The date on this post will probably say November 18, but that will be a lie as far as the day Doris Lessing died, which is actually today, the 17th, here in America. I want to point this out first because Doris Lessing is among the greatest writers I’ve ever read, and I want to do her justice by getting the date right; and I also think it’s appropriate to start out a blog post about her by pointing out the arbitrary nature of language and its inherent inability to achieve its own ideal of absolute, clear, effective communication exactly because the whole thing is made up and only exists because we all pretend it does.. If you didn’t know, Lessing was a postmodern novelist.
I have two of Lessing’s books in my room, but I’ve only read one so far–the 700+ page The Golden Notebook. I read it for the final and most challenging English class of my life, Senior Seminar: The Postmodern Encyclopedic Novel, with Professor Chapman, and it got a hold of me to the point that I didn’t even have much of a problem powering through the whole thing over a few weeks of being a full time student with two and a half campus jobs. I even wrote my twenty-page final paper on it.
When my dad and I were driving back home from visiting my sister one weekend, he asked me about the biblically sized copy I was reading, and I think I described reading it as “a really interesting and natural conversation with someone who’s way smarter than you.” It’s not the kind of book that has much of a followable plot, and it doesn’t really care to try at it that much. How are you supposed to do that with 700 pages anyway? But it is the kind of book who’s writing alone makes you keep going just to know what Lessing (or Anna, I suppose) is going to say next and how she’s going to say it–at least if you’re a big-idea obsessed nerd like me with a general distaste for flowery poetics in his reading. The Golden Notebook lured that nerd in me like it was written out of an inspirational flash of destiny in which I geeked out about it for about twenty-five hours of writing in my last two weeks of school.
This brilliant postmodernist metanarrative is a novel about novels, and how novels can’t be novels in the way they want to be novels. Following twenty or so years of fictional novelist Anna Wolfe’s life, from being a communist activist in the British African colonies to being a writer’s block-stricken novelist skating through life on the success of her first and only book, The Golden Notebook gets a little on-the-nose about what it’s about, but I think I love it even more for the fact. If a less skilled writer than Lessing tried something like this, it would be insufferable, but of course Anna Wolfe is going to say something exactly like this in her notebooks after she tries to get into writing again, this time about a prolonged love affair finally ending:
As soon as one has lived through something, it falls into a pattern. And the pattern of an affair, even one that has lasted five years and has been as close as a marriage, is seen in terms of what ends it. That is why all this is untrue. Because while living through something one doesn’t think like that at all.
Supposing I were to write it like this: two full days, in every detail, one at the beginning of the affair, and one towards the end? No, because I would still be instinctively isolating and emphasizing the factors that destroyed the affair. It is that which would give the thing its shape. Otherwise it would be chaos, because these two days, separated by many months in time, would have no shadow over them, but would be records of a simple unthinking happiness with perhaps a couple of jarring moments — which in fact would be reflections of the approaching end but which would not be felt like that at the time — moments swallowed in the happiness.
Without repeating my entire final paper, the nature of experience is infinite and unmanageable chaos until we use something like language to try to give it meaningful shape. But without the infinite and unmanageable chaos, it’s not truly the experience anymore. It’s a nicely wrapped up, abstracted package we can deliver to one another, but it is ultimately something less, and infinitely so, than the thing it’s trying to represent. Ideas like beginning, middle, ending, and any other arbitrary, after-the-fact impositions of language fall short by necessity, because we just can’t deal with the totality of reality and experience without the arbitrary abstraction of language. (I could get further into how, following from that, language is what we use to create self-identity and thus the arbitrary abstraction of narrative is what makes up the self, and then everything that follows from that; but you can just ask to read my final paper if you’re really interested. It was one of the two papers Chapman gave me an A on, so, you never know, it might not be bad ;P.)
Lessing was a pretty brilliant person, and we’re lucky that her brilliance lasted until she was 94. I don’t expect anyone to feel compelled by curiosity and reverence to pick up The Golden Notebook as a leisurely read, but she’s worth having a thought about today.