Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Biblical Narratives in Doris Lessing’s Shikasta

Posted by Randy Hoyt • Mar 1st, 2009

Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. She has published numerous novels, short stories, plays, and works of  non-fiction for over fifty years. The Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded for a lifetime of literary achievement, but many literary critics recognize The Golden Notebook (1962) with its political and feminist themes as her award-winning work. Lessing later turned her attention from realistic literature to science fiction, much to the disappointment of these same critics. However, Lessing considers her five-volume Canopus in Argos series of science-fiction novels her most important work.

The first book in the series — Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta — was published in 1979. The title of the book refers to the planet Shikasta, a small and remote planet in the interstellar empire of Canopus. To make the planet useful to their interests, Canopus imported an alien species to speed up the evolution of the native Shikastan species. An unexpected astronomical catastrophe and invaders from the evil empire Shammat caused an unprecedented degeneration in the natives that nearly destroyed the planet. Canopean emissaries continued to work on Shikasta in an attempt to control the damage, but their original plans for the planet had to be abandoned. The book itself is a diverse collection of archives (direct reports from emissaries, excerpts from history books, diaries, letters, etc.) meant to give first-year Canopean students a picture of the empire’s disastrous involvement on Shikasta. Oh — and I should probably mention that Shikasta is our very own planet Earth.

In creating these archives, Doris Lessing has made use stories found in the Hebrew Bible. Two examples will illustrate her approach. First, in Genesis 11:1-8, men gathered to build a tower at Babel that would reach to the heavens. God thwarted their plans by confusing their speech, creating a multitude of languages and forcing them to spread out over the land. In Shikasta this same event is depicted as a planet-wide conference, secretly organized by the evil Shammat. Taufiq, an emissary from Canopus, reported:

All six of us attended the conference, purporting to be delegates from the extreme Northwest fringes. […] The recommended techniques […] to disrupt their speech centres […] were effective. […] Their communication systems malfunctioned, and eight main languages are now established on Shikasta. These will develop into hundreds, then thousands of languages and dialects. (101)

Second, in Genesis 19:1-29, God planned to destroy Sodom because of its wickedness. Two angels warned Lot and his family to leave the city. Lot escaped, and God then poured down sulfur and fire from heaven on Sodom and Gomorrah. In Shikasta, Lessing portrays this as a spaceship air raid. Johor, another emissary from Canopus, reported:

We went back to the cities. […] In each were a few people who could hear us, and these we told to leave at once with any who would listen to them. […] Having made sure of the safety of those who could be saved, we signalled in the space-fleet, and the cities were blasted into oblivion. (107-108)

I find Lessing’s use of Biblical narratives in this novel both entertaining and intriguing. Some scholars devalue stories from various mythological traditions on the grounds that they are half-remembered or exaggerated accounts of historical events. At first glance, it may appear that Lessing is criticizing these stories from Genesis along the same lines. However, a statement she makes in the preface of the book convinces me she is doing something more subtle:

It is possible we make a mistake when we dismiss […] the sacred literatures of all races and nations […] as quaint fossils from a dead past. (x)

I think a better understanding of Lessing’s approach in this novel can be grasped by looking at the distinction between mythical thinking and logical thinking I explored in my article contrasting mythos and logos. Though she does not use these terms, Lessing provides in Shikasta an imaginative thought-experiment meant to challenge a logos-only thinker’s rejection of these stories.

This portrayal of stories from Genesis as distorted accounts of a prehistoric human past suggests an interesting possibility. Perhaps some shred of truth has been preserved in these stories, possibly even more accurate truth than we have found through scientific and historical methods. Even if we cannot prove this is true, we can at least imagine it. In Shikasta, Lessing establishes that it is at least imaginatively possible that the sacred texts (products of mythos thinkers) preserve some scientific and historical truth that scientists and historians (logos thinkers) have not discovered. Far from criticizing these stories, her fictive account attempts to elevate them in the minds of logos-only readers — from ridiculous falsehoods to potential sources of truth.

The archives move back and forth between documents related to Shikasta’s prehistoric past and those related to its twentieth century, presenting a bleak picture of degenerated humanity. In the so-called “Century of Destruction,” a rising belief in materialism and rapid advances of technology, both results of logos-only thinking, brought about the elimination of any sense of the sacred and of transcendence, along with the depreciation of the value of human life. This way of thinking originated in Western Europe, then spread as regional fighting escalated to full-scale warfare that devastated the entire planet. Humans living under this way of thinking pursued the only good they could conceive: their own advancement, consumption of goods, and accumulation of wealth. These values affected the way people felt about one another — they had “a license to cheat, lie, and murder and [to] regard every passer-by only as a possibility for gain” (106) — as well as how they felt about themselves: “Their way of life […] increasingly saddened and depressed their real selves, their hidden selves” (91).

Once Lessing establishes the sacred texts as potential sources of scientific and historical truths, the she has prepared the way to see them as sources of spiritual truths to address these negative consequences of logos-only thinking. The spiritual truths taught by Canopean agents to the Shikastan natives can be found in places throughout the Hebrew Bible:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)

“I [God] desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)

“[The king] must not acquire many horses for himself or […] acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.” (Deuteronomy 17:16-17)

“A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.” (Proverbs 12:10)

“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17)

These spiritual truths reflect ideas Lessing first encountered in the 1964 book The Sufis and through a subsequent friendship with the author Idries Shah; Lessing spoke often about the influence this book had on her. Shah described Sufism as a universal spiritual wisdom that transcends individual religions, a wisdom that has traditionally been communicated through parables and folktales. In drawing on the Hebrew Bible, Lessing is not arguing here for the correctness of Judaism or Christianity: she is well aware of the injustices and brutalities performed in the name of religion. Rather, Lessing provides in Canopus’s involvement on Shikasta a fictional explanation for the ideas about Sufism made popular by Shah. According to the archives, all the great religions surviving into the twentieth century were originally founded by Canopean agents for the “stabilisation of the culture, preventing the worst excesses of brutality, of exploitation, and greed” (111). Even though they became perverted, “distorted inklings of the truth remained” in them (Lessing 90).

Shikasta is much more than just a retelling of stories from Genesis from a different perspective, but this aspect of the novel is most relevant to this site’s ongoing exploration of mythical thinking. Doris Lessing understood the materialism, the greed, the injustice, and the spiritual degeneration prevalent in the modern world to be the result of logos-only thinking. She acts still today as a strong advocate for the potential of the products of mythos to address these issues.

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One Response »

  1. I find I very strongly agree with Lessing. Archaic remains like that of the pyramids and Stonehenge leave us wondering how the ancients were able to accomplish such feats when our pithy attempts at re-enactment with our renditions of the tools we think they used fail utterly. This looks like a really interesting read, and your article makes me want to jump on it soon. Thanks!