Books · Gender · Political

Thistledown of History

A Ripple from the StormA Ripple from the Storm by Doris Lessing
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third book in Martha Quest’s story is best read after the foregoing instalments. Here there is a shift in subject matter; previously Martha’s political activities were not a dominant part of her life, and she engaged in them alongside other preoccupations. Here all the action is political activity, and the personal lives of the characters are subsumed in it rather than the reverse. The energies and characters of Martha and everyone else is enmeshed in a political epic taking place at all scales, from international to intimate.

While Lessing sometimes seems to ridicule the machinations and dogma of political groups or criticise them scathingly, she effectively demonstrates that every level of existence has a political dimension, which is often overlooked by the particular ideological framings at work among the participants. Greek activist Athen’s attempts to communicate the all-embracing political framework of Marxism to ingenue Maisie, whose sympathethic indolence might be meant to represent an easily influenced reader, involve humanising politics, softening ideology into an integrated (even living) body of varyingly flexible ethical positions. This humanistic approach is the opposite of ideologue Anton’s rigid and dogmatic intellectualism. I remembered reading about dry stone walls and why they are stronger than bricks and mortar: the stones flex with the moving earth, and each tiny shift wedges them more tightly together. Anton’s Marxism is accordingly much more robust than Anton’s.

Martha’s character development during this phase seems limited or liminal. She has gained skills but she has not gained a feeling of control, she still discovers herself in action at the whim of invisible forces, thistledown of history. Since Zambesia is fictional its travails need no direct exposition, but the situation is an effective vehicle for the exposure and exploration of reactionary attitudes and the development of radical politics in the context of Apartheid. Lessing brings such a pitch of expertise and passion to the scenario as to give it the veracity of memoir, but the coherence and intensity of plotting took me into depths of awareness and feeling that only fiction touches.

Like Martha in A Proper Marriage Jimmy has an encounter with the natural world, after dramatically (but frivolously) ‘escaping’ from the formidable fence of the RAF camp. This action is a microcosm of the broader situation. While the fence itself is real, Jimmy does not really have to get out of it by squeezing under a loose section in the middle of the night – he makes things difficult for himself, and forces a black man to help him who is terrified of getting into trouble. He ‘strains his body’ to help Jimmy and receives nothing in return but thanks. Once out, Jimmy experiences elation and wonder at the environment: the strength and sweetness of the grass, the loveliness of the moonlight, but this quickly turns to fear and disgust as insects gather and crawl on his body.

The contrast with Martha’s transcendent experience is very striking, and perhaps reflects their gendered occupations at the time: Martha is pregnant and preparing for a caregiving period, Jimmy has just reflected that he physically enjoys his work maintaining military aircraft. The terms of his pleasure are actually related to the life-giving of parenthood and social reproduction because he thinks of the ‘lazy’ steel coming to life under his hands, the ‘dead’ machine revived by repair. But this action seems, especially with his concession to his friend that ‘everything’s just machines now’ more like the unwholesome reanimation of the dead, a zombie life-giving. Thus, the real life of nature actively repels and rejects him, treating him with threatening hostility like a stray pathogen, where it welcomed Martha with joy.

Martha has fever dreams and hallucinations about protecting others, which throw light on the emotional roots of her communism. She also dreams of a huge, ancient, partly dead ‘saurian’ buried in the Earth like a dinosaur fossil, its eyes covered with dust. She does not feel threatened by this embodiment or creature of the land, rather she feels anguished concern for it. I was unsure about Lessing’s intent for this symbol (which could have been an autobiographical recollection) but to me it suggested the buried histories at the foundations of the white nation.

Lessing makes a highly gendered critique of social relations that cuts across political groupings: Anton, though dedicated and educated, apparently lacks any empathic ability. His communism is as lifeless and mechanical as Jimmy’s military hardware, and Lessing demonstrates this most intensely through his attitude to Maisie’s pregnancy, which echoes Mr Maynard’s inhuman and ludicrous judgement of a woman defendant in his magistrate’s court ‘you should have thought of that’. Lessing also gives Martha a particularly satisfying quip in the scene when she is ill and Jimmy is simultaneously admonishing and ministering to her

‘You bourgeois girls you need a good working class husband to teach you a thing or two. When I see you bourgeois girls I think of my mother and what she had to take from her life, and believe you me you could learn a thing or two from her’

‘All of you,’ she said ‘all of you working class men have this damned sentimental thing about your mothers.’

‘Sentimental is it? Let me tell you, it’s the working class woman that takes the rap every time.’
‘I imagined that was why we wanted to change things.’

‘What do you mean?’ he said hotly. He was leaning forward, sweat-covered, scarlet-faced[…]

She said, in a change of mood, grimly: ‘We’ll abolish poverty, and give women freedom and then they’ll simmer and boil, sacrificing themselves for everyone – like my mother.’ She laughed at the look of bewildered anger on his face.’ There’s no good talking to me about women sacrificing themselves for their families, I’ve had that one. And I don’t want to talk about it either,’ she added, as the explosion of his emotion reached his eyes in a hot stare of protest.

‘What do you mean, you don’t want to talk about it? I’m going to talk you out of this one, believe you me. Women are the salt of the earth. I’m telling you. My mother was the salt of the earth. My dad died when I was ten and she brought up me and my two sisters on what she got by cleaning offices until I went to work and helped her out.’

‘Good, then let’s arrange things so that women have to work eighteen hours a day and die at fifty, worn out so that you can go on being sentimental about us.’

Sympathy remains broadly on the communist side and it is men who I feel swings the balance – the RAF men leave Anton’s group because they are frustrated that he refuses to affirm their humanitarian work with people in the ‘Coloured’ quarter, and following this Athen expresses his warm approval of the group’s solution to Maisie’s problem:

‘Comrades, we live in a terrible and ugly time, we live when capitalism is a beast who murders us, starves us, keeps us from the joy of life. As communists we must try to live as if the ugliness was already dead. We must try and live like socialists who care for each other and for people, even while we are hurt all the time by capitalism which is cruel. And so I am happy to hear about these two comrades. That shows we in this room are real communists. I am proud and happy to be with you in this room.’

Lessing draws a parallel between Athen and Anton by making them tell similar parables. Anton: “If two communists find themselves together on a desert island, or in a city where no other communists exist, then their duty is to work together, to analyse the situation, to decide on the basis of their analysis what is to be done” and much later Athen: “If two communists find themselves somewhere, let us say suddenly in a strange town, they know they are not just two people, but that they are communism. And they must behave with self-respect because they represent the idea. And if there is even one communist – suppose any one of us finds himself [sic] alone somewhere, or perhaps in prison or sentenced to death, then he must never feel himself alone, except as a man, because as a man he is alone and that is good. But he is a communist and therefore not alone.” By speaking about a lone communist, Athen shows how an ideology can remain human, since he affirms the individuality of each person as well as the social self existing in mutuality.

Athen’s affirmation of Andrew’s kindness to Maisie is not undermined by their lack of emotional maturity to sustain their relationship, which becomes apparent in the extraordinary political meeting taking place in the Native location. This theatrical scene is the third episode in a series that began with the black waiter forced to dance in the club and continued in A Proper Marriage with the pageant given by children from the Coloured quarter. Lessing is composing an opera of Apartheid. The scene where Jimmy entered the house where Africans were very softly making music after curfew might be seen as belonging to this cycle, an instrumental interlude perhaps, revealing the life and sweetness daring stubbornly to exist in defiance of the white supremacist state. Lessing also recalls Jimmy’s reflection on, or rather emotion about work positively. The animating potential of labour is aligned with desire on the part of black Africans for good jobs and fair pay (reminding us that slavery is not labour). To complicate matters, Marie du Preez admonishes the African men for their treatment of their wives, a piece of misplaced white feminist stage hogging that seems appropriately mocked by the presentation of bouquets.

The loaded flowers are echoed by the gesture Mrs Van makes to Martha on hearing of her marriage. Lessing spends time painting this woman’s character, building sympathy and contrasting her with Martha, who, with similar background and inclinations, lacks the self-possession to pursue her desires or ideals. Mrs Van, touched by Martha’s poltical commitment (she has attended the meeting on her wedding day) cuts roses from her own garden to take to her. I adored her for this poignant gesture of generosity and compassion, but it was lost, deflated, in the enervated atmosphere of Martha’s life. Storms batter blooms and scatter petals.

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