Prisons We Choose to Live Inside – A Book Review

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, 1985, by Doris Lessing
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The writer Doris Lessing died recently in November.  She was 94 — born just after the end of WWI, only 15 years or so after the Wright brothers made their first airplane flights.  She lived on into our days of computers, the Internet and smartphones.  Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.  The Nobel committee described her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.”

She is perhaps best known for The Golden Notebook in 1962 which was embraced by the feminist movement, and which is said to chronicle the life of women in a fragmented society, as they struggle through emotional and intellectual chaos.  Interestingly, Lessing refused the feminist label.  She was to write, “Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women?”

My familiarity with her writing is not through that book or through some feminist lens, but by bumping up against her more esoteric and science fictional writings.

Back when I was reading William Irwin Thompson’s works, and listening to his talks while at Lindisfarne, he often cited Doris Lessing’s novels as examples of “planetary culture.”  (See notes at the end if you’re curious about what “planetary culture” might mean.)

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

Lessing’s novel Briefing for a Descent Into Hell was her work that most influenced, and reinforced, Bill Thompson’s thinking.   In Bill’s book Passages About Earth, he writes: “Whatever failings the book has as a novel…, it is an incredible act of seership and clairvoyance.”

He goes on, “Lessing moves out of our conventional world view to see a different universe, a universe that is, in fact, the paradigm of the new science and the new world of our emerging planetary culture.”

Lessing herself has called the book “inner space fiction — for there is never anywhere to go but in.”  In brief, the story is about an educated man, a sensitive man, sensitive and perceptive perhaps of a wider universe than we are usually aware of, and his treatment by psychiatrists and the medical establishment with drugs and contradictory methods that reflect the narrow world of the conventional in society and science.  There is much more to it than that, of course, which the reader may determine to examine on their own.

I did read it, and to my recollection did not understand all that she meant to say.  But it made enough of an impression on me that in later years I went on to read several of  her Canopus in Argus series, which although deliberately set out as science fiction, were what she called a framework to “explore ideas and sociological possibilities.”  (She reminds me of Ursula Le Guin in this way.)

The first novel of that series, for instance, called Shikasta, has been summarized as: “A secret history of Earth from the perspective of the advanced Canopus civilisation that is thinking in eons rather than centuries. The history spans from the very beginning of life into our own future. The book ends with a metaphorical telling of the trial of Socrates.”

The Prisons We Choose

When I heard of her death, I realized I wanted to experience again the unadorned clear independence of her voice.  I came across this series of lectures, a collection of essays really, from 1985, called Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, only 76 pages long.  They form one series of what are called the Massey Lectures, which are in part sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), analogous to Britain’s BBC.  The Massey Lectures typically are a venue for various intellectuals and writers, such as Margaret Atwood, R.D. Laing and John Ralston Saul.  They were, and are, something like TED lectures before the Internet allowed that forum to be.

The first lecture is entitled “When in Future They Look Back On Us”, and sets the tone for the other four essays.

A lot of her focus is on the irrationality of what we humans choose to believe and to act on.  She tells stories of a farmer who slaughtered a prize bull for in effect, being a bull, or a tree  “executed” for being associated with a disgraced general.

“I think when people look back at our time, they will be amazed at one thing more than any other.  It is this – that we do know more about ourselves now than people did in the past.  But that very little of it has been put into effect.  There has been this great explosion of information about ourselves.  The information is the result of mankind’s still infant ability to look at itself objectively.  It concerns our behaviour patterns.”

She wants to strengthen her historical, objective eye, she says, so she has considered long and hard this matter of how we might seem to people who come after us.

She notes that the passionate and powerful convictions of one era can be completely overturned in the next.  Lessing gives the example from the Second World War, while the Soviet Union was deemed an ally against Hitler, how affectionately that country was regarded in popular opinion.  During the ensuing Cold War, of course that kind of feeling became completely un-American and considered treasonous.

Lessing, although born in what is now Iran, grew up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in southern Africa.  She moved to London when she turned 30.

The Enjoyment of War

She returned much later to Zimbabwe after what was in effect a race war there “that was very much uglier and more savage than we were ever told.”  Lessing found that many, especially former combatants on both sides, appeared to be in stunned, almost blank states of shock.  She attributed this to the participants’ knowledge of what we as humans are capable of, and the difficulty of taking this in.

But for the purpose of her discussion, the more interesting fact was that many fighters on both sides, black and white, had thoroughly enjoyed the war. It enabled them to put qualities they valued to full use in the midst of extreme brutality.

“People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first, secret, unacknowledged elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is beating … an awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad.   Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it.”

I have even experienced this, or something like it, on the verge of a riot, although still far away from the strength of passions that give rise to war.

After wars of course, everything becomes sentimentalized, and no one really speaks truly of the physical and psychological damage caused both to the soldiers and civilians.  Perhaps a sign of the damage is how difficult it becomes to address it.  We are left with the subtle glorifications of war that go on constantly and culminate each year in such rituals as Veterans Day.

Lessing says: Beware talk of “blood” in public or political discourse — it is a sign of reason about to make its departure.

Lessing notes psychological experiments that were well known even at the time of these essays that show how easily people can fall into the traps that catch mobs.  She cites one experiment where a large number of people from a town adjoining a university were invited to a large open area by a team of psychologists.   The townspeople showed up, but the psychologists couldn’t be found.  Two camps formed as to what the situation was and what needed to be done.  Conflict arose, tempers flared.  Young men started pushing and shoving.

After this rather arrogant social experiment, one of the psychologists came forward.  As Lessing describes it, the psychologist said, “You, the crowd, have only been here for a couple of hours and already you are separated into two camps, with leaders, and each side sees itself as a repository of all good, and the other camp as at the best wrong-headed.  And you were on the point of fighting about absolutely non-existent differences.”  And there are similar experiments that come to my mind about how simply putting a colored armband on people easily leads to division, strife and suffering.

“You are Damned, We are Saved”

The entire point of her lectures, Lessing says, is that we should not be surprised by this behaviour and all the examples of similar mis-applied passion.  This should be expected.  But we should “build what we know from history and from the laws of society we already have into how we structure our institutions.”  Unfortunately she does not go into great detail into how this might be done.

She does rely on the minority who do not always join the herd, who are not afraid to be independent in thought and deed.  She recommends that we should be thinking of ways “to educate our children to strengthen this minority and not, as we mostly do now, to revere the pack.”

Lessing describes her own time as a young woman when she became for a while a devout communist, and the groups of which she was a part believed that because of communism, everyone in the world could soon be living in harmony, love, plenty and peace, forever.

“This was insane.  And yet we believed it.  And yet such groups continually spring into existence everywhere, have periods when such beliefs are their diet, while they hate and persecute and revile anybody who does not agree with them.  It is a process that goes on all the time….”

“Switching Off to See Dallas”

She points out that all of us to some extent are brainwashed by the society we live in.  “We are able to see this when we travel to another country, and are able to catch a glimpse of our own country with foreign eyes.”

Brainwashing goes on all the time, through three common processes.

The first is tension followed by relaxation, as in the example of the Good Cop and the Bad Cop alternating during an interrogation.

The second is repetition, saying the same thing over and over again.

The third is the use of slogans or catch phrases — the reduction of complex ideas to simple, easy repeatable, sets of words.

Governments, corporations, religious groups use these all the time.

“The point I am making is that information we have been given about ourselves, as individuals, as groups, as crowds, as mobs, is being used consciously and deliberately by experts, which almost every government in the world now employs to manipulate its subjects.”

This has become almost a common place observation, now, in our world.  It can be observed in every election.

And what, we might ask cynically, is a possible response to this?

“It means, and I hope that this won’t sound too wild, choosing to laugh…. The researchers of brain-washing and indoctrination discovered that people who knew how to laugh resisted best. … Fanatics don’t laugh at themselves…. Bigots can’t laugh.  True believers don’t laugh.  Tyrants and oppressors don’t laugh at themselves, and don’t tolerate laughter at themselves.”  I think of Putin here, for some reason.

“Group Minds”

Lessing observes: “It is the hardest thing in the world to maintain an individual dissident opinion, as a member of a group.”  There are many psychological experiments which show how easy it is to sway the individual when a group thinks differently but is incorrect.

As her own experiment (and as a good example of her rebellious and contrary spirit), Lessing wrote two books under the assumed name of Jane Somers.  The books were submitted to publishers and critics.  She says that she deliberately sent copies of the books to all the people who considered themselves experts on her work.  Not only were the novels not recognized as Doris Lessing’s works but they were described in the most patronizing ways.

In the end as she predicted, when the farce was revealed, the British reviewers who were fooled decried the novels as no good, while critics in other countries thought they were quite wonderful.  It ended up leaving her sad about her profession: “Does everything have to be so predictable?  Do people really have to be such sheep?”

She goes on to mention the famous Milgram psychological experiments where people comply with instructions to give increasing shocks to people who eventually start shrieking with (simulated) pain behind a curtain before they fall ominously silent.

“Can you imagine this being taught in school, imagine it being taught to children: ‘If you are in this or that type of situation, you will find yourself, if you are not careful, behaving like a brute and a savage if you are ordered to do it.  Watch out for these situations.”

She later goes on:

“Imagine us saying to children: ‘In the last fifty or so years, the human race has become aware of a great deal of information about its mechanisms; how it behaves, how it must behave under certain circumstances.  If this is to be useful, you must learn to contemplate these rules calmly, dispassionately, disinterestedly, without emotion.  It is information that will set people free from blind loyalties, obedience to slogans, rhetoric, leaders, group emotions.'”

She notes that it is hard to imagine any government or political party allowing an education that might help to free people from governmental and state rhetoric and persuasion.  On the other hand, there don’t appear to be any democratic movements either that make a point of educating their membership about what is well-known about crowd psychology, group psychology.

In the end, Lessing was hopeful that as was happening in some places during the eighties, some countries that were tyrannies and dictatorships were moving to democracy such as Spain, Brazil and Argentina.

There is much more nuance in her discussion than I am able to indicate here, but what struck me the most was that if we really cared about democracy, the environment (which Lessing doesn’t touch on at all), and an equitable economy, we would be teaching our children what is already known in quite factual ways about the human animal and how it behaves and how it is influenced.

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Notes:

The photo of Doris Lessing is from a site called Tacno.net.

For a good overview of the ideas of William Irwin Thompson, an article by him called “It Has Already Begun” at the Context Institute website shows off in fairly concise form some of the insights and surprising turns of Bill’s “mind-jazz.”  It was written at about the same time as these lectures or essays of Doris Lessing.  To me now, it reveals two things: 1) the great optimism and breadth of Bill’s vision about “planetary culture”, and his hope for it despite ourselves and 2) how sometimes he would force events or trends he observed into a vision that he would have to twist around to accept those observables.  This article was written in the era of Reagan and before the Soviet Union succumbed.  His observations about Reagan, as one example, are pretty thin to me….  But “civilization as militarization” certainly rings true.

For more on Bill and his Lindisfarne Association see his site.  (For free recordings of talks from Lindisfarne, including Bill Thompson’s, see this site at the Shumacher Centre.)

For a little more on my experience of Lindisfarne, please see the posts “Of Warbikes and Wind Harps” and “The Art of Tony Stubbing.”

And as a side note, let me refer you to an article on The Twelve Virtues of Rationality, by Eliezer S. Yudkowsky.  My own …feeling… is that reason needs to be checked by gut feeling, and feeling checked by reason, but in this description of true rationality, I was struck by the twelfth virtue that comes before the other eleven.  Yudkowsky calls it the nameless virtue or the void:

“More than anything, you must think of carrying your map through to reflecting the territory.”

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2 Comments on “Prisons We Choose to Live Inside – A Book Review”

  1. MDW Says:

    You always write about cool stuff I’ve never heard of before. I’ll see if I can lay my hands on some of her books. Thanks.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for dropping by….

    I wish I could recommend a novel by Lessing that would make a good introduction, but I certainly haven’t read everything by her — she can be difficult, at least for me.

    Since I’m partial to science fiction, the Shikasta series appealed to me….

    Regards


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