Charles Watkins – or somebody who seems to be Charles Watkins – is an amnesiac patient in some form of mental hospital, where he hallucinates, or remembers, or participates in (certainly mentally, perhaps even physically) disturbing, savage, dangerous, highly significant, real and mythical events. He is a traveller from another world; or he is a gnostic messenger seeking to awaken himself from the mundane reality in which he is imprisoned; or he is a lunatic; or perhaps he is simply a genuine amnesiac, struggling to make sense of the memories and feelings and fears which are being fired from his consciousness. Meanwhile, he is attended by two doctors who cannot agree on his symptoms, or on the appropriate treatment, or even on the patient’s response to that treatment. In this haze of confusion and terror, both patient and reader are borne on a wild adventure encompassing outer space and inner space, taking in a fantastic, genocidal war which may be occurring at the start or the end of our civilisation, a tragic story from the Second World War, an eternity adrift on a liferaft in the ocean, a mission from the gods to awaken mankind and more; all the while focusing on the nature of our understanding (and, largely, lack of understanding) of what drives the human consciousness. Briefing for a Descent Into Hell is at once a novel of ideas and a novel of action. It is daringly experimental and challenging. It is fascinating and thought-provoking but, ultimately, it falls short of its own lofty goals.
Initially we know nothing of this man, Charles Watkins, and nor can we know anything. He is an enigma, a man who has completely lost his memory and who does not respond to any medical treatment. We are taken into his mind as he tries, himself, to uncover the key to his existence, but all is confusion. We are told a series of stories, all seemingly his own reminisences, all plausible, all concerning this character, and yet this character is not the Charles Watkins the doctors think he is. Or perhaps he is. Or perhaps he is, but he is someone or something else as well. This, a study of madness and alienation, takes up the first half of the novel.
Gradually, as the second half unfolds, the doctors investigate his background and make contact with people from his known past – his wife, his lover, a wartime companion, work colleagues – and each shed light on different attributes of someone who emerges as a difficult man. He is not easily likeable, we find out, but he can be charming, even seductive. He is highly intelligent, a Classics professor, but he is reduced now to helplessness. Throughout, he seems to be struggling to understand something greater than himself, aiming for something higher – redemption perhaps, or human happiness, or a deeper, greater truth, a knowledge. The novel ends with him making a dramatic decision, wholly unexpected, and with highly significant consequences, not only for him but, by extension, for us all. Is this it? might be the summary. Where is madness and where is sanity?
In all of this, Lessing’s theme is the consciousness which defines our reality and, more importantly, the narrow way our civilised minds tend to interpret both consciousness and reality. In our society, insanity is something to be feared, locked out of sight, talked of only in the passive. But, Lessing is showing us, the visions and notions of the mentally ill are not – or at least, not necessarily or not completely – pointless raving or rambling. They may, she argues, connect to another reality, or another view of life: ‘If you have shaped in your mind an eight-legged monster with saucer eyes, then if there is such a creature in the sea you will not see anything less, or more – that is what you are set to see.’ The events of the initial sections of the novel are clearly in some sense happening to Charles Watkins. But they make no sense to us. They are contradictory. Yet still, one feels, there may be a kernel of truth – knowledge – in there, which Watkins is struggling to reach.
Some commentators suggest Lessing draws heavily on the theories of RD Laing in her study of madness and alienation. For Laing, the state of mankind was ‘the condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind.’ Each of these is an accurate description of the various responses of Charles Watkins to his dilemma in the novel. Lessing’s argument appears to begin from the view that man is increasingly alienated from himself and his environment. ‘There is nothing on Earth or near it,’ we are told ‘that does not have its own consciousness, Stone, or Tree, of Dog, or Man.’ This is reminiscent of, for example, the Aboriginal Australian concept of Dreamtime, in which the wholeness of the world, in both space and time, is made clear and men have a direct connection with everything around them, animal vegetable and mineral, and past and present. But modern man has lost touch with the old truths. Instead, ‘[t]he chief thought was that our society was dominated by things, artefacts, possessions, machines, objects, and that we judged previous societies by artefacts – things. There was no way of knowing an ancient society’s ideas except through the barrier of our own.’
And so the character of Charles Watkins, unable to reconcile his inner and outer spaces, is symbolic of, in Douglass Bolling’s description, ‘the loss (perhaps irreversible) of psychic wholeness by modern-day Western man.’ We have, perhaps, lost our mythologies and, in so doing, some of our selves. Rationalism has taken the role of mythology, science is only ‘the most recent religion’. This is something with which religious anthropologists such as Karen Armstrong would agree.
This tension between rationality and dreams or mythology takes us back to a debate I have held consistently on this blog recently: in a rational world, there should be no place for the irrational, and yet it is there, and it impacts on us all whether we wish it to or not, and it invades both our outer and inner spaces whether we are aware of it or not; thus, to dismiss the irrational is, ironically enough, irrational. Judith Stitzel provides a fascinating quote from Lessing on the subject, from which the following is taken:
It's very hard to be part of that complicated idea . . . that you are a rationalist and atheist and you don't believe and everything is already cut and dried and you already know everything and suddenly start throwing all that out the window and start thinking again.
Lessing advances the rational/irrational argument a stage further in this novel. It is not simply a question of reason versus unreason, because essentially that is a binary concept and where one stands on the stratuum is relatively straightforward. What Lessing forces us to consider is the nature of belief itself, and the way, in our modern society, we are driven towards certain flavours of belief, be they religious, agnostic or atheist. Within each, however, there are certain truths which appear to be unarguable, and with which no dissent is allowable. Whither the dissenter in such a world? is Lessing’s question. Citing the end of Briefing for a Descent into Hell, in which, on the face of it, Lessing appears to suggest that mankind, with its focus on science and reason, has lost its opportunity to find happiness, Stitzel argues that, rather, this is a ‘request for tolerance, for suspension, not of disbelief, but of too quick judgement.’ In the current climate, with the stridency of debate between creationists in one corner and Richard Dawkins’ band of atheists in the other, each spouting their own form of dogma and proving unable to listen to any voice but their own, this request seems well placed. But the concern, with this novel, is that in seeking to think again, Lessing may be going too far in accommodating an alternative view: scepticism may be taken to extremes. Michael Magie, for one, takes issue with Lessing’s scepticism about rationality and her tendency to eulogise mysticism and irrationality. One can certainly see, in this novel, what Magie means. Lessing suggests at one point, for example: ‘Better mad, if the price for not being mad is to be a lump of lethargy that will use any kind of strategem so as to remain a lump, remain nonperceptive and heavy.’ The novel’s conclusion, too, could be argued to suggest a similar premise.
Judith Stitzel, however, disagrees with Magie’s contention, arguing that Lessing stimulates in the reader ‘mental processes which allow us to move beyond where we are to stances less comfortable, but by no means necessarily less sane.’ Lessing, then, is allowing both herself and her reader the luxury of examining the world from a different viewpoint. And this, surely, should be the purpose of good fiction?
What does seem true is that we are losing something in our modern world – a sense of wonder, a delight in discovery, an inner space in which the arts, culture, education, love, nurture, the environment, the nature of being itself, combine to form some sort of experience of humanity. Whether this is expressed as spiritual in the religious sense is irrelevant, indeed it is a red herring. There is a feeling that, in our increasingly pressurised world, full of shallow relationships and frantic experiences, we are missing something that previous generations experienced. This sense of alienation, of course, is the essence of modernism, and while I have limited interest in pursuing humanity across the Waste Land towards The Waves or The Road, I can recognise some truth in it. There is something impoverished in our relations with the world around us. Earth ‘is far from grace.’ Man has become disconnected from his natural environment. We are ‘living in a poisoned air.’
But ultimately, for all the debate about rationalism, it must be a question not of man and god, good and evil, but of man and man, inner and outer – that is, how a man reconciles his inner thoughts and beliefs and desires, full of self-interest and even solipsism, with the nature of community and the collective responsibility of society. In a telling passage in the novel, Lessing notes:
Some sort of divorce there has been somewhere along the long path of this race of man between the ‘I’ and the ‘We’, some sort of a terrible falling away… so that ever since most have said I, I, I, I, I, I, I and cannot, save for a few, say We.
This, to me, gets to the heart of the novel. All the debate about consciousness and madness and rationality and alienation resolves into this single point, that of basic humanity, and whether humanity can work together to survive modernism and the modern world. That is the fundamental debate. Lessing’s novel points to the question but, in the end, it shirks the answer.
Or maybe there is no answer, except time. And that is the one thing we cannot control.