Sunday, December 01, 2013

Doris Lessing

The Nobel prize-winning author died two weeks ago today.

Lessing was a prolific writer who covered a wide range of subject matter over a long period of time (she was aged 94 at her death), but there were certain persistent elements in her art.  Number one is the clinical precision with which she addressed emotion in her fiction.  This seems like a contradiction, but what one can find on virtually any page of any of her novels (I have not read her non-fiction)  is close attention to the emotional state of her character, always described succinctly.

Number two is a cross-cultural approach; she was a person who traveled widely and lived in various societies.  She tended to look for the universal characteristics, but she drew upon her awareness of the specifics of many cultures.

Number three would be the frustration which comes from a search for universal justice.  She was a Communist before that got too repugnant; she wrote one of the great treatises on women's liberation but then denied that she was a feminist; she had a phase, in the '70's and '80's, in which she examined the motivations which drove people to become "terrorists".

I think that eventually she concluded that she could not identify the way out of our political morass for all of us, and that drove her to what I considered her most interesting work:  her "science fiction" series.  The books were collectively called by her "Canopus in Argos: Archives".  The series had an almost impossible ambition:  to explain--fictionally--the largest themes that we can imagine.  It was essentially a retelling of some key aspects, focusing on the commonalities, of all the sacred texts of the ages--the Bible, Koran, the Hindu classics, Buddhism, etc.

Her version was the archives of "godlike", immortal emissaries of an interstellar empire challenged by rival empires with less pure motives. The Canopeans possess(ed) certain powers--powers over nature, and great physical capabilities sufficient to move planets--but also to move through different planes of existence, and even to inhabit the minds of mortals.  Still, the powers were not unlimited. and the interplay of Canopus' plans with the interference of rivals created the world we live in, one which repeatedly disappointed Those Who Formed Us; they regarded us with pity, exasperation, but recognized their responsibility for our fate.  I would describe the theory as "intelligent design--imperfectly executed", and I imagine it to be somewhat like the way our dear President looks upon our flawed society (!)

Two of the novels, The Sirian Experiments and Shikasta, dealt primarily with Earth and the evolution of life and human society here.  The others dealt with various universal themes, like social decay, and love.  Shikasta, the first of the series (1979), is the one to which she applied her most powerful efforts of creativity and synthesis.  Among the topics she "explains" are the shifting of the geologic and magnetic poles, the separation of Pangaea into continents, the near-universal Great Flood legends, the reason why so many of our religions arose during a fairly short period of time (+/- 600 B.C./A.D.), and, most provocatively, our future.  She anticipated the Chinese resurgence, predicting that their superior administrative skills would prove irresistible to most of the world; however this would not bring universal harmony, but a doomed endgame.  (This was, of course, written before the definitive change toward a more pragmatic economic approach and the rise of China as an international player, as well as before the end of the Cold War, which she apparently foresaw as being but a transitional phase.)

It boils down to a hypothesis, one which either does or doesn't help explain the phenomena of our lives.  As I say, incredibly ambitious.  It's the kind of work which might be considered 200 years from now as a bold attempt to try to go beyond the limitations of our own life experiences and gain a greater understanding.  For that, I definitely think that the Nobel prize--which came to her at age 89, and which honored the body of her work--was well earned.

Sorry I didn't get to this a little sooner; that little problem with Google to which I referred recently contributed  to my delay but does not totally excuse my tardiness.  I will say that, with an obituary post, it's better to think twice and write once (and to edit multiple times)

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