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Doris Lessing was a radical, in the truest sense

The writer and critic Margaret Drabble recently made an observation that I think is representative of the diverse and prolific career of the British author Doris Lessing, who died last night at 94: She…

Lessing: “intellectually uncompromising”. Juan Martin/AAP

The writer and critic Margaret Drabble recently made an observation that I think is representative of the diverse and prolific career of the British author Doris Lessing, who died last night at 94:

She made her own place. She didn’t like categories. She didn’t even recognise them.

It is a sentiment about which Lessing herself left her readers and critics in little doubt. During an interview on National Public Radio in 1984, Lessing was called to account for her move into the realm of science-fictional writing. She was asked:

Do you have some sense of what the role of the writer should be? Is it to show us the world as it is, or the world as it should be, or the world as it might be?

Lessing retorted:

Why do you make it “or, or, or”? It could be “and, and, and”.

Born the year after the first world war ended, two years after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and plunged that country into civil war, and decades before the colonial system in which she grew up would finally crumble, Lessing lived through the second world war, the Cold War, and myriad other conflicts of every type and size.

Exiled African independence leaders dined in her London flat throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1980s, she travelled through Afghanistan to uncover and record the ravages of successive waves of conflict there. And she was born in what would become Iran, a country that now finds itself in the crosshairs of international tensions.

Lessing’s early novels were written during a transitional stage in contemporary British and postcolonial literatures, and in the germinal years of what might now be generally referred to as the era of postmodern literature.

Oliver Berg/EPA

She left school in what was then Southern Rhodesia in her early teens and educated herself with the impromptu library of books she cobbled together by order from Britain. She wrote The Golden Notebook at the end of the 1950s as a post-war immigrant to London, and she has always occupied something of an in-between position – not only culturally and politically, but also in the literary milieu of her contemporaries.

Perhaps it is for that reason she continued to occupy an uncomfortable place in a genealogy of that period: she was a late modernist, an early postmodernist, a social realist, a Marxist, a Jungian, a Sufi, a science-fictionalist – among many other things.

A subtle political and intellectual evolution

Lessing’s near-infamous discomfort with being characterised as a feminist writer stemmed from a combination of motivations, but she was particularly uncomfortable with the reductive logic which seemed to follow from such a characterisation – namely, that that must be all she was. Her occasionally blunt articulation of this discomfort, along with her move away from the psychological and social realism of The Golden Notebook, led to her being seen in some quarters as a former fellow-traveller who had strayed from the path.

What is lost in this view of Lessing as an ideological turncoat, however, is an understanding of the subtle character of her political and intellectual evolution. To generalise, it is less the case that she disavowed her earlier politics than that she saw so many ideologies of emancipation turned into dogmas.


Early readers of The Golden Notebook were by no means wrong in recognising Lessing’s prescient and provocative diagnosis of what she referred to (albeit wryly) as “the sex war”. What the novel’s later preface suggests is that Lessing found the critical and popular emphasis on this issue to the exclusion of all others profoundly irritating.

She regarded the novel’s multiple threads as wholly intertwined and constitutive of one another, as facets of the broader theme of the individual who is both defined by and resistant to her relation to a social whole. Lessing was disillusioned with Marxism in theory and practice by the 1960s, yet continued to value that propensity to “look at things as a whole and in relation to each other” which she attributed to the Marxist readers of The Golden Notebook in her preface.

Beyond categories

To my mind this vision of a “whole” as constituted by and embracing fragmentation, breakdown, opposition and dissent, rather than requiring its resolution, was Lessing’s response to codification of all kinds – political, social, sexual, creative, intellectual, formal, generic.

The diversity of Lessing’s oeuvre goes hand in hand with the impossibility – and I would argue the futility – of trying to categorise her.

A recent collection of scholarly essays on her work was titled Border Crossings, in reference to her seemingly endless capacity for moving between spaces, genres, forms and modes of thinking. What is important to emphasise is that in crossing borders Lessing did not leave what she had experienced or thought behind; rather, she constantly moved back and forth across borders, displaying an adaptive historical consciousness which was vital to the whole body of her fiction.

In a letter to the famous British historian and commentator E. P. Thompson, written in 1957 and published in the second volume of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade, Lessing expressed the belief that it was in her fiction writing that she would find whatever contingent, provisional knowledge was possible. She encouraged her correspondent, a long-time friend and sometime antagonist, to investigate his own beliefs and the character of his knowledge, through the act of writing, saying:

I suspect you of being an artist, in which case you ought to be finding out what you think by writing it … I don’t want to make any more concepts. For myself, I mean. I want to let myself simmer into some sort of knowledge, but I don’t know what it is … I want to write a lot of books.

Richard Lewis/EPA

I think that the knowledge Lessing allowed herself to “simmer into” will only appear that much more prescient, that much more profound, when her legacy is viewed in hindsight.

She was a postmodernist before postmodernism, a post-communist before the fall of the Iron Curtain, and perhaps both more and less of a feminist than she has often been seen to be. She was without doubt a radical, in the truest sense: intellectually uncompromising, absolutely individual, always striving with the boundaries of her form and the intellectual climate of her age.

How lucky we are that she did indeed go on to “write a lot of books”.

This article is adapted from an essay published in the Sydney Review of Books.

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    1. Sophia Barnes

      Postgraduate Teaching Fellow at University of Sydney

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      I think that Lessing was a feminist in the sense that she regarded women and men as entirely and self-evidently equal, and regretted the mutual hostility that proceeded from a great deal of political debate on the subject of women's liberation.

      To my mind her remarks at the Edinburgh Books Festival stem less from a repudiation of the aims of political feminism than of the “hot air and fine words” which she sees as having squandered some of the “great energy” of the feminist project (to quote the article).

    2. Tom Fisher

      Editor and Proofreader

      In reply to Sophia Barnes

      Feminism is characterised by bitter hatred of men as inherently problematic, specifically in the late 20th and early 21st century of the post-pubescent male as distinct from women and girls, and later prepubescent boys presumed to be 'feminine'. Greer especially pointed this out, and campaigned vociferously on it for over half a century.

      It's for more reasonable, and given her own sense of herself as a person, as a writer, not as a woman or even female much less feminine, and in particular as…

      Read more
    3. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Sophia Barnes

      There is a little more about that in an ABC interview

      “Well they're been put down for so long, so they're getting they're own back... and it's simple revenge, a lot of it... And also I don't think they realise how very unpleasant they are. What a lot of bitches have been created by the women's movement. It really is frightening. But you know, the thing that I really was on about in Edinburgh... I said that the whole of the 1960's movement had been a sexual revolution. It hadn't really done the situation of women much good....with all great fun, God knows.”

      She made few new feminist friends after that, but personally I don’t think women were “put down” as Doris Lessing has said.

      With infant mortality rates around 50% for most of human history, it was a matter of human survival to have as many children as possible.

    4. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Sophia Barnes

      Sophia Barnes wrote; "I think that Lessing was a feminist in the sense that she regarded women and men as entirely and self-evidently equal" That is our core problem as humans we project our values onto others.
      "I’m always astounded at the way we automatically look at what divides and separates us.....Men and women, and old and young, and so on. And this is a disease of the mind, the way I see it. Because in actual fact, men and women have much more in common than they are separated." Doris Lessing. She in fact celebrated the similarities and from her writings often acknowledged the differences. But as for law and women's treatment in the dominantly Abrahamic legal system she was for equal treatment. That is how after all how we deal with the value systems of all those holding onto the relics of religious faith.

    5. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Sophia Barnes

      Her view about equality stemmed from her Marxist views, not feminism

    6. Tom Fisher

      Editor and Proofreader

      In reply to Tom Fisher

      And by the way, I read 'radical' in it's best sense as 'sovereign', as sovereignty itself is radical.

      That's the issue for a writer, quite rightly . . . and, and, and . . .

  1. ken kerrison


    One thing I particularly remember about Doris Lessing was in a book - I think it was called The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (obviously inspired by Apsley Cherry Garrard's 'The Worst Journey in the World'). In an introduction Ms. Lessing cast considerable doubt upon the heroic status, the leadership, planning and even the navigational skills and especially the judgement of Sir Walter Scott. What struck me particularly was that everything she said seemed so obvious that it should have been said before. And I admired her bravery in tackling the status of, perhaps, the most heroic figure in British history.

    1. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to ken kerrison

      "Everything she said seemed so obvious that it should have been said before", ken that's it, I mean that's what I remember thinking. I've read about four books and by far remember thinking "Shikasta" was remarkable.
      She was such a good humanist.
      Feminist or not, the conversation should not stay on this topic because is would probably degenerate quickly into a conversation she would have no patience for. When she was told she got a nobel peace prize she said "Oh fuck".

    2. Jim KABLE


      In reply to ken kerrison

      Sir Walter SCOTT (1771-1832) - navigating his writerly way around the Scottish Lowlands? Or Robert Falcon SCOTT(1868-1912) - of the Antarctic?

    3. ken kerrison


      In reply to Jim KABLE

      I had a bad feeling when I posted the Sir Walter rubbish. And there is no excuse - I always thought the 'Falcon' bit was a label too far so how come I didn't check the great Scott when making the post?

      But I recommend Doris Lessing's comment - I probably got the book wrong too (though I don't think so - only Doris Lessing would call a book 'The Making of the Representative for Planet 8').

  2. Craig Delaney


    'Radical' comes from the Latin radix:root. The root of each plant is unique to it. A radical human being is one true to the root of their being, which is indwelling and absolutely unique to them. It is this root which constitutes a sense of inner authority to live and act as one does. Many seem to know nothing of this experience and many counterfeit it. Lessing was indeed such a radical. The unique is not well served by generalisations. Especially the uniqueness of human individuals.
    Requiescat in pace.

  3. Roger Jones

    Professorial Research Fellow at Victoria University

    Great critical eulogy. Thank you. And a lot of the commenters below just don't get it. They are arguing the categories she repudiated.

    1. Tom Fisher

      Editor and Proofreader

      In reply to Roger Jones

      Ah, Roger, you fell straight in. Pity.

      What is 'it' that "lot of the commenters below just don't get", without having our homes raided, and ourselves arrested, here in the Antipodes?

      To the point already made, without having to travel to London in order to be recognised, by which is meant in the very least protected, allowed to be radical; to say fuck, fuck it, this is all bullshit.

      Sovereign protecting sovereignty, only at home, not abroad . . .

      Methinks the lady in question was rather more annoyed by the dilemma than freed from it.

    2. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to Roger Jones

      I add my heart felt thanks also - Doris Lessing was a great writer, I have read too few of her books.

      Therefore, to make up lost time, will not bother with the commenters here who are more about their particular axe-to-grind than they are about an extraordinary woman.

      Off to the library.

    3. Sophia Barnes

      Postgraduate Teaching Fellow at University of Sydney

      In reply to Roger Jones

      Thanks, Roger. I think if there is any silver lining to her passing it will be that it might draw a new generation of readers to her books.

    4. Tom Fisher

      Editor and Proofreader

      In reply to Roger Jones

      Just to finish this off, Roger, before unfollowing the thread, it was Sophia who categorised Lessing not the commentators, and was rebuked on the basis of Lessing's own words; followed again in the same spirit.

      Beyond that it's OK, not a problem, same old bullshit as ever.

      You guys go back to your reading, as you will. Eventually we might just remotely find recognition for more Antipodean, post-colonial storytellers and writers here at home, without having to travel to London to oddly find…

      Read more
  4. Robert Moschione


    Thank you for the article, Sophia,

    My favourite work by Doris Lessing is "Love Again", I highly recommend it.

    Vale Doris Lessing, thank you so much for your works.

  5. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    "She a post-communist before the fall of the Iron Curtain"
    What could this possibly mean? She wrote about Communism in the 1950s FFS. I remember one summer my girlfriend force feeding me a crash course in feminist literature. There was Simone's "The Mandarins", Lessing's "The Golden Notebook", Plath's "The Bell Jar", Germaine's "The Female Eunuch", and Jeanette Winterson's "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit." Lessing's novel was not POST Communist, it was ANTI-Communist - and dreary!!! That Summer I found a few other novels that were much more exciting - Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice", Gore Vidal's "Myra Breckenridge", Daniel Defoe's "Moll Flanders", and Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged".
    Out of all these, the real radicals were Jane Austen, Gore Vidal, and Ayn Rand.