Saturday, June 9, 2012

Doris Lessing; A modern Sufi

As an elixir of wisdom and an intellectual Yoga, Sufism has been known, cherished and even practised in the West since time immemorial. It is hard to find a single great Western poet or thinker who has not been inspired by Sufism. Dr Johnson loved Sufi Oneness and pantheism; Voltaire in Candid saw Sufi philosophy as an antidote to the religious extremism of his time. Goethe loved Sufi poetry, Richard Burton and Robert Graves were keen on practicing Sufism. Sufism was cherished by Australia's greatest poet professor Alec Derwent Hope. Hegel draws on Sufi thought in his works. Danish fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen was brought news of Sufi musicians and dancers - known as “Whirling Dervishes” - to Europe.

Nobel laureate, Doris Lessing is the doyen of contemporary Sufis in the West. She identifies Western admiration of Sufism since the 1960s as ‘a Sufi craze,’ and ‘Sufi bandwagon’. For Lessing, Sufism was a kind of universal feeling, emotion, a quick fix and an access with no intermediary. “Sufism is something one experiences on one's own,”

mysticism - that I would like to highlight amid the torrent of tributes that have followed the Nobel award.

Lessing never kept secret her commitment to the mystical branch in Islam known in the west as Sufism ↑ . From the 1960s, she persistently and enthusiastically made known her mystical proclivities at every opportunity; she made use of Sufi tenets - especially those drawn from the writings of Idries Shah ↑ , whom she regarded as her teacher - to enhance her own perception of human beings on earth and of lives she imagined on other planets. As she once said: "I had an inclination towards mysticism (not religion) even when being political. It is not an uncommon combination." Lessing's move into Sufi studies, far from an abandonment of her earlier political, psychological or scoal stands,was a deepening of her interest in the human being as a seeker.

The diverse locations of Lessing's early life ↑ - she was born in Iran to English parents and raised in Southern Rhodesia - made it natural for her to become a sort of spiritual ambassador between east and west. As a working resident of London for most of her adult life, she introduced her contemporary western audience to ideas and literatures from the Muslim world when these were far less familiar even than today; and she courageously challenged her readers to travel the road not taken and consider Sufi teaching as a possible alternative to western conditioning.

The Sufi aspect of Lessing's work might be thought of as didactic as much as literary. In transmitting the Sufi wisdom that she received from Idries Shah, Doris Lessing profoundly influenced the way her readers think.

Also in openDemocracy on recipients of the Nobel literature award:

Harold Pinter, "Democracy" (13 October 2005)

David Hayes, "Harold Pinter and Margaret Thatcher" (13 October 2005)

Tom McBride, "Big ideas and wandering fools: Saul Bellow" (7 April 2005)

Ron Singer, "Nigerian futures: interview with Wole Soyinka" (25 August 2006)

Roger Allen, "Naguib Mahfouz: from Cairo to the world" (31 August 2006)

Trevor Le Gassick, "Naguib Mahfouz: a farewell tribute" (1 September 2006)

Anthony Barnett, "Orhan Pamuk's prize: for Turkey not against it" (13 October 2006)

Hrant Dink, "Orhan Pamuk's epic journey" (16 October 2006)
A fundamental concept in Sufism is the idea of the seeker having direct access to God, with no intermediary; that is, inner transformation can only be experienced, not discussed. An equally central notion is the idea of developing a person's potential (as Lessing stated in a lecture on Sufism: "Man is woefully underused and undervalued, and he doesn't know his own capacities.")

These and other Sufi tenets informed such works as The Four-Gated City (1969), The Memoirs of a Survivor ↑ (1974), and the Canopus in Argos: Archives ↑ series (1979-83), among others; Lessing applied them to the lives of her characters, holding out the possibility of individual and global transformation and amelioration. Sufism was the resource that enabled her both to develop her vision of the earth and (in her experimentation with space fiction) to extend it to the universe. Here, by adapting traditional narrative methods (such as tales and fables) to modern fiction, Lessing discovered a creative vehicle to examine the layers of the human soul and to warn humanity that it is running out of time unless we "work" to develop ourselves.

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