Thursday, October 11, 2007
Doris Lessing has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. This 87-year old writer has been one of the major literary figures of the past and present centuries. An avid artist, she has been indefatigable in her endeavors, publishing countless novels to both acclaim and criticism (like most writers!)
I have followed Lessings's work and her life with great interest for many years. Lessing's early novel The Golden Notebook is acknowledged as a classic in what was then called "the women's liberation movement." Many readers found in it an inspiring example of women who chose to direct their own lives, make their own choices, even when these went against the social conventions of the time. (Today, these lives seem less than radical, and indeed, their life paths of independence and self direction are commonplace in today's world, at least in the West.) Lessing did not like to be identified as a "feminist" writer, protesting that she liked men and had known several quite well. (Many female writers of that period felt that it was a diminution of their status to be associated with the women's movement or seen primarily as a "woman writer").
Many male critics derided her efforts, apparently convinced that no work of fiction could be taken seriously which dealt with what later came to be called "women's issues" (the struggle for independent lives outside the confines of the set roles of wife and mother.)
Nonetheless, the feminists embraced her and made her one of their icons.
To me, her great work is the novel entitled "The Four-Gated City." Set in London in the era after WWII, it traces the life of the central character and the family she is associated with through a time of great social upheaval, complete with serious political protest and constant transformation. The novel depicts this time of unrest and change in impressive detail--anyone wishing to know what life was like on the larger scene at that time would do well to read it.
It is also a generational novel. The main character witnesses not only massive social change, but the innovations of thought and behavior of the coming generations. The personal in thus intimately bound with the political.
To me, one of the most interesting features of Doris Lessing is her interest in Sufism, an interest reflected in this book and elsewhere. At the beginning of Part Four of "City," she quotes a passage from Rumi pertaining to the evolution of the human mind/spirit, and then follows with this excerpt from the great Sufi master, Indries Shaw:
Sufis believe that. . .humanity is evolving toward a certain destiny. We are all taking part in that evolution. . . .The new human being's organism is producing a new complex of organs in response. . . .concerned with the transcending of time and space. What ordinary people regard as sporadic and occasional bursts of telepathic and prophetic power are seen by the Sufi as nothing less than the first stirrings of these same organs. So essential is this more rarefied evolution that our future depends on it.
In "City," Linda, a key character. already displays such powers. From childhood she had "heard other people's thoughts" inside her head, and also seen their auras. She long assumed that all people possessed the same capacity. When she grew up and began to speak of her experiences, she was sent to a psychiatrist who gave her drugs and even institutionalized her for awhile. Clearly, she was outside the bounds of what society at that time accepted as "normal." Ultimately, she returns home, much traumatized by her experience with the mental health profession. She chooses to live in the basement of the vast house and maintain her privacy against the world and its judgmental inhabitants.
At the end of the novel, a great holocaust has devastated the world, leaving only a few remnants of humanity scattered her and there. In one such colony, the "new children" display the kind of extrasensory talents that Linda had had so long ago. These young ones communicate with one another though telepathic means, and even have invented their own vocabulary for speaking aloud to one another.
Lessing is clearly pointing to a new age, a time when the unusual and abnormal would be accepted as the expected norm for all society.
Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) and this may account for some of her interest in Sufism, which was, of course, prevalent in that part of the world. In any event, she is a writer ahead of her time in many ways, foreseeing changes that would occur as humanity labored toward its new identity.
She has even written about Sufism as such, but, when she spoke in San Francisco, she declined to answer questions about her personal belief system.
When I was teaching in a state university in Kansas, a group of devoted readers formed in an outlying community which called themselves "The Hutchinson (Kansas) Doris Lessing Fan Club." I think they would be pleased to know that she has received--finally--this highest accolade.
I once had the pleasure of seeing her being interviewed onstage. She is extremely witty--answering with pungent humor the various queries put to her. The English intellectuals are noted for their "dry wit" and she lived up to expectations.
I have watched her face age (in her portraits) through the years, from the black haired vibrant young writer to the age-marked wise woman she now is. She has been a great credit to her craft and well deserves this final honor, for she has been one of the most perceptive and far seeing witnesses to our time.