restricted access Veldtanschauung: Doris Lessing's Savage Africa
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Doris Lessing's Savage Africa


I Would Like to Situate this Brief Discussion of Lessing's The Grass is Singing within the critical debate as to the relationship between the manifest conscious intention of an author (often totalized as her "ideology"), which is read off from a literary text in the explicit social and political positions taken up by the author and her narrator(s), and the objective ideological junction of the text, which is the product of the determinate effects of its distinctly "literary" nature as discourse. An important insight is that these two moments in the text constitute a significant relationship, and, even when produced by the same author, must be seen as materially distinct and not reducible to one another.

Within such a view Lessing's literary productions are not the expression of her ideological positions, nor can the latter be glibly read off from the former. An attempt to ascertain the full cultural effect of The Grass is Singing would take into account the important operation within it of literature itself—the ways in which literary tradition and its forms impose upon the writer, defining in advance the range of her creative freedom, and often seriously contradicting or undermining an explicit social or political project. The final "effect" of a text would then be seen as a complex interaction between deliberate intent or conscious project and the displacement or mediation of such a project, the transformation of political or social ideas into art, through the material processes of language we term "literary tradition" and "literary form." Thinking in this way, [End Page 647] we can identify at least two major strategies of realist fiction that enact such a displacement. The first is its necessary personalization of social conflict or contradiction. By depicting systemic relations in the form of their immediate appearance—intersubjective relations among persons, this literature insists on the resolution of such problems by acts of individual choice, and the resulting scenario is invariably a symbolic working out of such issues in a way that represents these tensions as destructive, abstract enemies of the individual. A further effect of literary tradition involves the displacement of social contradictions via metaphor onto a timeless plane where material problems are recast as part of an immutable order of Nature.1

My emphasis here is on the second of these displacements: the mediating influence within The Grass is Singing of a particular traditional and literary view of Nature. As a text this novel offers the reader two distinct and apparently contradictory readings—one, an explicit indictment of racist colonial society, and, two, a mystical and deterministic resignation in the face of the forces of savage Nature. The important premise of this discussion, then, is that the final imaginative impact of the novel is internal to its enactment and implicit in its traditional formulations of the issues it undertakes to present, and is not necessarily identifiable with the extratextual positions of its author. Lessing may well be committed as an individual to a social-democratic critique of her society and the consequences of colonial oppression for the personal psyche, but the effect of her artistic tradition is to vitiate such an explanation in this particular novel, indeed, perhaps finally blatantly to contradict it.

What I aim to do here, in shorthand form, is to pursue this tension within the text of The Grass is Singing. First I try to identify a major cultural source of Lessing's interpretation of Rhodesian reality: a European formulation of historical development which tries to accommodate both a rational and a sentimental or atavistic strain. Second I overview the book's plot and find within the rational side of this tradition some validation for Lessing's parallelism in her twin themes of racism and madness. Finally, I look briefly at the important mediation of romantic myth in the novel's depiction of Africa and the "savage" element in nature and provide some explanation of the tale's denouement.


The European developmental or evolutionary idea is central to a number of fictional texts that take as their subject the white colonial's [End Page 648] experience of Africa. A long...