Books and plays about human behaviour and psychology are usually formulaic. Within a vacuum, the author creates an environment, a situation, populates it with archetypal characters, and very much like a "Sim" game, we follow the author's interpretation of what develops. If the author has a good understanding of archetypes, of human psychology, the reader finds himself nodding in agreement as he turns the pages. It fits with an universal, but oftentimes subconscious intuition we have about human behaviour.
"The Cleft", Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing's most recent publication, is just such a book. Lessing, however, tries to take us to a pre-archetypal human. How would men and women relate to one another if stripped of all psychological encumbrances?
Within the vacuum, Lessing creates a new history, a new beginning of time for humans. In the book, this history is being written by an aging Roman Senator, the narrator. Set as a counterpoint to the history he is writing are his ruminations as he deals with a flighty younger wife and pubescent children (one of each gender).
The world of "The Cleft" is one in which women (primitive humans who live half in the ocean and half on land) were the first arrivals. These women (named the Clefts for obvious genital features) reproduce through parthenogenesis, birthing only females until shockingly to them, males begin come out of their wombs. They see these first males as "Monsters", born with ugly lumps, bumps and "Squirts". Their ignorance and revulsion causes acts of cruelty to be performed on these first males. But more and more males are born, and not knowing how else to deal with them, the women begin to place these Monsters high on a rock to offer as eagle fodder.
The eagles, instead, bring the male babies to a place of shelter where, with the help of nurturing deer, they eventually grow and begin a community of their own, initially unaware of the community of women nearby.
And now, the stage is set. What happens when these two communities meet? The women have led a hazy, idyllic life; swimming in the ocean, sleeping in caves, their time stretched out, marked only by births and deaths. Yet there's sense of responsibility for procreation gnawing at them, of wanting to begin an oral recording of their history. In the meantime, the males are developing as a group of unthinking, ageless adolescents, driven only by the joy of the hunt, a need to explore, a need for adventure.
The body of the story deals with the meeting between these two groups and what has to follow before the two realize that they need to exist together as one community.
Lessing's story unravels in her usual style, the momentum is deliberately paced, yet she involves the reader in her thought processes, as if asking...."Come imagine with me, this is what would happen next, isn't it? Wouldn't you agree?" Reading a Lessing book is like spending a weekend with your favourite aunt, wise but eccentric, with whom you can spend hours in eclectic conversation during long walks taken on deserted dunes. You come away with a sense of joy in time well spent, loaded up with food for thought.
But is she right on this one? Her women are complaining, whining, characters, always asking of the men, "Don't you care about me? Don't you care about the children? Don't you care about us?" The men, always with one adventure or another on their minds, seem startled by these questions...."Why should I care about you or the children?"
Does gender difference really boil down to the stereotypical idea that women want to nurture and men want adventure? What about the feminist ideals that Lessing is so known for? Some feminists have come down heavily on the book (see Elizabeth Bear's Washington Post review at the Amazon link above).
From a June, 2007 interview on the BBC,
"In her eyes men had been introduced to "pep up" a slothful, lazy world of women," said the 87-year-old. "This is what I think men were for. The Y chromosome..to pep up everything". She said men were a "haphazard species" who always have to be looked after and died "much too easy".
.....asked by a member of the audience if it was men who waged war, she replied: "I have not noticed that women, when they get to be prime ministers are particularly peaceful."
From The Globe, June 2007, when asked about women in "The Cleft",
"I'm not saying, 'This is how it was'," she complained yesterday. "I'm playing with an idea. People are always asking writers for definitive answers, but that's not our job."
When pressed, however, Lessing puckishly conceded that yes, she did think that women were perhaps a little more conservative than men. Men, she supposed, were possibly an antidote to female complacency - "our greatest sin".
After 87 years, many of them spent observing the world and writing about its people, Lessing has perhaps earned the right to a certain abrasiveness in her outlook. While reading "The Cleft", I did feel my intuitive sense agreeing with her, saying, "Yes! That's exactly how this woman, or this man, would have dealt with the situation."
Our X and Y chromosomes and our nature set us apart. This has nothing to do with equality, since all humans share the right to be equal, but it does have to do with the roles we play and the responsibilities we choose to take on. Lessing is egging us on....can you acknowledge that which is intrinsic in your nature and rise above it? (Stop the whining and complaining already, and pick up your share of the load!)
As for female complacency, I agree with her there too. Only I think it's a sin shared by both genders today. We each need to act as an "antidote" to complacency.