Feeling like a Stoic: Doris Lessing’s Experimental Fiction

I came late to Doris Lessing. Although it was back in 1962 that The Golden Notebook established her as the Cassandra of a not-quite-revolutionary generation, I clued ...
Freaking Out the Freshmen


I came late to Doris Lessing. Although it was back in 1962 that The Golden Notebook established her as the Cassandra of a not-quite-revolutionary generation, I clued in to Lessing’s brilliance only a decade ago. Formally inventive, prescient about the “personal is political” debates that came to dominate the Left, The Golden Notebook explored the political, spiritual, sexual, and psychic tribulations of communists and their comrades, both in the Third World and the West. Adrienne Rich classed Lessing as merely a “quasi-feminist,” but her work has routinely turned up alongside The Second Sex, The Feminine Mystique, and The Dialectic of Sex in feminist dorm rooms ever since, and (albeit less frequently) on postcolonial syllabi. It’s interesting to see the gamut of reactions when her name comes up in conversation: faces light up with joy or with anger, long-buried debates rapidly rekindle. Boring she ain’t.

It’s easy to forget how long Lessing has been on the job. Ninety-three years old, she was born only four years after Ralph Ellison, ten after Richard Wright. When George Orwell’s 1984 appeared, Lessing had already begun her 1950 debut novel, The Grass is Singing. That makes her, along with Agnes Heller, one of the few remaining writers to have grown up in the generation whipsawed between the possibility of communism as an antidote to the bloody failures of liberal capitalism and the grim reality of “actually existing socialism.” Lessing’s admirers have also been struck by her distinctive relationship to the worst outrages of European colonialism. Lessing, born in Persia to English parents in 1919 but reared in colonial Rhodesia, was from early on a cold-eyed participant-observer, unafraid to measure the full weight of white-skin privilege that sustained an elite caste in which she herself was unmistakably included.

There is no good excuse for my completely missing Lessing in the 1990s. (Is it churlish to blame my PhD program for requiring me to spend two months reading Le Morte D’Arthur? Probably.) Nonetheless, her novels really took hold of me only when The Fifth Child (1988) upended my notions about how to teach novels—and why. The work’s protagonists are a bland and benign upper-middle-class couple, Harriet and David Lovatt, raising a large family in the bland but not-so-benign southern England of Margaret Thatcher. Everything is copacetic … until their fifth child is born. Ben is an inexplicable throwback, a Neanderthal in their midst. In trying to cope with his creepy violence and sly scheming, the Lovatts find themselves derailed.

My students realized that this dismay with their own visceral responses was precisely what Lessing had set out to achieve.

In the British and Irish fiction class for which I’d assigned The Fifth Child, none of my students knew much about England or Thatcherism. But they knew insoluble ethical quandaries when they saw them. The failure to solve the Lovatts’ woes gnawed at them. A classroom that had been studiously polite when faced with the existential crises of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the agonies of Henry Green’s Loving grew loud and disagreeable. Students who had refused to argue all semester found themselves locked in fierce intellectual combat—palpably struggling just as much with their own thoughts and feelings as they were with those of their classmates.

Eventually they realized that this dismay with their own visceral responses was precisely what Lessing had set out to achieve. A kind of awe settled over the class. One way to sum up what I’d witnessed is that Lessing’s best work occurs not on the page, but inside readers’ minds. Yet even that understates her accomplishment. The Fifth Child had elicited all the strong emotions that novels are supposed to. But instead of producing a warm rush of sympathy for one sufferer or another, the novel made readers look askance at just those reactions. I think it was Jean Genet who said that nobody could tire of the smell of his own skin; Lessing forces her readers to sniff again, and discover something slightly rank.

Literary critics talk about “sentimental” and “unsentimental” novels, but we need a new vocabulary for how feeling works in Lessing: she aspires to an insensible aesthetics. Even while remaining committed to capturing the “matrix of emotion” that defines lived experience, she aims to deny readers the self-satisfaction that often accompanies the act of sympathizing with depicted characters. Lessing aspires to what might be called sentimental stoicism: remaining open to the feelings of others while simultaneously restraining one’s own emotions. What Lessing does with that sentimental stoicism, in both her so-called realist and her so-called fantastical writing, is something exceptional in the history of the novel. Like many novelists, Lessing heats her readers up. Unlike most, she then makes them take a long chilly walk away from their feelings.

Lessing’s instructions to her readers might be paraphrased as: Think of different worlds as much as you can—but don’t start feeling that you’re in one. My students learned this lesson not by getting drawn into the Lovatts’ woes, but rather in the moment when they recoiled from the solutions they’d come up with: do I really want Ben to die? they found themselves asking. At that moment, they recognized how their own feelings had become part of the story unfolding in front of them.

Such recoil moments may be Lessing’s greatest accomplishment. She sees all of her characters as inextricably shaped by their surroundings, and able to act only within a confined world. Yet she also has unquenchable confidence in any character’s (and any reader’s) capacity to imagine, dispassionately, the existence of worlds in which those constraints look entirely different. Approaching other worlds with cool comprehension allows readers to “realize” (a crucial word for Lessing) the moments in which distant foibles trigger a similar response in ourselves. It’s very possible—even likely—that such realizations will change nothing. Yet a low, even a vanishingly low, success rate seems no reason to stop trying.


Famously Forgotten


Doris Lessing may currently be the most famous novelist nobody’s ever heard of. Even to say she’s more talked about than read overstates her reputation, since she’s rarely even talked about. George Bernard Shaw likened receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature late in life to being hit over the head by a life preserver after reaching the shore. Lessing’s 2007 win sparked outrage from Harold Bloom on the right (“pure political correctness”) and, on the left, criticism of Lessing’s curmudgeonly pessimism about contemporary progressivism. What the Prize didn’t do was reverse the trend of critical disapproval that had begun with abrasive essays by Joan Didion, John Leonard, and Gore Vidal in the 1970s and early ‘80s. The pattern has remained steady for almost four decades now: after praising The Grass Is Singing and The Golden Notebook, critics deplore the “mysticism,” “Sufism,” and otherworldliness that followed, and profess inability to grasp why such a successful realist would turn cosmic spaceman. Even the recent craze for dystopic and “alternative reality” fiction has done surprisingly little to draw lovers of Philip Pullman or The Hunger Games to Lessing’s work. Margaret Atwood, whose eco-apocalypses owe more than a little to Lessing’s oeuvre, fails even to mention Lessing in a recent book on the merits of science fiction.

Lessing’s short stories do still have their ardent admirers. Her creepy “To Room Nineteen” relentlessly chronicles middle-age-female anomie and the annihilation of spaces of creative autonomy; it’s a worthy successor to Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Oft-anthologized too are “The Day Stalin Died” and “Homage to Isaac Babel,” both brilliant satires that sting by taking seriously the heartfelt clichés voiced by characters who can’t even conceive of a world outside the deceptive phrases and distorted ideas they’ve woven around themselves.

Perhaps “propulsive” is the best way to describe her writing: she has an (often undervalued) capacity to hustle readers into and through her created worlds without letting them tire, or even take a breath.

Three stories, though, are too slender a legacy for a writer who has produced 28 novels and by my count 42 other books, more than a book a year since anchoring herself in North London. If you only have time and bookshelf space for a handful of Lessing novels, The Summer Before the Dark (1973), Memoirs of a Survivor (1974; the 1981 film with Julie Christie isn’t bad either), and The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982) are a decent starting point. But the range of her experiments is also worth keeping in mind; otherwise, you risk losing sight of the funhouse-mirror multiverse that Lessing has called into being.

Margaret Drabble speaks of the “flexibility” and “urgency” of Lessing’s prose, but perhaps propulsive is the best way to describe her writing: she has an (often undervalued) capacity to hustle readers into and through her created worlds without letting them tire, or even take a breath. Of the two dozen people I asked about The Golden Notebook, I was struck that not one thought to mention that it’s over 600 pages long. As her admiring remarks about Marcel Proust’s ability to chart families as they slowly rise and fall suggest, Lessing unapologetically aims to provide some readerly pleasures typical of classic nineteenth-century novels. The slew of Lessing books I’ve read recently, however, makes me think that she’s the great unsung experimental novelist of the last sixty years.




In calling Lessing experimental, I’m aligning her not so much with fiction writers such as Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, and Georges Perec as with scientists such as Ernest Rutherford, Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur, and even that disturbing inventor of “situational studies,” Stanley Millgram: it’s all too easy to imagine Lessing provoking experimental subjects into administering fictional shock-punishments. Scientists distinguish between experiments conducted in vivo, in vitro (in test tubes), and in silico (by computer simulation). Lessing gives us experimentation in libro. Thus for example The Sentimental Agents of the Volyen Empire (1983) proposes to test an unlikely hypothesis: what if a culture existed where the French Revolution’s passions were stoked for centuries, until a set of Stoics called Canopeans showed up and tried to show citizens how to choose judgment over passion, calculation over fervor?

It wouldn’t be hard to break many of Lessing’s novels down into the sections of a traditional scientific paper: procedures, methods, materials, discussions, and results are all present. Sometimes Lessing even starts a novel by baldly stating the hypothesis it will test. Take Summer Before the Dark, which opens with an account of how the novel ought to be understood as an experiment in the different ways that time can move.

Sometimes, if you are lucky, a process, or a stage, does get concentrated. It was going to turn out for Kate that that summer would be such a shortened, heightened, concentrated time.

What was she going to experience? Nothing much more than, simply, she grew old: that successor and repetition of the act of growing up … in Kate’s case it would not at all be a process lasting a decade or two … Kate Brown was going to get the whole thing over within a few months.

The word “lucky” tips Lessing’s hand. After experiencing menopause, hair loss, her wrecked marriage, and a near-death experience during a bad tryst in Spain, Kate won’t have seen anything especially lucky in what happens to her. But from an observer’s standpoint, the odd acceleration in her life is a narrative gold mine.

If, as a reader, you recognize that you’re part of the novel’s experiment, you’re a step closer to the solution.

Lessing’s decision to speed up Kate’s life is equivalent to discovering how to study human metabolism inside a mayfly: suddenly thousands more experiments per year become possible. Lessing pushes that idea so far and so fast that the reader can be caught napping. One scene nobody seems to nap through in Summer Before the Dark is the one in which Kate walks back and forth in front of a group of construction workers. First time down the street, she puts a scarf in her hair and a wiggle in her walk and attracts wolf whistles and catcalls. Second time round, she omits the scarf and the wiggle and passes by the men utterly unseen.

The “hip sway test” encapsulates the embedded experimentalism of Lessing, the way she likes to have her characters perform the same kinds of tests with role, appearance, and social signaling that are also underway in the novel itself. Lessing’s novels explore their character’s own abilities to do the kind of social decoding that novels themselves offer. Hers are not simply, like so many novels, social anatomy lessons; they stress how ordinary life—even walking down a street—is made up of subtle, decodable puzzles. If, as a reader, you recognize that you’re part of the novel’s experiment, you’re a step closer to the solution.


The Novelist from Mars


Everything from clothes to dreams to hair is classifiable in Lessing, and every classification subdividable. The Martha Quest novels (The Four-Gated City is their acme) are merciless in detailing what a single piece of badly placed jewelry or a slight vowel shift can tell onlookers about a character’s social geography. Possibly it’s that level of detail in her earthbound fictions that sparked so much hostility to Lessing’s “space fiction” (the phrase is hers). Some readers felt that Lessing gave up her greatest strength as a writer by renouncing earthbound sociological accuracy.

In fact, Lessing’s weirdest books are the key to her most dutifully realistic ones. To grasp why The Golden Notebook and The Fifth Child are such sublimely unrestful experiences, pick up The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 or The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five. Returning to Lessing’s earlier realist fiction after working my way through the Canopus books, I realized that she has always written about the everyday as if fresh from the interstellar void. Think of her as an anthropologist—or novelist—from Mars, landed on Earth to catalogue all our foibles, and thus implicitly asking her readers to consider how their own mores might look to hypothetical extraplanetary observers.

Lessing has a studiously cool interest in what everyday actions in an ordinary twentieth-century British household look like when viewed sub specie aeternitatis. Yet she also wants her readers to know what those same actions feel like as they unfold.

Lessing’s novels are “untimely meditations,” cognizant of the feelings of those around them but tempered by a dispassionate calm that makes sure there is no impulsive reaction to even the most provoking event. Such carefully achieved distance is also something that her characters, especially in The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, are constantly struggling to realize: what the occurrences around them mean to the widest possible circle of other minds. Despite her distrust of emotion-driven reading, Lessing believes in intuition of an almost mystical kind, which she thinks of as a “deep” mode of rational thought.

It’s common enough to hear a novel described as a letter from the past to the present, but Lessing flips the cliché around and describes The Golden Notebook as a letter from the future to the past.

I write all these remarks [in a 1993 preface to the novel] with exactly the same feeling as if I were writing a letter to post into the distant past: I am so sure that everything we now take for granted is going to be utterly swept away in the next decade.

Having claimed that her writing belongs not to her own time but to a time that’s soon to come, Lessing immediately adds a parenthetical remark that illuminates how she sees the novelist’s role:

(So why write novels? Indeed, why! I suppose we have to go on living as if …)

The power of the “as if” in Lessing rests in how it highlights a fundamental feature of fiction that we might call its virtuality: fictional worlds may not be actual but they are nonetheless real. Critics have thus generally concurred that Lessing’s novels produce “cognitive estrangement,” Darko Suvin’s term for science fiction’s necessary and sufficient ingredient. In Lessing’s case, this estrangement arises because the novels themselves unpack the implications of their own virtuality.

The “space fiction” phase of Lessing’s career only brings to the surface an unearthly quality that has always been crucial to her work.

In her “space fiction” Lessing showcases the evident non-actualness of the worlds she is writing about by depicting experiments performed on dozens of different planets over hundreds of generations. Even in her realist fiction, though, Lessing innovatively looks at ordinary life as if it were a series of made-up stories. In Mimesis, Erich Auerbach memorably compares the hyper-precise detailed world of The Odyssey to the shadowy, mysteriously motivated actions of the Old Testament, such as Abraham’s trip to sacrifice Isaac, in which almost all real-world details are left out. Lessing’s “space fiction,” with its incompletely sketched worlds and characters, its pointedly blank settings and enigmatic acts, is emblematic of what Auerbach calls the Old Testament mode of storytelling: all interstices and inference.

Lessing is a reminder, in a world moving rapidly towards the “immersive fictions” and “virtual realities” offered by digital platforms, that there still thrives quite another kind of fictionality, one based on underspecification, that counts on the reader to participate in experiments about how fictional texts and lived worlds can be understood in relation to one another.

The “space fiction” phase of Lessing’s career only brings to the surface an unearthly quality that has always been crucial to her work. Lessing’s eventual blastoff to Canopus clarifies her chilly commitment, from 1950 on, to treating everyday life as a set of formal experiments. In Lessing’s early years as a writer, when her fiction chronicled the unsettled angst of settler experience in the African colonial enterprise, the gaps opened up by her “as if” experiments may have struck readers as specific to the uneasy “floating world” that Britons had established in Southern Africa. When she was a chronicler of the rudderless British left, the communicative gaps she wove into The Golden Notebook
struck many as an indictment of the rifts bourgeois hypocrisy had opened up between men and women. Critics read The Fifth Child as a not-so-veiled indictment of Thatcherism or of working-class resentment; some even read it as an allegory about the rise of AIDS. Looking back on six decades of “as if,” however, the pattern Lessing has woven looks a good deal more general, its implications more universal.


Stoicism, via Adam Smith


To describe Lessing’s willingness to put every social possibility into play describes the field her novels open up. How does Lessing mean her readers to respond to that field? Of all her literary predecessors, Lessing may have learned most of all from George Eliot, who was like Lessing an austere chronicler of other people’s social miseries. And yet Lessing doesn’t hide her scorn for Eliot, whom she accuses of wanting to be a “good gentlewoman” striving to do her duty by her neighbors. Like Eliot, Lessing is committed to using novels to make sense of the experience and emotions of people in settings both familiar and bizarre, but unlike Eliot, Lessing does not want readers to feel a warm rush of sympathy. For Lessing, to sympathize is not a triumph of proximity but a failure to realize the advantages of distance.

It’s not that emotions are trivial. Understanding them is crucial, as Lessing herself says in the 1993 preface to The Golden Notebook: “Novels give you the matrix of emotions, give you the flavor of a time in a way formal history cannot.” That’s a nice condensation of Lessing’s central insights about what fiction can and can’t do. Novels are uniquely able to portray the experiential aspect of historical events, but Lessing proposes that the reader is able to approach those emotions as a matrix, an array of orderly data points to be decoded. Reason allows readers to parse the emotions a particular set of events may trigger. The advantage of reason over feeling is the same whether the emotions dissected belong to residents of Planet 8, to present-day bourgeois Britons, or even to one’s self—recall how shocked my students were by their own reactions to The Fifth Child.

Exquisite sensibility coupled with self-command: Lessing’s credo in a nutshell.

How do we make sense of a writer who is dedicated to representing the “matrix of emotion” yet deeply dislikes novels that provoke strong feeling? Although Lessing herself tends to cite Sufism when describing her intellectual antecedents, one of the most important forerunners of her distinctive mixture of reason and openness to emotion is the peculiar Stoicism laid out by Adam Smith in his Theory of the Moral Sentiments (1759). Smith’s Stoicism differs from that of his Roman forebears in its emphasis on the importance of attending to the emotion of others, even as we try to quench our own. Smith agrees with Seneca and Marcus Aurelius that we ought to rein in our own emotions. The most important reason for doing so, however, is that such self-control allows us to register more accurately the feelings of those around us: “the man of the most perfect virtue … is he who joins, to the most perfect command of his own original and selfish feelings, the most exquisite sensibility both to the original and sympathetic feelings of others.” Exquisite sensibility coupled with self-command: Lessing’s credo in a nutshell.

To know others’ feelings but not to start feeling them oneself requires that we keep our understanding of the often unbridled feelings of others from itself turning into passion, hysteria, or even compassion, all of which Lessing austerely distrusts. In On Revolution (1963), Hannah Arendt memorably denounces the emotional excesses of the French Revolution. It was not hatred but love that made the Revolution deadly, she argues: uncurbed pity turned into passionate rage, and the most loving of feelings turned men into murderers. That indictment is echoed, indeed, nearly plagiarized, in Lessing’s 1983 The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire: its admirable characters can reason about rather than “feel for” the suffering masses; its worst characters are rabble-rousers who strive to transmit their own feelings of pity to emotionally susceptible listeners.

To underscore the dangers of sentiment, Lessing invents a peculiar kind of punishment machine: Canopeans who fall victim to cheap rhetorical calls for sympathy must enter a “total immersion” machine that forces them to feel the highs and lows of the Revolution and its bloody purges. Clearly that machine, which makes its subjects feel what it’s like to be beheaded by a righteous revolutionary mob, is meant in some oblique way to represent the novel itself. Like Smith before her, Lessing emphasizes the importance of being attuned to others while remaining an observer who never allows those experiences to overwhelm one’s reason. The Canopus books intellectualize what The Fifth Child demonstrates: that readers both observe emotion-inducing experiments and are themselves the subjects of such experiments. Realizing that one is both the subject experiencing emotion and the observer noticing how such emotions wreak havoc produces a moment of internal dissociation, a kind of doubling that is a striking effect of Lessing’s foundational Stoic insight.


Infinite As Ifs


Lessing’s experiments have continued to push readers to find ways of seeing their own actions, even their own lives, outside of themselves, a project linked in fascinating ways to the thought experiment in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: “Think of a kitchen table … when you’re not there.” Her most recent novel, Alfred and Emily (2008), conjures up an England very like our own, save that in it her parents never married, and someone named Doris Lessing never existed. “The best is never to be born,” wrote Sophocles. Lessing’s novel, though, is closer in spirit to Alfred Polgar’s wry codicil: “But who among us has such luck? One in a million, perhaps.” In the preface to Alfred and Emily, Lessing remarks, “If I could meet Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh now, as I have written them, as they might have been had the Great War not happened, I hope they would approve of the lives I have given them.” That remark sums up Lessing’s fiction: it bluntly links the world-historical and the personal; expresses the strange and wonderful “as if” logic of her fiction; and captures her resolutely anti-emotional aesthetics and ethics.

Lessing’s work, though, is a reminder that limits on our actions do not equally limit our far-ranging, experimental thoughts.

Lessing’s experiment is about her readers’ capacity to conceive of a world distinct from their own, and hence to “realize” what their own lives would look like from a similarly external perspective. Early in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy has Tess gaze at the sky and decide that she lives on a “blighted” rather than a “sound” “star.” Although readers can feel Tess’s fate closing around her at that moment, they can’t help following her thoughts upwards towards other stars as well. Lessing’s fictional exodus into the cosmos has always had woven into it just such doubleness: the grimmest fictional world is made into something different by the realization that its grimness too had to be imagined, written down, read, and recreated.

The capacity to tell dispassionate stories about the limits that both shape and confine human action in this and in every other imaginable world will never by itself make those limits disappear. Lessing’s work, though, is a reminder that limits on our actions do not equally limit our far-ranging, experimental thoughts. Wallace Stevens writes that “the absence of imagination / Had itself to be imagined.” Reading Lessing, I imagine instead that imagination never left. icon

Featured image: Doris Lessing with Philip Glass, from the Houston Grand Operas 1988 production of The Making of The Representative for Planet 8 (music by Philip Glass; libretto by Doris Lessing based on her novel). Courtesy Houston Grand Opera. Photograph by Jim Caldwell