Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing

Before I begin my griping on what some may find to be a point unrelated to the novel itself, let me say that The Golden Notebook is astonishing on every level; I have read few novels which strike me both emotionally and intellectually with equal force. Which is not to say that it is a "novel of ideas" or a "novel of emotions"—if I were to think of a book I would feel almost comfortable calling "a pure novel" (a term which I inveterately distrust), this would be it. I certainly don't guarantee its appeal to all audiences—I imagine the repetitious dilations on the nature of activity within the Communist Party or among socialists will seem merely repetitious to some, and the swirling cast of deficient men provoked more than a few sighs of frustration from me—but I imagine there will be some readers who, like me, will like it a lot.

Onto the gripe.

In her 1971 introduction, Lessing says [I'm going to skip around a bit in the introduction, but it will be better, I think, just to get all the quotes I want together now rather than spread them out over a number of paragraphs]:
[T]he book was instantly belittled, by friendly reviewers as well as by hostile ones, as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war… But this novel was not a trumpet for Women's Liberation… Some books are not read in the right way because they have skipped a stage of opinion, assume a crystallisation of information in society which has not yet taken place. This book was written as if the attitudes that have been created by the Women's Liberation movements already existed… I was so immersed in writing this book, that I didn't think about how it might be received… Emerging from this crystallising process [of intense focus purely on the writing of the novel], handing the manuscript to publisher and friends, I learned that I had written a tract about the sex war, and fast discovered that nothing I said then could change that diagnosis.
I naturally chafe at the sound of an author asserting her sole and sovereign ability to interpret her book, but I think this particular instance (the introduction as a whole and these lines specifically) is a fairly egregious example. Lessing's book is, after all, about the condition that was called the sex war in the media and in the popular imagination of the time—it is about the ethical and rhetorical conflict of whether or not women could define themselves in ways not controlled or determined by men. What her disavowal of that theme (or its centrality) performs is not so much an effort to redefine the novel's content as it is an assertion of its unrelatedness to the other events, persons, and statements that created the context of the "sex war." That is, Lessing is trying less to deny that the novel is about a conflict between men and women than she is trying to say that her depiction of that conflict has nothing whatsoever to do with, for instance, Billie Jean King playing and beating Bobby Riggs. Her novel is, in other words, about what the "sex war" was about, but it is not "a novel about the sex war." It is a novel about the same object, but emphatically not the same context.

That denial of context is placed in time in an interesting (if rather clichéd) way: it has "skipped a stage of opinion," a notion which has a strong and doubtlessly intentional Marxian undertone to it. Lessing's novel can have no context because it is not a novel that is produced within the current stage; it is thus inevitably misread, since no one (evidently) can read as if they existed in the next stage—one can only skip a stage by writing. This elevation of the author carries a blunt force of intimidation: arguing against it makes you automatically retrograde, reactionary, blinkered and provincial.

Lessing therefore allows herself to resent the novel's use as a "weapon in the sex war" (a locution which again recalls Marxism's "art as a weapon in the class struggle") without thinking of herself as breaking solidarity with women because her novel simply isn't of the same time, and therefore any use of it for any purpose—no matter how noble or correct—is inappropriate as long as it remains locked within the stage which the novel already skipped. It is not a question of politics or even of art, but a question of time: it was simply not time for the novel to be used.

I think, as you might imagine, that this is kind of bullshit. For one thing, I question the whole idea that a political use of a book absolutely negates its aesthetic value (the basic fear which necessitates Lessing's removal of her book into another time). This view probably has everything to do with her immersion in the doctrines of socialist realism, but what is obvious about her cutting observations of the products of that genre is that aesthetics is never truly suspended by politics, no matter how firm one's commitments are. Politicized novels may be evaluated publicly on extra-aesthetic grounds, but few if any are ever able to evaluate any work of art privately in the total absence of aesthetic considerations; in private, I feel, we are able to marry politics and aesthetics in our readings in a way impossible in public. Keeping trust in that private fusion of aesthetics and politics should have assured her that many (obviously not all, but many) would in fact appreciate it in its moment for its aesthetic qualities. And since private considerations and evaluations of novels play a large—if nebulous—role in their survival past their social or political moment, Lessing should have been more confident that if her novel was in fact "good," the political uses to which it was put were not an ultimate threat to its future appreciation.

Second, I am deeply suspicious of Lessing's implicit idea that the use of her book as a "weapon" was the prime conditioning or even determining factor in its reception. Lessing seems to have thought that if the novel weren't immediately politicized and put to use for Women's Lib then it might have gotten a more positive or more sensitive reception among the men who found themselves being criticized by its female (and some male—John Leonard was a big proponent) readers, but I sincerely doubt this would have been the case, or that any such case is likely. Being brandished by feminists didn't send any messages that the patriarchy couldn't have read by itself. The themes which she preferred the book to be known for—the themes of the artist, of breakdowns and healing, of the experience of intellectual life in socialist circles at mid-century—would have been buried no matter to what use others put it by the very fact that its author was a woman. Lessing even admits as much when she says, "Of course this attempt on my part assumed that that filter which is a woman's way of looking at life has the same validity as the filter which is a man's way… setting that problem aside, or rather, not even considering it…" (my emphasis).

As I said, though, it is very tempting to read the novel on Lessing's terms—as a sort of "pure novel," much more so than many another novel of its scope or ambition. I have referenced Thomas Mann a number of times recently on this blog I think, and perhaps it is just that Mann's novels (The Magic Mountain, especially) exist for me as a sort of ur-text of intellectual novel-making (biographically speaking, Mann's novels were among the first I read in college), but not only are his novels also the closest to what I would feel almost comfortable calling "pure," but Lessing herself uses him in this way: "Thomas Mann, the last of the writers in the old sense, who used the novel for philosophical statements about life." Why not stand with Lessing (and Mann) and assert the artist's inviolability to politics? Why can't we, at the very least, have a few novels which we don't fight over politically? There are already quite enough which are given over wholly to politics anyway; why can't we keep a special preserve for the novels which we just want to read and love and re-read and re-love, a sort of arboretum for pure art?

I have to go back to my first objection to Lessing to answer that: politics does not harm aesthetics—not finally. In discrete public moments when the novel is used as a whipping-boy or as a bludgeon for one partisan cause or another, yes, maybe it does, but I am confident that these blows are never mortal. That is why, I feel, I can both ultimately disagree with Lessing's political quietude at the close of the novel and ultimately appreciate its place in the whole.

1 comment:

Kerry said...

You've almost convinced me to read it - unfortunately I have to finish Buddenbrooks first and have a backlog of other German novels to read after that, but maybe...