Thursday, April 2, 2009

Briefing for a Descent into Hell

Briefing for a Descent into Hell
Doris Lessing
228 pages
Vintage (1981)
First published, 1971

"Sometimes when you read a book or story, the words are dead, you struggle to end it or put it down, your attention is distracted. Another time, with exactly the same book or story, it is full of meaning, every sentence or phrase or even word seems to vibrate with messages and ideas, reading is like being pumped full of adrenalin." (p.155)

You don't say, Doris. The title alone should be enough to tell you that Nobel-winner Lessing's 1971 novel isn't going to be an easy read, and the first 100 pages are a very hard slog indeed. This is one of the few books I have almost turned away from in frustration (I normally finish everything I start). But it's worth the effort.

This self-declared "inner-space fiction" narrates the gradual "recovery" of amnesiac Charles Watkins, a Cambridge Classics Professor who is hospitalized after being found wandering along the London Embankment. The narrative alternates between Watkins' inner world and the efforts of his doctors and friends to revive him.

Lessing has been accused of trivializing mental illness here, but the charge carries no weight. She isn't attempting to articulate the experience of amnesia, nor of delusional psychosis. Her aim is philosophical. The further we go into the novel, the more we come to realize that Watkins may not, in fact, be ill at all - rather, the human condition may be his "illness" and his breakdown is actually a kind of waking up. What emerges is a view of the world in which identity is conditional, all matter is a unified system, and "time is the whole point". The "Hell" of the title may not be mental illness - it may be life as it is lived in the supposedly real world.

Of course, Lessing can give no definitive answer to such philosophical questions, but her exploration is powerful and increasingly sharp. Once we leave Watkins' inner world and he is asked to write about his experiences, Lessing's narrative elevates to a level of startling lucidity. The stories Watkins writes about his apparent wartime experience in Yugoslavia, and what he can see from the window of his Cambridge study, are both beautiful and profound. They make the philosophical point far better than any academic essay ever could.

And what is the point? It's a particular understanding of reality. As Lessing's epigraphs - one from a fourteenth-century Sufi mystic, the other from a twentieth-century marine biologist - neatly show, we tend to think of spirituality and science as heading in opposite directions, but they may in fact be inching ever closer together. No, the conclusion is not that God actually exists as some old man sitting up there in heaven, but rather that the ancients' intuitive understanding of the nature of reality, and their poetic expression of such, is startlingly similar to a lot of what quantum physics is telling us about space-time today. Much of human suffering may stem from an inability to see our world and ourselves in the right way. Readers engaged by this kind of thinking might also enjoy "Valis" by Philip K. Dick.

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