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What Doris taught us

Lessons from Lessing: the terrifying truth the 94-year-old radical author left us with

The writer and revolutionary heroine Doris Lessing is dead and that is really sad, although according to her own cosmology she will go back up to where custodian aliens are tending to the Earth and they will recycle her back into a new body and she will come back again. 

She won a Nobel Prize but that’s not important. She wrote about women’s self-abolition, what it means to be defined as a woman, i.e. someone who can be productively fucked and who can be used as symbolic or actual currency between men (this is my polemical definition and not hers; I think Lessing believed in some kind of Real Woman, but in a complicated way). She wrote about a lot of things, but, here, to celebrate and commemorate and mourn this amazing and infuriating writer, let’s just talk about The Golden Notebook.

Lessing wrote other books than this fabulously complex and intimate 1962 novel, but it was her masterpiece. Maybe that’s unfair – it’s true that The Good Terrorist, for example, digs deeper into the theme of women’s subjugation in male supremacist political movements. And her Martha Quest quintet further fleshes out the quaint horrors of white society in colonized Africa. Her sci-fi epics channel the insanity of unliveable life on earth. But The Golden Notebook contains all that and more, the very concretisation of ‘the personal is political’ eight years before the publication of Carol Hanisch’s essay of that name (Hanisch, therein: “I’ve been forced to take off the rose-coloured glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman.”) 

I don’t want to take the risk of telling Lessing to rest in peace; I hope she comes back round, if souls really do that, to trouble this terrible world again, until we learn new forms of love.

The Golden Notebook is the story of a woman going mad from heterosexuality, who is writing a book about a woman going mad from heterosexuality, and meanwhile the Communist Party is collapsing because of Stalinism. To say it is both one of the most stringent critiques of the problem of straightness, and also one of the straightest books ever written, is to say the same thing. Lessing is the great feminist writer of the penetrative union of dick and pussy, imbuing it with mystical energy that amounts to a kind of vaginal camp, as in this much-quoted passage: 

“The vaginal orgasm is a dissolving in a vague, dark generalized sensation like being swirled in a warm whirlpool. There are several different sorts of clitoral orgasms, and they are more powerful (that is a male word) than the vaginal orgasm. There can be a thousand thrills, sensations, etc., but there is only one real female orgasm and that is when a man, from the whole of his need and desire takes a woman and wants all her response. Everything else is a substitute and a fake, and the most inexperienced woman feels this instinctively.”

Here is the problem that Lessing pursued with such dedication: how to desire a man, as a woman, without desiring your own subjugation. Despite the emphatic heteronormativity of the lines above, heterosexuality is not neutral here; it is extremely dangerous for everyone involved. The way Lessing writes the vaginal orgasm, it’s as if the vagina were “dissolving” the penis in the acid bath of its furious “generalized sensation”. At the same time as she puts dick on a pedestal, she disdains the phallic logic of the “powerful” orgasm. The “real female orgasm”, described here as basically lacking in any substantive physical content, could just as easily be not having an orgasm at all. For a start, it seems to originate in the man’s desire rather than the woman’s. The supposed heart of the heterosexual-industrial complex, the moment of penetration, is here a kind of cosmic obliteration, a turning-away. 

Penetration is one of the primary vectors of male supremacy in its various forms – what and who can be penetrated and what and who can legitimately do the penetrating. The penis is a ubiquitous tool of war: the crypto-corporate assault on social reproduction in DRC; ‘corrective rapes’ of gay women in South Africa; systematic rape by cops of gay revolutionaries during US civil rights struggles. Lessing wants to decommission the dick-as-weapon, and she wants to make pleasure do the work of undoing. Her valorization of penetration is pretty close to radical feminist Andrea Dworkin’s problematization of it: “remarkably it is not the man who is considered possessed in intercourse, even though he (his penis) is buried inside another human being”. In the whirlpool of the vagina, who is being taken and who is taking and what is being taken from them are all confused. 

In The Golden Notebook, in the disaster of straightness, you can do the following things: you can have an unhappy but interesting love affair; you can have a safe but miserable marriage; you can stay in the Communist Party or you can decide to leave it. Marriage and the Stalinist Communist Party of the 1950s occupy approximately the same position: they are hopeless fantasies of centralized control that have in fact devolved into nightmarish violence. You can either ignore the violence, pretend everything is still OK, and get married/stay in the CP; or you can leave the CP/remain a ‘free woman’ i.e. single and lonely, and thereby give up the only promise of true teleological happiness you have ever known. When Anna goes momentarily fully mad, just before the end of the book, it’s both because she can’t have a happy committed relationship with a guy, and because she can’t be in the Communist Party any more. 

For Lessing, even if she doesn’t quite say so, the overcoming of domination needs us to abolish heterosexual exchange as well as capitalist exchange. Otherwise we will all continue to ‘be fucked’ in the current sense, which is to say that we will never find out, as Lessing tried to teach us in her erratic way, that orgasm can happen in whatever way you will it into being, that penetration doesn’t have to be a form of domination, that dicks don’t have to be weapons, that love between two persons could be something other than a slowly dug grave, and so on. Until that revolution happens, I don’t want to take the risk of telling Lessing to rest in peace; I hope she comes back round, if souls really do that, to trouble this terrible world again, until we learn new forms of love.