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  • The Ethics of Remembering People and the Fact/Value Dichotomy—Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch
  • Nora Hämäläinen

through examining the case of Doris Lessing’s varying accounts of her mother, I discuss here the fundamental fact/value entanglement involved in describing people, human situations, and human relations. A serious consideration of the ethical and epistemic challenges involved in biographical narration will provide strong reasons for jettisoning the fact/value dichotomy when thinking about human life.1 Yet, I do not propose such considerations as providing an overall model for rejecting the fact/value dichotomy, but rather suggest that there may be no formal unity to the various considerations that speak against upholding a fact/value dichotomy in different philosophical discussions. Furthermore, seeking such unity, a “master theory” to refute the fact/value dichotomy, may work against a sensitive grasp of the various ways in which “fact” and “value” are entangled in human understanding.

Doris Lessing, like many novelists prior to the autofictional turn, is adamant about the distinction between biography and fiction, and marvels in her autobiography over the inability of some of her readers to accept that her literary characters are not copies of real people she has known: “How often have I not seen a face fall into disappointment when I say no, such and such a character was imagined, or composed from half a dozen of similar people, or transposed from another setting into this one. What we are seeing is a reluctance of the imagination. What is wanted is the real, the actual, what ‘really’ happened” (Lessing, Walking in the Shade 336).

I begin by emphasizing my deep sympathy with this caution, because in what follows, I use Lessing’s authorship in a manner that may seem to break against this distinction, conflating literature and life, discussing the figure of Lessing’s mother as she comes through both in Lessing’s autobiographically based novels and in her autobiographical writings. I am asking readers’ permission to break against the distinction in a specific case where [End Page 84] it seems (1) prompted by Lessing’s authorship, and (2) called for to illuminate an insight that has gained increasing attention in postcolonial studies and feminism, but is difficult to justify in contemporary academic moral philosophy: the intertwinement of knowledge and evaluation in our understanding of human affairs.

In Walking in the Shade, cited above, which is the second part of her autobiography, Lessing notes that she has probably been unfair to her mother in the partly autobiographical Children of Violence series of novels (published between 1952 and 1969). I investigate the sense of this unfairness, and what might be called the ethical memory work involved in recreating the image of her mother, in the light of later life experience. Lessing’s case provides rich material for reflections on the ethics and epistemology of biography and autobiography, but I connect it here to Iris Murdoch’s famous example of M, the mother-in-law, who over time comes to see D, her daughter-in-law, in a more generous light (Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics). The case of Doris Lessing’s mother may help develop our understanding of Murdoch’s example, bringing forth both the intuitive appeal of Murdoch’s perspective on the intertwinement of knowledge and evaluation, and the real-life difficulties (not well preserved in Murdoch’s example) of achieving a truthful remembrance of another person. I further discuss how attention to both Lessing and Murdoch adds to and deepens insights concerning such intertwinement discussed by Bernard Williams and Hilary Putnam. I suggest that the strength of Lessing’s sprouting case is precisely in its real-life resonance: the way in which any reflection upon it immerses us in the fact/value entanglement, rather than presenting a generalizable model of such entanglement.

1. Doris Lessing and the Mother

Consider Lessing’s descriptions of “the mother” first in her autobiographical Children of Violence series, later in the second part of her autobiography Walking in the Shade, and finally in the late half-fictional and half-autobiographical book Alfred and Emily.2 There is a striking resemblance between the fictive mother of Martha Quest in the early...


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