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  • Wahnsinn. Symptom und Befreiung. Funktion und narrative Vermittlung extremen Irrationalismus im Werk Doris Lessings
  • Judith Ryan
Barbara Dahlhaus-Beilner. Wahnsinn. Symptom und Befreiung. Funktion und narrative Vermittlung extremen Irrationalismus im Werk Doris Lessings. Amsterdam: Grüner, 1984. 261 pp. $22.00.

Generically different from the two major novel sequences it separates, The Memoirs of a Survivor marks an important transition in Doris Lessing's development. Since the appearance of Barbara Dahlhaus-Beilner's study, we now have another novel in a similar vein, The Good Terrorist. Has Lessing reached a new junction? However this may turn out in the end, the question of continuity in Lessing's writing has long been problematic. Concentrating on the earlier works, Dahlhaus-Beilner sets out to show that The Memoirs of a Survivor is less of a departure than it seemed at first. [End Page 365]

Dahlhaus-Beilner's arrangement of her material-opening and concluding chapters on The Grass Is Singing and The Memoirs of a Survivor respectively, embracing a long middle section on three of Lessing's more canonical works—suggests a reevaluation of the position of these novels in the corpus as a whole. Her thesis is that Lessing's first novel contains in germ a preoccupation with the irrational that provides a crucial link between the earlier and later works. Continuity is thus located in a new kind of social consciousness that gradually expands, over the series of novels, to include modes of perception not accessible to the logical intellect. Lessing's protagonists are increasingly able to use their mental breakdowns and irrational states to gain a new, and ultimately healthier, perspective on social reality. Distancing from prevailing norms and an inchoate apprehension of "evil" in The Grass Is Singing cedes in The Golden Notebook to a deliberately creative attempt to use the irrational as a "corrective" to the intellect; The Four-Gated City proposes an integration of extreme irrationality and conventional logic, and The Summer before the Dark prepares the way for The Memoirs of a Survivor by developing the notion of transpersonal consciousness. This account of Lessing's growing fascination with unconventional ways of seeing is bolstered by references to Laing and, most particularly, to Jung; unfortunately, these are never systematically justified or worked out. It is unfortunate, too, that we are left with no more than a few glimpses of the Canopus series, in which, as Dahlhaus-Beilner herself points out, these theories are developed in an even more radical form.

More serious than this weakness is Dahlhaus-Beilner's failure successfully to link her essentially thematic analysis of characters and situations with the technical problems that Lessing sets for herself as she moves from book to book. This rather pedestrian approach, coupled with Dahlhaus-Beilner's colorless German prose, quickly dashes our initial hopes of a new view of Lessing's development. The author's command of English, furthermore, seems at time inadequate to the task of literary interpretation: when it is said of one character, for example, that her flesh has become "a tender swollen covering for aching bones," it can hardly be maintained that the first adjective indicates that she has "experienced tenderness." Similarly, the appended English summary shows insecurities in style and usage.

In the last analysis, the reader is left with a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. Lessing's novels, Dahlhaus-Beilner contends, portray less a feminist struggle than a more generalized conflict between society and the individual; far from redefining her task as a writer in The Memoirs of a Survivor, Lessing has simply changed techniques. To reduce the terms of Doris Lessing's fascinatingly protean fiction in this way is ultimately to beg the question of continuity. The extraordinary story of Lessing's development has yet to be written. [End Page 366]

Judith Ryan
Harvard University


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