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Doris Lessing: Briefing for a Descent into Hell

When Lessing wrote this novel, the work of R D Laing was very fashionable and influential. He rejected conventional psychiatry and maintained that the apparent incoherent ramblings of those suffering from mental illness represented an attempt to communicate their concerns rather than being a symptom of some deep-rooted disorder. Lessing’s work was clearly influenced by this view. This novel tells the story of a man found wandering along the Embankment late at night, not knowing who he is. He is, in fact, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, Charles Watkins. Much of the book tells of his ramblings, which, of course, following Laing’s theories, clearly indicate what are his concerns. In particular, Lessing prefigures her later novels with a science fiction-type story, which involves Watkins travelling to a distant land, where he meets extraterrestrials who are trying to save the people of Earth from themselves. Watkins is subject to conventional psychiatric treatment and we learn about him from his wife, his mistress and his colleagues. But ultimately, Lessing’s (and Laing’s) view is that living in the sane world that we know is not as worthwhile as living in the fantasy world that the psychiatrists are trying to get him out of. A fascinating novel if you can wade through some of the ramblings.

Publishing history

First published 1971 by Jonathan Cape