Thursday, September 27, 2012

Readings: When Lessing is More


At the time of the death of Norman Mailer, a writer under whose influence, both in terms of literature and in terms of culture, I came of age, I posted this angry piece on Rodak Riffs. I thought at the time that the Nobel Prize committee had made a terrible unforced error in choosing Doris Lessing over Mailer for the literature prize. I am no longer so sure of that.

The reason for my tentative change of heart is that I have begun reading Lessing’s Canopus in Argos:Archives, a sequence in which the first novel is Re: Colonised Planet 5 Shikasta. I have begun reading Shikasta as a result of a conversation on Facebook involving my reading of Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis. This led me to Lessing’s novel sequence. I am about one-third of the way through the first book, having borrowed the first three from the library, and I am very impressed. The following brief excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Lessing will give you enough background on the nature of the sequence to save me the trouble:

When asked about which of her books she considers most important, Lessing chose the Canopus in Argos sequence. These novels present an advanced interstellar society's efforts to accelerate the evolution of other worlds, including Earth. […] Using Sufi concepts, to which Lessing had been introduced in the mid-1960s by her "good friend and teacher" Idries Shah,  the series of novels also owes much to the approach employed by the early 20th century mystic G. I. Gurdjieff in his work All and Everything.

So what we basically have in the Canopus sequence is a “chariot of the gods” scenario, with Shikasta—the fallen planet—representing Earth; Canopus standing in for “heaven” and the evil planet Shammat and its agents representing “hell” and the demonic forces.

It has been insights like the one below concerning the evolution of religion that have made Shikasta so rewarding for me, thus far:

            During the entire period under review, religions of any kind flourished. Those that concern us most here took their shape from the lives or verbal formulations of our envoys. This happened more often than not, and can be taken as a rule: every one of our public cautioners left behind a religion, or cult, and many of the unknown ones did, too.
            These religions had two main aspects. The positive one, at their best: a stabilization of the culture, preventing the worst excesses of brutality, exploitation, and greed. The negative: a priesthood manipulating rules, regulations, with punitive inflexibility; sometimes allowing, or exacerbating, excesses of brutality, exploitation, and greed. These priesthoods distorted what was left of our envoys’ instruction, if it was understood by them at all, and created a self-perpetuating body of individuals totally identified with their invented ethics, rules, beliefs, and who were always the worst enemies of any envoys we sent.
            These religions were a main difficulty in the way of maintaining Shikasta in our system.
            They have often been willing agents of Shammat.

This passage expresses succinctly and precisely what I had already come to believe concerning the nature of professional priesthoods and organized religion.

So I have reevaluated Lessing’s contribution to literary culture and her body of work. If my enthusiasm for this series continues to grow, I intend to go back and read more of her work. I read The Golden Notebook way back in my Ann Arbor days and liked it. And I have read a few of her novels—The Fifth Child comes mind—since; but not many. That may now change.