There’s a strong argument to suggest that all humans, across the planet and throughout time, have three perpetual hurdles to face. Firstly and obviously there is the material hurdle – the challenge to feed and shelter oneself, to make ends meet and to provide a standard of living close to the local norm. Secondly, there is the challenge to navigate through the minefield of relationships; parents, siblings, offspring, friends, partners and colleagues. And if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, there is an ever present existential angst to contend with, generally kept at bay through some combination of ideology, religion or dearly held projects. But try as we might, we never seem to overcome any of these hurdles. They seem to be hot wired into the human DNA. Leap over one and inevitably crash into another. Materially, even the very rich are forever looking over their shoulders waiting nervously for unforeseen events to wipe out their dubiously acquired wealth and status. And for the rest of us, it’s a daily grind to stay one step ahead of the bailiffs. And of course, nobody is ever immune from the realm of chaos that is human relationships and human purpose. In her towering novel, ‘The Golden Notebook’, Doris Lessing, while somewhat side-stepping the material hurdles of life, is quite majestic in the way she explores that interwoven tapestry of human relationships and human purpose.

Set in the UK in 1950’s, in the shadow of a post-Stalin traumatised world-wide communist movement, a virulent anti-communist US McCarthyism, a growing anti-colonial sentiment in Africa, and the first serious stirrings of a western feminist consciousness, Lessing superbly explores it all. Her characters are painfully credible and although written some fifty years ago, remain strangely contemporary. And so they should. The communist movement is still in profound crisis, the US anti-communist sentiment is as strong as ever, the ramifications of European colonialism in Africa are still being played out, and the struggles of women to confront millennia of patriarchy and outright misogyny are ongoing. So it seems that even after fifty years of ‘progress’, Lessing’s themes are as relevant as ever. And of course, existential angst never goes away, it merely changes form.

I mentioned earlier that Lessing was lightweight on the material struggle for survival and its implications for human consciousness. That is surprising given Lessing’s own close connections to the communist party and its materialist ideology. Most of her central characters are middle class and somewhat removed from the daily grind of economic survival. She gets it spot on when it comes to the plight of Africans still living under the yoke of European colonialism but when it comes to England most of her characters are consumed more by their turbulent relationships than with actually earning a living. Anna Wulf, Lessing’s central character and probably Lessing’s alter-ego naively proclaims;

‘I am not worried about money, being short of money has never in my life upset me, I’m not afraid of being poor, and anyway one can always earn it if one sets one’s mind to it.’ P486

Only someone that has never experienced real and ingrained poverty would express such an absurdity. Whether this is Lessing’s view or just an aspect of Anna Wulf’s character is not entirely clear, but either way, for me it represents one of the very few failings of this titanic work. But this aside, the ambition of Lessing’s novel is truly staggering. Lessing, via her Anna Wulf creation, sets out to explore not only the political dimension but how the individual responds to the political world. 

In staid Marxist terms Lessing may well be accused of lapsing into self-indulgence and subjectivity, but anyone who has passed through the communist movement in any way will recognise much validity in what Lessing has to offer. The dialectic between the objective material conditions and the subjective response to those conditions is unravelled mercilessly. Personal egos are put under the microscope and nothing and nobody is spared. It must have made for some very uncomfortable reading back in the sixties and still today I can imagine a quite a few communists squirming should they dare to read Lessing’s deconstruction of motives and egos. Here is typical sample of Lessing’s damning portrayal of the western ‘revolutionary leader’;

‘But to return to Willi. He was the emotional centre of our sub-group, and had been, before the split, the centre of the big sub-group, and had been, before the split, the centre of the big group – another strong man, similar to Willi, was now leading the other sub-group. Willi was centre because of his absolute certainty that he was right. He was a master of dialectic; could be very subtle and intelligent in diagnosing a social problem, could be, even in the next sentence, stupidly dogmatic. And as time went on, he became steadily more heavy minded. Yet the odd thing was that people continued to revolve around him, people much subtler than he, even when they knew he was talking nonsense.’ P84  

How I love that passage. How I can picture so many would-be ‘great leaders’ who fit that description perfectly. And how cleverly Lessing damns the followers as much as the leaders. Somehow I doubt if this passage will ever date.

Lessing’s description of the political struggle to create a less cruel world is paradoxically both depressing and uplifting at the very same time. And it is her mastery of that relentless dialectic that makes this novel so captivating five decades on. This is how Lessing sums up the political struggle;

‘There’s a great black mountain. It’s human stupidity. There are a group of people who push a boulder up the mountain. When they’ve got a few feet up, there’s a war, or the wrong sort of revolution, and the boulder rolls down – not to the bottom, it always manages to end a few inches higher than when it started. So the group of people put their shoulders to the boulder and start pushing again. Meanwhile at the top of the mountain stand a few great men. Sometimes they look down and nod and say: Good, the boulder pushers are still on duty. But meanwhile they are meditating  about the nature of space, or what it will be like when the world is full of people who don’t hate and fear and murder.’ P544

A statement of supreme optimism or supreme gloom? Part of the genius of the Anna Wulf character is that it is both, and simultaneously at that. The novel is full of such insights and nothing has transpired in the last fifty years to render these words either outdated or obsolete. A few inches at a time is not a lot to be clinging on to but nevertheless, generation after generation, we do seem to produce another group of boulder pushers. Is the black mountain of human stupidity being eroded away by human political activity?  Almost impossible to answer that question from the murky vantage point of the battlefield. But judging from the grim daily headlines of hatred, stupidity and war, the black mountain is not going anywhere anytime soon. If there are indeed some wise men and women at the top of the mountain perhaps they can see some movement, but I somehow doubt it. I don’t put much faith in special groups of wise men and somehow I doubt if Doris Lessing did either. 

The Golden Notebook moves effortlessly between the political war for human progress and the ongoing war between men and women. And it is easy to make the case that the two are not unrelated. A good part of that black mountain of human stupidity has been the millennia of violent patriarchy which, east and west, shows little sign of abating. For Lessing, men are portrayed as both predatory and dysfunctional, while her women characters tend to be both emotionally intelligent yet still victims of those predatory and dysfunctional men.  Appropriately, as befits the real world, nothing is resolved in the novel either in the political sphere or the realm of human relationships. The fate of ‘free women’ is as precarious today as it was in the 1950’sand 60’s. The pressures on women to live a safe monogamous and suburban life are as strong as ever. As in Lessing’s novel, a few try to create a different reality but whether they feel any’ freer’ is a debatable point. Whichever road we take, man or woman, those three hurdles are sure to trip up us sooner or later. That is the price we pay for the mixed blessing of human consciousness. And for Doris Lessing’s contribution to that consciousness, we should all be most grateful.

End JPK copyright 3/9/14

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Last Updated ( Saturday, 06 September 2014 15:43 )