Beyond genre: Doris Lessing writes a creation myth of the sex war ...

August 05, 2007|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

The Cleft

By Doris Lessing

HarperCollins / 260 pages / $25.95

Anyone already depressed about the state of the war between the sexes should forgo Doris Lessing's latest novel. But who can resist Doris Lessing, even when she's taking a grim view of that millennia-old conflict?

The Cleft is Lessing's 27th novel, and at the age of 87, the grande dame of British letters has lost none of the grit or political drive that has propelled and compelled her writing over the years. In the 57 years since she published her first novel, Lessing has forged a phalanx of feminist theory, letters and fiction. Her "Martha Quest" novels and her "Canopus in Argos" series extend well beyond any simplisms about the status of women in society (our own or those of the future). No one who came of age during the Second Wave of feminism could ignore Lessing; The Golden Notebook remains a classic of feminist writing that is as powerful now as it was three decades ago.

Over the past 20 years, Lessing has devoted herself almost wholly to science fiction. Those who dismiss genre writing in general as "unserious" literature would do well to remember that nearly all Latin American fiction is magical realist in nature, Eastern bloc fiction has always taken a speculative turn and Japanese fiction has shifted almost wholly into the realm of the gothic and supernatural. Can all this fiction be dismissed? Certainly Lessing can't. As she herself has said, within science fiction can be found the most important social fiction. Orwell and Huxley would no doubt agree.

In her new book, Lessing goes back, rather than forward, in time and takes on the mythic. At its core The Cleft is a creation myth. In this vision, the world is completely and inexorably female. And, naturally, it works. The tribe - the Cleft, named thus for their female genitalia and the rock formation near where they live - gives birth parthenogenically: There are no men, no sperm, no thought to another gender. Until ...

One day a child is born with a birth defect. Soon the race of Squirts takes root and voila! - rape, pillaging and all manner of bad things ensue.

But before that happens, this race of female Amazons lives in a peaceful harmony with the nature and nurture surrounding them. They are cave-dwellers. The crones of the clan, the "Old Shes," are tended to as they age by the younger ones. The babies, like Topsy, just grow. It's a seemingly idyllic, if unambitious and meandering life. The clan eats fish from the nearby sea and other vegetation. Their own creation myth is simple: They tend the Cleft, the rock above them, weeding it and every so often tossing it a virgin sacrifice.

This mythos is also metaphor, because on the day the first boy is born, there is a tectonic shift in both their way of life and their manner of worship.

The focal point of the genitalia of the newborn male is also metaphoric. His "tube" and the "lumps" surrounding it are ugly compared to the smooth cleft of the females. The birth defect offends and repels the women. They consider cutting everything away.

As in all creation myths, nothing is as it seems. Fig leaves won't hide the offending parts on this new little monster born to the Cleft and what's more - others soon come as well. (Was it something in the water? The fish? Did they not tend the Cleft carefully enough? What did they do wrong?) The baby boys don't make good animal stock and there seems no other use for them, so the clan decides to take each to the Killing Rock to be exposed. This is, of course, Lessing at her most ironic, the horrifying decision being a tidy reversal of what was actually done to infant girls in many cultures - Greek and Roman among them - for centuries. And of course the exposing of girl children continues in China today, a response to the one-child ruling of the State.

On the Killing Rock the baby boys are left for the eagles, if they don't die first.

The history of a race is not static, however, and when the birds take the boys off, they don't always kill them. Rather they deposit them over the cliffs/Cleft into a valley where they are tended to by a new race of lost boys who had, when the Cleft was maintaining the boys as livestock, escaped their captors. Time passes, the twain meet and - the war between the sexes heats up.

It's an odd journey Lessing takes her readers on in The Cleft. This is not a perfect society trashed by the appearance of men. The clan was dying out of its own accord when the boys began to be born. The Old Shes were the keepers of the eternal harmonic flame and the peaceful and harmonious world they tended was dying with them. The newer clan of the Cleft, then, doesn't seem lovely to us at all, its neat harmonies and peacefulness all but gone, supplanted by a slow, plodding, seemingly meaningless life. It appears, well, empty.

Which, in the end, seems part of Lessing's point. Rather than wholly rewrite the creation myth with women superseding men and Eve being absolved, Lessing gives us women with just as little imagination about how to effect change as we have seen in our own patriarchal society. The Clefts have a moribund social structure without the elder stateswomen the Old Shes represented. The Squirts bring them fire (literally), meat and, naturally, rage.

In The Cleft, Lessing comes to no conclusions, but she does tell an interesting tale, one that is both cautionary and consistent with what we all know to be true - we can't live with 'em and we can't live without 'em.

Victoria A. Brownworth teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "The Golden Age of Lesbian Erotica: 1920-1940."

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