Doris Lessing – Briefing for a descent into hell (1971)

I just had a wonderful moment reading the passages I had scanned from this book, years ago. Surely it talks about the ‘Primitives’ theme! Then I went trough some book reviews to refresh my memory of the whole picture. And guess what.. none of the reviews say even one word about the elements that have stricken me most in the book.

The general lecture of Briefing for a descent into hell is about the concrete frame story that keeps the book going: a classic literature professor and archaeologist suffers from memory loss and embarks on an internal journey (or a cosmic journey) that he accomplishes in spite of the strong anti-psychotic medicine he is given. This beholds a forceful critique of the classical treatment of mental illness in our society. Doris Lessing points us towards other ways of seeing mental illness, in other societies, or in the past. Now the critics of the book see it through the glasses of our society, dividing the elements of this story between the ‘rational’, the ‘real world’ on the one hand and ‘mysticism’ on the other. They say Doris Lessing was defending some ‘mysticism’. I found a very good example of this point of view on Tom Conoboy’s writing blog (link to the side). He also points at an issue that I find in many reviews: should the book be classified under ‘Inner psychological drama’ or under ‘Science Fiction’? Doris Lessing never clearly answered this question – she didn’t have to, did she?

The point that everybody seems to miss is what caused the mental illness. The professor has started to stammer, unable to express himself. This was caused by a loss of confidence in the world, its categorization and the Western view on history that he so much believed in, due to a discovery he made. I summarize: As an archaeologist he had visited a tribe in Africa, whose life is based on the movements of a river. He had thought: suppose that the flood rose twenty feet higher than usual one year, inundating the villages, and the people would leave to live somewhere else. In a few years everything would be gone (the huts, the sun-dried earthenware, the wooden artefacts). Yet, if you judge a society by harmony, responsibility towards its members, and lack of aggression  towards neighbours, it was a society on a high level indeed. And it was a society more integrated with nature than any he could remember. (…) But in conventional anthropology it is tantamount to saying that a society is barbaric, backward, to say that it is ‘animistic’ or bound with nature. So this society could have existed a thousand times over. And as our society is dominated by things (artefacts, possessions, machines, objects) and we judge previous societies by things, we would not know anything about an ancient society’s ideas.

So this is what has blown our professor off his socks: the insight that our science is wrong (or very limited) to see history as a history of things, and thus missing the history of ideas, of the possibility of ancient civilizations.

And that is for me the core of this book. Doris Lessing not only writes the story of the professor. Many pages are filled with interactions between the Gods, commenting on what they have tried to teach the humans over and over, deciding if they will interfere one more time – with Minerva pleading to ‘help this poor voyager’ (the professor, or Jason, or Odysseus..). In these pages, a narrator (a God?) talks about history: “A hundred years or so ago (earth time), divines and historians and antiquarians of all kinds stated categorically that the world was created 4.000 odd years ago, and anyone who did not go along with this thesis had a hard time of it (…) they’ll concede now that the age of the physical world is longer than that – oh, quite considerably, by many millions (…) The Earth is allowed to be millions of millions of years old, but the birth of civilization is still set somewhere between two thousand and four thousand B.C. (…) We, now, are civilization, we are the crown of humanity, the pinnacle to which all earlier evolution aimed, computer man is the thing, and possessed of wisdom those earlier barbarians did not have: from our heights man dwindles back to barbarism and beyond that to apehood.”

And about astronomy:
“…and astronomy is dated exactly like the rest, having become scientific at that moment it divorced itself from astrology and superstition. (…)
We may suppose that ancient astronomers did not necessarily believe that the world was created on a certain day four thousand odd years before their own time, and by God in person. (…)

For no one knows what lies under the sands of the world’s great deserts. No one knows how many times poor Earth has reeled under blows from comets, has lost or captured moons, has changed its air, its very nature. No one knows what has existed and has vanished beyond recovery, evidence for the number of times man has understood and has forgotten again that his mind and flesh and life and movements are made of star stuff, sun stuff, planet stuff; that the Sun’s being is his, and what sort of events may be expected, because of the meshings of the planets – and how an intelligent husbanding of humanity’s resources may be effected based on the most skilled and sensitive of forecasting, by those whose minds are instruments to record the celestial dance.”

This is why, for me, Briefing for a descent into hell is first of all a very critical book, critical of our definition of civilization and of history as a science, and an ecological critique. From there, people can call it psycho-drama or sci-fi. Both terms are way too limiting for what the book is.