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Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971)

by Doris Lessing

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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8511219,724 (3.49)43
A study of a man beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown, this is a brilliant and disturbing novel by Doris Lessing, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Penniless, rambling and incoherent, a man is found wandering at night on London's Embankment. Taken to hospital and heavily sedated, he tells the doctors of his incredible fantastical voyage, adrift on the ocean, landing on unknown shores, flying on the back of a huge white bird. Identified as Charles Watkins, a Cambridge Classics professor, he is visited by family and friends, each revealing clues to the nature of his breakdown. As the doctors try to cure him, Watkins begins a fierce battle to hold on to his magnificent inner world, as it gradually acquires a greater reality than the everyday... 'Briefing for a Descent into Hell' is one of Doris Lessing's most brilliantly achieved novels, linking her early work, which explored the nature of subjectivity, with her later experiments in science fiction. Its indictment of the tyranny of society is powerful, disturbing and, as always, magnificently rendered.… (more)
  1. 00
    Valis by Philip K. Dick (paradoxosalpha)
    paradoxosalpha: Spiritually-oriented narratives in which sanity and reality are brought into hypothetical opposition, both with science-fictional elements.
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» See also 43 mentions

English (10)  Italian (2)  All languages (12)
Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
An exploration of "inner space," Briefing for a Descent into Hell has some really nice moments. The novel centers on the recovery of a professor who has had a break from reality and remembers nothing of his previous life. His visions of shipwrecks, alien abductions, strange rituals, and celestial meetings of mythic gods hint at some Gnostic revelation that never fully arrives. In the meantime, doctors debate whether to give him shock therapy, dope him up, or kick him out of the hospital. Eventually, we find out more about the poor professor, but honestly I missed the fever dreams once they were replaced with the patchwork of his real life. The promise of the first half of the novel was never really fulfilled, and I was left feeling a little underwhelmed. It was refreshing to read Lessing's prose, which was of a quality rarely found in a science fiction novel. I especially enjoyed her use of doctors' notes, correspondence, and interior monologue to deliver the story piecemeal, but her narrative lacked something that I love about a lot of sci-fi: a thought provoking concept or theme that is clearly articulated and (often amateurishly) driven home. Briefing made me miss the propulsive plots and straightforward delivery of [author:Philip K. Dick|4764]'s [book:Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said|22584] and [book:Ubik|22590], contemporary novels that explored similar themes. While Lessing's prose is more consistently satisfying, PKD's stories were simply more interesting and immediate. Still, I'd recommend Briefing for anyone looking to read something atypical in the sci-fi genre. ( )
  drbrand | Jun 8, 2020 |
I'm one of the ones who found this laborious. The first third of the book, especially, felt like a slog--a pointless slog, with no promise of anything not quite sloggy to come.

There is a hint of an interesting idea in the late-middle section that didn't end up as developed as I had anticipated, but regardless the hint and the interest were not enough to compensate for the truly laborious opening sequences.

I've tried to read Lessing before (notably The Golden Notebook) and will have to conclude that her style is just not something I appreciate. In the abstract they all sound fascinating, but when I make the effort they just don't appeal. (And they aren't too hard, so to speak--I read Georges Perec, for God's sake--they just don't go anywhere). ( )
  ashleytylerjohn | Sep 19, 2018 |
The briefing for a descent into hell is given at a conference chaired by Minna Erve, who represents the celestial Gods who have frequently in their history sent messengers down to earth to try and get humanity back on track. They are in despair at the continual backsliding into war, famine and other disasters that human kind inflict upon themselves and are bracing themselves for another attempt to sort things out. This is what a patient admitted at the Central Intake Hospital in London may believe. When he arrived he was confused, rambling, but amenable. He appeared to have been robbed because there was nothing on him to give any clue too his identity and he appeared to be suffering from acute amnesia. He rambled on about being on a voyage where all his shipmates had been lost and his boat was at the mercy of the currents.

This is Lessing’s eighth novel and her first that does not rely on autobiographical material. It was published in 1971 two years after she had completed her mammoth children of violence series which ended with [the Four gated City]. She had delved deep into her own life story for this undertaking, but with Briefing for a Descent into Hell she has cast herself free and is reliant on her imagination. Mental illness and its affects on people living with the condition was one of the themes of The Four Gated city and in this novel it takes centre stage. The patient at the Central Intake Hospital is a puzzle to his two doctors, one of whom (Doctor X) is reliant on drugs and shock treatment as methods of treatment. Doctor Y is more concerned in trying to understand the patient and encourages him to ramble on and then write down what is going on in his head. The first third of the book is mainly in the mind of the patient who may believe he is a messenger from one of the celestial gods. He certainly talks about alien abduction and describes vividly his dreams and fantasies. This makes the first part of the book feel like a science fiction novel, and similar in vein to Olaf Stapledon’s work in [Starmaker]. The patients stories gather in intensity and coherence as he describes a ruined stone city in the jungle inhabited by rat-dog people who battle with a tribe of monkeys while the patient attempts to keep a landing space for a crystal spaceship free from detritus. He finally succeeds in being taken off the earth and can look down at the mess that is humanity below. Is he one of the messengers of the Gods? His coherent story sounds convincing and this is Lessing’s point. Understanding and then interpreting the place where the mentally ill patient has got himself, is the surest way of treating the illness.

Lessing knew and was influenced by the theories of R D Laing, who was a practising psychiatrist and wrote extensively about mental health. (She even took LSD under his supervision and some of the patients stories feel like an LSD induced hallucinations.) R D Laing was revolutionary in valuing the content of psychotic behaviour and speech as a valid expression of distress. He believed that if you could interpret the symbolism then you might understand the cause and the treatment would be guided by what was discovered. Lessing takes R D Laings ideas further by hinting that the patients so-called psychotic ramblings may have some value not only for himself but for others: perhaps as a saviour for the human race.

The discovery by the hospital that the patient is Charles Watkins a professor who lectures on classics represents a change in emphasis in the novel. We come down to earth almost with a bump as the hospital staff communicate by letter and phone with his wife, family and colleagues. The novel becomes epistolary in form as various people write in with stories about Professor Watkins, who appears to have psychopathic tendencies. The Professer himself hallucinates, tells stories about his war experiences as he fights to regain a sense of who he is. His stay in hospital is prolonged with Doctor X putting pressure on him to undergo shock treatment. Lessing made me feel that the professor may be happier being mentally ill, which is quite some achievement.

This is not a science fiction novel, Lessing was still a little way from launching herself totally in that genre, but for the first part of this novel you could be forgiven for thinking you were reading one. The substantial passages that tell the stories inside the head of the patient/Charles Watkins feel out of kilter with the mystery of discovering who he is and whether he is going to get well, but this is probably Lessings technique in trying to portray mental illness and it works to some extent. She has a feel for describing fantasies of other worlds, whether they be utopias or dystopias and I missed some of this imaginative writing in the second half of the novel. An enjoyable novel that has nowhere near the scope of the excellent Four Gated City, but one which homes in on its themes and contains some of her most imaginative writing todate. A four star read. ( )
6 vote baswood | Mar 11, 2016 |
Reminds me so much of Carlos Castaneda in some parts. Unfortunately, I don't dig him much. Apparent stream of consciousness writing doesn't do much for me, in a similar way that many of Dream Theater's lyrics come across more like inside jokes rather than recognizable patterns of a larger scheme.

I couldn't finish it. ( )
  lrcaborn | May 6, 2013 |
This is another of Lessing's surrealist commentaries on society and, in particular, mental illness. Even though mental illness is a favorite topic that appears in most of her novels, I think this is the only one that explores the dust in the corners of a single psychotic episode. This was not easy reading for me. I could not remain interested in the long meanderings through the landscape of the disturbed mind. If it had not been for a few brief verbatims from physician's notes early in the book, I would not have had a curiosity sturdy enough to plow through ten or twelve pages each night. Towards the end, each time the protagonist wandered the tunnels of his illusions, I read only every other paragraph. About halfway through, my interest was finally piqued, and I began to care about the characters and wanted to know how their lives turned out beyond The End. Having now read some ten plus of Lessing's novels, plus two volumes of her autobiography, I wonder about her descriptions of the human mind lost in a world of delusion and illusion. She had an apparently long affair with a married psychiatrist in London and explored her own psyche in psychotherapy. I wonder about the extent of her personal experience and the borrowed experiences from her associations. ( )
1 vote bookcrazed | Dec 7, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Doris Lessingprimary authorall editionscalculated
Wagner, IrisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Lanterne (L 318)
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Epigraph
If yonder raindrop should its heart disclose,
Behold therein a hundred seas displayed.
In every atom, if thou gaze aright,
Thousands of reasoning beings are contained.
The gnat in limbs doth match the elephant.
In name is yonder drop as Nile's broad flood.
In every grain a thousand harvests dwell.
The world within a grain of millet's heart.
The universe in the mosquito's wing contained.
Within that point in space the heaavens roll.
Upon one little spot within the heart
Resteth the Lord and Master of the worlds.
Therein two worlds commingled may be seen...
--The Sage Mahmoud Shabistari, 14th Century (The Secret Garden)
This miniscule world of the sand grains is also the world of inconceivably minute beings, which swim through the liquid film around a grain of sand as fish would swim through the ocean covering the sphere of the earath. Among this fauna and flora of the capillary water are single-celled animals and plants water mites, shrimplike crustacea, insects, and the larvae of infinitely small worms--all living, dying, swimming, feeding, breathing, reproducing is a world so small that our human senses cannot grasp its scale, a world in which the microdroplet of water separating one grain of sand from another is like a vast, dark sea.
Marine Biologist Rachel Carson, 20th century (The Edge of the Sea)
Dedication
this is for my son John, the sea-loving man
First words
Friday 15th August 1969
Admittance Sheet
Name: Unknown
Sex: Male
Age: Unknown
Address: Unknown
General Remarks: At midnight the police found Patient wandering on the Embankment near Waterloo Bridge.
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A study of a man beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown, this is a brilliant and disturbing novel by Doris Lessing, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Penniless, rambling and incoherent, a man is found wandering at night on London's Embankment. Taken to hospital and heavily sedated, he tells the doctors of his incredible fantastical voyage, adrift on the ocean, landing on unknown shores, flying on the back of a huge white bird. Identified as Charles Watkins, a Cambridge Classics professor, he is visited by family and friends, each revealing clues to the nature of his breakdown. As the doctors try to cure him, Watkins begins a fierce battle to hold on to his magnificent inner world, as it gradually acquires a greater reality than the everyday... 'Briefing for a Descent into Hell' is one of Doris Lessing's most brilliantly achieved novels, linking her early work, which explored the nature of subjectivity, with her later experiments in science fiction. Its indictment of the tyranny of society is powerful, disturbing and, as always, magnificently rendered.

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