessing continued to be politically active for a time as a member of the Communist Party, but became disillusioned as the party was further distorted by Stalinism. In particular, she objected to the sexism she found within the party, as well as the attempt to dictate forms of "political art."

The breaking point for Lessing came in 1956 when, after the death of dictator Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev delivered his famous "secret speech," outlining the crimes and horrors of Stalin's regime. The Soviet invasion of Hungary came in the same year, leading to the death of 30,000 Hungarians.

The contradictions that had been building in the British Communist Party could no longer be contained. They erupted into a crisis that wracked the party, leading to a massive exodus from which it would never recover.

Many in the party, including Lessing, had already been disillusioned by the ossified bureaucracy's insistence on pushing through the USSR party line at the expense of internal democracy--and frequently in opposition to the will and interests of rank-and-file members. The year 1956 was a turning point for the radical left and for Lessing, as she grappled with the political and personal implications of these events.

THE GOLDEN Notebook is both a product of an incipient feminism and of the political crisis of 1956--and provides the most explicit expression of this political, personal and literary crisis for Lessing. As Lessing explained, she "wanted to tell a story which neither political positions nor sociological analyses were capable of exhausting."

Central to the narrative is the psychological development and breakdown of the protagonist. Lessing was very influenced by R.D. Laing, a key figure in the anti-psychiatry movement who argued that what is perceived as "madness" is a sane response to an untenable situation produced by an insane world. Much of Laing's critique of psychiatry focused on the hierarchical nature of the relationship between doctor and patient, as well as the stigmatization of those deemed mentally ill without any attempt to understand the social roots of their condition.

The ideas of Laing resonated with feminists of the time period, many of whom experienced firsthand the sexism of the psychiatric establishment and were fed up with being pathologized when the "condition" they suffered from was social and political, not individual--i.e., it was the condition of being oppressed, something no individual therapy could change.

Like other women writers of the period, Lessing--by writing about depression and breakdown, female sexuality, menstruation and a myriad of female experiences--helped to redefine what aspects of the "personal" were deemed worthy of "great literature."

The Golden Notebook was radical in its depiction of Anna Wulf, a woman writer struggling to make sense of her life and the world in four notebooks representing fragmented parts of herself. While each notebook represents an attempt to construct a narrative that expresses the personal, political and literary lives of Anna, ultimately, they can never be wholly separated.

Thus, the black notebook, begun as a record of her novel, becomes a crucial political journey into Anna's early years in Africa; the red notebook that chronicles her relationship to the Communist Party also touches on her frequent conflicts about the role of women and writers within the party; the yellow notebook, a fictionalized version of her life, contains both political and personal musings; and the blue notebook, meant to be a true diary chronicling her personal experience and her experience in psychoanalysis, is filled up with newspaper clippings about world events of war and violence. Ultimately, it's only through "The Golden Notebook" of the novel's title that Anna Wulf is able to reemerge as a whole person.

In constructing the narrative in this way, Lessing made clear that the "personal" experience of oppression was deeply political. She made clear that the "housewife's disease" was not psychological, but a collective response to the oppression of women. For Lessing, this crisis was centrally connected to the broader political crisis facing the radical left after 1956.

The novel resists easy categorization. It is a narrative in which the political, personal, psychological and literary struggles of the protagonist are intertwined, products of a world in which, as Lessing writes, "everything [was] cracking up."

This complexity was, however, lost on many a reviewer who berated Lessing as a "man-hater" and "ball breaker" in much the same way other writers associated with the feminist movement were demonized for publicly expressing rage at social oppression. But for millions of women, Lessing was a radical voice who gave expression to their own experiences and struggles.

The growth of the women's liberation movement in the U.S. made The Golden Notebook a bestseller as it quickly earned an iconic place in the developing field of feminist literature and criticism. In the context of the emerging movement, Lessing's portrayal of a woman writer seeking a unified identity in a fragmented world tapped into a broader political impulse of the movement.

DESPITE HER impact on the feminist movement, though, Lessing consciously distanced herself from the movement. In a famous interview in 1969 in the U.S., she declared, "I'm impatient with people who emphasize the sexual revolution. I say we should all go to bed, shut up about sexual liberation, and go on with the important matters." This comment widened her fracture with the growing feminist movement to a breaking point.

The irony of course is that this comment directly contradicts the narrative impulse of her work. In The Golden Notebook, far from "shutting up" about sexual liberation, Lessing puts it at center stage--making female sexuality and the struggle to achieve any kind of sexual liberation extremely public. As a narrative about "free women," issues of sexuality and relationships figure prominently--and far from diminishing the narrative to a tract about the "sex war," as she would later argue, add to its complexity.

Despite Lessing's rejection of the feminist movement, her work had a huge impact precisely because it resonated with the experiences of many women in the New Left. At the moment of its publication, The Golden Notebook found an audience not in those already disillusioned with politics, but a generation radicalized by the civil rights movement of the 1950s. Like Lessing, who came to radical politics in earlier struggles against racism in the colonial setting of Rhodesia, the New Left got its start in the struggles against racism in the Jim Crow South.

In the process, like Lessing, many women of the New Left drew radical conclusions about the world while also confronting the sexism that existed even in the most radical milieus and struggles of their time.

Written and published at a crucial moment when Lessing had rejected her previous political commitment as an activist writer, but was searching for a new form, The Golden Notebook is, nonetheless, imbued with a power and political meaning that in the radicalized world of the early 1960s took on a life of its own.

The Golden Notebook's publication coincided with the early birth pangs of the feminist movement, which first found expression in the New Left via Casey Hayden and Mary King's "Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo," addressed to "women in the peace and freedom movements" in 1965, which critiqued sexism within the movement and sparked debates about women's oppression among activists.

As the decade progressed, then, it is probable that Lessing's readers in the growing feminist movement identified with the political crisis and fragmentation at the center of The Golden Notebook, even if they viewed it from a very different political background and history. Nonetheless, the solution for this later generation of women radicals was not a disavowal of politics, but the formation of a new and explicitly feminist movement.

EVEN AS her novel became a "bible" for the feminist movement, Lessing's own disillusionment with the Communist Party post-1956 ultimately led her to reject the struggles and political projects of later generations.

While her earlier work contained plenty of criticism of the Communist Party and the rigidity of its party line, 1956 led her to reject Marxism altogether. Like other writers in the Communist milieu in the 1940s, 1950s and before, Lessing's rejection of Stalinism sparked major questions about the possibility of political struggle and liberation.

Her literary expression of this rejection was certainly not the first of its kind--the African American writers Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison publically disavowed their earlier involvement with the U.S. Communist Party as Stalin's horrors became known, and as the CP, under orders from Stalinist Russia, abandoned the fight against racism in the U.S., a struggle that had won the party the support and political allegiance of the likes of Wright and Ellison in the first place.

Unlike Wright, who until his death continued to look for political alternatives, most notably writing extensively about the African liberation struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, Lessing increasingly rejected politics altogether. In a 1992 New York Times op-ed article critical of "political correctness," Lessing argued:

[W]ith all popular movements, the lunatic fringe so quickly ceases to be a fringe; the tail begins to wag the dog. For every women or man who is quietly and sensibly using the idea to examine our assumptions, there are 20 rabble-rousers whose real motive is desire for power over others, no less rabble-rousers because they see themselves as anti-racists or feminists or whatever.

With the decline of Communism, these new "rabble-rousers," according to Lessing, were "searching frantically, and perhaps not even knowing it, for another dogma." This was a clear symbol of how far she traveled politically, as she increasingly came to associate all political struggles with the Communist dogma she rejected in 1956.

Lessing's understanding of the role of the writer also changed. She increasingly rejected the idea that writers should engage with the political questions of the day in any way. Unable to imagine any liberation in the real world, Lessing often turned toward the fantastical, or science fiction. The Childen of Violence series reflects a broader political trajectory from her earlier activism, disillusionment with Communism--and then, all political struggle--into an apocalyptic vision of the world and into mysticism.

Like Lessing, the series' protagonist Martha Quest grows up in colonial Africa, marries and bears children, becomes politically active and eventually moves to England, where she becomes increasingly disillusioned. The last novel, in particular, paints a bleak picture of a dystopic world, torn apart by war and violence, and veering toward destruction.

While Lessing returned to earlier political concerns in some of her later novels, for the most part, these works represent a move away from the radical politics that imbued her earlier works with such power. They nonetheless continue to reflect an engagement with environmental concerns and particularly the anti-nuclear movement, of which she was a founder.

While Lessing increasingly referred to The Golden Notebook as the "albatross around my neck," it remains her greatest political and literary legacy, as was reaffirmed when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature by the Swedish Academy, which hailed her as an "epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny." The book continues to inspire later generations of writers and activists searching for voices and forms to express their own personal and political commitments, forces and crises.

Lessing's greatest legacy is perhaps in this: her commitment to human creative potential and the arts as a means of expressing the best of humanity, despite the atrocities that confine us. As she said in her Nobel banquet speech:

The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us--for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the mythmaker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best and at our most creative.

That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is--we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?

I think it is that girl, and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.

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