Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Briefing For a Descent Into Hell by Doris Lessing

Some sort of a divorce there has been somewhere along the path of this race of man between the "I" and the "We," some sort of a terrible falling-away, and I (who am not I, but part of a whole composed of other human beings as they are of me) hovering here as if between the wings of a great white bird, feel as if I am spinning (though it may be forwards, who knows?) yes, spinning back into a vortex of terror, like a birth in reverse, and it is towards a catastrophe, yes, that was when the microbes, the little broth that is humanity, was knocked senseless, hit for six, knocked out of their true understanding, so that ever since most have said, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, and cannot, save for a few, say We.

Like Stalin Peace Prize winner Paul Robeson, Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, and Academy Award winner Quincy Magoo, I attended Rutgers University.  But in the '80s RU offered me an opportunity that these heroes of communism, capitalism, and astigmatism* didn't have--the opportunity to take a class entitled "Science Fiction."  Of course, I'm the kind of person who squanders opportunities, so I didn't actually read most of the books assigned for class.  One such neglected volume was Doris Lessing's 1971 novel Briefing for a Descent Into Hell. This week I made good this lacuna in my education, reading a library copy of the 1981 paperback edition of Briefing put out by Vintage.  

*Poetic license--"myopia" don't rhyme!

Lessing doesn't break the novel (which is 278 pages in this edition) into parts or chapters, but I think it is fair to talk about the novel as consisting of two parts of approximately equal length, Part 1, which I think of as "The Dream Part" and Part 2, which I think of as "The Epistolary Part."


First of all, I have to say that the first hundred or so pages of Briefing was some of the most unappetizing reading I have done in a while, maybe years; reading it was a chore, like washing the dishes or vacuuming the floor, something I knew was worth doing but was hardly fun or even interesting.  I often found it difficult to focus on the text, and every time I picked the book up it was with some level of resignation.  Most of these pages are written in a dreamy "stream of consciousness" style, with long paragraphs, long sentences, and lots of "word play": repetition, puns, lists, metaphors. I think page 34 provides examples of the things I am talking about:

Click for a larger version
The plot moves slowly, the characters are uninteresting and serve as spectators instead of participants in the story, and there is limited excitement or emotion or suspense, which left my mind to wander hither and yon.  Most of the philosophical ideas presented are tired and obvious--war is crummy, we are all brothers and sisters and should learn to get along, modern man is too materialistic and should be more in tune with nature like primitive people allegedly are--so I felt there was no real reward for trudging through all those tedious sentences and hacking through those boring poems.

Medical records form a small part of this opening half of the novel.  It is late summer 1969, and the cops have brought a disheveled guy with no ID who seems to be out of his mind into a London hospital.  We readers get recorded conversations between the patient, a nurse, a Dr. X and a Dr. Y (don't worry, we get the "Doctor Why" pun you were expecting) as well as doctors' notes.  Dr. Y is a softie, while Dr. X is a hardass, always prescribing shock treatments and radical experimental drugs.  The patient has not only lost his memory but spends almost all of his time asleep, experiencing an adventurous dream that, while awake, he thinks is reality.

These medical records are interspersed with a first person narrative of the dream.  The dreamer starts on a boat in the Atlantic, one of twelve men.  A nearly invisible apparition, a crystalline disk (the narrator calls it "the Crystal"), appears and whisks away the dreamer's eleven comrades.  Heartbroken over being left behind, the dreamer, now hating the lonely boat, builds a raft and drifts off.  Shipwrecked on a rock, he is rescued by a porpoise who helps him get to the shore of a mountainous jungle region.  Lessing spends page after page describing terrain, flora and fauna in excessive detail.  The dreamer is guided by big cats (pumas or something) up a plateau to an ancient ruined city.

Back of copy I read
The roles played by the porpoise and the cats reminded me of the sympathetic view of animals in Ben, In the World--the dreamer even refers to experiments done on animals, experiments the narrator, and presumably Lessing, think are needlessly cruel.  A related theme of the jungle sequence is that the natural world is a paradise, one ruined when exposed to mankind and its violence and pollution.

As happens in dreams, or when people travel through time or between dimensions, at first the dreamer doesn't even notice the city, seeing only a field of wild grass atop the plateau.  But then the city abruptly becomes apparent, first as nothing but a flat carpet of rubble, but then well preserved, with many intact, though roofless, houses that offer shelter to the dreamer.  A few days later he notices ("it was very strange indeed that I had not noticed this before...") a sort of town square, a flat expanse with geometrical designs carved into the stone.  He clears and cleans this area, and after a few pages of scenes about three ghostly witches who kill cattle and a baby (this scene, which reminded me of the dream in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, is perhaps Lessing telling us that "meat is murder") the Crystal, during a full moon, lands in the square.  But again the dreamer is rejected, apparently because he ate meat with the witches.

Two tribes of semi-intelligent creatures take up residence in the city, a tribe of semi-bipedal dog-like rat people, and one of apes.  These vegetarian groups get along at first, but then a war erupts, and they degenerate--they begin eating meat, abandon bipedal posture, and even fight amongst themselves. A huge bird arrives to give the dreamer a ride over the ocean, which is polluted by the corpses of the ape-ratdog war, and then guard him as he cleans the square again, in preparation for the next full moon.      

So, on page 92, a third of the way through the book, the dreamer is absorbed into the collective consciousness of the Crystal.
In that dimension, minds lay side by side, fishes in a school, cells in a honeycomb, flames in a fire, and together we made a whole in such a way that it was not possible to say, Here Charles begins, here John or Miles or Felicity or Constance ends.
We get a ten-page description of what the Earth looks like from space--with his newly Crystal-enhanced vision the narrator sees every living thing as a different color/sound. We also get lots of astrological jazz about how things happen on Earth because "the balance of the planets had shifted, or a comet came too close--or the moon spoke, voicing the cold, the compulsion...."  The Moon is very important to the first half of the novel, and is mentioned frequently.  A comet is blamed for introducing individualism to the human race when it crashed into the Earth and poisoned the air; this bad air inhibits brain function, and makes everybody forget the unity of the universe and hate instead of love.

In a self-consciously "whimsical" section the planets are personified as the Greco-Roman gods (the Sun is the Father of All, presumably analogous to the God of the Bible), and they have a conference on what to do about the Earth, where there are so many wars and so much pollution.  At this conference a team that is to visit the Earth is briefed (the briefing to which the title refers)--their mission is to help the human race remember that they are not truly individuals, but part of the cosmic unity.  The Briefing is implanted in the team member's brains, and they are sent to Earth, where they arrive as babies in the womb, their previous existences forgotten.


Halfway through the book, page 144, Doctors X and Y learn the dreamer's name, Professor Charles Watkins--the police have found his wallet on the street.  About the same time the reader realizes that Watkins must be one of the alien agents, his collapse and insanity a result of the sudden reemergence of the knowledge of his mission. Watkins stops sleeping so much, and there are no more dream sequences.

Briefing for a Descent Into Hell becomes much more enjoyable in its second half, as characters and human feeling come to the fore.  The text consists mostly of letters and memoirs written by Watkins and his family, colleagues, and acquaintances, and these are in a readable, affecting style.  Through the letters we learn about Watkins' life and personality, and about other characters; the letters are full of clues suggesting that these other characters are, like Watkins, alien agents who only have an inkling they are on a mission to teach humanity that we should be at one with each other and nature. Lessing's more interesting philosophical ideas, like her skepticism of science and equation of science with religion, and her suspicions that civilizations existed before those 20th century people know about, get an airing.  These ideas were present, in a cursory fashion, in The Fifth Child and Ben, In the World, but in this novel Lessing expands on these ideas at length in a way that is compelling and is well integrated into the lives of the characters she has created.

One of the doctors convinces Watkins to write a memoir of his 1940s war experiences, and reading this account we learn what, perhaps, are the sources of his wild dream.  After seeing much action in North Africa and Italy (in which he was more than once the only survivor of a squad of infantrymen, prefiguring the way he is left alone on the boat in his dream), he was parachuted into Yugoslavia.  Watkins and/or Lessing engage in some romanticizing of the war in Yugoslavia, how communism united people across barriers of gender, ethnicity and religion:
The Red Star on their caps or on their breasts was what linked them....This group of young soldiers contained Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins, Catholics, and Moslems.  Nowhere but in these mountains, among these soldiers, these comrades, could it be possible for two people to meet, take each other's hands, call each other by name, Miro, Milos, Konstantina, Slobo, Vido, Edvard, Vera, Mitra, Aleksa...take the Red Star as their bond and forget the rest.
(Because it could be to some extent disassociated from the monstrous tyranny and unrepentant imperialism of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, I think Tito's Yugoslavia had an important place in the hearts and minds of many Western lefties.)

Watkins' memoir of Yugoslavia gushes over with talk of how the individual is meaningless and the group is everything, prefiguring all the collective consciousness and unity stuff from the dream.  And like the jungle of the dream, Yugoslavia is beautiful and unspoiled by modern man's pollution.

Even though his war memoir is full of vivid detail, it turns out Watkins never actually served in Yugoslavia!  (His battalion went from Italy to NorthWest Europe, and he went with them.)  Is this another dream?  Or has he tapped into the minds of men, alien agents like himself, who did serve in Yugoslavia?

Watkins has recovered sufficiently enough that he is able to circulate with the other patients, and he befriends a beautiful young woman who walks around in a skirt so short her privates are exposed (she eschews panties.)  Drugs having failed to restore his memory, he finally agrees to shock treatment.  The treatment works, and Watkins returns to his family and college professor life, his hazy knowledge of his mission to restore unity to mankind expunged.

It is left to the reader to assess how much of that business about aliens and prehistoric civilizations is true, and how much mere insanity.  I think we might think of Watkins as a Don Quixote character, a man whose noble old-fashioned values mark him as insane in our corrupt modern world.


While I was reading the first 140 or so pages of Briefing For a Descent Into Hell I didn't think I was going to be able to recommend it.  But the second half is good in every way.  And while the style of the first half is not at all to my liking, the first and second halves are in fact well integrated--the whole novel is well structured, with all kinds of things in the letters and Watkins' homage to Yugoslavia reminding you of details from the insane dream.  All that trudging and hacking did finally pay off.

I think the blurbs on the back of the edition I read (see above) are overselling it, but this is a good novel, and if you get assigned Briefing For a Descent Into Hell in a class I recommend you read it, even if it takes you 20 or 30 years to get around to it.    


  1. Just bought a copy! Thanks for these Lessing reviews --- I have one on my shelf but this seems more interesting.... Glad you got around to reading it!

    1. I'm glad you appreciate these posts about Lessing. I think Briefing might be right up your alley--I think you may be more amenable to dreamy surrealism than I am.