Blemishes under the skin


Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949
By Doris Lessing
Harper Collins, 1994. 419 pp., $39.95 (hb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

To read Doris Lessing is to struggle between being unable to put the book down and wanting to donate it to Lifeline, fast. The reader veers from the heights of Lessing's sensitive exploration of identity and moral commitment in the individual, group and society, informed by her radical humanism, to a maddening frustration at her superficial political platitudes.

Her style reinforces her inconsistent content, with evocative description and acute character portraits mixing it with a prose that is basically solid, slow and a bit flat-footed.

Lessing's autobiography is all the above, in greater measure. She vividly describes the sounds, smells and sights of Southern Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was known before its successful independence struggle), where the five-year old Doris Tayler arrived in 1924.

Lessing's formative influences are recounted with great candour. Her father, who had a leg amputated during World War I, is a gentle, considerate man, opposed to wars that dupe the soldiers into supporting corrupt governments and armaments manufacturers.

Lessing, on the other hand, is in a state of open war with her mother for the sometimes harsh discipline she tried to impose. Convent school was no escape. Amongst other blemishes, all the nuns and students smelled — daily showers and changing of underwear were forbidden because contemplation of the body was a sign of vanity and would distract from full devotion to God and matters of the spirit.

Lessing survives the constricting forces of convent, mother and British racism in Rhodesia. She loses religion, grows a voracious appetite for books, discovers the sensuous consciousness of her young woman's body and marries her first husband. Both are atheists, subscribers to the New Statesman (not far from the Communist Manifesto to British eyes in Rhodesia) and share seditious thoughts about the "Native Question".

She becomes a member of the Communist Party (1942-44), throws herself into anti-racist work, divorces and marries her second husband, CP member Gottfried Lessing, out of revolutionary duty to avoid him being interned as an "enemy alien" during the war.

Although Lessing's book contains some striking accounts of racism in Rhodesia, and of a woman growing to maturity in opposition to authority and prevailing social norms, and of the lives of communist activists, her political reflections are disappointing.

As she acknowledges, she became a communist partly out of boredom; her lack of ideological commitment to Marxism is recognised when she writes that "nine tenths of my heart and soul were held in reserve". She could not quite identify with the Marxist project, which leads her to present negative views of most of her comrades' personalities, Marxist ideas and radical political organisation. This biased portrait is exaggerated by her hindsight vision of the "collapse of communism" and her inability to notice the anti-Stalinist and independent Marxist currents that, from Trotsky onwards, fought to withstand the Stalinist distortion of socialism.

"I wasn't really interested in politics", she writes, and it shows. Her comrades believed in their visions of a just, equal and fulfilling life for all, but "we were stupid". They were all "of the stuff of those murderers" in the Soviet Union and China.

The belief that people can eliminate the selfishness, greed, violence and other sins of capitalism by revolutionary social change is an "absurd" belief that doesn't take account of "human nature". It is a "delusion" to think that "anything but wars, tyrants, sickness, bad times" can be the human lot. It is an iron psychological law of group dynamics that all parties or groups, but especially religious and political ones, which are synonymous, become authoritarian because "faith" requires submission to authority.

These are the gloomy commonplaces of those who want to do well but are overawed by the magnitude of the task of social regeneration and who are easily discouraged by the defeats, mistakes and negative experiences of attempts at change, unable to appreciate the advances that are made. Lessing has never had too much trouble being accepted by the conservative literary establishment.

Lessing's ideological sloppiness is reinforced by the book's shambling, unstructured organisation, a lazy style that reads likes a first and only draft, and a mystical bent to her thoughts. Nevertheless, Lessing has a talent and a humanist social commitment that make her novels, and her autobiography, worth visiting — if you can cope with her blemishes.

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