A Post-Battle Landscape: Doris Lessing’s

The Golden Notebook and The Cleft

Katarzyna Wie˛ckowska

Abstract The central theme of Doris Lessing’s The golden notebook (1962) is
struggle and the heroine’s attempts to stake out a new territory where she would be
able to re-define herself and gain on a new identity. Similarly, although in a
different manner, this desire to find a space beyond the existing social limits is
repeated in The Cleft (2007) as a dream of an all-female world before the arrival of
sexual difference. Thus repetition can be seen as the regulating principle working
both within the novels and between them, where it takes the form of a certain
mourning, or a process of releasing the desire for a once possessed, but lost unified
self and for an imagined sociality without otherness, a desire underlying also
certain forms of literary and social criticism. In this essay I refer to the work of
Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, and particularly to the psychoanalytic ren-
dering of the concepts of the lost object, the return of the repressed and the woman,
to read The golden notebook and The Cleft as excursions beyond the phallocentric
social and literary orders into a space where the woman might be imagined dif-
ferently than the lacanian ‘‘symptom of man’’.

1 Introduction

When Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007, she was
addressed by the committee as ‘‘that epicist of the female experience, who with
scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scru-
tiny’’ (Nobelprize.org). The careful framing of the description of the writer as ‘‘the

K. Wie˛ckowska (&)
Nicolaus Copernicus University, Torun´, Poland
e-mail: klew@umk.pl

J. Fabiszak et al. (eds.), Crossroads in Literature and Culture, Second Language 45
Learning and Teaching, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-21994-8_5, 
Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

The question whether Lessing’s work in general. says implicitly and explicitly. the loss of the stable female subject at the time she has finally regained her self. the organization of it. 10).] by which. everything in it. which is also 1 It is interesting to note that Roland Barthes’ seminal essay was published in 1967 and can therefore be seen as coming out of the same critical upheavals from which Lessing’s novel originates. and chooses’’ (Foucault 1994. in our culture. and continues to be asked. such as the one added by her as early as in the 1971 preface to the novel: handing the manuscript to publisher and friends. The feminist identification. and might be one of the reasons which make it difficult to interpret Lessing’s work along feminist lines. p. mostly by male critics). resort to reader response theory. As Gayle Greene’s discussion of the critical reception of The golden notebook shows.e. one limits. and to the Barthesian proclamation of the ‘‘death of the author’’. despite the writer’s repeated objections. 209). In accordance with Lessing’s wish to pay attention to the structure of the book and her authorial intentions.46 K. Considering its critical fortunes. I learned that I had written a tract about the sex war. . Yet the essence of the book. which the novelist strongly and persistently rejects. is obviously one of the symptoms of the ‘‘divided civilization’’ that her fiction both describes and produces—a civilization divided not only by sexual difference but. In contrast to the ideas of New Criticism that were used to criticize the novel on its publication (interestingly. but a more general and slow coming to terms with the collapse of the notion of personal identity as stable and knowable. Wie˛ckowska epicist of the female experience’’ emphasizes the centrality of women’s issues to her fiction and also evades the problem of identifying her as a feminist writer. p. including feminism. must not compartmentalize (Lessing 1989. but also unmasks the critic as author and ideologically motivated master of interpretation. including the one by Greene. where the decision on the meaning of the text is shifted onto the reader. that we must not divide things off. I read the novel as an account of breakdown. the debate over the feminism of Lessing’s novel is itself an interesting document of the critical approaches dominant at a specific point of literary history (Greene 1991. who is treated as both the support of the meaning of her work and as simply ‘‘the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning […. excludes. a label attached to her work since the publication of the notorious The golden notebook in 1962. literary and social history. which annuls the problem of authorial intentions. and The golden notebook in particular. p. fem- inist interpretations. 109). The dissolution of identity is closely related to one of the major problems of con- temporary feminism and feminist literary criticism. The golden notebook can be seen as a document in cultural. as Lessing’s relation with feminism proves. is feminist or not has been the subject of numerous studies and debates.1 The critical debate not only shows the contradictory role of the author. and fast discovered that nothing I said then could change that diagnosis. i. also by the various political and ideological interests of women as a divided group. illustrating not only the changing critical approaches.

continues to be secretly desired and possessed (Freud 1995a. ‘‘it is just not possible to say that women-centred writings have any nec- essary relationship to feminism’’ (1992. and I’ve decided that we’re a completely new type of women. particularly the novel. ‘‘Free. and more subdivided in themselves’’. as Ros Coward(1992) writes. a black notebook. p. a novel which can be read as a continuation and complementation of the thematic concerns and problems of The golden notebook. a yellow notebook. both within and between the books. The key word in ana- lyzing the novels is repetition. A single woman with a child. a red notebook. We must be. and it documents Anna’s crisis of identity. p. p. concerned with politics. represented in the novel as itself a fragmented and divided society in transit. which is to do with Anna Wulf the writer. p. The erasures are. and her friend. the fragmented consciousness. who returns to his wife—its ultimate cause is the fact that Anna is a woman. which. and the end of her love affair with Michael. to compartmentalize her life into separate spheres so as to finally discern there a recurring pattern: I keep four notebooks. 378.A Post-Battle Landscape: Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and The Cleft 47 ‘‘a way of self-healing’’ (Lessing 1989. This binding of the recovery of stable identity to writing and reading is reflected by Anna’s almost compulsive need to write. surely?’’ (Lessing 1989. as Anna writes. . p. although lost. staged along a number of textual erasures and absences which hamper the formulation of a finite interpretation. they are beings for whom reading has become ‘‘a blind grasping out for their own wholeness’’ (Lessing 1989. and a blue notebook which tries to be a diary (Lessing 1989. in which I make stories out of my experience. 586). to be more specific. my emphasis)—but the reading of the novels is motivated by a kind of feminist practice which Rosi Braidotti describes as a ‘‘strategy of working through the historical notion of ‘Woman’’’ which aims at ‘‘unveiling and consuming the different layers of representation of ‘Woman’’’ (1994. Although the crisis spreads over all areas of Anna’s life—her disillusionment with the Marxist party. 75). an artist and a political activist. 2 An Absent Centre The golden notebook is a novel about Anna Wulf. 8). 418). The question of the supposed fem- inism of Lessing’s work is left open—mostly because. the fragmen- tation of the society is reflected in its literature. repeated and apparently compensated for in The Cleft (2007). Do you know … I was thinking about us. are becoming more and more divi- ded. Anna certainly does not fit any of the models of womanhood offered by the English society of the 1950s. thus binding the texts to the process of mourning after an object which. p. that she represents a new type of a ‘‘free woman’’: as Molly states at the beginning of the novel. as I argue. p. 26). or. a writer suffering from a block. Human beings are so divided. 168). an actress. ‘‘has become a function of the fragmented society. her problems with writing the second novel. which is approached here from the psychoanalytic perspective. Molly Jacobs. Interestingly.

114). The ultimate repetition is the very act of writing. where ‘‘balance had been struck early on’’ (Lessing 1989. Wie˛ckowska Anna’s writerly gesture inside the book mirrors the structure of the whole novel which Lessing describes in the introduction in the following way: There is a skeleton. p. expression are nothing. turning into a frightening and poisonous testimony to one’s disappearance: It occurs to me that what is happening is a breakdown of me. p. . 34). and therefore Anna’s opening comment that ‘‘as far as I can see. reading the notebooks. end the Notebooks: a heavy black line is drawn across the page of one after another. But their conversation is strained. The golden notebook (Lessing 1989. 419). of formlessness – of breakdown. as she recognizes. out of fear of chaos.000 words long. In the relation between the women. Yellow and Blue. everything’s cracking up’’ (Lessing 1989. that I remain Anna because of a certain kind of intelligence. The Notebooks are kept by Anna Wulf. like Lessing the novelist. documenting. from their fragments can come something new. the women try to pick up their friendship where they left it and to restore the old feelings of intimacy and confidence. She keeps four. As Gayle Greene notices. But it is divided into five sections and separated by stages of the four Notebooks. or frame. the ‘‘free woman’’ he always disagreed 2 It is indeed hard not to draw analogies between Doris Lessing and Anna Wulf: they are both writers who have successfully published their first books. Pressures. Red. p. and which could stand by itself. called Free Women. and not one because. p. This intelligence is dissolving and I am very frightened (Lessing 1989. a central character of Free Women. and Anna was the enemy. for it has become clear to me. For words are form. who is ‘‘cracking up’’ under the burden of the secret of her changed relationship with Richard. Anna the writer. but also to their friendship and to Anna herself.2 are thus engaged in recording. The golden notebook is marked by repetition: the same characters appear under different names in the various notebooks. Molly’s ex-husband. Molly was the confidante. the reactions of male characters within the novel are repeated by the male critics of Lessing’s book (Greene 1991. 7). the same situations are re-staged in different contexts. the familiarity and frankness gone. repeating in order to restore the dissolving identity and to reach the lost and absent centre. which is a conventional short novel. 26). to encounter what Jacques Lacan calls the Real (Grosz 1995. and this is how I am becoming aware of it. they are both members of the Communist Party and they are both ‘‘free women’’. p. Black. Not having seen each other for some time. form.48 K. and if I am at a pitch where shape. inner and outer. about 60. But now that they are finished. Anna. initially imagined as a writing cure. then I am nothing. 25) can be understood as referring not only to their colleagues and the Party. she has to separate things off from each other. to whom Richard entrusted the problems with his second marriage. But frightened of what? The golden notebook opens with a scene of a meeting between Anna and Molly in the summer of 1957 after a separation. with the notebooks. p.

p. therefore. Anna takes over her role and becomes not only the man’s support. an ironic label and a state impossible to achieve in a society where identity is intersubjectively constituted and where. she passes a judgment on the structure of society as a whole and recognizes the impossibility of escaping the social reality of sexual difference. p. I think. It is not accidental then that Anna resorts to men as the way out of emotional and psychic collapse. In a text dramatically documenting the lack of place for women in social. she is ‘‘the place where [male] lack is projected and through which it is simultaneously disavowed’’ (Rose 1985. in fact. discloses the protagonists’ awareness of the social mechanism and the necessity for women to continue its game: . the medical choice of a man. That this is a disturbing change which. at one and the same time a poison and a cure whose presence. 26). 48). It is therefore the man (and men in general) who disturbs the women’s rela- tionship. but also the object of his sexual desire. the only choice possible: the man is both dangerous and necessary. an impotent and therefore powerless and emasculated American. even the best of them’’ (Lessing 1989. then Anna’s comment. damages the balance between the women is visible in this scene in the way their conversation circles around the event. p. She prescribed this for herself like a medicine’’ (Lessing 1989. that ‘‘fiction’’ would collapse. although they call themselves free women. The plea uttered by Milt. who becomes Anna’s guilty secret and the seemingly absent centre of their relation. 562).A Post-Battle Landscape: Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and The Cleft 49 with. is also. though it may seem surprising. although unmasking the constructed nature of the socio-sexual hierarchy. dropped just before she makes her confession about Richard to Molly. in the various detours they take to talk about Richard through references to his wife and their marital problems without addressing the role he plays in the relationship between Molly and Anna. p. ‘‘[a] woman is a symptom’’ of man (1985. 168). towards the end of the novel. as psychoanalysis would have it. In Molly’s absence. gains new significance: when Anna states with anger that. political and critical life. reinforces its validity. Anna ‘‘decided the remedy for her condition was a man. As Lacan emphatically claims. without her acquiescence to play her role in the social fiction. The encounter with Milt that takes place just before the novel’s closure marks Anna’s return to normal life—which begins with her daughter’s return from the cinema and with the prospects of Molly’s future marriage. But Anna’s coming out of the crisis is also her agreeing to the existing divisions of genders based on the woman’s submission to the role of the one who supports the system. serving for the men as the other who guarantees social cohesion. If we see the man as occupying the central position in the triangle. the regulating principle that nobody speaks about. A free woman is. it is the encounter with the (historically contingent) hierarchy of sexual difference that enables the entry into the social space. The strategy of dismissing Richard’s presence mirrors the representa- tion of men in general in the novel in which failed encounters with men play so important a role that the text can be described as having men at its hidden centre: they are the common secret. ‘‘[t]hey still define us in terms of relationships with men.

but if you can’t take us on now. 3 A Return of the Repressed In ‘‘The Ego and The Id’’ Sigmund Freud describes the mechanism of loss as resulting in an alteration of the ego ‘‘which can only be described as a setting up of the [lost] object inside the ego. you’ve got to. seemingly disregarding sexual difference. Lessing’s aim was to produce a comprehensive work ‘describing the intellectual and moral climate’ of her time. p. […] She aspired instead to meet the need for the more varied view of the human condition such as a Tolstoy or a Stendhal could provide (1973. therefore. Wie˛ckowska You’ve got to take us on. the critic repeats Lessing’s and her novel’s gesture. not to produce […] a feminist broadside. That Anna agrees to ‘‘take him on’’. you’re kinder.50 K. 3). as evidenced by the more sympathetic review of her work by Michael Thorpe who defends The golden notebook by writing that Mrs. In The golden notebook psychoanalysis is presented not as a possibility of escaping the social fiction of gender. the only function it can perform for the woman is that of returning her to her place in the social fiction. as it occurs in melancholia’’ (Freud 1995b. of ‘‘sweetly mothering’’ her back into the dominant order and to thus rewarding her with a stable identity. psychoanalysis proves to be a phallocentric trap (Grosz 1995. 638). 25). By comparing the female writer to a Tolstoy or a Stendhal rather than to an Eliot or a Woolf. although not to fight. testifies to her readiness to join the social masquerade and to perform the supportive role the society ascribes to women in the process of social identification. p. Lessing’’. but as a chance of having it explained and thus making it easier to accept. but only through identifying writing and the human condition with the male subject. The veiled acquiescence to the inevitability of phallocentrism is repeated in Doris Lessing’s preface to the novel where she identifies herself as a writer by the masculine pronoun ‘‘he’’. An explanation of why Anna continues to attend the ineffective sessions with her Jungian psychoanalyst. 6). can be found in Elizabeth Grosz’s statement that: Psychoanalysis exerts an appeal for women which can also be seen as a lure or trap. Like the world in which Anna lives. . to comfort him by reflecting him back to himself as complete. This may have been a defensive gesture to counter the insistence on her womanly status in the hostile reviews of male critics where she was usually addressed as ‘‘Mrs. espe- cially for those who want to challenge the social functions and values attributed to women and femininity in our culture (actively affirmed in psychoanalytic theory) (1995. don’t you know that? Don’t you see it’s all much worse for us than it is for you? I know you are bitter for yourselves and you’re right. p. you’re in a position to take it (Lessing 1989. p. whom she ironically and tellingly calls ‘‘Mother Sugar’’. and see us through it… […] You’re tougher. p. 574).

hence the possibility of another relation of sexual difference. and situates the origins of civilization in a war between the sexes.A Post-Battle Landscape: Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and The Cleft 51 The ego is re-defined here as ‘‘a precipitate of abandoned object-cathexes’’ where the lost objects survive. and again I. some are saved by the eagles who transport them to a nearby valley where the boys. the freaks. they are mercilessly played with. goes on to give it another aim’’ (Freud 1995b. As Doris Lessing writes in the Preface to the book. which begins by changing sexual object-libido into a narcissistic libido and then. The Cleft (2007) originated from a remark she encountered in ‘‘a scientific article’’ which speculated that ‘‘the basic and primal human stock was probably female. set up a rival community. as an effect of sublimation and mediation of the ego. Consequently. with no sense of time or place. impregnated with water or the Moon. 638). in this case men. although this has to be done in the new language of the colonizers. 7). of a female identification that has been lost in The golden notebook returns ‘‘conserved’’ as a trace in The Cleft. it was we. Clefts. I say I. the creation myth the novel presents begins with an idyllic state disturbed by the appearance of an other. and that males came along later. As more of them are born. but then we wouldn’t say I. time and space. destroying their communality and the old way of thinking and giving them in exchange the inventions of language. perhaps. p. sometimes it seems that most of the words in our mouths are this new talk. I don’t know where they came from. contains the traces of all that has been lost or repressed. leading to the hierarchy prescribed by the novel’s epigraph according to which ‘‘Man does. for reasons never explained. The first boys are treated as a curious though threatening natural perversion: like toys. Slowly but inevitably. lacking nothing and wanting nothing. The novel represents the appearance of men in the women’s world as the beginning of our civilization: the men radically change the women’s lives. one of them gives birth to a baby boy and thus begins the race of what to the women appear as ‘‘[m]onsters. the cripples’’ (Lessing 2008. the two communities begin to establish contacts. suckled by a doe. conserved through prior identifications (Freud 1995b. states: Even words I use are new. mutilated. particularly when Clefts realize that they have lost their ability to self-impregnate and that they need men to have children. p. as a kind of cosmic afterthought’’ (Lessing 2008). as one of the Memories. an all female race living close to the sea. 639). experimented on. It is at this point when the need for mutual dependency becomes obvious to both groups that the sexual relations as we know them begin to be established. It is also the men’s presence that forces the women to record their past. the women keeping record of the oral history of Clefts. I do this and I think that. left to die on the rocks or killed by being thrown into the Cleft. with the use of concepts alien to the women. The process of introjecting the lost object is posited as a ‘‘universal road to sublimation’’ so that all sublimation ‘‘take[s] place through the mediation of the ego. We thought we (Lessing 2008. individuality. 8). woman is’’ (Robert Graves in Lessing 2008). lead uneventful and happy lives. p. The deformed ones. A work of art. . p. until one day.

what underlies the Clefts’ decision to establish relations with Squirts is shame and the feeling of guilt for having killed the first boys. 6) which might explain why the material ‘‘had at various times been regarded as so inflammatory it had been put with other ‘Strictly Secret’ documents’’ (Lessing 2008. religion was based on the sense of guilt and the remorse attaching to it. 503). p. the historian is contrasted with his wife. Moreover. as well as the fact that it is being issued by a man. p. but also the . both between men and women. and not only because of its difficulty. the division into separate communities. In Lessing’s novel. even if this time it is the women’s choice. act. but by curiosity and disgust with the boys’ (bodily) otherness. an adventurous and clever woman who safely manages her complicated public affairs. who retreats from the dangers of Nero’s burning Rome to immerse himself in writing and in fatherly duties. but do not think or care. the men bring social organization. Above all. an elderly man hopelessly in love with his much younger wife. 8). unwieldy mass’’ (Lessing 2008. ‘‘a cumbersome. Freud identifies the beginning of social organization with patricide and with the sons’ guilt for having killed the all- powerful patriarch: Society was now based on complicity in the common crime. Wie˛ckowska With the introduction of the new language. p. as Clefts are fond of repeating. who are divided over the question of how to treat the new race. some of it the same but written down later’’. p. The Clefts’ tale is finally put together by a Roman historian. In this marriage. wisdom or simple desire to survive the actions of men who. 7). Importantly. ‘‘the feminine ethics of care’’. But. the original crime from which society springs is ironically presented as committed by women driven not by their will to power. p. A lover of peace and family. originating as oral history. 508). which contradicts not only the epigraph to the novel. dictated by what one might call. there comes the need for history and for a new way of thinking: ‘‘I said think but did we think? Perhaps a new kind of thinking began like everything else when the Monsters started being born’’ (Lessing 2008.52 K. The Cleft emphasizes the accidental and subjective nature of official history. ‘‘more than one hopeful historian had been defeated by it. 7). p. The story of Clefts is a ‘‘mass of material accumulated over ages. it is the woman who acts and the man who is. and among the women themselves. 6). while morality was based partly on the exigencies of this society and partly on the penance demanded by the sense of guilt (Freud 1995c. leaving to him the care over their private life. again ironically. In his account of the origins of civilization. its patriarchal effects are the same. but because of its nature’’ (Lessing 2008. although the story of female supremacy is ‘‘abrasive and may upset certain people’’ (Lessing 2008. p. The original patricide and the ensuing guilt are presented also as the reasons for the unequal distribution of power within patriarchy as atonement with the father was all the more complete since the sacrifice was accompanied by a total renunciation of the women on whose account the rebellion against the father was started (Freud 1995c.

might relate to the correspondence between the official account and the lived experience. p. and his encounter with Lolla. 165) or. there is no body as a biological fact. p. . but instead there are the lin- guistically coded body parts of Clefts and Squirts for whom sexual difference is an invention. for the man watching the pair it is obvious the boy will return to spend the night with Lolla. p. from the start. proceeds through incorporating the lost object into one’s ego and working through the relation. p. who starts crying. 166). impossible: there is no one without an other. for a complete self before the arrival of any difference—and perhaps particularly the sexual difference—is what The golden notebook depicts. to put it differently. The truth. The Cleft begins with the historian observing the arrival of Marcus. between what is prescribed and what is practiced. and no two without the Other of the social (Lacan 1985). origin myths. 23). if there is one. gradually de-cathecting it. If the lost object of The golden notebook and The Cleft is the woman as One—beyond or before sexual difference—then it is an object which must be substituted by something new. Yet another contradictory comment on the binding of women with being and men with acting. 30). to the variety of relations acted out daily. not to compartmentalize. for the historian ‘‘the little scene seems […] to sum up a truth in the relations between men and women’’ (Lessing 2008. 3 To refer to Lacan again. The desire for a stable identity. one Species. a necessary invention of the other (Derrida 1991). as Freud tells us. possibly by writing. he also writes that the symptom is what never ceases to be written and that writing is ‘‘a means of situating the repetition of the symptom’’ (Lacan 1985. As for the latter. 6). the beloved who has been waiting for his return.A Post-Battle Landscape: Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and The Cleft 53 existing hierarchy of sexual difference. but fathered by the Eagle. but always already divided. while simultaneously. or historical accounts. a slave. as Lacan would say. To identify oneself beyond social divisions and not to divide things off. and to the fact that we are not ‘‘One—one Race. as Lessing would like us to live (Lessing 1989. their nature is made sufficiently clear by the historian’s frequent remarks on the gradual changes introduced to the history of Squirts which finally presents them as the first men who were not mothered by Clefts. 10) is. still. ‘‘There is nothing in the unconscious that accords with the body’’ (Lacan 1985. p. disbelieving its possibility. Marcus leaves the girl. p.3 That this writing as a whole has been described as ‘‘subject[ing] a divided civilization to scrutiny’’ proves that the object of the lost unity must be abandoned—in anything but fiction. Impatient to spend the night in the company of his male friends. when he identifies the woman as the symptom of man. until it can be substituted for by something new (Grosz 1995. 4 A Lost Object The work of mourning. or one People’’ (Lessing 2008.

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