07w42:6 Doris Lessing Selection Posted October 20th, 2007 by timothy. 0 Comments Goodreads | 2007 week 42 number 6 (Doris Lessing Selection) From Doris Lessing’s introduction to The Golden Notebook (June 1971): To get the subject of Women’s Liberation over with – I support it, of course, because women are second-class citizens, as they are saying energetically and competently in many countries. It can be said that they are succeeding, if only to the extent they are being seriously listened to. All kinds of people previously hostile or indifferent say: ‘I support their aims but I don’t like their shrill voices and their nasty ill-mannered ways.’ This is an inevitable and easily recognizable stage in every revolutionary movement: reformers must expect to be disowned by this who are only too happy to enjoy what has been won for them. I don’t think Women’s Liberation will change much though – not because there is anything wrong with its aims, but because it is already clear that the whole world is being shaken into a new pattern by the cataclysms we are living through: probably by the time we are through, if we do get through at all, the aims of Women’s Liberation will look very small and quaint. But this novel [The Golden Notebook] was not a trumpet for Women’s Liberation. It described many female emotions of aggression, hostility, resentment. It put them into print. Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing, came as a great surprise. Instantly a lot of very ancient weapons were unleashed, the main ones, as usual, being the theme of ‘She is unfeminine’, ‘She is a man-hater’. This particular reflex seems indestructible. Men – and many women, said that the suffragettes were de-feminized, masculine, brutalized. There is no record I have read of any society anywhere when women demanded more than nature offers them that does not also describe this reaction from men – and some women. A lot of women were angry about The Golden Notebook. What women will say to other women, grumbling in their kitchens and complaining and gossiping or what they make clear in their masochism, is often the last thing they will say aloud – a man may overhear. Women are the cowards they are because they have been semi-slaves for so long. The number of women prepared to stand up for what they really think, feel, experience with a man they are in love with is still small. Most women will still run like little dogs with stones thrown at them when a man says: You are unfeminine, aggressive, you are unmanning me. It is my belief that any woman who marries, or takes seriously in any way at all, a man who uses this threat, deserves everything she gets. For such a man is a bully, does to know anything about the world he lives in, or about its history… […] This business of seeing what I was trying to do – it brings me to the critics, and the danger of evoking a yawn. This sad bickering between writers and critics, playwrights and critics: the public have got so used to it they think, as of quarreling children: ‘Ah yes, dear little things, they are at it again.’ Or: ‘You writers get all the praise, or if not praise, at least all that attention- so why are you so perennially wounded?’ And the public are quite right. For reasons I won’t go into here, early and valuable experiences in my writing life gave me a sense of perspective about critics and reviewers … It is that writers are looking in the critics for an alter ego, that other self more intelligent than oneself who has seen what one is reaching for, and who judges you only by whether you have matched up to your aim or not. I have never yet met a writer who, faced at last with that rare being, a real critic, doesn’t lose all paranoia and become gratefully attentive – he has found what he thinks he needs. But what he, the writer, is asking is impossible. Why should he expect this extraordinary being, the perfect critic (who does occasionally exist), why should there be anyone else who comprehends what he is trying to do? After all, there is only one person spinning that particular cocoon, only one person whose business it is to spin it. It is not possible for reviewers and critics to provide what they purport to provide – and for which writers so ridiculously and childishly yearn. This is because the critics are not educated for it; their training is in the opposite direction. It starts when the child is as young as five or six, when he arrives at school. It starts with marks, rewards, ‘places’, ‘streams’, stars – and still in many places, stripes. This horse-race mentality, the victor and loser way of thinking, leads to ‘Writer X is, is not, a few paces ahead of Writer Y. Writer Y has fallen behind. In his last book Writer Z had shown himself as better than Writer A.’ From the very beginning the child is trained to think in this way: always in terms of comparison, of success, and of failure. It is a weeding-out system: the weaker get discouraged and fall out; a system designed to produce a few winners who are always in competition with each other. It is my belief – though this is not the place to develop this – and the talents every child has, regardless of his official ‘IQ’, could stay with him through life, to enrich him and everybody else, if these talents were not regarded as commodities with a value in the success-stakes. The other things taught from the start is to distrust one’s own judgment. Children are taught submission to authority, how to search for other people’s opinions and decisions, and how to quote and comply, As in the political sphere, the child is taught that he is free, a democrat, with a free will and a free mind, lives in a free country, makes his own decisions. At the same time he is a prisoner of the assumptions and dogmas of his time, which he does not question, because he has never been told they exist. By the time a young person has reached the age when he has to choose (we still take it for granted that a choice is inevitable) between the arts and the sciences, he often chooses the arts because he feels that here is humanity, freedom, choice. He does not know that he is already molded by a system, he does not know that the choice itself is the result of a false dichotomy rooted in the heart of our culture. Those who do sense this, and who don’t wish to subject themselves to further molding, tend to leave, in a half-unconscious, instinctive attempt to find work where they won’t be divided against themselves. With all our institutions, from the police force to academia, from medicine to politics, we give little attention to the people who leave – that process of elimination that goes on all the time and which excludes, very early, those likely to be original and reforming, leaving those attracted to a thing because that is what they are already like. A young policeman leaves the Force saying he doesn’t like what he has to do. A young teacher leaves teaching, her idealism snubbed. This social mechanism goes almost unnoticed – yet it is as powerful as any in keeping our institutions rigid and oppressive. These children who have spent years inside the training system becomes critics and reviewers, and cannot give what the author, the artist, so foolishly looks for – imaginative and original judgment. What they can do, and what they do very well, is to the writer how the book or play accords with current patterns of feeling and thinking – the climate of opinion. They are like litmus paper. They are wind gauges – invaluable. They are the most sensitive of barometers of public opinion. You can see changes of mood and opinion here sooner than anywhere except in the political field – it is because these are people whose whole education has been just that – to look outside themselves for their opinions, to adapt themselves to authority figures, to ‘received opinion’ – a marvelously revealing phrase. It may be that there is no other way of educating people. Possibly, but I don’t believe it. In the meantime it would be a help at least to describe things properly, to call things by their right names. Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others, will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself – educating your own judgment. Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being molded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.’ Like every other writer I get letters all the time from young people who are about to write theses and essays about my books in various countries – but particularly in the United States. They all say: ‘Please give me a list of the articles about your work, the critics who have written about you, the authorities.’ They also ask for a thousand details of total irrelevance, but which they have been taught to consider important, amounting to a dossier, like an immigration department’s. These requests I answer as follows: ‘Dear Student. You are mad. Why spend months and years writing thousands of words about one book, or even one writer, when there are hundreds of books waiting to be read. You don’t see that you are the victim of a pernicious system. And if you have yourself chosen my work as your subject, and if you do have to a write a thesis – and believe me I am very grateful that what I’ve written is being found useful by you – then why don’t you read what I have written and make up your own mind about what you think, testing it against your own life, your own experience. Never mind about Professors White and Black.’ ‘Dear Writer’ – they reply. ‘But I have to know what the authorities say, because if I don’t them, my professor won’t give me any marks.’ This is an international system, absolutely identical from the Urals to Yugoslavia, from Minnesota to Manchester. The point is, we are all so used to it, we no longer see how bad it is. I am not used to it, because I left school when I was fourteen. There was a time I was sorry for this, and believed I had missed out on something valuable. Now I am grateful for a lucky escape. […] You might be saying: This is an exaggerated reaction, and you have no right to it, because you say you have never been part of the system. But I think it is not at all exaggerated, and that the reaction of someone from outside is valuable simply because it is fresh and not biased by allegiance to a particular education. But after this investigation, I had no difficulty in answering my own questions: Why are they so parochial, so personal, so small-minded? Why do they always atomize, and belittle, why are they so fascinated by detail, and uninterested in the whole? Why is their interpretation of the word critic always to find fault? Why are they always seeing writers in conflict with each other, rather than complementing each other … simple, this is how they are trained to think. That valuable person who understands what you are doing, what you are aiming for, and give you advice and real criticism, is nearly always someone right outside the literary machine, even outside the university system; it may be a student just beginning, and still in love with literature, or perhaps it may be a thoughtful person who reads a great deal, following his own instinct. I say to these students who have to spend a year, two years, writing theses about one book: ‘There is only way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag – and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty – and vice-versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you. Remember that for all the books we have in print, are as many that have never reached print, have never been written down – even now, in this age of compulsive reverence for the written word, history, even social ethic, are taught by means of stories, and the people who have been conditioned into thinking only in terms of what is written – and unfortunately nearly all the products of our educational system can do no more than this – are missing what is before their eyes. For instance, the real history of Africa is still in the custody of black storytellers and wise men, black historians, medicine men: it is a verbal history, still kept safe from the white man and his predations. Everywhere, if you keep your mind open, you will find the truth in words not written down. So never let the printed page be your master. Above all, you should know that the fact that you have to spend one year, or two years, on one book or one author means that you are badly taught – you should have been taught to read your way from one sympathy to another, you should be learning to follow your own intuitive feeling about what you need: that is what you should have been developing, not the way to quote from other people’.