Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lessing's Briefing as gnosticism?

I've written a fuller review of Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent Into Hell a few posts below, but I am also curious about the specific point of whether or not it is gnostic, so I want to explore that a bit further.

Robert Galbreath identifies it as ‘significantly gnostic’, making use of traditional gnostic features such as ‘the alien messenger, the prison-house of existence, sleep and awakening as metaphors of the human condition.’ The gnosticism presented here, however, is not that of early gnostic texts, he argues. Rather, the gnosis is ‘problematic’: this, then, is gnosis as the presentation of alienation, the corrupt state of modernity.

He further argues that, in modern gnosticism, where transcendence has been replaced by immanence, the gnostic prison house which embodies the alienation of mankind is no longer located in the cosmos, but in the mind, ‘where the polar opposites function as categories for states of consciousness and degrees of knowledge: ignorance/knowledge, sleep/awakening, forgetting/remembering, alienation/enlightenment (gnosis).’ Thus, this modern gnosticism could be seen as essentially psychological, something Lessing herself acknowledges when she calls her novel a work of ‘inner space. For there is never anywhere to go but in.’

One can certainly see these motifs throughout the novel. Watkins consistently describes existence in terms of bondage. He reminisces about his childhood, before the ‘prison shades’ descended and ‘the trap had shut.’ Elsewhere, children are ‘creatures about to be trapped and corrupted by what trapped and corrupted [the adults].’ People are bound by chains of ‘terrible bondage’, enduring the ‘dreadful breath of cold, of grief.’

Thus, we have humanity entrapped. It is enduring, in the words of RD Laing, whose work was a signficant influence on Lessing’s novel, ‘the condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind.’ And so, by the end of the novel, Watkins is clear that ‘People don’t know it but it is as if they are living in a poisoned air. They are not awake.’ This is classic gnostic despair, and as Watkins explains in the novel, ‘The advocates humanity has found to argue on the side of despair have always been more powerful than those other small voices.’

But the most gnostic element of the novel comes in the form of Watkins himself, who can be seen to be a gnostic messenger from the gods, descending to Earth to warn mankind of its imminent demise. A plot strand in the novel sees a character, presumably an incarnation of Watkins, receiving his briefing from the gods before a descent to Earth to save humanity. Clearly, however, this mission is not the first. He is told: ‘When the time comes, it will be our task to wake up those of us who have forgotten what they went for; as well as to recruit suitable inhabitants of Earth – those, that is, who have kept a potential for evolving into rational beings.’ Thus we have pneumatics already on Earth with, unknown to them, the seed of knowledge inside them, waiting to be awakened. And what is stopping them? The Archons, of course. In Briefing, the three Doctors (and, particularly, Doctor X, whom Watkins can’t even see) can clearly be identified as Archons, trying their best to keep man in a state of darkness and ignorance. Watkins attempts, throughout the novel, to find the knowledge he feels is there, but is consistently foiled by the medical men. And in the end, of course, he accepts their advice and takes the electro-therapy treatment which reverts him to his previous state of blissful ignorance: the Archons win, mankind stays in its prison house of the mind.

All of this can clearly be interpreted as gnostic in the modern sense of reacting against modernity. But in one respect, Lessing’s novel is very different. Lessing, of course, is an atheist, and for her the gnosis that man has lost and must somehow recover is not a theistic one, but a natural one. She quotes Rachel Carson at the beginning of the novel – Silent Spring would have only been a few years old when Briefing was published – and an ecopastoral message is clearly evident in it. The messengers are told in their briefing:

‘Now the Permanent staff on Earth have always had one main task, which is to keep alive, in any way possible, the knowledge that humanity, with its fellow creatures, the animals and plants, make up a whole, are a unity, have a function in the whole system as an organ or organism... Human beings... have not yet evolved into an understanding of their individual selves as merely parts of a whole, first of all humanity, their own species, let alone achieving a conscious knowledge of humanity as part of Nature, plants, animals, birds, insects, reptiles, all these together making a small chord in the Cosmic Harmony.’

James Lovelock first formulated his Gaia hypothesis in the sixties, while working for NASA, but he didn’t begin to publish his work until the early seventies, around the time Briefing was published (1971). There is a striking similarity between the holistic idea here of Earth as a single organism and Lovelock’s thesis. This link between humanity and nature is stressed throughout the novel. Human consciousness and that of the cosmos are internlinked. We are told:

There is nothing on Earth, or near it, that does not have its own consciousness, Stone, or Tree, of Dog, or Man. Looking into a mirror or into the glossy side of a toppling wave, or a water-smoothed shining stone like glass, we see shapes of flesh, flesh in time.

Man and animal are one, part of a wider connection of all matter. ‘It was the mind of humanity that I saw,’ Watkins tells us, ‘but this was not at all to be separated from the animal mind which married and fused with it everywhere.’

And this begins to take us to the message of the novel. If it is gnostic, it is a distinct flavour of gnosticism. The knowledge that we need to be awakened to is an ecopastoral one. We have founded societies based on materialism:

The chief thought was that our society was dominated by things, artefacts, possessions, machines, objects, and that we judged previous societies by artefacts – things. There is no way of knowing an ancient society’s ideas ecept through the barrier of our own.

And there is, by extension, no way of knowing our own inner space and inner knowledge without being able to connect to something more elemental, less materialistic. It is the community of ‘we’ and not the ascendency of ‘I’; and that ‘we’ must encompass more than simply human nature, because human nature – acquisitive, aspiring, solipsistic – is not enough. This is the gnostic message that Lessing is imparting: we must break through the alienation of the modern world; we must awaken to the values of the world around us. For me, it is a striking message. I do not share her pessimism about humanity, and I have strong reservations about the elevation of animals and even minerals to the status of human beings (for here we are in the territory of McCarthy’s ‘optical democracy’) but it is a powerful battlecry for progress through understanding. Ultimately, I do not think this is a gnostic novel, despite the starkness of its ending. That ending, for me, is admonitory, but we should not take it literally. There is, in Lessing’s world, unlike that of other so-called gnostic writers, some possibility of gaining the knowledge.

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