Week Three: Lessons from Lessing

For months, part two of Doris Lessing’s autobiography has been gathering dust beside my bed. It covers the years between 1949 and 1962. I picked it up on a whim from Book City some time last year and enjoyed the first half, but teaching and research overshadowed Lessing, so I abandoned her, like so many other half-read best intentions, with a dog-eared book-mark and empty promises. Right now is a busy time for my family, when my wife sells her art at One of a Kind, her biggest show of the year, and I help in any way I can. So I found myself on Friday, in line and listless on a steel bench at five in the morning, in a cavernous exhibition hall, waiting to secure a good spot for next year. I had with me a coffee and my copy of Lessing.

On election night, Yeats haunted me to a fitful sleep. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The poem was The Second Coming and the line that kept turning in my mind, and did so again as I sat bleary-eyed on that uncomfortable bench, was simple and terrifying. “The centre cannot hold.” What does it mean—this weird post-factual world, in which journalists routinely parrot hateful lies instead of evidenced-based reporting? I was physically agitated, deeply disturbed by the footage of anti-Semites and racists giving the Nazi salute to Trump. I felt like the fourth estate was already dead in America when I read that CNN had covered this vile story by running a segment with the chryon: “Alt right questions if Jews are people.”

CNN is Big Brother in America. I challenge anyone in any airport, bar or waiting room anywhere, not to be assailed by it. And today this is the message it broadcasts: If Jews are people.

Without truth, there is no sanity, no structure. Reality becomes make-believe. We devolve into violence. “The centre cannot hold.”

I picked up Lessing as a distraction from my fears about Trump. Instead, she legitimized them. Here are a few of her most cogent observations:

On watching South Pacific, aghast at the horrors of the war in the Pacific reduced to mere backdrop against an insipid American love story: “No one else in the audience seemed to mind. It was one of the times when you realise that there has been, without you even knowing it, a change of moral values, and you have been left behind, stranded on some rather ridiculous outpost.” P. 273

On her displeasure with a journalist when he published a book titled The Fifties in the sixties, without bothering to interview her or others in the book: “I was shocked, not realising —well, none of us did—that this indifference to fact was shortly to become general in reporting.” P. 275

On World War One leading to fascism: “The slaughter in the trenches destroyed something vital in Europe—respect for government. And from that stemmed communism, fascism, national socialism, and later terrorism, anarchy, and that attitude of mind which is now prevalent everywhere, the deadly ‘Well, what can you expect?’ Nihilism, cynicism, disbelief—for one’s own side—and meanwhile, all idealism, love, hope, dreams for a good world, put elsewhere, into Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and later, those other criminals, Mao, Pol Pot…there seems no end to them.” P. 263

On visiting a friend in prison who was incarcerated for six months for being gay: “The first time was frightening, not because of the prison being so grim and nasty, for I had expected that, but because John seemed to have turned into his own opposite, repeating that he deserved to be punished, the police were quite right, because he had done wrong…I was thinking how fragile we all are, poised so lightly on beliefs, on principles—on what we think we are…No wonder people make false confessions…I had not seen this before, and I did not understand it, and I was afraid, seeing what a frail skin civilisation paints over our pretences.”  P. 240

Writing years later, Lessing recalled Stalin’s atrocities as they were uncovered, when she, as a communist, had to face them. This is the undercurrent that seeps up through the pages—what most troubles her—the unspoken guilt that she could have unknowingly supported such a monstrous regime.

In week three since the election, Trump lied about winning the popular vote. After declaring he would not try to jail Clinton after all, perhaps he will now change his mind again.

Lessing was an outlier. She was fearless. A communist and free love advocate, she abandoned her first two children in order to do what she had to do—write. Ever prickly, when she heard she had won the Nobel in Literature, she said “Oh Christ.” Then, after paying the cabbie, she turned back to the journalists in front of her home and said, “Right. Well, I’m sure you’d like some uplifting remarks of some kind.”

If she was writing today, I wonder what Trump would make of such a nasty woman?

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© 2016, Kate Barker. All rights reserved.