Dorris Lessing, Free Spirit

Posted: Oct 29, 2007 12:01 AM
Dorris Lessing, Free Spirit

The picture in the New York Times showed an 88-year-old woman sitting on her door stoop in London holding armfuls of bouquets and surrounded by other floral tributes. Not as attractive as the flowers are the cameras, booms, mikes, reporters, cameramen and the other inevitable accessories to fame all around her. Hand to forehead, pondering some inane question or another ("How does it feel to win the Nobel prize for literature?"), she looked a little tired. Like a grandma at the end of a long day, maybe a long life.

Doris Lessing clearly had better things to do than pose for pictures or dispense the kind of instant wisdom that is expected on these occasions. Better things like going inside and answering the phone. All of her friends would have been calling. One of the great things about winning a great prize is sharing the good news with old friends. It must be almost as satisfying as imagining the reaction of one's enemies - though at 88 surely Ms. Lessing has outlived most of them.

Not that the lady didn't have her share of snippy critics. Writers like her do. Because she hasn't been predictable. No one political party, school of thought or interest group could count on her. She's ideologically unreliable. She's belonged to no one but herself.

Having survived the 20th century, which is no mean feat, our newest and oldest Nobel laureate has come out of Africa but, like so many of her generation, she's got a European education. That is, she's seen a lot of death and destruction over her long life. Death may not always educate but it does harden. No wonder she told an interviewer the other day that, though the attacks of September 11th were terrible, they were not as extraordinary as Americans think. "They're a very naive people," she said of us Americans, "or they pretend to be."

Why not both? We are both naive and we hold onto our naivete in the hope that the world is a better place than it appeared September 11, 2001.

Shielded for so long by two oceans and God's mysterious grace ("God looks after fools, drunkards and the United States of America"), we have become as vulnerable as the rest of the world but don't want to be. There have been some notable exceptions to our golden past - slavery, the near-extinction of the American Indian, and that unpleasantness circa 1861-65 - but we still have trouble recognizing evil as it gathers, or even when it is upon us. And so our reaction to it keeps veering between astounded panic and familiar laxity.

The more far-seeing of our leaders have told us that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, but eternal is a long time. We grow tired. We nod off. Maybe if we ignore the threat, it will go away. We miss our isolation and imagine we can return there, retreat behind our oceans and be safe. It is a temptation, and every time we yield to it, we are shocked awake. It is taking us painfully long to lose our innocence, maybe because we fear, rightly, that we may lose our idealism with it. That's the American dilemma Doris Lessing was referring to in her own provocative way.

By now Ms. Lessing seems to have tried her hand at almost every form of literature - essays, plays, fiction and non-fiction, realistic novels and silly sci-fi, incisive criticism and insipid mysticism, plus a couple of volumes of autobiography. But the one thing she could never carry off was cant. Sloganeering. Groupthink. You know, the kind of thing you hear on talk shows or in Congress or at national nominating conventions.

Maybe her allergy to the banal came from never having had much formal schooling - she never finished high school - and having to educate herself by reading, reading, reading. You learn to think for yourself that way.

Born in what was then Persia, raised in what is now Zimbabwe, Doris Lessing went through a couple of marriages and ideologies, and settled in what is still London, thank God. Like her locales, her loyalties shifted with time and events as she saw through one ideological fraud after another, from racism to Communism to political correctness. Call her a free agent.

Born Doris May Taylor in 1919, she could never stand being cooped up, physically or mentally. Long before she won a Nobel, she received an even greater honor from the now defunct regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa, both of which declared her a "prohibited alien" in the 1950s, when apartheid was still in the saddle and riding the backs of millions. Now that's recognition.

A great writer is always a subversive influence, a threat to things to as they corruptly are, a kind of one-person government-in-exile. And like V.S. Naipaul, Doris Lessing didn't let up just because the color of the racists changed.

She wrote from a woman's point of view, not a professional feminist's, which earned her a certain enmity among those who wanted to make feminism an all-encompassing ideology complete with the dense, indecipherable gibberish that a modern ideology demands.

Afer she left the Communist Party - the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was the last, eye-opening piece of evidence she needed to make the break - the comsymps in British academia never forgave her. Ex-Communists make the best anti-Communists, and Ms. Lessing joined a long, distinguished line that goes back to Arthur Koestler and Whittaker Chambers.

And once Communism itself collapsed years later, she recognized that its habits of mind, or rather mindlessness, were being transferred to the disciples of political correctness.

Ms. Lessing's little essay, "Questions You Should Never Ask a Writer," written in 1992, remains an incisive expose of PC long before many others realized what a self-censoring, mentally paralyzing, totalitarian throwback it is. She ended that essay with this explanation for the rise of Political Correctness: "I am sure that millions of people, the rug of Communism pulled out from under them, are searching frantically, and perhaps not even knowing it, for another dogma."

Doris Lessing understood that certainty will always have its attractions; it saves people the labor of thought. Certainty was never an attraction for her. Quite the contrary. She was repelled by it; she saw it as the trap it is. And from an early age she resolved never to be trapped. She hasn't been.

Over the course of a long life, the lady developed an unfailing ability to see through the fraud du jour. Again and again, her independence offended precisely those who most needed offending at the time. True Believers of every persuasion were her natural prey.

Ms. Lessing may be long past her peak as a writer, but her eye for the fraudulent is as clear as ever. This latest honor is just a grace note. The Nobel Prize has something of a history of honoring the less than honorable. When it goes to a Naipaul or a Lessing, it redeems itself rather than the writer.