Nuclear Cassandra: Prophecy in Doris Lessing's the Golden Notebook

By Henstra, Sarah | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Cassandra: Prophecy in Doris Lessing's the Golden Notebook


Henstra, Sarah, Papers on Language & Literature


If you feel certain that society is heading for nuclear war, as Doris Lessing felt in the 1960s, what are you supposed to do with that knowledge? How do you act ethically and responsibly in the face of such a depressing conviction about the future? Or, more radically: to what action might the depression itself call you? Pursuing the social and discursive implications of foreknowledge leads eventually to the question of prophecy--to the role and responsibility of the prophet. Lessing explores precisely this question in The Golden Notebook (1962), a multi-layered, multi-voiced novel in which the lament for a threatened future weaves its way through character, plot, dialogue, and narrative structure. Reading this novel as an inquiry into prophecy and its consequences unearths some of the interactions between the many thematic preoccupations of The Golden Notebook and the socio-political crisis with which it was attempting--in many ways unsuccessfully, Lessing felt--to engage. The author was frustrated by the precedence "the sex war" took over political and social issues in reviews of the novel. That she considered the imminence of world-wide nuclear destruction more important than other themes is evidenced by her impatience with the "sexual revolution" in the 1960s: "I say we should all go to bed, shut up about sexual liberation, and go on with important matters. We must prevent another major war. We're already in a time of total chaos, but we're so corrupted that we can't see it" (Raskin 175). What society cannot see is exactly what the prophet-narrator in Lessing's novel feels compelled to tell.

Christa Wolf's novel Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays (1983), although written twenty years later, originally in German, and from the other side of the Cold War divide, serves here as a powerful intertext for my reading of The Golden Notebook, insofar as Wolf's novelization of the fall of Troy is also inflected with its author's sense of impending nuclear disaster. (1) Wolf explains why she finds the prophet(ess)'s role particularly relevant in the nuclear age: "I try to trace the roots of the contradictions in which our civilization is now entrapped. This is what I was doing in the Cassandra book. That work is very much a product of its time [1984]" (Fourth Dimension 128). Wolf's comments in the essays that accompany the novel in Cassandra, along with her ideas in Accident: The Events of a Day (written in 1986, in response to the Chernobyl reactor meltdown) shed further light on what foreknowledge does to a narrator and her story--and to an author and her readership.

Prophecy, as I shall define it here, is both a narrative position and a narrative problem, arising in response to the need to reconcile the demands of emotion and action, of knowledge and living with that knowledge. Prophecy is perhaps one of the most courageous responses to the extreme feelings of loss and helplessness that arise under a culture of nuclearism--a culture like Britain as well as the USA during the second half of the twentieth century, in which the official discourses of defense, deterrence, and "collateral damage" had begun to inflict their own violence. Put simply, the kinds of losses suffered under nuclearism cannot be properly mourned, commemorated, or "worked through" in Western cultures because the detonation, though perceived as inevitable, has not yet taken place. Instead, the dread of nuclear destruction generates a kind of collective melancholia: it produces proleptic mourning, a future-oriented grief in abeyance or on hold. (2) Julia Kristeva describes melancholia as "impossible mourning" in order to emphasize how the depressed person's sorrow is not sanctioned by or received into the symbolic economy of language (9). Words, for one facing unmournable loss, thus become devitalized and weak, on the one hand--unable to contain or express the extremes of desire--and, on the other hand, monstrously virulent in their powers of trivialization, exclusion, and denial.

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