DORIS LESSING ON FEMINISM, COMMUNISM AND 'SPACE FICTION'Date: July 25, 1982, Sunday, Late City Final EditionSection 6; Page 21, Column 1; Magazine Desk
Byline: By Lesley Hazelton
Lesley Hazleton is a British writer now living in New York.
Doris Lessing is the kind of writer who has followers, not just readers. They have been committed to her largely because of her commitment to major issues, such as politics and feminism. Over the course of a distinguished 30-year writing career, she has led them into several very different worlds: colonialist Africa, the tangle of emotions binding men and women, social breakdown, mental breakdown and even nuclear disaster. Always deeply political in purpose, she is widely considered one of the most honest, intelligent and engaged writers of the day. The novelist Margaret Drabble has called her ''one of the very few novelists who have refused to believe that the world is too complicated to understand.'' And earlier this year, John Leonard, a book critic of The New York Times, described Mrs. Lessing as ''one of the half-dozen most interesting minds to have chosen to write fiction in English in this century.''
But many readers and critics now fear that she is tumbling from the pedestal they erected for her. Their worries began in 1979 when the publication of ''Shikasta'' launched what Mrs. Lessing calls her ''space-fiction'' series - ''Canopus in Argos: Archives.'' Instantly, Lessingites and the greater literary world reeled in shock as the advocate of social concern on this planet adopted the viewpoint of outer space: The formerly realistic writer had been transformed into a cosmic visionary.
Undaunted, she has just completed the fifth of the ''Canopus'' series -''The Sentimental Agents,'' to be published in February by Alfred A. Knopf - and it seems destined only to compound the shock. ''It's a spy story,'' she says, ''a social satire making fun of rhetoric.'' Knowing by now how the critics are likely to react to it, and exhausted both from writing five ''Canopus'' books in four years and from the uproar they have created, Mrs. Lessing is spending the rest of this year traveling - on this planet. Her itinerary includes Germany, Japan and a long summer visit to Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), where she lived for 25 years. But to those who ask her when the ''Canopus'' series will end, she is sibyllinely vague.
When ''Shikasta'' appeared, John Leonard, for one, complained: ''I simply feel that I, and rational discourse, have lost a friend ... in a smog of mystifications.'' Although Leonard reviewed the next book in the series more favorably, other readers have not been won over. The four published ''Canopus'' novels have been read with a mixture of admiration and perplexity; as the series continues, the perplexity of her readers has developed into disgruntlement and a growing sense of abandonment.
Canopus is a galactic empire whose dispassionate agents oversee a grand scheme for cosmic welfare, concentrating on a rather troublesome, Earth-like planet named Shikasta. The tone veers from the sheer enchantment of fable to sociological polemics - in both of which the characters tend to be ciphers representing ideas rather than fully realized individuals. There is no linear progression from one novel to the next, and Mrs. Lessing indeed stresses that they should be read independently.
The writer sees her series as a realm where ''the petty fates of planets, let alone individuals, are only aspects of cosmic evolution.'' The trouble for her readers is that few consider their personal fates petty, let alone that of the planet. Cosmic evolution - raising mankind to a higher level of existence - is a basic theme of mystic Sufi philosophy, the most recent of three major influences on her thinking. (The first, Communism, lasted from 1944 to 1956; the second, radical psychiatry, began in the late 1950's and lasted through the 1960's, when she turned to Sufism.)
Most readers find it hard to believe that this is the author of ''The Golden Notebook,'' published in 1962 and now a classic. Because of the book's convincing portrait of strong women leading independent lives, it was widely adopted as a feminist bible, and has recently become a European best seller. The ''old Doris Lessing'' also wrote ''The Children of Violence,'' a five-novel series better known as ''the Martha Quest novels.'' This was the political Doris Lessing, the steadfast opponent and analyst of racism and colonialism - and the psychological Doris Lessing, ''the archeologist of human relations,'' as the critic Irving Howe called her. She was admired - revered even - for her exploration of the inner space of thought and heightened feeling. Now that she has ventured into outer space and muted feeling, she has left her readers helplessly earthbound.
What happened to Doris Lessing?
The soft, grandmotherly person I expected from the rather hazy photographs on recent book jackets was transformed. At the door of her Hampstead row house in north London, I met a graceful and sophisticated woman with gray-green eyes and the kind of cheekbones that make her beautiful still at age 62.
Her attic study, up four flights of stairs, is strewn with books and papers. It is a homey workroom, high above the world, with sloping ceilings and plenty of light.
There is no phone. Doris Lessing hates to be phoned. In one corner, there is a sink and an electric hot plate, so that she can spend all day up here, working and drinking innumerable cups of instant coffee - four spoons to each cup.
As I reeled from the first cup, she sat in the easy chair by the window, composed herself and warned that the only reason she had agreed to an interview was to clear up misunderstandings about the ''Canopus'' series. Her speaking voice was clearly her writing voice: sharp, precise, very clear, with the same polemical undertone that occasionally mars her writing.
Summing up the questions her readers had been asking seemed a good way to break the ice: Why would one of the world's foremost writers - certainly its foremost woman writer -leave her traditional concerns for the cold and unemotional regions of outer space?
''That's what they want to know?'' she said, leaning forward. Then she sat back, exhaled demonstratively and smiled. ''Well, then,'' she said.
We started with the labels by which she is known, each of which she rejects with cold disdain: ''The critics slap labels on you and then expect you to talk inside their terms.''
She has been dubbed an African writer, a Communist writer, a feminist writer, a mystic writer, a psychological writer, now a sciencefiction writer. The idea that she has abandoned feminist concerns particularly irks her, since she never wrote from a consciously feminist point of view but was adopted by feminists in search of a heroine: ''What the feminists want of me is something they haven't examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, 'Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.' Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I've come with great regret to this conclusion.''
As for those who mourn her abandonment of a political stance, accusing her of turning mystical instead: ''I don't see it as an 'instead.' The popular picture of me at the moment is, 'Here is this very political woman, extremely active politically for nearly all of her life, and now she's become a mystic.' First, I have not been active politically most of my life. Since I've been in England, I've been writing. And my studying Sufism is very much in this world - the aim is to be 'in the world but not of it,' as the Sufis say.''
Yet many fear that Doris Lessing has achieved the Sufi goal too well. Her personal pilgrim's progress from Communism to Sufism covers three continents and a world war. It includes 16 novels, more than a half-dozen volumes of short stories, four nonfiction books, four plays and a book of poems. And it covers both the personal voyage from politics to inner space as well as the more recent impersonal voyage from inner to outer space. In the process, utopia through politics has been transformed into utopia through survival, indeed through survivalism. And as a result of her determinedly independent and unexpected stand on survival, the former Communist is now being called a fascist.
Mrs. Lessing's father, Capt. Alfred Tayler, survived World War I minus a leg. Disillusioned with postwar England, he took a job with the Imperial Bank of Persia, in which country Doris Lessing was born in 1919.
On home leave in England in 1924, her father saw the Rhodesian booth at the British Empire Exhibition. On an impulse - ''which is how he ran his whole life'' - he took his family off to Rhodesia to start a farm. He knew nothing about farming, learning the hard way. Martha Quest's pained, struggling father in ''The Children of Violence'' series is a close portrayal of Alfred Tayler, and the author has admitted to friends that much else in that series is autobiographical.
His daughter spent most of her childhood ''alone in a landscape with very few human beings in it.'' She recalls how every night, under the open sky of the Rhodesian veld, ''My father took his chair to watch the sky and the mountains, smoking, silent, a thin shabby flyaway figure under the stars. 'Makes you think - there are so many worlds up there, wouldn't really matter if we did blow ourselves up - plenty more where we came from.' '' Some 50 years later, the writer re-created those ''many worlds'' in the ''Canopus'' series, the first volume of which is dedicated to her father.
Today, after spending most of her adult life in rented apartments, Doris Lessing owns her own house. ''Everybody said I had to own something. ... Now I spend half my time worrying about holes in the roof and so on,'' she says deprecatingly.
This new security does not sit well with her. Despite the number and popularity of her books, she has only made considerable amounts of money in the last few years, after her ''discovery'' in Europe. Any money she had before that would be contributed to whatever cause she was involved with at the time, as though money were what one of her characters called ''fairy gold,'' a marvelous phenomenon not to be taken seriously.
Her fine disdain for conventional concepts of security comes partly from the sense of impending apocalypse that haunts her novels, and partly from being a transplant, coming from the open spaces of Africa to the urban politeness of London. Such transplants are often outsiders, a condition built into the whole framework of their life and thought. Others nest in, while Doris Lessing camps out -even in her own house.
The state of that house would pain a successful American author. It is neither smart nor lavish, more functional than comfortable. Sometimes, as in the kitchen, it is not even very functional.
After a morning of talk about nuclear war and the state of the novel, she clears the remains of lunch off the Formica kitchen table, then takes a nail file and begins to dig out the ingrained dirt from between the scratched Formica panels, sweeping the small curls of dirt off onto the faded linoleum floor each time enough has accumulated. Occasionally, she makes a pass at her fingernails, but only briefly: Her fingers are reddened and her nails chipped from gardening, and past the attentions of a nail file, so she returns to the dirt in the table instead. There is a vulnerability about her, at the table, that has not been there in her study. (Studies, after all, are writers' castles.) It is dispelled the moment she begins to talk again about her work, to which she returns whenever we talk about more personal matters. At 14, Doris Lessing walked out of a convent school in Salisbury, Rhodesia, and back to her father's farm. From then on, she was selfeducated:
''I had to be. The school was no good. I read, and when I was interested in something, I followed it up. Whenever I met anyone who knew anything, I would bore them stiff until they told me what they knew. I still have these terrible gaps; things that every child learned at age 14 I have to look up in an encyclopedia. I would really like to have learned languages and mathematics - that would be useful now. But I'm glad that I was not educated in literature and history and philosophy, which means that I did not have this Eurocentered thing driven into me, which I think is the single biggest hang-up Europe has got. It's almost impossible for anyone in the West not to see the West as the God-given gift to the world.''
She returned to Salisbury at 18, worked as a secretary and a switchboard operator, and became part of white colonialist society, drinking and partying and, after a year, marrying a young civil servant. It lasted four years -''an utterly wrongheaded marriage,'' she later called it. They had two children, a boy and a girl, but both colonial and married life palled beside her increasing awareness of the color problem throughout Africa.
''When I became political and Communist,'' she later wrote, ''it was because they were the only people I had ever met who fought the color bar in their lives.'' The Rhodesian Communists were political innocents who would probably have been unacceptable to most Communist parties in the world. But far from the centers of Communist doctrine, they could afford to be purist. In this group, she met Gottfried Lessing, a German political refugee; they married in 1945 and had a son. It was a sensible rather than a passionate bond, but it lasted no longer than her first marriage. In 1949, divorced, Doris Lessing packed her bags for England, reversing her father's move.
In retrospect, she says, ''I do not think that marriage is one of my talents. I've been much happier unmarried than married. I'm probably unmarriageable now. I just can't imagine a marriage that would make sense to me. Once you've passed 30, I think, it becomes harder and harder for a woman to do. It's easy when you're a teenager; perhaps that's the built-in mechanism for continuation of the species.''
Her elder son now lives in Zimbabwe, and the younger one is in London; her daughter lives in South Africa, where Doris Lessing and her books are banned. Her trip to Zimbabwe this summer is emphatically private, unlike her previous visit there in 1956 when she was allowed in only as a journalist. As it did for so many other Western Communists, that year - the year of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and of Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalinism - marked her final disillusionment with Communism. It had taken a dozen years, during the last few of which she had been a party member in England, but had taken little part in Communist activities.
''There are certain types of people who are political out of a kind of religious reason,'' she says, digging dirt ferociously out of the kitchen table. ''I think it's fairly common among socialists: They are, in fact, God-seekers, looking for the kingdom of God on earth. A lot of religious reformers have been like that, too. It's the same psychological set, trying to abolish the present in favor of some better future - always taking it for granted that there is a better future. If you don't believe in heaven, then you believe in socialism.
''When I was in my real Communist phase, I and the people around me really believed - but, of course, this makes us certifiable - that something like 10 years after World War II, the world would be Communist and perfect.''
Doris Lessing had to search for a new philosophy, and found a halfway point in the ideas of London's radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing, whose theory of breaking through by breaking down and whose belief that schizophrenia is a sane response to an insane world created a near-romantic idealization of madness.
Laing, Doris Lessing and the American radical writer Clancy Sigal formed a circle of almost incestuous mutual influence, using one another as characters in their work and playing on the others' titles and characters' names. Sigal became her fictional lover - and, by his own account, her real lover, too -appearing as the self-centered American Saul Green who breaks down in the climactic section of ''The Golden Notebook.'' Exposed by Mrs. Lessing, Sigal later did the same to Laing in his novel ''Zone of the Interior,'' a devastating picture of both his own and Laing's craziness.
But neither Sigal nor Laing could satisfy Doris Lessing's search. Her involvement with Clancy Sigal marked perhaps the final stage of her passionate belief in the possibilities of political change; and though Laing became a guide to the stranger pathways of the mind, he offered no larger philosophy, no sense of purpose.
Laing failed her just as Communism had. ''I was once an idealistic and utopian Communist,'' she said, ''and no, I am not proud of it. The real politicos are a very different animal, and I'm angry that I didn't notice that very evident fact. I had an inclination toward mysticism - not religion -even then.'' Sufism is almost tailor-for Doris Lessing. It eludes definition. Thus, Idries Shah, a leading contemporary Sufi teacher, has written, ''Sufism is known by means of itself.'' Robert Graves came closer to clarity, describing the Sufis as ''an ancient spiritual Freemasonry'' which predated Islam but took shelter within it throughout the Middle East for many centuries. The Sufis believe Sufism to be the secret teaching within all religions. It is a mystic philosophy whose quest is to achieve universal harmony with the spirit of Absolute Being; but to do this, unlike most other mystic philosophies, Sufism maintains involvement with this world, because the Sufis see themselves, as Mrs. Lessing explains, as ''the substance of that current which can develop man into a higher stage of evolution.'' In more down-to-earth terms, that was also what Communism promised her.
Thus, when she read Idries Shah's book ''The Sufis'' in 1964, she was ready. Sufism fundamentally changed the way she saw the world, and the Doris Lessing of the ''Canopus'' series came into being.
''I'm not a Sufi, I'm studying it,'' she says. ''It takes a very long time to become one, if ever, which distinguishes us from all these cults that create instant mystics. The Sufis see the whole guru phenomenon as a degeneration, and the people who pursue gurus as unfortunates.''
The Doris Lessing who once argued that ''passionate polemics about art or anything else are always a sign of health'' has gone. She now says, ''Everything with Shah, on the contrary, is cool, exact, specific.'' These are the new terms with which she now considers the human species - the perspective of outer space. It is as though ''The Game,'' played by Anna Wulf in ''The Golden Notebook,'' has succeeded too well.
The Game: Think about the smallest objects in the room, then let the mind spread out to take in the house, the city, the country, the continent, while still holding the small original details in place, until, thinks Anna Wulf, ''the point was reached where I moved out into space, and watched the world, a sunlit ball in the sky, turning and rolling beneath me.'' What she wanted was ''a simultaneous knowledge of vastness and of smallness.''
This game, which Doris Lessing played as a child in the vast open landscapes of Africa, has now found its adult corollary in Sufism and its literary expression in space fiction: ''I see inner space and outer space as reflections of each other. I don't see them as in opposition. Just as we are investigating subatomic particles and the outer limits of the planetary system - the large and the small simultaneously - so the inner and the outer are connected.
''In the last 20 years, we have gone to the moon; we have looked back and seen this earth as a kind of soap bubble; we send voyages out to the edge of our solar system; our scientists talk of solar and lunar influences on us, and we're beginning to think in terms of influences from other galaxies. Every schoolchild thinks in terms of millions of years of human evolution. This is how we now think, so this is how as a writer I am now writing. I find it strange that other people think it strange, since this is now our world.
''The human community is evolving - we all are, whether we know it or not -possibly as a result of the stress that we're living through. Radiation? That's the least of the things that we're living through. We're living through, for example, heavy chemical assaults in the atmosphere on us all -we live in chemicals that we've never lived in before. What is that doing to us? We don't know.
''What we do know is that we're a species under extremely heavy stress. We emerged from the last ice age 12,000 years ago, and we are shortly - say, next week or in a thousand years' time -going back into another ice age. Compared to that threat, nuclear war is a puppy. We have lived through many ice ages, through wars and famines. Look at Barbara Tuchman's book on the 14th century, 'A Distant Mirror' - nobody thought they would survive that century, but they did. We can survive anything you care to mention. We are supremely equipped to survive, to adapt and even in the long run to start thinking.''
The ''we'' she talks of is the human race as a whole, so that although some may die, ''we'' still survive. But the question arises whether even Doris Lessing's ''we'' can survive nuclear warfare -the maximal scenario for self-extinction laid out in Jonathan Schell's book ''The Fate of the Earth.''
Amazingly, she waves her hand in dismissal: ''I totally and utterly disagree with all that. It's part of peace-movement thinking. I'm concerned not with whether we disarm, but with a very narrow issue comparatively, which is getting people protected - getting civil defense, particularly in Europe, which is the designated battleground for a nuclear war. And, in fact, it is possible to protect people against everything but a direct hit. The expertise is there. The Swiss have done it: They estimate that 95 percent of their people would survive.''
The passionate advocate of disarmament has become just as passionate an advocate of civil defense (although she insists that her new position is dispassionate). Has she concluded that disarmament is no longer possible, and nuclear war inevitable?
''Look,'' she says, ''I'm entirely in favor of trying to get everyone to disarm. But in case we fail, we have to have proper civil defense. I would like to see the peace movement divorce disarmament from the question of civil defense.''
The anti-civil-defense stand of the peace movement exasperates her: ''They don't consider that the war could be a conventional one, in which case it would be worth protecting ourselves. Or it could be a regional nuclear war somewhere else, in which case we'd be subject to fallout and need protection from it, or a terrorist bomb exploded even by mistake, or a nuclear accident. You can't even raise these possibilities with the peace movement. Clouds of rhetoric, all words, words, words, and no cool consideration of the facts.
''They say: 'But, Mrs. Lessing, don't tell us you'd want to be alive the morning after the bomb dropped.' It's an unthought-out bit of rhetoric. Or, 'Mrs. Lessing, have you thought how you're going to feel when you're standing at the door of your shelter and having to shoot anyone who wants to come in?' We haven't even got any shelters, and they're worrying about having to shoot someone if you did have one.
''There's an exact parallel here in England before the Second World War, when the slogan was that we can't have a world war because it would be too terrible if we had one. It was the peace-movement people then who were responsible for England disarming while Germany was arming, and responsible for so many unnecessary deaths.
''I've met the peace-movement people all over Europe this year, and I can't begin to describe how frightening it is to meet literally droves of people who, as far as I can see, are equipped with a death wish because they don't want to look at the evidence. Well, the difference between the peace movement and myself, as far as I can make out, is that I did look at the evidence. They just refuse to do so, and if you disagree with them, they say you are a fascist or a C.I.A. agent and that's the end of it.''
Doris Lessing accused of being a C.I.A. agent? The focus of this accusation is NuPAG - the Nuclear Protection Advisory Group -which she helped found in England together with the actor Richard Burton and an impressive array of scientists, as a pressure group for effective civil defense. To the idea that it is C.I.A. funded, she says simply: ''I know where the money came from.'' As for people calling her a fascist, she shakes her head in disgust: ''This word 'fascist' is one of the great words at the moment that stops everyone from thinking. You have only to say that so-and-so's a fascist and that's the end of any reason; you can't think after that. I wish there could be a ban put on the use of the word. It's an extraordinary psychological thing that if you say there is a possibility of war, the reaction is to lynch you.'' If the readers of ''the old Doris Lessing'' - most of them liberal in their politics - were in dismay and disarray before, that condition will now be compounded. She dismisses this impatiently: The issue of human survival has always been more important to her than personal popularity, and now her Sufi philosophy of cosmic evolution has given the theme new direction and purpose. Indeed, Mrs. Lessing maintains that, through stress, ''a new man is about to be born.'' If this is the path of evolution, then there must be survivors - otherwise, there can be no evolution.
For the past two decades, Doris Lessing has been forecasting the end of ''this pleasant world,'' plowed under by economic, environmental and nuclear disaster. Now the end is in itself a beginning. The writer who espoused R.D. Laing's concept of mental breakdown as a breakthrough to a higher plane of reality has now expanded that same idea to global proportions.
''Look,'' she says, ''we live in a world of incredible suffering. This brief paradise in the West since the end of the last war, which is about to end, has educated two generations into thinking we live in some sort of Shangri-La. As usual we - that is, the human race - are in for a hard time. But that is our history. When have we not had a hard time?''