Doris Lessing.

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside


Prisons We Choose to Live Inside

It would be a good thing if man concerned himself more with the history of his nature than with the history of his deeds.

Friedrich Hebbel

It is useless to close the gates against ideas; they overleap them.

Wenzel Lothar Metternich

To have doubted ones own first principles is the mark of a civilized man.

The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour upon it the more it will contract.

O. W. Holmes Jr



Title Page


When in the Future They Look Back on Us

You Are Damned, We Are Saved

Switching Off to See Dallas

Group Minds

Laboratories of Social Change

Unexamined Mental Attitudes Left Behind by Communism

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About the Author

Also by the Author


About the Publisher

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside is the title of the Massey series of lectures originally given by Doris Lessing under the auspices of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1985. The individual titles of the lectures are as follows: When in the Future They Look Back on Us, You Are Damned, We Are Saved, Switching Off to See Dallas, Group Minds, and Laboratories of Social Change.

The Massey Lectures were created in honour of the Right Honourable Vincent Massey, former Governor-General of Canada and were inaugurated by the CBC in 1961 to enable distinguished authorities to communicate the results of original study or research on subjects of general interest.

Unexamined Mental Attitudes Left Behind by Communism is the title of a lecture originally delivered by Doris Lessing at a conference Intellectuals and Social Change in Central and Eastern Europe at Rutgers University in April 1992.

When in the Future They Look Back on Us

THERE WAS ONCE a highly respected and prosperous farmer, who had one of the best dairy herds in the country, and to whom other farmers came from all over the southern half of the continent for advice. This was in the old Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where I grew up. The time was just after the Second World War.

I knew this farmer and his family well.

The farmer, who was Scottish in origin, decided to import a very special bull from Scotland. This was just before science had discovered how to send potential calves from one continent to another by airmail in small packages. The beast in due course arrived, flown in, naturally, and was welcomed by a reception committee of farmers, friends, experts. He cost ?10,000. I dont know what that would be now, but it was a very large sum for the farmer. A special home was made for him. He was a massive, impressive animal, mild as a lamb, it was claimed, and he liked to be tickled at the back of his head with a stick held safely at a distance, from behind the bars of his pen. He had his own keeper, a black boy of about twelve. All went well; it was clear the bull would soon become the father of a satisfactory number of calves. He remained an attraction for visitors, who would drive out on a Sunday afternoon to stand about the pen, brooding over this fabulous beast, who looked so powerful and who was so docile. And then he suddenly and quite inexplicably killed his keeper, the black boy.

Something like a court of justice was held. The boys relatives demanded, and got, compensation. But that was not the end of it. The farmer decided that the bull must be killed. When this became known, a great many people went to him and pleaded for the magnificent beasts life. After all, it was in the nature of bulls to suddenly go berserk, everyone knew that. The herd boy had been warned, and he must have been careless. Obviously, it would never happen again to waste all that power, potential, and not to mention money what for?

The bull has killed, the bull is a murderer, and he must be punished. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, said the inexorable farmer, and the bull was duly executed by firing squad and buried.

Now, as Ive said, this farmer was not some ignoramus, or bumpkin. Moreover, like all his kind the ruling white minority he spent a good deal of time condemning the blacks who lived all around him for being primitive, backward, pagan, and so forth.

But what he had done this act of condemning an animal to death for wrong-doing went back into the far past of mankind, so far back we dont know where it began, but certainly it was when man hardly knew how to differentiate between humans and beasts.

Any tactful suggestions along these lines from friends or from other farmers were simply dismissed with I know how to tell right from wrong, thank you very much.

There is another incident. A certain tree was once sentenced to death, at the end of the last war. The tree was associated with General P?tain, for a time considered Frances saviour, then Frances betrayer. When P?tain was disgraced, the tree was solemnly sentenced and executed for collaborating with the enemy.

I often think about these incidents: they represent those happenings that seem to give up more meaning as time goes on. Whenever things seem to be going along quite smoothly and I am talking about human affairs in general then it is as if suddenly some awful primitivism surges up and people revert to barbaric behaviour.

This is what I want to talk about in these five lectures: how often and how much we are dominated by our savage past, as individuals and as groups. And yet, while sometimes it seems as if we are helpless, we are gathering, and very rapidly too rapidly to assimilate it knowledge about ourselves, not only as individuals, but as groups, nations, and as members of society.

This is a time when it is frightening to be alive, when it is hard to think of human beings as rational creatures. Everywhere we look we see brutality, stupidity, until it seems that there is nothing else to be seen but that a descent into barbarism, everywhere, which we are unable to check. But I think that while it is true there is a general worsening, it is precisely because things are so frightening we become hypnotized, and do not notice or if we notice, belittle equally strong forces on the other side, the forces, in short, of reason, sanity and civilization.

And of course I know that as I say these words there must be people who are muttering, Where? The woman must be crazy to see anything good in this mess we are in.

I think this sanity must be looked for in precisely this process of judging our own behaviour as we examine the farmer who executed an animal to make it expiate a crime, or the people who sentenced, and executed, a tree. Against these enormously powerful primitive instincts, we have this: the ability to observe ourselves from other viewpoints. Some of these viewpoints are very old much older perhaps than we realize. There is nothing new in the demand that reason should govern human affairs. For instance, in the course of another study, I came upon an Indian book, a good two thousand years old, a manual for the sensible governing of a state. Its prescriptions are every bit as cool, sensible, rational as anything we could come up with now; nor does it demand any less in the way of justice, even as we understand justice. The reason I am mentioning this book at all it is called the Arth?s?stra, by the way, and was written by one Kautilya, and is unfortunately hard to come by outside specialist libraries is that this book that seems so unimaginably old talks of itself as the last in a long line of similar books.

It could be said that this is a matter for gloom rather than optimism, that after so many thousands of years of knowing perfectly well how a country should be managed, we are so far from achieving it; but and this is the whole point and focus of what I want to say what we know about ourselves is much more sophisticated, goes deeper, than what was known then, what has been known through these long thousands of years.

If we were to put into practice what we know but that is the point.

I think when people look back at our time, they will be amazed at one thing more than any other. It is this that we do know more about ourselves now than people did in the past, but that very little of this knowledge has been put into effect. There has been this great explosion of information about ourselves. The information is the result of mankinds still infant ability to look at itself objectively. It concerns our behaviour patterns. The sciences in question are sometimes called the behavioural sciences and are about how we function in groups and as individuals, not about how we like to think we behave and function, which is often very flattering. But about how we can be observed to be behaving when observed as dispassionately as when we observe the behaviour of other species. These social or behavioural sciences are precisely the result of our capacity to be detached and unflattering about ourselves. There is this great mass of new information from universities, research institutions and from gifted amateurs, but our ways of governing ourselves havent changed.

Our left hand does not know does not want to know what our right hand does.

This is what I think is the most extraordinary thing there is to be seen about us, as a species, now. And people to come will marvel at it, as we marvel at the blindness and inflexibility of our ancestors.

I spend a good deal of time wondering how we will seem to the people who come after us. This is not an idle interest, but a deliberate attempt to strengthen the power of that other eye, which we can use to judge ourselves. Anyone who reads history at all knows that the passionate and powerful convictions of one century usually seem absurd, extraordinary, to the next. There is no epoch in history that seems to us as it must have to the people who lived through it. What we live through, in any age, is the effect on us of mass emotions and of social conditions from which it is almost impossible to detach ourselves. Often the mass emotions are those which seem the noblest, best and most beautiful. And yet, inside a year, five years, a decade, five decades, people will be asking, How could they have believed that? because events will have taken place that will have banished the said mass emotions to the dustbin of history. To coin a phrase.

People of my age have lived through several of such violent reversals. I will mention just one. During the Second World War, from the moment the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler and became an ally of the democracies, that country was affectionately regarded in popular opinion. Stalin was Uncle Joe, the ordinary chaps friend, Russia was the land of brave, liberty-loving heroes, and Communism was an interesting manifestation of popular will which we should copy. All this went on for four years and then suddenly, almost overnight, it went into reverse. All these attitudes became wrong-headed, treasonable, a threat to everybody. People who had been chatting on about Uncle Joe, suddenly, just as if all that had never happened, were using the slogans of the cold war. One extreme, sentimental and silly, bred by wartime necessities, was replaced by another extreme, unreasoning and silly.

To have lived through such a reversal once is enough to make you critical for ever afterwards of current popular attitudes.

I think writers are by nature more easily able to achieve this detachment from mass emotions and social conditions. People who are continually examining and observing become critics of what they examine and observe. Look at all those utopias written through the centuries. Mores Utopia, Campanellas City of the Sun, Morriss News from Nowhere, Butlers Erewhon (which is an anagram of nowhere), all the many different blueprints for possible futures produced by science and space fiction writers who, I think, are in the same tradition. These of course are all criticisms of current societies, for you cant write a utopia in a vacuum.

I think novelists perform many useful tasks for their fellow citizens, but one of the most valuable is this: to enable us to see ourselves as others see us.

Of course in totalitarian societies writers are distrusted for precisely this reason. In all Communist countries this function, the criticizing one, is not permitted.

Incidentally, I see writers, generally, in every country, as a unity, almost like an organism, which has been evolved by society as a means of examining itself. This organism is different in different epochs and always changing. Its most recent evolution has been into space and science fiction, predictably, because humanity is into studying space, and has only recently (historically speaking) acquired science as an aptitude. The organism must be expected to develop, to change, as society does. The organism is not conscious of itself as an organism, a whole, though I think it will soon be. The world is becoming one, and this enables us all to see our many different societies as aspects of a whole, and the parts of those societies shared by them all. If you see writers like this as a stratum, a layer, a strand, in every country, all so varied, but as together making up a whole, it tends to do away with the frantic competitiveness that is fostered by prizes and so forth. I think that writers everywhere are aspects of each other, aspects of a function that has been evolved by society.

Writers, books, novels, are used like this, but I dont think the attitudes towards writers, literature, reflect this. Not yet.

Novels should be on the same shelf with anthropology, says one friend of mine, an anthropologist. Writers comment on the human condition, talk about it continually. It is our subject. Literature is one of the most useful ways we have of achieving this other eye, this detached manner of seeing ourselves; history is another. Yet literature and history increasingly are not seen like this by the young, as indispensable tools for living but Ill come back to this later.

To return to the farmer and his bull. It may be argued that the farmers sudden regression to primitivism affected no one but himself and his family, and was a very small incident on the stage of human affairs. But exactly the same can be seen in large events, affecting hundreds or even millions of people. For instance, when British and Italian soccer fans recently rioted in Brussels, they became, as onlookers and commentators continually reiterated, nothing but animals. The British louts, it seems, were urinating on the corpses of people they had killed. To use the word animal here seems to me unhelpful. This may be animal behaviour, I dont know, but it is certainly human behaviour, when humans allow themselves to revert to barbarism, and has been for thousands, probably even millions of years depending on where one decides to put the beginning of our history as humans, not animals.

In times of war, as everyone knows who has lived through one, or talked to soldiers when they are allowing themselves to remember the truth, and not the sentimentalities with which we all shield ourselves from the horrors of which we are capable in times of war we revert, as a species, to the past, and are permitted to be brutal and cruel.

It is for this reason, and of course others, that a great many people enjoy war. But this is one of the facts about war that is not often talked about.

I think it is sentimental to discuss the subject of war, or peace, without acknowledging that a great many people enjoy war not only the idea of it, but the fighting itself. In my time I have sat through many many hours listening to people talking about war, the prevention of war, the awfulness of war, with it never once being mentioned that for large numbers of people the idea of war is exciting, and that when a war is over they may say it was the best time in their lives. This may be true even of people whose experiences in war were terrible, and which ruined their lives. People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first secret, unacknowledged, elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is beating an awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad. Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it.

Before the First World War, the socialist movements of all Europe and America met to agree that capitalism was fomenting war, and that the working classes of all those countries should have nothing to do with it. But the moment war was actually there, and the poisonous, fascinating elation had begun, all those decent, rational, honourable resolutions about keeping out of the war were forgotten. I have heard young people discussing this, uncomprehending. This is because they do not understand how it can have happened. It is because they have not experienced, and have not been told about that dreadful public elation that is so strong strong because it comes from an older part of the human brain, of the human experience, than the decent, humane, rational part, which passes resolutions condemning war. But suppose the delegates to that socialists conference had had such information. Even more importantly, suppose they had been prepared to discuss it as it affected them, for it is easy to call other people primitive, and difficult to acknowledge that we may be so. Surely they would have been very much more efficient; indeed, as they had all expected, vainly, to happen, the working masses of Europe might have refused to go like lambs to the slaughter.

When I was in Zimbabwe in 1982, two years after Independence, and the end of that appalling war that was very much uglier and more savage than we were ever told, I met soldiers from both sides, whites and blacks. The first obvious fact obvious to an outsider, if not to themselves was that they were in a state of shock. Seven years of war had left them in a stunned, curiously blank state, and I think it was because whenever people are actually forced to recognize, from real experience, what we are capable of, it is so shocking that we cant take it in easily. Or take it in at all; we want to forget it. But there was another fact and for the purposes of this discussion perhaps a more interesting one. It was evident that the actual combatants on both sides, both blacks and whites, had thoroughly enjoyed the war. It was a fighting that demanded great skill, individual bravery, initiative, resourcefulness the skills of a guerrilla, talents that through a long peace-time life may never have been called into use. Yet people may suspect they have them, and secretly long for an opportunity to show them. This is not the least of the reasons, I believe, that wars happen.

These people, black and white, men and women, had been living in that extreme of tension, alertness, danger, with all their capacities in full use. I heard people say that nothing could ever come up to that experience. The dreadfulness of the war was too near for them to be saying, The best time of our lives, but they were, I am sure, beginning to think it. I am talking of course of the actual combatants, certainly not the civilians, who had a miserable time of it, with both the white government troops and the black guerrillas making use of them for their own purposes, treating them brutally.

Now that war has gone away into the past, and has become formalized in sets of words, images of heroism. The young people will probably have a small unconscious hankering after what they hear in their parents voices as they talk about it; if they were soldiers, that is. The civilians who lived through it will not talk about it much, having learned the impossibility of conveying the awfulness of it. But the black soldiers, most of whom were taught war as they came out of childhood, and the white soldiers, will be talking with nostalgia. The great war of liberation, the glorious war, which did so much psychological damage to the country, and to its people: damage which, after a war, we simply do not want to look at. Perhaps we cannot look at it, precisely as a result of that damage. This heroic and glorious war was quite unnecessary in the first place and could easily have been avoided by the use of only a minimum amount of common sense on the part of the whites. They were, however, in the grip of all kinds of primitive emotions. I shall pick up my rifle and fight to the last drop of my blood. I quote. I go on to quote the first half of this sentence, If you think that Reds like yourself and the British Government are going to give our country to the blacks, I shall pick up my rifle and fight to the last drop of my blood. And he did.

I heard precisely this sentiment recently from a white South African.

Yes, indeed it does seem that against passions as primitive as these, the small voice of reason is not likely to succeed. Let us look at South Africa, where the experiences of Kenya and white Rhodesia have taught them nothing. But perhaps, and we must hope it, tucked away among the fanatics are reasonable men and women who have taken a long cool look at Kenya and Rhodesia and learned. Perhaps. It does not look like it now.

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