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Amber Paulen

Doris Lessing - Briefing for a Descent Into Hell

Doris Lessing

Briefing for a Descent into Hell

16 June 2009


To think that in-sane is the opposite of sane is as ridiculous as thinking male is the opposite of fe-male. We exist on a continuum that changes or better yet, like light motes in a web: we are all connected. Our human reality is, I believe, based more on consciousness than on the structures that compose our everyday. To see beyond the limits of the human intellect and senses is not a transcendence of life, it is to join it.

If we all exist together and one of us goes bad like an egg sat too long, leaves the so-called-reality of our day-to-day and enters into a consciousness very different from our own; if the words and images used to describe this experience are familiar, isn’t it our responsibility to listen? Wouldn’t it be possible to find within those familiar words and images another sense? another kind of sane?

In Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell there is no tinge of romanticism for the mentally ill as genius. No, Doris Lessing is making us listen to the “ravings” of a man found “mad.” Not ravings really, but visions, experiences lived out solely in the mind. So goes the first half of this book.

The Professor found himself on a raft stuck to the Equatorial current, around and around and around until the doctors gave him drugs more potent. Instead of the visions going they intensified. He drifts to a pristine shore, a peaceful place at first. Near to the end of this first half, as I was thinking, “Come on Doris, come on, the man needs some grounding,” as the Professor’s celestial view of the cosmos was growing, I was struck with the near resemblance to Shikasta. I almost saw its birth. But that’s another book.

The mad man saw lights, some brighter than the others; he saw how there was formed on Earth an inexorable web between people, nature and the cosmos. Unity. Wholeness.

And this was the truth that gave the utter insignificance of these motes their significance: in the great singing dance, everything linked and moved together. My mind was the facet of a mind, like cells in a honeycomb.

The second half of the book gives the man some context, as the doctors try to find out who he is and what happened to him, for he was without memory. The visions, no matter how colorful and poetic, couldn’t exist without this.

Doris Lessing has called this book, Inner-Space Fiction: for there is never anywhere to go but in. … And in we go! Was the Professor breaking down or was he merely adapting, for a time, a different angle, a different view of the same things that had been present during his “normal” life? Doubt had been present: does the teaching of the Classics have any purpose at all? He had fought in the War. His emotions were not up to par. He never had had a good memory.

—when any of these or you or I ask ourselves, with all the weight of our lives behind the question, What am I? What is this Time? What is the evidence for a Time that is not mortal as a leaf in autumn, then the answer is, That which asks the question is out of the world’s time…

Another wave-length, a glance through the rip of reality’s veil: abnormality. What is normal anyway? Normal, as described by Rosemary Baines, is a kind of sleepiness, the opposite of wakefulness; it is the strongest current of humanity, the standard, the status quo most have internalized. We are our own self-normalizers. When this function goes bust then we are called mentally troubled or in-sane.

Normality’s not what it’s cracked up to be. There is healthiness in a skewed view—within limits of course! What a blessing to let go of those limits, to not give a damn about you nor me, to go where the Equatorial current takes you. (Warning: the trip won’t be all good. Note: the Professors strained relationship with the moon.) When I get terrific visions of the world I am happy for a little insanity. When I see the rising trends of normality, I know I prefer the crazy side.

The predecessor to Briefing for a Descent into Hell was the final book of the Children of Violence series, The Four-Gated City. In it Doris Lessing writes Martha into a situation of self-imposed insanity, just to see what would happen. I can’t remember what happened, but the scene in the room alone with Martha was stunning. That book also blew my mind. Doris Lessing challenges the line drawn between normal and abnormal.

There is so much unexplored that lies within.

It was as if the knowledge of what I would see caused me to see what otherwise I could not—for I already half-believed that my seeing had created what I saw.



Commentary for Briefing for a Descent into Hell


1 On Thursday 23 December 2010 Jane Spence wrote:

Hello, I have recently came out of period of severe depression where my thinking was certainly skewed and out of kilter. After my second episode of severe depression, I decided to write a book: Descent into Hell: I Never Really Knew. A Mental Health Professional’s Personal Experience with Depression. You can find it at Publish America. I published it under my maiden name since my husband was so upset that I was publishing it.

2 On Saturday 25 December 2010 Amber wrote:

Jane, Thank you for sharing. I hope that the writing of your book helped you through your tough experience.

3 On Saturday 31 October 2015 Nick wrote:

I just finished reading “Briefing for a Descent into Hell”. Eh. I found it disappointing.

The writing is vibrant. And of course a million times better than Faulkner, the last Nobel novelist I read—and disliked intensely. But I don’t see a whole lot of meaning, or profoundity or emotional engagement. The guy loses his mind and gains a whole world of raving insanity. That world is fascinating. But it takes up only half the book. And is disjointed. So it’s not a story in and of itself.

Slowly, we learn more about the guy. And slowly he learns more about himself. Characters come into the novel mostly through letters written by them to the doctors. They tell who the crazy guy really is. And the crazy guy goes in and out of various fantasies. I found these the most interesting.

But what is the novel saying? Not much, to me. Okay: that we are defined by our memories. Okay. That this guy actually has a choice to undergo shock therapy, which eventually cures him. So he can stay in his fantasy or come back to reality and he comes back. But the motivation, the nature of the choice, is not made clear. I could relate to that. I could relate to someone whose fantasies are so sweet and so interesting that he struggles to come back to reality. B ut we don’t see the struggle here. That’s a different novel.

WHat do we see here? Like I said, eh. Not much. Beautiful writing—pages of it. Fascinating descriptions of nonexistent beings and worlds. And it’s more or less straightforward. Not the crossword puzzle sort of reading that Faulkner foists on us.

But you know what? Give me Dickens. A plot. Characters. Caricatures. Humor. Give me Poe, for fantasy. Give me any good poet for metaphor—there’re lots of them. Maybe I don’t like fiction, basically. Maybe the modern novel simply isn’t my form of art.

After all, I like Wagner. Who in his right mind….


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