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Doris Lessing, Antipsychiatry, and Bodies that Matter.

Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (1962), The Four-Gated City (1969), and Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) engage explicitly and critically with R. D. Laing's 1960s' antipsychiatry movement--an extensive nine-year examination that ends with a madwoman, still institutionalized, who "knows it is all a load of old socks" (BD 229). Lessing used this idiosyncratic phrase in relation to another recurring concern of her oeuvre during this period: "I called Marxism 'the sweetest dream' in one of my books. Then I discovered it was all a load of old socks. It seems incredible now that quite intelligent people believed in it all" (Farndale 2008). In Lessing's engagement with socialist politics, as with her engagement with feminism and other grand narratives of the twentieth century, no polemic can stand as her "truth"; rather, her works mount an ongoing examination and interrogation--a "working through"--of the viability and implications of particular political and philosophical positions. Her treatment of mental illness and antipsychiatry is no exception.

Mental illness has been a preoccupation of Lessing's work from her first publication, The Grass Is Singing (1950), in which Mary Turner's sanity gradually disintegrates under the "angry sun" of the African veld until, in the closing pages, the "short strip of daylight" separating her from "the fatal darkness" is extinguished (GI 195). In her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, Lessing engages with a specifically antipsychiatric approach to madness as her heroine, Anna Wulf, faces the "chaos" (GN 7) of reintegrating her compartmentalized selves. The Four-Gated City, the final installment in the Children of Violence quintet, continues Lessing's consideration of Laing's notion that breakdown might in fact be break through, pursuing this idea through a shift from realism to science fiction. And in Briefing for a Descent into Hell, considered her most "Laingian" novel, Lessing disengages from her contentious textual relationship with Laing, finally rendering him a subject of parody and derision due to the failed potential of antipsychiatry, particularly for women. As with her engagement with Marxism, what appeared to be "the sweetest dream" is eventually revealed as "a load of old socks."

From Laing to Lessing

The term anti-psychiatry was coined in the UK by David Cooper in 1967, but the movement stems from the 1960 publication of The Divided Self by the charismatic Glaswegian psychiatrist R. D. Laing. Like Thomas Szasz in the United States, Laing's work positioned itself in direct opposition to the institutionalization, physical treatments, drug therapy, and "brainwashing" (DS 12) of the traditional psychiatric establishment. In their place, he envisioned a partnership between psychiatrist and patient, the primary aim of which was to understand the patient's particular sense of "being-in-the-world" and thus to make "madness, and the process of going mad, comprehensible" (9). Instead of understanding schizophrenia as a disease to be diagnosed and cured, Laing reimagines it as "a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation" (PE 95). Caught in an "untenable position" with a diminishing sense of ontological security, the patient seeks to protect the self by splitting it from the body: the schizoid's "special strategy" is thus an increasing disengagement from the body that divides self from other through a complex system of false selves.

Although initially aimed at clinicians within the field, The Divided Self found an audience in a generation of antiestablishment intellectuals. Elaine Showalter (1988: 233) describes Laing as "the mentor of the counterculture in all of its political, psychedelic, mystical, and especially artistic manifestations," and Carol Klein (2000: 198) notes that "by the mid-sixties Laing was in great demand as a lecturer, and the darling of a burgeoning television industry." But the text also spoke to patients, spouses, and parents desperately wanting someone to understand their plight and expose the inadequacies of conventional treatment. Just four years after The Divided Self appeared, however, it was the parents who were to find themselves the subjects of Laing's critique. In Sanity, Madness, and the Family (1964), Laing and A. Esterson (1970: 23) argued that "not the individual but the family is the unit of illness: not the individual but the family, therefore, needs the clinician's services to 'cure' it." Now, the primary cause of a patient's failure to establish a secure sense of "being-in-the-world" (1) is identified as the family--particularly, but not explicitly, the "schizophrenogenic mother." In The Politics of Experience, Laing pushed the argument even further, arguing that what society considers mad behavior is actually a perfectly valid and sane response to not simply a mad family but a mad world. It is here that Laing finally recommends his treatment: by journeying into one's "inner space" (PE 106), (that is, by refusing traditional psychiatric care and allowing oneself to confront and experience "madness") one can travel "back to the womb of all things" and return from this inner voyage with a far greater understanding and experience of the self and, indeed, the nature of humanity. If all people were to undertake this journey, Laing contends, the world might be cured of its madness.

The Politics of Experience sealed Laing's fame but also his notoriety and in fact signaled the downfall of the antipsychiatric movement. He had become, as Zbigniew Kotowicz (1997: 3) phrases it, the "maverick guru of schizophrenics." If in some ways Laing was a victim of his own success, his increasing notoriety was also driven by an emerging second-wave feminist politics: in 1972, Phyllis Chesler's (1997: 126) ground-breaking study, Women and Madness, charged Laing with remaining "unaware of the universal and objective oppression of women and its particular relation to madness in women"; in 1974, Juliet Mitchell's ([1974] 1986: 291) Psychoanalysis and Feminism also observed his failure to take into account the "significance of patriarchal law" in favor of blaming the schizophrenogenic mother. Showalter (1988) and, more recently, Lisa Appignanesi (2009), have noted that while Laing's work undoubtedly contains an implicit critique of women's socially prescribed roles during the period, it contains no explicit recognition of patriarchal law or the workings of the sex/gender system, and in that lets stand the familiar correlation between women and madness. This oversight seems especially odd considering the extent to which Laing's understanding of the schizophrenic experience in The Divided Self is bound up with the self's relationship to the material body. While the body is central to Laing's theoretical model of the schizophrenic experience, however, it remains oddly gender-neutral. It is here that Doris Lessing's engagement with his work becomes so crucial.

Echoes of Laing's rhetoric and vision resonate throughout The Golden Notebook (published two years after The Divided Self), The Four-Gated City, and Briefing for a Descent into Hell, the last of which especially is extensively informed by Laing's The Politics of Experience. Indeed, Lessing identified Laing as a "key authority figure" (quoted in Hardin 1974: 154) and in 1973 told Joyce Carol Oates that "we were both exploring the phenomenon of the unclassifiable experience, the psychological 'breaking-through' that the conventional world judges as mad" (Oates 1973: 876). While critics have tended to view this mutual interest in terms of Lessing's "ideological apprenticeship to Laing" (Sukenick 1974: 113), the actual textual relationship between the two has received little critical attention since the 1980s. (2) Laing's texts do provide the theoretical framework for Lessing's representations of madness and her distrust of conventional psychiatric care. But rather than an "apprenticeship," I argue that her three madness novels constitute a sustained critique of Laing's approach. Indeed, as Showalter (1988: 238) observed, "the questions about Laingian women ... come closer to being resolved in the novels of Doris Lessing." Further, in correcting Laing's inattention to gender, the novels also examine the "matter" of the sexed body, bringing antipsychiatric thinking into dialogue with a then emerging second-wave feminist politics, but also with the field's more recent preoccupation with the way in which bodies constitute identity.

The Golden Notebook (1962)

The feminist credentials of Lessing's The Golden Notebook have been well documented and the novel continues to be lauded for its ground-breaking examination of Britain's postwar sexual politics. Lessing famously balked at the novel's reception as a tract on the "sex war" and, in her preface to the 1971 edition, chose to emphasize what she felt was the "central theme" that had been missed: "This theme of 'breakdown,' that sometimes when people 'crack up' it is a way of self-healing, of the inner self's dismissing of false dichotomies and divisions" ([1971] 1989: 8). This might have been lifted directly from the pages of The Politics of Experience. But while in the preface Lessing mutes her novel's Marxist and feminist agendas, framing it in terms of antipsychiatry, the text itself continually explores the connections between these concerns. Anna Wulf, the protagonist of The Golden Notebook, famously describes the housewives she meets while canvassing for the British Communist Party as "lonely women going mad quietly by themselves, in spite of husband and children or rather because of them" (GN 161)--just one explicit example of the way in which the text represents women's madness as directly connected to women's socially prescribed role of wife and mother in a conservative postwar Britain. The alternative presented in the novel is to be a "free woman" like Anna--but, crucially, she is still a woman in therapy who begins the novel observing, "The point is, that as far as I can see, everything's cracking up" (25).

As "free women," Lessing's female characters attempt to resist the "exchange market" power dynamic described by Luce Irigaray (1991: 355-56) fifteen years later: "Woman is never anything but the locus of a more or less competitive exchange between two men," Irigaray writes, and so "for women to undertake tactical strikes" they must "keep themselves apart from men long enough to learn to defend their desire ... to forge themselves a social status that compels recognition, to earn their living in order to escape from the condition of prostitute." Anna and her friend Molly employ such tactics by raising children outside of the confines of marriage, earning their own living, actively engaging in politics, and privileging relationships between women over those with men--but they nevertheless find that they cannot escape the binds of the heterosexual matrix. In Anna's novel, for instance, when her heroine Ella considers discussing with her female friend a sexual encounter with a married man, she "decides not to indulge in these conversations with Julia, thinking that two women, friends on a basis of criticism of men, are Lesbian, psychologically if not physically" (GN 401). Though Ella is acutely aware of, and influenced by, the laws that govern relationships with other women, her refusal to enter into a lesbian relationship with Julia, even a "psychological" rather than emotional or physical one, dramatizes the difficulty of escaping both those discourses that situate women as mere commodities between men and those normative discourses of gender and sexuality that institute "compulsory heterosexuality" (Butler [1990] 1999: xxix).

In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that the "'coherence' and 'continuity' of 'the person' are not logical or analytical features of personhood but, rather, socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility.... 'Intelligible' genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire" (23). Lessing's women are caught within the "heterosexualization of desire" produced through such regulatory practices; even as they try to create a space outside of those laws that prescribe and fix gender norms, they find themselves nonetheless reconsolidating them. Caught within a system that offers only certain kinds of legitimate subjectivity, that is, Lessing's "free women" run just as much risk of becoming unintelligible "mad creatures" as the housewives and mothers "alone in ... their completely functional marriages" (Husserl-Kapit 1975: 431). By rewriting the madwoman in terms of both a feminist agenda and an antipsychiatric model of madness, however, Lessing's novel attempts to explore a space beyond those discourses that constitute intelligible subjectivities.

Models of Madness

To pave the way for an antipsychiatric response to the connections between gender and mental illness, The Golden Notebook sets about examining the inadequacies of both the medical and psychoanalytical conventional models of madness. Herself undergoing psychoanalysis, Anna routinely encounters the limitations of this particular model. Her analyst's methods, rooted in Freudian and Jungian theory, reduce individual experience into one example or another from a collection of "origin" stories; in this way any individual woman is an iteration of a handful of mythic figures--Electra, Antigone, Cassandra--whose tragic stories she unconsciously repeats. Anna can for the most part "name" herself, but what she wants to do--what her therapist fails to do--is consider her "experience, a memory, a dream, in modern terms" (GN 48; my italics). Critiquing psychoanalysis's tendency to overlook the importance of modern social contexts in a world now "opened up to women in social life, in principle and in practice," Rachel Bowlby (2007: 167-68) comments that, "It seems anachronistic and needlessly hopeless now to cling to a myth in which women's most fundamental conflicts are determined by the realization that they are women, not men." To that extent, psychoanalysis offers to Lessing's "free women" stories that cannot sufficiently address their dis-ease as a response to the modern world. Indeed, as Foucault has argued, such conventional "discourses, and the practices based on them, have played more of a role in the normalization of the modern individual than they have in any liberatory processes" (Sawicki 1991: 23) (3) Ultimately, then, psychoanalysis offers Anna mainly a narrative of her normalization and its discontents.

Antipsychiatry, on the other hand, focuses primarily on the patient's current social situation and the strategies for managing that situation. "Perhaps the word neurotic means the condition of being highly conscious and developed," Anna tells her analyst: "People stay sane by blocking off, by limiting themselves" (GN 413). Here Anna interprets her "neurotic" behaviors as responses to the ways in which modernity is characterized by contradiction, conflict, and ambivalence. Without mentioning it, the text succinctly expresses the primary tenet of antipsychiatric thinking: what seems like sanity is actually madness and what seems like madness is actually a sane response to what has become an insane world--a world that requires one to accept that insanity as normal in order to survive.

The medical model of madness is less visible in The Golden Notebook than it will be in Lessing's next madness novel, The Four-Gated City. In fact, its very absence suggests that Lessing doesn't see it as a viable option for Anna. In the medical model, mental illness is seen as a biological illness and thus one must treat the body to "right" the mind. Historically such a model has grounded a pervasive myth about the effects of the unruly female body on the fragile female mind--though such associations have now been thoroughly examined by feminist thinkers in a variety of fields and "advances in the field of medicine, neuroscience, clinical psychiatry and psychoanalysis have all but eclipsed the crude image of the 'wandering womb' ... acting as an enormous sponge which sucked the life-energy of intellect from vulnerable women" (Ussher 1991: 74). Wandering wombs aside, traditional models of madness do continue to perpetuate an implicit but pervasive correlation between the female sex and madness. Paradoxically, one of the ways in which The Golden Notebook registers this association is in its representation of male madness, first with Tommy, Molly's son, and later with Saul, Anna's lover. Tommy's story is particularly revealing.

Partway through the novel, Tommy attempts suicide by shooting himself in the head, effectively performing his own lobotomy. While this accidental surgery seemingly cures him of his schizoid tendencies, he has become what Molly calls a "Zombie" (GN 335), and Anna notes that "his voice, like his movements, [were] slow, full and controlled, every word authorised by a methodical brain" (332). According to the medical model, this makes him a "model patient" (331), transformed from a severely ontologically insecure individual (to use Laing's terminology) into a rational, logical, and controlled young man, all "masculine intelligence" (FG 253) despite his blindness (to use Lessing's term). Experts in the psychoanalytical model, Anna and Molly expect to see a castrated, "mutilated boy" (GN 334), but instead--by way of the medical model--he becomes "the centre of the house, dominating it, conscious of everything that went on in it, a blind but all-conscious presence." Tommy's embracing of the medical model involves embracing the Cartesian division between mind and body--a model that subordinates the (weak, vulnerable, feminine) body to the (superior, transcendent, masculine) mind--that disavows the workings and processes of the body (in this case, sight). As Tommy positions himself on one side of the sane/ mad, male/female, mind/body binaries, Anna and Molly find themselves on the other, so that when the blinded Tommy "looks" at Anna, she responds "with a touch of hysteria" (449) while Molly is all "hysterical tears" (334) and embodiment: "She put her face in her hands and wept, differently, through her whole body ... the bones showed, thin and sharp" (335). If, as Grosz (1995: 38) argues, "appropriating the realm of mind for themselves, men have nonetheless required a support and cover for their now-disavowed physicality," Tommy takes refuge in the sane, male mind, while his mother and Anna are relegated to the hysterical, female body. Lessing's novel demonstrates not simply how madness and gender are historically and culturally connected but also how discourses of madness and gender in fact consolidate one another, pointing to the madness of gender itself. It is little wonder that Anna is so attracted to antipsychiatry's purportedly gender-neutral alternative to these models of madness.

The Matter of the Body

Where the two dominant models locate madness, in either the body or the mind, Laing instead focuses on the patient's experience of "being-in-the-world" (DS 19), which is always caught up with the way in which one perceives of oneself as being-in-the-body. In this respect, Laing's thesis in The Divided Self is straightforward: the ontologically secure (sane) person experiences the body as part of the self; the ontologically insecure (schizoid) person experiences the body as part of the world of others and thus strives to become an "unembodied self" (65). Laing extends D. W. Winnicott's notion of the compliant false self to encompass this mind/body division: "Instead of being the core of his true self," Laing writes, "the body is felt as the core of a false self, which a detached, disembodied, 'inner,' 'true' self looks on at with tenderness, amusement, or hatred as the case may be" (69). Sanity, then, is the phenomenological experience of selfhood where mind and body are unified, Merleau-Ponty's "body-as-it-is-lived-by-me," as Grosz (1994: 86) sees it, while schizophrenia enacts the Cartesian rift between mind and body.

Drawing on existential phenomenology, Laing conceives of the body as, to use Grosz's term, a "lived body," constructed by way of the psyche's projection of "the body-schema" onto its surface. As Grosz suggests, the concept of the "lived body" is "prevalent in psychology, especially psychoanalysis and phenomenology" and "refers largely to the lived experience of the body, the body's internal and psychic inscription." In troubling the binary oppositions between self and body, and between sanity and madness, The Divided Self radically rethinks the ways the experience of schizophrenia can be understood. Laing's work, however, fails to account for how this mind-body relationship operates alongside a sex/gender system that constructs male and female subjectivity so differently. Where for Laing bodies appear as if gender-neutral, Grosz points to how "lived bodies" are "always, already sexually coded" (36), and because Lessing's protagonists are clearly coded this way, their bodies lend themselves more readily to what Grosz describes as an "inscriptive" (33) model, "derived from Nietzsche, Kafka, Foucault, and Deleuze," that "conceives the body as a surface on which social law, morality, and values are inscribed." In this way the body is rendered as a decipherable text, even as it suggests a sense of "an interior, an underlying depth, individuality, or consciousness" (34). The implication for feminist theory, as Butler has argued, is that bodies, and thus subjects, are discursively constructed to meet the expectations of a patriarchal, heterosexual matrix. For women this has meant embodying the devalued side of a litany of binary oppositions, and thus, as Grosz (1994: 108) glosses Iris Young, "the relations between immanence and transcendence, between owning and being a body, between subject and object or one subject and another, are not the same for women as for men." In attempting to represent Anna's schizophrenic experience in terms of not experiencing herself as a "lived body," Lessing encounters just this fundamental problem.

Toward the end of the novel Anna has a dream in which she finds herself looking down on her empty body. A parade of characters from earlier in the novel enter the room and "try to fit themselves into Anna's body. I stood to one side, watched, interested to see who would come into the room next" (GN 522). Anna's detached "interest" suggests that, as with Laing's understanding of schizoid experience, she does not consider her body to be part of her "self" but, rather, part of the world of others. When Paul, an old lover and now dead, appears and "dissolved into her," the situation changes, as when Anna's body is "filled with the dead Paul," her unembodied "inner self" is threatened with complete "disintegration" (523). As a ghost, Paul appears as the ultimate transcendent male, and his possession of her body reads as rape, her body the passive receptacle for his disavowed materiality. From outside of herself, Anna must fight "to re-enter her" body (522), to reclaim it from Paul, whose "cool grave smile" animates "Anna's face" (523). As the dream continues, Anna is separated from her body once again, finding her "brain" occupying the head of an Algerian soldier, her "skin dark" but her mind now her own. Suddenly, her mind goes out "like a candle flame," terror drives her from the soldier's body, she experiences "the flying dream," and she becomes once more unembodied. Driven to find another body, this time she lodges in the body of a young, pregnant Chinese peasant, just as Paul had entered her own body. There, the Anna-brain thinks its "mechanical thoughts," but this time she wills her mind to "flicker and wane" (524), to finally overcome her fear and accept disintegration. Once again, terror drives her out, and she wakes up: "With a weary sense of duty I became Anna, like putting on a soiled dress."

Anna's dream can be read as a failed attempt at schizoid unembodiment, but that does not mean it is a triumph of the "lived body" either. When she awakes, Anna's mind and body remain split, as, her body feeling like a "soiled dress," she cannot experience herself as "flesh and blood and bones," or "being biologically alive and real" (DS 67). Lessing thus "perpetuates a deep schism between mind and body," as Ruth Saxton (1994: 95) argues, so that "the female body is seen as a shell that severely limits woman's experience and both distorts and disguises her identity." Indeed, the different bodies here offer themselves like a series of shells, or, to adopt Lessing's metaphor, dresses, each one a signifier of some combination of gender, race, and class oppression--though far from disguising "identity," such bodies actually produce it. In both the "lived" and "inscriptive" models, the body is framed as a site of inscription--the former originating from an interior "self" that constructs the body in terms of an "imaginary anatomy" (Grosz 1994: 33), the latter from external sociopolitical forces that mark, sculpt, libidinize, medicalize, mechanize, and, significantly, normalize the body according to dominant discourses of intelligibility. Grosz writes:
   It is not clear to me that these two approaches are compatible or
   capable of synthesis.... The body can be regarded as a kind of
   hinge or threshold: it is placed between a psychic or lived
   inferiority and a more sociopolitical exteriority that produces
   interiority through the inscription of the body's outer surface.
   Where psychoanalysis and phenomenology focus on the body as it is
   experienced and rendered meaningful, the inscriptive model is more
   concerned with the processes by which the subject is marked,
   scarred, transformed, and written upon or constructed by the
   various regimes of institutional, discursive, and nondiscursive
   power as a particular kind of body.

When Anna enters others' bodies, the inscription seemingly comes from within, from Anna's brain forming the body, just as Paul's ghost possesses and animates Anna's body. The way the brain makes sense of the body, however, is through its "progressive and liberal" (524) ideas--those external cultural codes, politics, and histories that determine its existence and value. Paul's and Anna's body-hopping suggests an arbitrary relationship between mind and body--and, as Butler will later argue, gender and sex--but at the same time the body is shown to be wholly constitutive of subjectivity. While Laing offers Lessing the concept of the "lived body" and the potential to see beyond gender by adopting a phenomenological framework, (4) Anna's dream keeps returning to bodies inscribed and made intelligible by sociopolitical exteriority. Anna will continue to wear her "soiled dress" and, in the closing pages, when she emerges from her madness, it is only to once more "become Anna, Anna the responsible" (564). In its engagement with Laing's theory, then, The Golden Notebook illuminates how it cannot account for an understanding of female, embodied experience, schizoid or otherwise.

The Four-Gated City (1969)

In the late 1960s Laing and Lessing both published books with a much more optimistic view of schizophrenia and its potential. In The Divided Self, Laing had alluded to the idea that the "cracked mind of the schizophrenic may let in light which does not enter the intact minds of many sane people whose minds are closed" (DS 27), and Lessing offered a very similar vision in The Golden Notebook, when Anna tells her therapist, "Sometimes I meet people, and it seems to me the fact they are cracked across, they're split, means they are keeping themselves open for something" (GN 416). But where in these early works neither writer pursues this line of thinking, in the spirit of the later 1960s both shift their focus from a rather clinical and gloomy description of schizophrenic experience to a far more fantastical and utopian assessment of its potential. For Laing ([1964] 1970: 106), this takes the form of a restorative "inner journey," the schizophrenic--now voyager--undergoing a transformative journey and an "existential rebirth." For Lessing, while the focus remains on the relationship between madness and the gendered body, this time she more fully explores how mind and body might work together to access higher planes of consciousness and usher in a new stage of human evolution. The Four-Gated City thus attempts to realize the unfulfilled hopes of The Golden Notebook--by gradually deconstructing the discourses that inscribe Anna and produce her gendered subjectivity.

Butler suggests that cracks in the performance of intelligible subjectivity allow for new possibilities. "Even if heterosexist constructs circulate as the available sites of power/discourse from which to do gender at all," she writes, "the question remains: What possibilities of recirculation exist? Which possibilities of doing gender repeat and displace through hyperbole, dissonance, internal confusion, and proliferation the very constructs by which they are mobilized?" (Butler [1990] 1999: 41-42). Of course, it the "cracked mind" of madness might momentarily disrupt the performance of intelligible subjectivity, it can be readily absorbed back into systems of normality through the labeling and categorization of mental illnesses via conventional psychiatry--as in Anna's return to her body and "normality" at the end of The Golden Notebook. In exposing the fallacy of such labeling, however--as Laing does in The Politics of Experience--madness can be reimagined. As Butlerian "spectres of discontinuity and incoherence" (23), the women in The Four-Gated City threaten to "crack open," or deconstruct, the notion of intelligible subjectivity.

At the beginning of The Four-Gated City, cloaked in a long "heavy black coat" (FG 16), Martha wanders the streets of London. With no home, job, dependents, or attachments, moving anonymously and androgynously across the city, "without boundaries, without definition" (14), she comes to experience a particular kind of embodiment. She enters this state partly through fasting, sleep deprivation, and walking, but also through highly ritualized acts of sexual intercourse. Experiencing this particular way of being-in-the-world, she can access different planes of consciousness in which she can "see" the past and future. If, as lean Pickering (1980: 26) points out, it is "through the medium of the flesh [that] Martha attains her first truly visionary experience," this attainment is enabled also by the way her body exists as an uninscribed surface--unmarked by the social order she has momentarily escaped.

Relinquishing this freedom and anonymity in order to find work, Martha must then try to access these other planes of consciousness in some other way, and through her encounters with the quintessential career madwoman Lynda, she begins to recognize the potential of schizophrenia, experimenting with madness as a means to divest her sense of self both from her female body and from her "masculine intelligence" (FG 253), the same "intelligence" by which the Anna-brain inscribed the bodies in which she dwelled, including her own. In this, Martha gradually sheds the discourses that construct her as intelligible and emerges as a resistant subject. Having already abandoned her daughter in an earlier installment of the series, she now also rejects her mother's attempts at reconciliation, extricating herself from the matrilineal line of female inheritance of gendered social norms.5 And rejecting Mark, her lover, she rejects her (hetero)sexual identity, favoring instead a woman-woman relationship with Mark's mad wife, Lynda, a "post-erotic friendship," as Saxton (1994: 116) describes it, "which replaces the erotic with a spiritual or political energy understood as healing." And as Martha sacrifices her daughter, her mother, her sexuality, and her intelligibility as a gendered subject, she also slowly removes herself from family, politics, and society, choosing to descend into Lynda's basement.

Unencumbered by gender, sex, or structures of meaning predicated on difference, Martha can access the "lived body"--the body as produced through "psychic inscription" (Grosz 1995: 33). Indeed, in a rewriting of Anna's failed experience of unembodiment, Martha can transform her body into "an elderly man," "a young man," "a small white horse," or a "tree, a glittering faceted individuality of breathing green," all imbued with a "sense of herself [that] had no sex" (FG 243). As a gender-neutral self, she is free to become "the instrument, the receiving device," achieving that "sensitive state" (Grosz 1995: 56) of receptiveness and psychic energy in which she can communicate telepathically and see the future. This later novel thus bears out Anna's hypothesis--that the people who "are cracked across" and "keeping themselves open for something" (416) can find that "something." When Martha emerges from the basement, however, she is confronted with "a near-race of half, uncompleted creatures ... sleep-walking" (521) through life in their "hideously defective bodies" (522). Just as Anna scurries back to her body, so Martha scurries back to the basement, appalled by the abomination that is humankind. The text is left with two choices: register Martha's breakthrough as an individual triumph but a revolutionary failure, or imagine the abomination as itself giving way. Lessing chooses the latter and her realistic novel gives way to a postapocalyptic one.

Where The Politics of Experience calls for all of humankind to undergo the transformative inner journey to enlightenment, Lessing's novel trades a utopian fantasy for a much easier dystopian apocalypse. In a more sparsely populated world, the "new normal" can flourish, nourishing a race of superhumans, psychically connected across space and time. Humankind takes a leap forward, which is also really a leap back--but such a leap involves apocalyptic devastation. Lessing's novel realizes the potential of Laing's reimagining of madness, the potential of the "lived body," but she has to all but end the world to do it.

Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971)

The Golden Notebook ends without finding an escape from gendered discourses of madness or the madness of gendered discourses, and The Four-Gated City can only envision a way beyond these through a relinquishing of the markers of female embodiment (children, mothers, sex, heterosexual love) and a fantasy of apocalypse. The challenge for Lessing's final, ostensibly most Laingian madness novel, is thus whether it can resolve the impasse and accommodate Laing's theories and Lessing's politics together. At first glance, the difficulty seems to have been solved by simply fictionalizing one of Laing's case studies. Despite Lessing's claims to the contrary, her protagonist's story in Briefing for a Descent into Hell closely tracks Laing's account of Jesse Watkins's "Ten Day Voyage" in The Politics of Experience. (6) Introducing Watkins's story as "an account of his voyage into inner space and time (PE 120)," Laing presents it as a successful instance of a schizophrenic inner journey to enlightenment as healing.

The ostensibly gender-neutral schizophrenics of The Divided Self and Sanity, Madness, and the Family, who are in fact mostly women, are here replaced by a supposedly gender-neutral brave voyager, clearly male, his inner journey a kind of male adventure narrative. Where he is the "voyager, the explorer, the climber, the space man" (PE 105), the madwoman appears now only as the sad, tortured patient of Emil Kraepline, whose account of a psychiatric examination Laing draws on to reiterate his earlier argument: that madness can be made comprehensible only if we acknowledge the patient's particular sense of "being-in-the-world" and that, failing to do so, conventional psychiatry is in fact harmful, its methods crazier than the patients it purports to cure. In The Politics of Experience, that is, the madwoman appears as a victim of the old system but never as a voyager in this new incarnation of madness. The shift from the psychotic to the psychedelic, as Peter Sedgwick (1971: 43) has argued, "was an inevitable move in [Laing's] campaign to upgrade the status of the apparently abnormal and insane" without which "we are left with the position that the schizophrenic is a disabled victim ... whose basic perceptions and reactions can only to a limited degree be understood in terms of 'intelligibility.'" But this "upgrade" appears to have necessitated a shift in gender: when madness becomes reimagined as a perilous and exciting adventure, an "ancient quest, with its pitfalls and dangers" (PE 112), it becomes man's work.

Problematically, Lessing's final madness novel also registers this very shift, as the Annas, Lyndas, and Marthas of her previous texts are replaced with her own male adventurer. It featuring a male protagonist may have been an attempt to circumnavigate the prominence critics tended to give the theme of the "sex war" in her novels, the shift functions in other ways as well. (7) Mona Knapp (1984: 106) argues that "Lessing's choice of a male protagonist contributes to the book's force, since society often stamps hysteria and irrationality as intrinsically female traits." Likewise, Lynn Sukenick (1974: 116) "suspects ... that a man was chosen in order to give madness its fullest due and its deepest persuasion." In this view, that is, the shift may have reflected a sense that it would help a work of science fiction be taken seriously. By shedding the hysterical women of her previous texts and adopting the perspective of a mad but male hero, Lessing might help legitimate the alternative theory of madness both she and Laing were exploring.

Interestingly, this switch in the main protagonist's gender prompts both Showalter and Sydney Janet Kaplan to dismiss the significance of sex/gender for readings of the schizophrenic experience in Briefing for a Descent into Hell. "The issue of sexuality seems to have been eliminated from Briefing," Kaplan (1974: 120) writes, and Showalter (1988: 241) argues that the text "does not make connections between female powerlessness and schizophrenia" because "Lessing's novels were no longer concerned with the schizophrenic journey as a woman's exploration of self." I would suggest, however, that the sex/gender politics that do remain at play in this novel do in fact help illuminate the relationship between Laing's radical revision of madness in The Politics of Experience and gendered embodiment in Lessing's novels. Lessing's shift to a male hero is key to the way Briefing for a Descent into Hell offers a parody of Laing's The Politics of Experience. In presenting a male hero, with the same name as the "Voyager" in Laing's work, Lessing both highlights the gender bias of that work and registers Laing's abandonment and betrayal of the madwomen who remain the "disabled victims" of conventional psychiatric care even as they are forced to suffer the collateral damage of the male hero's journey and rebirth. (8)

The Inner Journey

Of the two interwoven halves of Briefing for a Descent into Hell, one takes place in the "real" world of the psychiatric institution and the other happens in the "cosmic" world of Charles's inner journey. And it is through Charles's encounters with women in both halves that the text produces a feminist critique of Laing's inner journey. In both, Charles's transcendent journey depends on the presence of the female body. In the cosmic narrative, this is established from the start, as the men on the boat Charles captains wave to the women they leave behind, most notably "Conchita" who sings for the sailors (BD 20). With her name referring to the immaculate conception (see Sheehan 2001: 69), Conchita represents the ideal of female embodiment--a reproductive but chaste body, imprisoned on an island, waiting for the male hero to return. Where the island women remain on land, Charles takes to the sea, and even the sky, destined to ascend into the crystal/cosmos, from which he will return as a godlike savior. At its inception, then, this cosmic narrative returns us to a series of binary oppositions--male/female, mind/body, active/passive, free/imprisoned, cosmic/earthbound, transcendent/embodied--as the transcendent male hero must renounce his own materiality, displacing it onto the women so that he may ascend to the cosmos. Men are able to dominate knowledge paradigms, Grosz (1995: 42) writes, "because women take on the function of representing the body, the irrational, the natural, or other epistemologically devalued binary terms. By positioning women as the body, they can project themselves and their products as disembodied, pure, and uncontaminated." From within Charles's "disembodied, pure, and uncontaminated" antipsychiatric inner space, the female body thus asserts itself as the embodied, tainted matter he has disavowed. Just as the medical model structures Tommy's occupying the transcendent, unembodied realm of "masculine intelligence," so now, to formulate the inner journey, antipsychiatry makes recourse to the male-mind/female-body binary.

That Lessing appropriates Charles's surname, the presence of the sea voyage, and some of Laing's specific language, points to her text as a parody of Laing's, as does, more forcefully, the way she narrates the critical stage of Charles's inner journey, "from being outside (post-birth) back into the womb of all things (pre-birth)" (PE 106). Eschewing infantilization of the sort Jesse undergoes when he regresses until he "had no brain at all" and "felt as if [he] were like a baby" [124]), here Lessing registers this stage through Charles's encounter with a hostile natural environment:

For it was now evident that ahead of me was a narrow cleft.... I went up into it.... Now I had to squirm my way up, my feet on one wall, my back and shoulders against the other. It was a slow, painful process.... The evil-smelling cleft I had come through now seemed to have had no real part in my journey, for its dark and constriction seemed foreign to the vast clear space of the way I had been. (BD 44-45)

Instead of presenting a narrative of regression, Lessing foregrounds the body through which Laing's "existential rebirth" (PE 1970: 106) is made possible. Charles's journey as metaphorical rebirth--out of the dense forest (womb), up the steep mountainside (birthing canal), his "slow, painful" "squirm[ing]" through the "evil-smelling cleft" (vagina) and final exposure on a ledge from which he looks back at the "vast clear space" of the East (the world)--clearly isn't subtle. And as he emerges he recognizes his reflection in the glassy surface of the rock, entering the Symbolic order, leaving behind the cleft (the mother's body) and ascending the cliff face: "I had to go up" (BD 45). As he then soon encounters civilization, a ruined city, we see the sharp demarcation between female nature on the one hand and male culture on the other, the scene dramatizing how the former, as foreign other, makes possible the male entry to language, civilization, and knowledge. Charles's existential rebirth is thus predicated on woman's embodiment, her body the condition by which he can journey into enlightenment and the site on which he can discard his own materiality. In this way, Lessing's text exposes how Laing's claim's to universality are belied by the phallogocentrism of the quest narrative--in which, for the male hero, the female body must be left behind.

Charles's second encounter with the female body during the cosmic narrative, explicitly connects it to madness. Before he is absorbed into the light of the crystal, Charles stumbles upon three archetypal women--Shakespeare's weird sisters--who lure him into their bloody orgy-feast. Fie is "'moonstruck,' 'mooncrazed,' 'lunatic,'" Jeanette King (1989: 56) observes, and "his sudden consciousness of a smell of blood implicitly connects the moon's phases with the female menstrual cycle, underlining the traditional association between the moon, female sexuality, and insanity." Here, female lunacy is monstrous, carnal, chaotic, and bodily--in stark contrast, and a danger, to Charles's spiritual and transcendent antipsychiatric journey. As flesh, the madwoman is unholy and bloody, ready to eat her own children; as mind, the madman becomes "a shape in light" (BD 89) akin to what Simone de Beauvoir calls the fantasy of the "pure Idea, the One, the All, the absolute spirit" ([1949] 1997: 177).

The Other Reality

While with its archaic metaphors and stock characters the cosmic narrative thread parodies Laing's work quite broadly, the real world narrative of Briefing of a Descent into Hell takes a much subtler approach. Here, the key figure is Violet Stoke, though readings of the novel generally take little notice of her. Surfacing at the end of the book she appears a peripheral character, akin to the nineteenth-century madwoman traditionally resigned to the margins of textual representation: a mere plot device. But if Charles is the "everyman," she, like Lynda in The Four-Gated City, is the "every-schizo-woman," and the two characters represent polar versions of madness--one that readily translates to the Laingian journey to enlightenment, one that remains female, embodied, and irreversibly "shipwrecked."

Violet is introduced by means of a lengthy description of her appearance, beginning from the top and working its way down. Her upper half "conform[s] both to our current ideas about beauty in women, and that moment's fashion" (BD 226). Clad in a dress with a high neck and long sleeves, this upper half embodies an idea of chaste femininity. But the text then reveals that this is a mini-dress, and Violet's lower half is offered in stark contrast to the upper:
   The girl's legs were not quite bare. She wore extremely fine,
   pale-grey tights. But she did not wear any panties. She sat with
   her legs sprawled apart in a way that suggested that she had
   forgotten about them, or that she had enough to do to control and
   manage the top half of her, without all the trouble of remembering
   her legs and her sex as well. Her private parts were evident as a
   moist dark fuzzy patch, and their exposure gave her a naive,
   touching, appealing look. (227)

The nurses observe that "her way of sitting there, dressed in a parody of a housekeeper's dress with her sex on view was a challenge to their sanity" (228). That she represents a "parody" and that her exposed female genitals, it is suggested, might cause insanity points to how the text both grapples with the way madness is thought to inhere in female embodiment, and to the way she mocks Laing's attempts to reimagine madness. Violet does this by being too female. Just "sitting there," she is a troubling figure, reminiscent of Anna in the final pages of The Golden Notebook when, after reentering her body as if a "soiled dress," she considers her "private parts" a "wet sticky centre" that "seemed disgusting" (532). Where Anna attempts to escape the virgin/whore binary, Violet tries to encompass both; in doing so she becomes uncanny and disturbing--mad. Quite literally, she becomes a "divided self," the divide drawn across her midsection, separating her reproductive organs from the upper, more "proper" self.

Violet's madness, then, expresses the impossibility of encompassing those two opposing constructions of intelligible womanhood. The year after Lessing published Briefing, Phyllis Chesler (1997: 93) argued that madness is understood either as one's gender failing to correspond to the sexed body (female bodies performing masculine behaviors, for instance) or as simply being too female ("Women who fully act out the conditioned female role are clinically viewed as 'neurotic' or 'psychotic'"). In this, Chesler looks ahead to Judith Butler's ([1990] 1999: 24) argument in Gender Trouble that when "gender does not follow from sex," or when the gender performance goes so far as to parody its "natural" sex, a person then becomes a "developmental failure" with the potential to "expose the limits and regulatory aims of that domain of intelligibility." We can read Violet as this "developmental failure" and, as such, she represents Lessing's greatest indictment against antipsychiatry's claim to revolutionary power and universality.

The importance of Violet's appearance at the end of the novel is highlighted by a metafictional break in the text. Describing Violet's presence on the ward, the impersonal narrator digressively starts to muse on Goya's early paintings, commenting on their uncanny quality--a quality, the narrator explains, achieved by having one person in the picture stare back at the spectator:

This person who refuses to conform to the conventions of the picture the artist has set him in, questions and in fact destroys the convention. It is as if the artist said to himself: I suppose I've got to paint this kind of picture, it is expected of me--but I'll show them. As you stand and gaze in, all the rest of the picture fades away, the charmers in their smiles and flounces, the young heroes, the civilization, all those dissolve away because of that long straight gaze from the one who looks back out of the canvas and says silently that he or she knows it is all a load of old socks.... The eyes of Violet Stoke had the same effect, that of negating the rest of her appearance--and perhaps of saying the same thing. (BD 229-30)

With her own "long straight gaze," Violet thus breaks through in the final pages to negate "the rest of the picture." Just as the rest of the picture "fades away," so by the end of the novel, the hero and his adventures likewise fade away. Indeed, Charles doesn't even fulfil Laing's journey or his "cosmic" mission, his eventual cure in the real world narrative coming from electroshock therapy. He returns to his wife, his children, and his career, to where the world determines that, as a white, heterosexual male, he belongs. And Violet, with her too female body, also remains where she belongs: institutionalized and able neither to access the inner journey to enlightenment nor adapt herself to a coherent, legitimate gender identity. With her stare, her body, her femaleness, she destabilizes the rest of the narrative, and, like one of Goya's starers, "refuses to conform" and "questions and in fact destroys the convention." And this is Lessing breaking the surface of the narrative too. Suddenly we have an impersonal narrator who, like Violet, calls attention to the convention, revealing her parodic approach to "the kind of [novel] expected of me." Lessing's long and detailed examination of the potential of antipsychiatry over three novels and nine years ends here, with the author breaking through to say, alas, it "was all a load of old socks" after all.


Lorna Sage's (2013) obituary acknowledged the ways Lessing "allowed herself to be inconsistent": "Even her talent for demolition and her habit of cutting her losses were not to be relied upon. She was adept at tracing sly signs of continuity where that particular path through the narrative woods had been overgrown and bypassed time, out of mind--not least by Lessing."

By the mid-1970s, antipsychiatry was "overgrown" and "bypassed" in her work, and the antipsychiatry movement and its cultural figurehead R. D. Laing had also fallen out of fashion. When in Lessing's 1979 novel, Shikasta, Johor reports that he knows what it is to "accept failure, final and irreversible, of an effort or experiment" (1986: 13), this could easily refer to Lessing's attempts to reconcile Laing's theories with her understanding of female experience. It is therefore all the more significant that, in her final work, Alfred and Emily (2008), over thirty-five years later, Lessing returns to the subject of mental illness:
   It was a serious business ..., neurotic mothers, driving their
   daughters mad.... So, how did these pathetic demented women come
   about? Well, we knew.... These were women who should have been
   working, should have worked, should have interests in their lives
   apart from us, their hag-ridden daughters.... I look back at the
   mothers of my generation and shudder and think, Oh, my God, never,
   never let it happen again. (190-91)

This is Lessing's final word on the question of postwar women's madness. Characteristically, she chooses to recover the most controversial aspect of the antipsychiatry movement's thesis--the "schizophrenogenic mother"--but what Lessing makes clear is that this mother is not a "species" but a symptom of the gendered discursive practices that governed a particular time and place. If Lessing's madness novels ultimately discarded Laing's reimagining of madness and the potential of the inner journey for the madwomen, what remains is the recognition that madness results from untenable lives, particularly for women struggling against inscribed conceptions of a selfhood they do not recognize or cannot fulfil. "Oh, my God," she says, "Never, never let it happen again."


I would like to thank Clare Hanson and Susan Watkins for their invaluable advice and ongoing support for this project. I would also like to thank the organizers of Plymouth University's Doris Lessing 2014: An International Conference, where I presented an early version of this article.

DOI 10.1215/0041462X-7995634

Kerry Myler is senior lecturer in Contemporary Literature at Newman University, Birmingham, United Kingdom. She is an executive committee member of the Contemporary Women's Writing Association and a volume editor for the Literary Encyclopedia. Her research interests include postwar and contemporary women's writing; women's bodies, sexuality, and motherhood in literature and popular culture; and women and mental illness in literature.


(1.) The term schizophrenogenic mother was coined by the German psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann in 1948 (Frith and Johnstone 2003: 111). In The Politics of Experience, Laing writes that "if the patients were disturbed their families were often very disturbing.... At first the focus was mainly on the mothers (who are always the first to get blamed for everything), and a 'schizophrenogenic' mother was postulated, who was supposed to generate disturbance in the child" (PE 93). As he backtracks here, Laing fails to mention here that he and Esterson greatly contributed to this narrative in Sanity, Madness, and the Family.

(2.) The exception is Roberta Rubenstein's Literary Half-Lives: Doris Lessing, Clancy Sigai, and Roman a Clef (2014), a study of the intertextual relations between Doris Lessing and the American writer Clancy Sigai which, inevitably, also involves Laing, who was treating Sigai while he was Lessing's lover.

(3.) Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason was published in 1961, one year after Laing's The Divided Self and is introduced by the British antipsychiatrist David Cooper. In Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the College de France 1973-1974, Foucault (2006: 346) reads the antipsychiatry movements as an attempt to enact a "demedicalization of madness."

(4.) Toril Moi takes a similar position in her essay "What Is a Woman?" (1999).

(5.) For more on the connections between madness and mothering in The Four-Gated City, see my article "Madness and Mothering in Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City (1969)" (Myler 2013: 15-20).

(6.) In a letter to Roberta Rubenstein, Lessing claims that she had no knowledge of The Politics of Experience when she wrote Briefing for a Descent into Hell and the use of the name Watkins was mere coincidence (see Rubenstein 1979: 196).

(7.) Briefing for a Descent into Hell was published in the same year as Lessing's preface to The Golden Notebook that so vehemently attacked her critics' tendency to read the book only, or primarily, in terms of the "sex war" debate.

(8.) My claim that Lessing might simultaneously deny any connection to the The Politics of Experience and yet be quite consciously parodying it, isn't so implausible--Lessing, after all, is the writer who deliberately deceived her publishing house and readers when she published under the pseudonym Jane Somers in order to expose the industry's reluctance to publish new writers.

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Date:Dec 1, 2019
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