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THE COMMON READER
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From the Editor

golden1Doris Lessing has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and it is a wonderful excuse to return to The Golden Notebook (1962).  But it is like we have never left it in the first place -- it is the book that, in practice and execution, names all the things that became the parlor words of the academy 20 years later -- Post-modern, indeed Multicultural, Marxist, Feminist, New Historical, Post-colonial, Rhetorical, but the book is just an old-fashioned autobiographical novel, too, (perhaps her most autobiographical) like the 18th century English; and it is a 19th century philosophical novel like the venerable Gods of the novel Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, or Stendahl, and it is a good ol' 20th century Realist novel like the Americans Sinclair and Dos Passos.  All things to all people, for people only see what they're looking for anyway.  For true enough, dear reader,  The Golden Notebook is also part discussion part exhibition of the art of fiction -- the old arguments of subjectivity, of how personal history and history become the fabric of the novel.  Yet, remarkably, the book is all and none of these things, for Lessing is a critical writer aware of the social-personal margins that put people at odds with orders and systematized anything.

Rather, she seems satisfied [justified] to write books about the times.  Look: Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth is published in 1961, translated into English in 1963; Raymond Williams publishes Culture and Society in 1958; Foucault's Madness and Civilization in 1961; John Barth and Thomas Pynchon are writing their experimental meta-fictions in the late 50s and early 60s.  And in the same year of 1962, Anthony Burgess publishes A Clockwork Orange.

lessing2Reading The Golden Notebook 45 years after its first publication and 20 years after I read it for the first time, it is still a stunning read.  At first claimed by the feminists as finally a book produced by an intelligent woman filtering her view of the world legitimately, poignantly, powerfully.  Clumsily, one could say she is the Virginia Woolf of her time, but still that could not touch her, but only pander to quick gender perspective and the categorization she despises, just one reason she rejected the feminist label.  Liberation is what she is after, believing, like the ancients did, in the power and magic of words, and that there is truth -- a universal one human beings share that can lead to freedom.

But these are generalities. Her statements from the author's Introduction to The Golden Notebook, the 1971 Simon and Schuster edition, about truth and freedom speak plain enough.

"From the very beginning the child is trained to think in this way: always in terms of comparison, of success, and of failure.  It is a weeding out system: the weaker get discouraged and fall out; a system designed to produce a few winners who are always in competition with each other.  It is my belief ... that the talents every child has, regardless of his official 'IQ' could stay with him through life, to enrich him and everybody else, if these talents were not regarded as commodities with value in the success-stakes. ... The other thing taught from the start is to distrust one's own judgement." ...

lessing1"Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his school life is something like this:  'You are in the process of being indoctrinated.  We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not system of indoctrination.  We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture.  The slightest look at history will show you how impermanent these must be.  You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors.  It is a self-perpetuating system.  Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself -- educating your own judgements.  Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this partciular society."

goodterrorist[Whew]

"... the child is taught that he is free, a democrat, with a free will and a free mind, lives in a free country, makes his own decisions.  At the same time he is a prisoner of the assumptions and dogmas of his time, which he does not question because he has never been told they exist.  By the time a young person has reached the age when he has to choose (we still take for granted that choice is inevitable) between the arts and the sciences, he often chooses the arts because he feels that here is humanity, freedom, choice.  He does not know that he is already moulded by a system: he doesn't know that the choice itself is the result of a false dichotomy rooted in the heart of our culture.  Those who do sense this, and who don't wish to subject themselves further moulding, tend to leave, in a half-conscious, instinctive attempt to find work where they won't be divided against themselves."

For other good Lessing reads, see The Good Terrorist (1985)and Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) or The Four-Gated City (1969) and perhaps all the others too.  For a good brief bio see.  One further reader note: If the case can be made that all literature is multicultural, Lessing's work makes the case.


 
--Tom Douglass

Editor:Tom Douglass

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Copyright © 2005, ECU  Department of English.