“Uncertainty and Ontology: Doris Lessing’s Wordless Statement”
As readers, we commonly assume that we know how characters function in a text. All too often, partway into a novel we will already have a sense of where the story is going, how the characters will develop, et cetera. Similarly, we as people assume that we know how people, in general, function in their daily lives; the thought that we understand ourselves does not seem particularly troubling. However, the philosopher David Hume revolutionized the way we think about human nature, when he wrote about how what we believe to be cause and effect is really just that—a belief, not knowledge. We witness the conjunction of one event following another so often that we come to think that the first event is a cause and the second is a necessarily resulting effect. But the truth is that while we believe that these circumstances are clear and distinct, we can never know for certain and with totality the forces behind how two events relate; often, we merely participate in a sort of general belief about how they function as a sort of convention. Careful readers of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook have stumbled into a similar difficulty, wherein the author has shown us that as we go about our daily lives, we do so without the benefit of absolute certainty, even though we often forget that this is the case. She is able to point this out to us because of what we assume we know about reality and how a text will function. And what she ends up leaving us with, as a result, is a state of ontological uncertainty that we are incapable of resolving our doubts about; we are certain about how texts relate to the world, until Lessing introduces a new anomaly. This novel is not only “fiction about fiction but fiction that makes the whole notion of ‘about’ problematic, so that the relation between frame and embedded stories … [and other similar relations] become slippery, unstable, even liable to reverse themselves” (Hite “Metafiction” 482). In The Golden Notebook, Lessing constructs a wordless statement, which creates uncertainty regarding how we traditionally relate fiction to reality, such that reality is a source of truth for fiction to be compared to, and reality is overall more accurate or certain.
Let us begin by considering how people normally perceive the relation between fiction and reality. One phrase in particular, given to us by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, provides a very clear notion about the two: “willing suspension of disbelief.” Our beliefs have a hierarchy, where we believe in reality and not in fiction, or at least not as strongly. Since truth is what we believe to be so, truth shares this hierarchy. When we read a novel and analyze it, we often do so with the idea that the text somehow sheds light on a facet of reality. The truth is something taken from reality and put under the microscope of fiction. However, what happens in the fiction is not given the weight of what happens in reality, and the only weight or worth the fiction has results from the truth it has borrowed from reality. Someone who does not agree with the central message of a text might respond that it is only anecdotal—not a scientific proof—or that it is not realistic—that it misrepresents the truth found in reality. A few problems with this are immediately apparent. First of all, fiction exists in reality; books are not from some alternate dimension. What we are actually saying is that novels are fiction and reality is fact, and somehow fact has a more privileged relationship with truth than fiction does. As Marion Vlastos phrases it, “[p]eople divide things up, think exclusively instead of inclusively” (254). However, Lessing’s work shows how this is not actually the case. She demonstrates, through her wordless statement, that what we perceive to be reality is not fact and that fiction is much more similar to what we consider the “real world” than we often believe. Molly Hite considers the commonality of our misconception to be related, at least partially, to society, as “[t]o be whole by societal standards is not to have resisted fragmentation, but to have been reduced to a single fragment” (“Doris” 18). In this sense, we have taken all the fragments that compose the totality of ontology and chosen reality to stand alone. This privileging has obvious problems, which we have only just begun to delve into; although, it is apparent that numerous critics have noticed this trend’s relation to Lessing’s work.
Lessing’s “wordless statement” has already received a few honorable mentions in this essay without any real clarification as to what it is, so that is where we will turn our focus to next. What the wordless statement is, how it works, and what it does are the core of how Lessing achieves the feat of The Golden Notebook, revealing remarkable details about the relationship between reality and fiction. The best clues for investigating these questions come from Lessing’s introduction to the 1971 edition of the novel, as well as the book itself. Lessing discredits the sort of hierarchy that is constructed around fiction, reality, and truth that I have already described: “Yet the essence of the book, the organisation of it, everything in it, says implicitly and explicitly, that we must not divide things off, must not compartmentalise” (xv). Hierarchy is exactly the sort of “dividing off” and “compartmentalizing” Lessing warns against. Her mention of “organization” makes a clear reference to the structure of the text, as well as its shape. While these terms are largely interchangeable, the difference that I mean to imply here is that the structure is the way that the parts of the text are arranged, and that the shape is the way in which the context of the book becomes the wordless statement because of how that context is arranged by the structure. Later in the introduction, Lessing makes the importance of the novel’s arrangement more explicit, as she refers directly to the “wordless statement”:
Another idea was that if the book were shaped in the right way it would make its own comment about the conventional novel … But my major aim was to shape a book which would make its own comment, a wordless statement: to talk through the way it was shaped. (xviii-xix)
Lessing’s idea involves commenting on the “conventional novel,” which also comments on how we conventionally regard the modern novel and, by extension, fiction in general. Still, she makes it clear that the achievement of being able to do it all is what is truly impressive—the talking “shape,” so to speak. This is part of the reason that it is not enough to merely postulate what the wordless statement is saying but to also understand the way in which it works. That something like this exists revolutionizes what we may have thought the capabilities of the modern novel to be limited to. Part of the commentary on the conventional novel seems to be “but you can also do this with your writing, and look at just how much this achieves.” What makes a miracle miraculous is that it happened in spite of the fact that we expected it not to be possible, more so even than the resulting effect of the event. If there were any doubts remaining that The Golden Notebook works to call the relationship of fiction and reality into question, Lessing makes one final gesture to dismiss them in her 1993 introduction to the book: “currently I am writing volume one of my autobiography, and thinking about some of the people and events that went into The Golden Notebook, I have to conclude that fiction is better at ‘the truth’ than a factual record” (ix). She seems mildly amused at reaching this conclusion, presumably, again. These words from the author show that the book is, at least in principle, aimed at upsetting the status quo of hierarchy and literary truth. I say “in principle” because a major part of investigating the wordless statement is to assume to one degree or another that Lessing achieves in the text what she claims to have achieved in her 1971 introduction. Of course, if the text does not manage this feat then a properly conducted analysis would fail. And to some it has; Lynn Sukenick observed that the novel “plays on the same responses a realistic novel might elicit” (528). However, the success of this analysis will show that Lessing does take away the validity of the hierarchy that conventionally and/or traditionally exists between fiction and reality; although, whether or not the novel reaches the conclusion Lessing did in 1993, where fiction is actually more accurate than a “factual record,” is a determination that goes beyond the objectives of this essay.
Before delving straightaway into the issues of ontological uncertainty in The Golden Notebook’s shape, we must first have a basic understanding of what the structure looks like because it is not so simple either. There are five sections called “Free Women” that are separated from one another by sections called “The Notebooks”; in between “Free Women: 4” and “Free Women: 5” there is an additional section called “The Golden Notebook”; each of “The Notebooks” sections is also broken up into four separate notebooks, which can be identified by color: black, red, yellow, and blue. In the 1971 introduction, Lessing described Free Women, on the whole, as a “conventional short novel” that acts as “a skeleton, or frame,” for The Golden Notebook—a foundation (xi). Notably, each of the individual notebooks comprising “The Notebooks” sections ends after “Free Women: 4,” right before “The Golden Notebook,” as a result of ongoing events in the overall story. “The Golden Notebook” as a section occurs after the individual notebooks end because it is an attempt by the main character, Anna, to unite them into one book. While this seems overly fragmented and somewhat chaotic, the content imposes a different sensibility, which is part of the reason that shape, as well as structure, seems to be such an important idea in regards to this text. The content of the novel actually makes these structural choices seem like careful planning, like a well managed and maintained file cabinet. “Free Women” contains a story in third person limited about a central character named Anna; “The Notebooks” sections contain writing by a central character that is also Anna, but at a different ontological level; “The Golden Notebook” primarily focuses on Anna’s affair with a man named Saul, wherein she undergoes dramatic personal changes; each of the individual notebooks also has a specific topic: the black notebook details Anna’s time in Africa and information regarding her fairly successful novel Frontiers of War, the red notebook covers Anna’s involvement with the British Communist Party, the yellow notebook includes various attempts at fiction, primarily a work in progress titled The Shadow of the Third, which acts as a retelling of Anna’s earlier relationship with a man named Michael through a character she creates named Ella, and the blue notebook acts as a sort of diary. The structure seems chaotic but in a manner that resembles obsessive compulsive disorder, where the real chaos is the desperate need or compulsion to impose order. Anna’s writer’s block and her own misgivings about her earlier work further this uneasiness. This structure and its content effectively set the stage as the breeding ground for the doubts that arise in the wordless statement—what better way to setup the readers for uncertainty than to give them a situation of increasing despair. Caryn Fuoroli describes the “Free Women” sections as providing “a stable social reality around which the notebooks cluster” (156). “Free Women” acts as the more straightforward and cohesive story, while “The Notebooks” feel more fragmentary and supplementary to the character of Anna, who the story of “Free Women” centers around. This is the basis of the structure of The Golden Notebook; however, a few integral instances in the novel seek to unhinge this readily framed picture.
Of course, the structure achieves the wordless statement because as mentioned before, Lessing embeds an intense moment of ontological uncertainty. The structure as it has been described so far is nothing too extreme for many readers, and it can be quickly comprehended by most, even if the number of types of divisions can become a bit unwieldy as the novel progresses. However, the “shape” as Lessing mentioned in her introduction involves another content component that plays upon reader expectations and more or less changes all the rules—or points to just how easily our conventional rules can be discarded or inverted—near the end of the book. The actual trap, however, is set right at the beginning. The first line of the text is given to us in italics: “The two women were alone in the London flat” (3). And we see these same words, not accidentally, again in the section of the novel called “The Golden Notebook.” Lessing commented in the 1971 introduction, “I believed that in a book called The Golden Notebook the inner section called the Golden Notebook might be presumed to be a central point, to carry the weight of the thing, to make a statement” (xv). Let us take a look at the line, from the beginning of the book, in context as it appears in this latter section of the book:
“I’m going to give you the first sentence then. There are the two women you are, Anna. Write down: The two women were alone in the London flat.”
“You want me to begin a novel with The two women were alone in the London flat?”
“Why say it like that? Write it, Anna.”
I wrote it.
“You’re going to write that book, you’re going to write it, you’re going to finish it.” (610)
And now, the rug has been effectively torn out from under us. We have taken a step out the front door only to find that we have fallen between the atoms that compose the porch—tumbled through a hole in our assumptions from which we draw our conclusions.
Given only these two iterations of a single line from the text, the situation may not be immediately apparent as a dramatic of a turn as this, so allow me to elaborate. There is another element at play here, namely how we branch the hierarchy of reality and fiction further out to other ontological levels. An extended version of our typical conceptual model of ontological levels has reality at the top followed by fiction, in general; however, fiction can be divided along these same lines, where something written in third person is an objective view, as it states what is happening in the context of the fiction, and something written in first person is a subjective view because it is in the point of view of a character. Third person is the interpretation of the author, who is real; first person is the interpretation of a character, which is constructed and therefore further removed from reality. Remember, in this conventional model reality is essentially interchangeable with the idea of fact. Because of this idea of how fiction operates, as we read The Golden Notebook, we assume that third-person Anna from “Free Women” is more accurate than first-person Anna in “The Notebooks,” since third person suggests objective reality, while first person suggests subjective reality (Lightfoot 279). And on top of that, since each “Free Women” section precedes each “The Notebooks” section, we assume that Anna of “Free Women” is writing the contents of “The Notebooks,” or to be a little more ontologically distinct, we assume that “Free Women” Anna writes “The Notebooks” Anna. Yet at the moment of truth in “The Golden Notebook” section, we come to realize that it is actually the reverse of this. “The Notebooks” Anna has written “Free Women” Anna. Beth Boehm summarizes our position as readers as one where “we are made to feel foolish by our having read the frame ‘seriously’—that is, nonparodically—for most of the novel” (94). This is not upsetting however because we have simply misidentified how the ontological levels relate; it is because we attach truth values to those ontological levels in degrees equivalent to how close they are to reality that there is perceivably an issue. So for example, if I tell you a story about something that happened to me, that story is one ontological level lower than reality, so its truth value is greater than if I tell you a story I heard or read. Confusion of ontological levels is not overly disconcerting unless there is something at stake, and in our traditional hierarchy, what we perceive to be the relation of truth or accuracy between fiction and reality is what is in question because now we have to reassess the truth values in the text along the lines of this newly acquired ontological arrangement.
However, subversion of reader expectations is not anything new. In fact the mystery genre is defined by it; although, the clear counterargument there is that we expect to discover what we know is inaccurate, like we expect a horror movie to try and scare us. Tonya Krouse summarizes this choice of the author simply by saying that “the novel’s structure compels readers to look both forwards and backwards as they read” (39). Yet, what makes the gesture especially poignant when Lessing does it is that we do not see it coming, and in reflection we realize this happens partially because of the way we read books in general. I say partially because Lessing does set this trap very well, and there is no denying that any reader would easily fall into it, even one educated in the way that Lessing apparently thinks we all should be. As Suzette Henke points out “[b]y presenting ‘Free Women’ as a textual framework, she traps us in the illusion of formal realism” (165). The trap is the unexpected, but we are trapped by what we do expect. This description of the text may seem somewhat vindictive of Lessing as trying to point out to us how poor our capabilities are as readers, but Patrocinio Schweickart paints this in a fairly positive light where the situation “offers us an opportunity … to reconsider our customary reading strategies” (267). Now, the counterpoint could be made that since the trap is inescapable, the wordless statement as a declaration against conventionality is invalid. However, reader recognition is integral to the value of the statement, so for the book to have its full effect, we need to be able to recognize it, and by positioning it at this point in the novel, the significance of what has happened becomes unmistakable. So we need to be able to experience the trap to appreciate it, and Lessing takes some lengths to try and guarantee this will happen. Also, if the trap were escapable, that in itself would suggest a weakness in the argument; the fact that we cannot help but either step over it by missing it, and the point, altogether, or be whisked up into a metaphorical tree, upside down by a rope, suggests just how ensnaring the mechanism of the trap is once it is recognized; some might argue that this happens before it is recognized, but there are readers who entered the cage without seeing the bars, and without literal steel to back it up, this seems to make the trap, altogether, ineffective. The trap, once realized, is so effective because we are so predisposed to fall into it, regardless of how well conceived it is.
The more important point is that the way The Golden Notebook achieves this subversion is through text that appears in addition to “Free Women.” The implication is that we need literature that goes beyond what has become the conventional novel in order to achieve these amazing things within the realm of fiction. Remember that Lessing referred to “Free Women” as Free Women when suggesting that the “Free Women” sections could be understood as a “conventional short novel”; however, Lessing also described “Free Women” as a “frame,” little more than a hook to hang the meat on (xi). The text that exists outside of conventionality is of true importance because it is that which allows us to go beyond what the novel is too often limited to. This moment of ontological uncertainty subverts reader expectations in such a way as to promote those literary elements that go beyond what has become convention.
This commentary on reader expectations also clearly has ties to the hierarchy of reality and fiction that was mentioned before as the central message of the wordless statement. Schweickart provides a very clear explanation of these circumstances in the text:
By itself, each story offers a persuasive and coherent argument for the priority of one aspect of Anna’s life. Put side by side, however, each account shows us what has been omitted or slighted by the other. And because there is no reason to choose one over the other, we must conclude that both are equally questionable. (268)
Not only do we now have reasons to doubt the fictional elements of the text, namely “The Notebooks” sections, which occupy an ontological level lower than “Free Women” in our extended model, but we have reason to doubt the reality of the text that is “Free Women,” namely because the ontological reversal that occurs causes these two ontological positions to be switched, so now it seems that “The Notebooks” occupy an ontological level higher than “Free Women.” Moreover, we expect literature to work in a specific way that obeys certain conventions. In fact, we think of certain things as accurately defined as objective in the world of the text and other things as subjective in the world of the text. (These have already been addressed in looking at the extended model of traditional ontological assumptions.) When these are subverted, we are reminded that these rules are not as hard and fast as we typically think, and are, as I have described them, merely conventions. This is one aspect of reality that we see in fiction successfully unmasked as “questionable,” though another element was also mentioned earlier.
The second element is the idea that the central message of the text, or any text, somehow results from fiction’s microscope being placed over a facet of truth taken from the everyday world. Since we have misidentified what reality is in fiction once already—primarily by being unable to accurately identify the ontological levels as they relate in the supposed hierarchy to reality—it seems unlikely that we can be certain about this aspect as well. Otherwise, it seems as though our concept of hierarchy will not permit us to talk about the themes or messages of the book in a worthwhile way because their validity and truth would remain always in question. Part of the necessary operating procedure of the traditional hierarchy involves the reality that is privileged over fiction to be able to be readily identified, especially as it appears in fiction. We cannot really say that reality is more accurate than fiction, or that fiction derives its elements of truth from reality, if we cannot identify reality clearly and distinctly from fiction. Remember that this idea stems from how we compare the fiction we read with the reality we experience in order to decide its value or what it means, which is what creates the hierarchy where reality takes precedence over fiction. We accept this hierarchical model because in many ways it seems logical, but when put to a test like this, we seem unable to actually see the hierarchy intrinsically in a clear way in the text. If the traditional model were accurate, then the fact that reality is more truthful would allow us to make the distinction, as we would need a fairly clear idea of what truth is to establish such a hierarchy in the first place. As is, we seem incapable of identifying the truth with even a level of certainty that allows us to understand what element of reality it is that the fiction wishes us to better comprehend. Then again, this is a slightly more extreme take on the situation. It would be unreasonable not to concede even a little that being able to fully dissect a novel might be more than the average reader, or an author, intends to have happen.
A more reasonable take might simply involve comparing the story as a whole to reality as a whole, which seems more along the lines of the critical approach of an average reader. This brings us back to the issue of interpretation. The character Ella in Shadow of the Third is an interpretation of something that happened in “The Notebooks” Anna’s life, just as “Free Women” Anna is also an interpretation of “The Notebooks” Anna’s life. But the issue of interpretation was the first thing that was raised. Our ontological uncertainty initially stemmed not from just a misinterpretation of what the actual circumstances were, but from an inability—a lack of bread crumbs, if you will—to even recognize what was going on until “The Golden Notebook.” A sort of universal interpretation is not any less questionable of a means. Basically, if we hold the hierarchy to be true, and we are interpreting the themes of the book, why would our interpretation of an interpretation get us back to reality being more accurate than fiction? By including “The Notebooks” in the way that she does, Lessing also raises similar doubts. Even though “The Notebooks” appear further down the hierarchy than “Free Women” at the start, Anna in the first person is more similar to us than Anna in the third person, raising issues regarding what her biases might be or what underlying issues might drive “The Notebooks.” And once we discover that “The Notebooks” should be considered ontologically closer to reality in a hierarchy than “Free Women,” we cannot readily dismiss that a first person narrative involves a level of interpretation, so our dominant level in the hierarchy is something we had doubts about going in. Even now that we understand the arrangement of the ontological levels more clearly, these doubts remain because the text is in first person. Third person should be more accurate than first person, but whatever is higher on the hierarchy is also supposed to be more accurate; what results is a tension between what conventional writing and our traditional mode of thinking tell us are ways of determining accuracy and truth. There is clearly a wide array of issues involving the hierarchy and this ontological uncertainty that would lead us to have doubts about the hierarchy, and therefore how we traditionally conceive of reality relating to fiction, where reality is privileged as more accurate than fiction. Within the world of the text, what we would use to distinguish reality from fiction and maintain our hierarchy in light of its own virtues fails.
Still, there remains another key element that pertains to these questions of what the wordless statement is, how it works, and what it does, which gets us to a place where metaphysics meets metafiction—where the text implies something but never actually names it or shows it to the reader. This facet of the speaking shape is what links the issues within the text to the world outside the text. Up until now, we have been tied within the reality of the fiction, which does not allow for a complete breakdown of the traditional hierarchy of reality over fiction because reality outside of fiction has not been addressed. And reasonably so, as a true bridge between reality and fiction like the one needed for this to work cannot appear within the actual contents of the text and also exist effectively outside of the text’s reality. We need something that is both in the text and not in the text, in reality and not in reality—something in between. Here I will delve into how the novel shows that reality is as equally questionable as the fiction, in a way that links the two. Of course, it stands to reason also that there is no need for this connection to be made because it already exists. As has been mentioned, books are a part of reality, and Doris Lessing who wrote the book is as much a part of reality as the rest of us; however, the book’s argument becomes more compelling because it does relate the text to the world so strongly in its due course. The novel shows us some of the more tightly woven strands of reality and fiction, so we can recognize that the lines blur and one fades into the other. The book does all it can to get rid of this remaining doubt—to make the probability into a proof.
The novel hints at what this invisible bridge might be when it discusses an outside element that is referred to as the “third.” We have two stories about Anna, “The Notebooks” and “Free Women.” The third Anna is the Anna who writes both. “The Notebooks” are an interpretation of events written in the first person, and “Free Women” is an interpretation of “The Notebooks” written in the third person, so it follows that there must be someone who wrote “The Notebooks” sections, who represents herself in “The Notebooks” as “I,” which is our third Anna—we just follow the ontological chain. This raises a plethora of new questions, mostly because this third Anna does not appear in the texts she constructs, except as herself on other ontological levels (This is similar to the issue of implied author; although, where disputes involving implied author argue whether the reader constructs the author or vice versa, here it is clearly meant that the text constructs this outside author for the reader.). When we read a novel in the first person and the story ends, usually it does so with some indication of what is going to happen to that central character. Many critics will say that the text ends there definitely and is completely self-contained, but most readers perceive the story as if it continued beyond the pages, as the life of the main character has not yet come to a decisive end. Readers often hypothesize what will happen next, or accept the evidence of what will happen next that has been given to them. Whatever presumably could happen next, however, does not literally happen because the text ends. Still, this does not seem to capture the complete nature of fiction, simply an aspect of the physical or literal nature and not the metaphorical, nor do these shadows of possibility seem to halt so abruptly, even after the book has been shelved after being completed. Similarly, although in a particularly distinct way, we can logically assert that this third Anna exists.
Before getting too far into what this means in the debate concerning hierarchy, we should first look at some of the hints the book gives us about the “third,” as they provide a better idea of what the third is. Ella is the most readily accessible model of the third that the book gives us, and this is made fairly explicit in the novel, as “The Notebooks” Anna titles her story involving Ella The Shadow of the Third. The “shadow” is an allusion to the Jungian archetypes that comprise a large part of the way in which Anna develops in the book; however, it also hints at Ella not being an actual third but a silhouette bearing a striking resemblance to the true third of the book. “The Notebooks” Anna writes Ella as a version of herself, just as she writes “Free Women” Anna, meaning that both Ella and “Free Women” Anna occupy the same ontological level. A true third for the book needs to occupy a different ontological level than the other two Annas, otherwise it is just a renaming of one of the two pre-existing Annas. What Ella accomplishes is in pointing out that Anna, on all levels, uses various degrees of fiction to explain the truth of her life. By having this candidly pointed out with a character not named Anna, who still clearly resembles Anna and is meant to be a version of her, the reader is given a firm nudge that this same thing is occurring elsewhere in the text.
Saul’s line in “The Golden Notebook” seems to be the real indicator: “There are the two women you are, Anna” (610). There are two women that compose a third, exactly in the same way that the text does. There are the two Annas of the text that compose the third Anna that Saul refers to here. The reason I say “refers” instead of “speaks” requires a bit of an ontological voyage, but one that we must make to fully comprehend the text. What the book has asserted here is that it is written in its entirety by Anna. This actually makes a lot of sense in light of what we have discussed. Anna is responsible for “The Notebooks” Anna, who is responsible for “Free Women” Anna; although, there may still be some questions regarding “The Golden Notebook” Anna. “The Golden Notebook” Anna is for all intents and purposes an extension of “The Notebooks” Anna, as she exists on the same ontological level, which we know because “The Golden Notebook” is an attempt by Anna, as she says at the end of the blue notebook, to “start a new notebook, all of myself in one book” (580).
However, Anna in “The Golden Notebook” brings us to another series of three that is also of some significance. There are three golden notebooks: The Golden Notebook, “The Golden Notebook,” and the golden notebook. The novel is obviously one, the section within the book is also obvious, but the third tends to go unnoticed—similar to our other thirds. This third golden notebook shows up most distinctly at the start of the bracketed section that concludes “The Golden Notebook” section: “Here Anna’s handwriting ended, the golden notebook continued in Saul Green’s handwriting, a short novel about the Algerian soldier” (612). The third golden notebook is the golden notebook that appears in “The Golden Notebook,” which of course, appears in The Golden Notebook. This works the same way as the multiple Annas, where we can trace the ontological chain. What is particularly interesting in this instance is that it makes more evident what is not already apparent with the case of Anna. The various interpretations of Anna are open to speculation as to their pertinence and degree of truth value; they seem to have varying degrees of accuracy, relevance, and truth. However, the golden notebook that appears in “The Golden Notebook” is essentially the same golden notebook. The one major difference between the two is that the entirety of Saul’s novel does not appear in it, and they have different ontological levels. The golden notebook in “The Golden Notebook” is on a lower ontological level, yet each names the exact same object. They have nearly identical contents, as mentioned, which would indicate that they have a nearly identical truth value. What we see represented in this instance are two things with different ontological levels, yet clearly of equivalent truth. With this being the case, how can we continue to believe that something that is further ontologically removed from reality is of any less truth value than those less so? That presumption seems broken here. And there is also further evidence that can establish these two as the same. For instance, Saul writes a “schoolboy’s curse” in the front of the golden notebook mentioned in Anna’s blue diary notebook, which we take to be the same golden notebook as mentioned in “The Golden Notebook” section given they share an ontological level, and the same curse appears at the front of the section called “The Golden Notebook” (579, 583). Also, each notebook section in “The Notebooks” is headed with a title indicating which notebook is ahead, such as “The Blue Notebook.” “The Golden Notebook” does in fact begin with the title The Golden Notebook [stet], which signifies that the contents afterwards are the actual contents of the golden notebook. And again, if you accept that “The Golden Notebook” is for all intensive purposes at the same ontological level as “The Notebooks” sections, then the fact that the golden notebook is discussed in the other notebooks is also a use of the golden notebook as an object one ontological level lower than “The Notebooks” and consequently “The Golden Notebook.” This may seem somewhat confusing, but consider that the golden notebook is a text mentioned within “The Notebooks” and “The Golden Notebook,” which is why it is an ontological level lower (this can become overly complex rather quickly with this sort of self-reference). There is more than sufficient evidence to indicate that “The Golden Notebook” and the golden notebook are one and the same.
The traditional assumption that hierarchy somehow conveys a sense of accuracy or truth that becomes diluted as it travels down the ontological chain is overwhelmed by the contrary evidence that exists in the message of the thirds. The idea that something weakens as it becomes an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation is not absurd, which is why we typically believe it. But when we encounter a situation like the one discussed so far, where each interpretation involves the same shared core, we are faced with how obviously contradictory the circumstances can be to that notion. Truth is necessary for both fiction and reality, but it is not exclusive to either, as the evidence provided up to now has shown. So getting deeper into fiction and farther from reality or vice versa does not indicate what degree of truth is to be expected. Truth is present and permeates all ontological levels, just not always in a predictable way.
Of course, this does not directly dispute that reality is put under the microscope of fiction in order to try and get at these truths. Although, it seems strange to call reality the material, now that we have distinguished it from truth, and fiction the tool. Even though it has been made suspect that reality is just another ontological level, like any part of fiction, there needs to be some way that fiction can move back up to reality on the ontological map. The way seems evident if we consider that fiction comments on reality just as reality comments on fiction. Consider our expectations again. Conventional novels cause us to expect texts to function in a certain way, and we in turn read novels with those functions in mind—there is a clear ontological give and take already there. However, The Golden Notebook gives us the third Anna as its connection between the two. “Free Women” Anna is written by “The Notebooks” Anna, but we are back to the question of who writes “The Notebooks” Anna? The answer that has been given is the third Anna, and the evidence of the third, more than merely hinted at throughout the text shows us how we are to understand this ontologically baffling figure.
Doris Lessing certainly exists on some ontological level in relation to the book, and it would not be a completely unfounded suggestion to say that she is the third Anna; however, I would not be entirely inclined to agree. Claire Sprague even reached this as a sort of conclusion to her investigation of the doubles in The Golden Notebook: “Doris Lessing sits triumphantly behind her triumphant Anna. She is the maker of the maker” (197). Considering this, the name difference would not be a problem, as Anna creates a version of herself named Ella, so Doris could be Anna. Still, this third Anna seems to exist on an ontological level of conception, where both reality and fiction work to indicate that she exists yet not distinctly in either of these clear cut divisions. She is constructed, as she is not the immediate thoughts of Lessing, but she is probably not the two Annas we get to know in the book—the two versions of herself that she produces are evidence of this probability. She is somewhere between reality and fiction, and we can only see her because of the resultant reaction between the two. Anna outside the text is something generated by the text that reflects into the world, so the truth is not an aspect of reality any more so than it is of the fiction. She is at a conceptual ontological level that we do not have a distinct name for. Given this, it would seem strange to call fiction simply a tool of analysis for reality, as there is an additional level of ontology that connects the two, which we cannot definitively place in either category. Also, reality and fiction seem to function similarly as levels of ontology, meaning that we cannot really give them functions that are distinct from one another. And in many ways these findings should also make sense, given the doubts raised about truth in general, let alone its now clearly tenuous connection to reality (as tenuous as its connection to anything else); when doubts were first raised it was apparent that we did not yet have the whole picture, and that there was probably something missing, as well as some additional reasoning to be done, and given the circumstances it does not seem too peculiar that some aspects of ontology would be amongst those things that we had yet to account for. Of course, it also seems apparent that we cannot actually account for everything.
So what are we to do with this third Anna posited by the text? Logically she must exist, but according to both reality and fiction she does not; however, she is implied due to both. From reality we get the idea of the builder; if we see a castle, we assume someone must have built it, and likewise, if there are these two texts about Anna, someone must have written them. Again, some might argue that that person is Doris Lessing according to reality, which is a possibility; Doris Lessing could be our third Anna, except we should be hesitant to name the third Anna as Lessing because Lessing would then be bound into the text in ways that we cannot readily analyze or know. Presumably all writers are integrated into their texts in this way, but given that we cannot tell how, and our experience already shows us how Anna exists in the text, we need to be content with simply positing a third Anna. From the fiction, we get hints at the third, and we get the two Annas, who in conjunction with reality, allow for a third to be possible. The demonstration of this strange relationship between reality and fiction is perhaps Lessing’s newer model for how we should take into account and reconcile different levels of ontology; although, I will not say that definitively. Rather, I wish to indicate how one level of ontology works in conjunction with another to create the realization of the third Anna, so that it can be understood how levels of ontology in the shape of the book play such a powerful role in delivering the wordless statement.
The third Anna, and all that she entails, is the wordless statement. She is an issue that cannot be resolved. If we follow the traditional hierarchy where the further the level of ontology is from reality the less accurate and truthful it is, then the third Anna is actually very close to reality, but she does not seem to break all the way through as Doris Lessing because the third Anna exists as something implied by the text, which Lessing is not. Our traditional conventions and hierarchy are powerfully disrupted by something that cannot really be said to exist, but we also realize probably does. And this person is not far off down the chain of ontology; she is sitting right next to reality, resting her head on its shoulder. The third Anna in this way is also a message about accuracy in both reality and fiction. We cannot be absolutely certain in either case, so we should not pretend to be so going in. We cannot go into a text with presumptions overflowing because we will not allow the text to speak for itself, and we will be locked into reading everything only one way. Accuracy and truth come in degrees not directly determined by their ontology, and knowing this, we can be better readers more open to the possibilities of both text and the world in which it is shelved.
Lessing has one additional gesture in the book, which suggests the flaws inherent in what we perceive as or call reality. In “The Golden Notebook” Anna meets an invisible projectionist, who she must confront in her dreams, as she starts to come to a similar realization about fiction and reality as we do—the real difference between the two being that Lessing’s wordless statement allows for a direct tie into our world, where this thematic presentation does not. This projectionist shows Anna films that she is supposedly responsible for, and at one point remarks, “And what makes you think that the emphasis you have put on it is the correct emphasis?” (590). The question can be equally related to fiction or reality. As we experience any event, we choose what to look at, who to listen to, et cetera, just as in fiction a writer makes some of those decisions for the reader. Hite points to “the correct emphasis” as suggesting that to adopt “one focus or perspective over another is to embrace a particular orthodoxy … one purportedly authoritative view of the whole” (“Metafiction” 487). The point made is that this idea of emphasis limits possibility, the same as we limit truth by declaring it a force only found on the ontological level of reality. On the next page, the issue really comes home though: “Time had gone, and my memory did not exist, and I was unable to distinguish between what I had invented and what I had known, and I knew that what I had invented was all false” (591). This may seem like verification of the idea that fiction is universally less accurate than reality, but the reason why the invented is false is for a reason we might not expect, if we still operated under the ideas of our traditional hierarchy: “the material had been ordered by me to fit what I knew, and that was why it was all false” (591). The falsity of Anna’s creation comes from an attempt to conform her experiences to what she thought she knew about reality. This seems a direct refutation of the idea that fiction should have some aspect of reality contained within it that is taken under the microscope. Based on this event in the book, such a method of analysis does not seem to be the way that we can get to truth. Ellen Morgan has described the situation as Anna finding her work to be false because she does not let it emerge “in a direct response to her experience” (479). Anna’s work suffers because she tries to relate current experience to what she perceives as reality, rather than letting it be something different, new, and fruitful. Again, reality is just another level of ontology; if we try to force one level too strongly upon another or contain one level completely within another, we will only end up further from the truth than when we began. This point in the book is where Lessing gives the strongest suggestions about the problems with how we traditionally view fiction and how we use those views in a conventional way to read texts.
All in all, this seems somewhat unsatisfactory. We are left with doubts and questions we cannot easily answer. However, we are no longer reading ontology with prejudice, and we will not as readily be caught unawares by truth when it appears where we would not normally expect it or even look for it. The flaws in our concept of hierarchy have been exposed, and we can move forward more aware.
Allow me to quickly try to recapture how we arrived here. Normally we think about fiction as something that can be related to reality and truth, while not having any intrinsic truth of its own. Dennis Porter puts this rather eloquently and distinctly: “Not only will the novel as traditionally conceived not do, but the only hierarchy of value perceived for fiction in the modern world is one that relates to levels of lying” (58). This association applies to all levels of ontology, so that the further removed from reality a level of ontology is, the less true or accurate we take it to be; however, Lessing upsets both our ideas about how to detect objectivity and subjectivity, as well as the amount of truth to be found in any level of ontology, including reality. What we come to realize is that reality is just another level of ontology, and that there is no definite hierarchy of truth or accuracy related to it. For example, a documentary of the Hindenburg exploding may fail to capture the people involved or the emotions of those around the world at the time, while a fiction can relate to us the ways that the event affected so many lives, even though such a documentary would presumably have video of the actual event, et cetera (This is a somewhat off the cuff example, but I think that it conveys the correct idea effectively, even though this example is much more disputable than the evidence in The Golden Notebook [for convenience it is also simpler.]). We must be content to search out what we can with our understanding open to the possibilities, and we cannot allow ourselves to become victims of habit, only capable of seeing one way, when there are so many points of view. We can certainly point out levels of ontology, but we must not consider them a way of identifying the value of any given scene or event. Instead, we must consider the levels of ontology and truth meshed together in some way that we must penetrate with other tools of our intellect than dated conventions like the traditional hierarchy we had turned to before. In closing, I again turn to the brilliant critic Molly Hite, who summed up this realization much more effectively: “The Golden Notebook disperses both character and plot, challenging the claims of a single, holistic vision to contain ultimate truth” (“Doris” 23). The text contains so much truth, while still being run ragged across so many levels of ontology—still perfectly capable of revealing that which we could not recognize and had misinterpreted trying too hard to look down from the surface of reality.
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