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The Guardian
Reprinted with permission from the
Saturday, September 25, 1982 edition of The Guardian Weekend

These Shores of Sweet Unreason
Doris Lessing


Doris Lessing argues that we British, who celebrate our defeats as victories, must protect against the Bomb

SCENE: An elegant hall in London W1. Time: 1981. Those present: architects, to discuss their trade. A speaker is putting the case for building shelters in new houses, as is being done now, by law, in some countries. But the audience shouts abuse at the speaker. Such is the atmosphere that some present who agree with him, or who at least would like to ask questions, decide not to. These are not football hooligans, not a mob of deprived slum dwellers, but the educated middle-class, doubtless Guardian readers to a woman-person and a man-person. They all know that war rages most terribly in various parts of Africa and Latin America; that wars of a particularly ghastly kind have recently concluded in South-east Asia, one of which at least was distinguished by the mass use of napalm and chemicals; that wars everyone agrees may become total are endemic in the Middle East between contestants not renowned for moderation. They would probably agree that from a removed viewpoint, let us say that man from Mars, it must look as if the planet has been boiling with war through this century. Each war shifts the emphasis towards the mass killing of civilians. No part of the planet has escaped. Britain, currently at peace, has recently twice been engulfed by world war. (That dazzling British feat, the Affair of the Falkland Islands, is in the womb of history, not surprisingly still unguessed at.)

In societies we agree to describe as more primitive, messengers bringing bad news were put to death: such analogies come to mind when brooding on such incidents as the above. Rage is the first reaction expected by people like myself who have the temerity to suggest we should protect ourselves as far as possible; and it seems psychologists find this normal. But how extraordinary it is. Human life has never been anything other than precarious, shifting, cataclysmic. We - the species, and those from whom we evolved - have survived ice ages, each of which transformed conditions of life all over the planet; sudden changes in sea level that drowned civilisations; climatic shifts; wars; disease; epidemics; famines; earthquakes.

This has been the story of our evolution. We are the story of our evolution, animals of infinite flexibility and resource, made so by adapting and surviving. Yet we are liable to get angry when it comes home to us that another dose of the same may be on the way. Is it that we are programmed not to feel our situation, because, if we were fully aware of it, we would not trouble to keep going? Which motion, after all, is what Nature is interested in. It can't happen to us. Not even when it has happened so recently, has happened so often, is happening so close, and when every kind of forecast says it may happen again.

The other automatic reaction, unexpected, hard-to-come-to-grips-with, heart-tearing, is what I have come to wonder may be some kind of death wish. What can explain the ferocious energy with which the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and associated groups deny the possibility that we may have the means to protect ourselves? Most of course know nothing about the body of expertise saying that protection, if not total, is possible, partly because of government which remains silent because it has no plans to use this expertise for the population as a whole; partly because of the energetic efforts of its own kind, who think nothing of suppressing information that does not support their view, even physically destroying it. The mass of the population are ill-informed or not at all.

But on being told that shelters do shelter, if properly built, that radioactivity can be dealt with, that the other hazards have antidotes, nearly all show a passionate need to deny any possibility of survival; they have an emotional investment in making the picture as black as possible. "There will be nothing after the Bomb but cockroaches. Scientists say so." This from a highly educated young woman in a responsible job. And with what relish! What pleasure!

Brooding about why, I chanced on Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which is a long meditation on this theme. "Only part of us is sane; only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its dark night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of the house save its blackened foundations... We ignore this suicidal strain in history because we are consistently bad artists when we paint ourselves..."

She was writing at a time when Hitler was saying, or screaming, that he intended to conquer the world, and his actions confirmed it. The French and British governments did nothing, except to make sure the elected Spanish government would be destroyed. The situation was described in Durrenmatt's play The Firestarters, where men entered a house, saying they were going to set fire to it, and the numbed inhabitants, let them, indeed aided them. Now, of course, the situation is not the same. For one thing, our governments arm. I am equating the then refusal to arm with the refusal to shelter ourselves now, against a war that would kill millions of civilians.


Our governments arm; but they do not protect us

(It is my view that whether we should or should not arm, or how, or with what, should not be linked to the question of our making sure we are protected if efforts towards peace fail. That we should accept differences of opinion, even in the CND, and while we are arguing it out, get on with the business of looking after ourselves.)

Our governments arm; but they do not protect us, and the protection of the people is government's first responsibility. Governments in Britain, France, Germany, prepare to protect administration - essential, of course - but not their populations, or only in derisory ways. Is this the first time in history governments have reneged on their main responsibility? I think it may be. Probably, wrong decisions were made after the Second World War, and successive governments, as it got harder and harder to put things right, simply did not have the guts to tackle the problem. But just as extraordinary as that governments have conspired to leave us helpless, is that we, the citizens, have failed to inform ourselves, even to remember until very recently, that this vulnerable island agreed to become an arsenal and a base for the United States just after the last war, a part of its outer system of defenses. People who protested that we were making ourselves expendable were soon shut up with "Traitor! Communist!" And so forth.

Rebecca West, as she watched war building, and the country's leaders doing nothing - "men with faces like bland bags" - felt as if "our governors stood beside us as we lay bound and helpless at their feet, smiling drunkenly. . . while the strange treacherous spirit that possessed them continues to issue invitations to our enemies, saying, "Come quickly and finish them now, they can do nothing against you."

Even if we begin to shelter ourselves as fast as we can, and if war happened in five years, millions of people would die unnecessarily. Yet we do nothing. It is possible to survive all but the worst that can happen. It is a question, the experts say (the ones that I prefer to believe) of getting the details right. The Swiss, for instance, have provision for maintaining herds of animals underground. We must have supplies of food and water for people and animals. We must think, and plan, and foresee.

Rebecca West also described how she felt on seeing that is was the noblest and most socially concerned of her friends who believed in disarmament and were pacifists.

Many attitudes of now mirror then, and I feel a familiar nightmare of helplessness. My parents were Tories, of the tiny minority who supported Churchill when he was ridiculed for saying that Britain should arm against Hitler. (I feel it is unlikely that young people are being taught that this great War Lord of ours did time in the political doghouse, regarded rather as Superbrat McEnroe is now.) That my parents were in the middle of Africa did not detract from their anxiety. They knew how ward spread. Both were victims, in various ways, of the First World War. They were not able to glamourise war. They had good reason to distrust heroics of any kind. My father, in breakdown as a result of having had his let cut off because of a shell, was handed white feathers by a group of baying ladies. I remember, from people around me, and in the papers, and on the wireless: "We cannot have another war, because it would be too terrible if we did." And "If we have another war, I don't want to live in that world." And, "I'm not going to bring children into the world, because if there's a war...." But they did.

When the war began, Britain was at Hitler's mercy because of the supine government, and because of the high-minded. We were not attacked at once, or that would have been that. We were saved by luck. There followed stupid and squalid enterprises that caused hundred of thousands of deaths and much suffering, because we had no arms, and insufficient sheltering. One was Dunkirk, which we have agreed to commemorate as a victory. There was Dad's Army - which we are prepared to celebrate, it seems, for ever - equipped with toy guns, broom-handles, First World War revolvers, cutlasses; courageous people prepared to face troops equipped to a modern level. Our attitudes towards these and similar episodes stem from the war propaganda of that time which we have not analysed since. We love defeat, it seems; and pulling ourselves out of appalling situations that need never have happened (The Falkland Islands war); we make jokes about it, and that has become a national trait too. How far back does it all go? The First World War was a struggle between pirates fighting over, mainly, Africa. It was preventable. It badly weakened all Europe and we live in the ugly results of it now. It was Victory, we say. The Scott Expedition to the South Pole, a pathetic failure, which the whole nation identified with and agreed to consider glorious. The Boer War? We won; but a sober reading of its conduct hardly encourages national congratulation, quite apart from the fact we were inspired to invent concentrations camps. The Crimean War? Distinguished as ever by the courage of the fighting men and the incompetence of our leaders, it was a shambles. But we retrieved from it that heroic image, The Lady with the Lamp.

This is not only a British characteristic. It was in Yugoslavia when Rebecca West's long private disquiet came to a head while listening to a particularly noble ballad about a certain Tsar Lazar who, faced with attack, decided it would be better to seek a heavenly kingdom that an earthly one, and allowed himself to be massacred, together with 77,000 men. "All was honourable and holy, and the goodness of God was fulfilled." It occurred to her that she was listening to a whitewash job, after shameful defeat.

I think we should soberly ask ourselves if attitudes that originated as government propaganda - necessary of course in time of war - have conditioned us all to prefer failure to success.

It seems not to have occurred to those who celebrate the Aldermaston marches that they failed.


Nuclear disarmers repeat slogans from one end of Europe to the other

The aim was to Ban the Bomb - remember? Veterans chant what bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. And of course it was. These successive dawns are blissful. Euphoria is. Like 1968. I was on five Aldermaston Marches, including the very first, one of those happy few. Very enjoyable it all was. It seems to go against the grain of left-wing pieties to say that few things are more enjoyable than marching, picketing, striking, rioting; to be part of a large crowd high on singing, chanting, slogans. To be, by definition, with the forces of Good against Evil. No wonder it is so popular. But is it always, or even often, effective? I think what people commemorate with the Aldermaston marches is the emotional uplift. Like Dunkirk and the rest.

Looked at in evolutionary terms, what kind of animal is it that, when faced with dire threat even to the point of extinction, refuses to look at the possibilities of saving itself, energetically pursues strategies that will ensure it will not survive?

Take The War Game, made and then banned by the BBC. This film, that shows the results of nuclear attack, has been seen by large numbers of people, certainly everyone in CND and similar groups. Nowhere does it so much as hint that expertise exists enabling people to protect themselves. Its effect can only be to increase despair, the lethargy of hopelessness. But what is remarkable is that those who indefatigable promote it never ask themselves if this may not be very strange behaviour indeed.

Take Jonathan Schell's book, The Fate of the Earth. This was a best-seller in the United States, and was enthusiastically reviewed here. There is no fact in it that has not been available for years. Why was it such a success? Hard not to have to conclude it was because of its elegiac tone, that it puts everything in the worst possible light, and the having adumbrated Holocaust, resulting in everything from the extinction of the human race to the permanent poisoning of the whole planet, its only solution is a misty appeal that we change our thinking. There was precisely one mention of the experts who say they know how to protect - and that was a nasty little bit of slander. You would think that buy definition a book describing such a threat would set forth any or every possible way of escaping it. But no.

This is now a European phenomenon, even a world one. I have in the last year been in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Holland, Austria, France, and in five cities in Germany. I did not go meaning to get involved with the matter of nuclear war, but this is what happened. I was enabled to gain an overall view of the various kinds of nuclear disarmers and similar people. It must be the most astonishing mass movement in recent times. Just three years old, rapidly growing, they repeat five or six slogans, always as if the individual had at that moment though of them personally, from one of the Europe to the other. If one was inclined to conspiracy theories, it would be easy to believe that enemy agents (Soviet / US / Venutian) are feeding in, everywhere, at the same time, these sets of words, or slogans. It is a mass mind. But I believe they are products of the collective unconscious, some kind of instinctive reaction, not least because they repeat the phrases and phases of before the Second World War. Whatever the reason, any conversation anywhere in Europe will take exactly the same course.

"If there is a war I don't want to live afterwards. I shall kill myself, my wife, my children, my husband." This is the most common. It is always said in a way that claims a superior sensibility, even social responsibility. You are expected to admire it.

"How are you going to feel when you stand at the door of your private shelter shooting helpless people who want to get in?" This assumes there will not be any public sheltering - the defeatist view again. When analysed it seems to mean: "I am not interested in saving my family and myself unless 100 percent of the population can survive nuclear attack." And, "If we can protect let's say only 80 percent of the population there's no point in trying to protect anybody."

Which leads on to: "Anyone thinking about building shelters is a rich fascist." Quite apart from whether this is sensible or not, it is interesting that these instant slanders, this mindless abuse, were once associated with small groups of right of left extremists, but are now considered acceptable by people who would describe themselves as liberal, socialist, democratic, and so on.

"Firms selling shelters are only interested in profit. Filthy capitalists!" Presumably it is expected that charities will sell them?

"What is the point of surviving the Bomb when nothing will existing afterwards and there will be nothing to eat and drink?" IF you say there will be nothing to eat and drink if no preparations are made, and try to explain, for instance, that radioactivity can be filtered from water with ordinary cheap filters, and from the air, by filters, the reaction may be rage, derision, even physical threats.

There are other automatic responses. But is it possible that this constellation of reactions is basically one: a denial of the possibility of war, because it will, we all know, be so horrible, no matter how well we are prepared? It can't happen to us. It is my belief that most of these people simply do not believe a war can happen. There is irrelevance, silliness, and attitudising, in a great deal of what is said, as if a game were being played, not as if a serious threat were being faced. I think we may be witnessing a protective psychological mechanism, that enables the organism to accept, slowly, at a safe place, the face that it really does have to adapt to prepare for possible war. Nobody wants to believe it. I have experienced these reactions myself. "I don't want to know."

Is there another reason, too? Since the early fifties we have been told we can have everything we want, when we want it, as our right. Only recently has this stopped. We older people know better, we have memories; but two generations of the young have been taught to consider they are entitled to everything. But to accept even the possibility of war, with its deprivations, means to come up against the results of the most powerful conditioning system ever devised by man - the advertising of the affluent consumer societies of the West.

I do not think that war is inevitable, only that it is probable. The economy of the whole world is based on weapon-making.


Why are our politicians so much sillier than those they govern?

To get rid of nuclear weapons means to change the world's economy. Are we confident we can do that? If the CND people are, then I do not think the majority would agree. The point has to be made, and insisted on, that CND are in a small minority (13 percent, said a recent poll). Id o not believe the average British citizen is likely to say, "I don't want my family to live," but rather, "Give me the expertise and let's see what we can do."

Incidentally, national rhetoric has obscured the fact that this country has never expelled an invader. Not the Celts, the Romans, the Danes, the Saxons, the Anglos, the Norsemen, or the Normans. Like the Chinese, we have absorbed our conquerors. Would it not be worth sitting down quietly and thinking about what are the real national characteristics of such a people?

If you subject yourself to the painful and dreary business of reading through our national record in times of war, what emerges is how often we have been badly led, and how magnificently the ordinary people have again and again pulled our chestnuts out of the fire. Why is it that our leaders and politicians are so much sillier and less competent that the people they "lead"?

All current recipes for avoiding war are in the realm of reduction of armaments. But there are approaches which set this aside. While trying to abolish nuclear weapons, indeed all weapons, or trying to reduce them, trying every way to keep the peace, why not attempt a plan which, when I first heard it, made me laugh - but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. Why not revive the old custom of hostages? Nations liable to attack each other exchanged the sons of kings to be educated in other's courts. It worked. Why do we (the people) not say to Russia, to America: "Yes, we believe neither of you wants war, that you, like all of us, feel threatened by the inertia that seems so often to slide into war. But prove it! As was done long ago with the Vatican, the Soviet Union will give America, America will give the Soviet Union, territory in the heart of each other's capital cities. In Washington will take place the deliberations of the Supreme Soviet; in Moscow, those of Congress. This will not be a drastic alteration of present behaviour. You both maintain, all over the world, extensive establishments of your citizens, amounting probably to millions. It will be nothing for you to fly your lawmakers in and out of Washington, Moscow. This system will not touch what seems so beloved of both of you, the spy networks of your two countries, but they will probably become less powerful if this plan succeeds. While at first the idea will seem strange, laughable, in no time it could seem quite ordinary. Why not try it? You have nothing to lose and everything to gain in the way of respect from the world's people, who are scared to death of both of you. Once this has been established, it would be the beginning of further exchanges on other levels - all kinds of institutions, universities, societies - the beginning of the end of the paranoia that afflicts you both so badly?

Utopian? To my mind it is no more utopian than deciding we can abolish nuclear weapons in time to stop ourselves being blown up by them, and resting all our hopes on that.

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