Michael Morris of Artangel introduced the event by saying that, after five years of Longplayer — just 995 to go — they're instituting conversations like this as an annual event.
Doris Lessing and Laurie Anderson hadn't met until earlier in the month, when Anderson arrived in London to prepare for her recent shows. They had clearly decided that they wanted the conversation to be spontaneous and unscripted, and the only prompt they used was a flipchart behind their chairs on which they'd written a series of loosely-associated topics that they thought might trigger interesting exchanges.
It makes no sense to try and summarise this kind of improvised discussion, so I'm presenting my notes in a form that recreates the conversation as closely as I can. I'm not trained in shorthand, however, so what follows is a mix of verbatim snippets, filled in with reconstituted bits paraphrased from memory. I make no claims about the fidelity of the result!
Laurie Anderson (LA) — Let's start by asking "How to begin"? How do you approach beginnings in your work?
Doris Lessing (DL) — It depends. A book may simmer in your mind for ten years, or it may come immediately as with The Good Terrorist. How about you?
LA — This is going to sound pompous, but I like to work on what I call "the wit of the jump cut". I love jump cuts, make them wide (Melville was a master of the jump cut) set audience expectations in terms other than narrative.
DL — By end of the first page of a book, a narrative momentum is established and you have to respect that internal logic.
LA — Really?
DL — But characters can emerge unbidden. While I was writing my latest book, I instructed myself to dream a solution. I had a dream with three snow dogs, two of which drowned, but I rescued the last one by putting it in the book. This new character, emerging from the dream, knocked the book out of balance and I had to rethink its structure. I wish my dreaming mind was always so obedient… Do you still have nightmares? Are they the same as when you were a child?
LA — Yes, I still do, but I can't remember my childhood nightmares so I'm not sure if they're the same. Let's move onto smells [one of the other topics written on the flipchart].
DL — I love the smells of discontinued perfumes, and petrol.
LA — Yes, petrol is one of my favourites, too. I love the sound of engines and motors, the crunch of gravel, outboard motors on a Canadian lake, and all the smells and sights that that evokes… 'Alternative lives' is another topic we thought we might discuss. Do you have thoughts of being someone else?
DL — I'd like to be an old-fashioned farmer — not one of the agribusiness kind — or an explorer. Half a dozen of my friends are explorers, and they've told me of some of the most exciting, dangerous experiences.
LA — I've often thought of being a sheep farmer, though I really don't like sheep.
DL — Why sheep? Why not cows or alligators?
LA — Because they're very beautiful to look at.
DL — I think sheep are much cleverer than most people think.
LA — But they have no empathy, you just see blankness. It's not like looking in a dog's eye, where you see some feeling. We're not really sure what kind of consciousness other things have: I think rocks might have consciousness but on a different timescale. In the last couple of years I've spent some time working on garden design in Japan, and over there different elements in the garden are used to symbolise different time periods, and different rates of change. Plum blossom embodies a transient beauty; flowing water and rocks exist on different time horizons.
DL — Is the house you were brought up in still there in Chicago? Do you go back there to see it?
LA — In my mind, going there… that's what I do to keep sane. It's still there. Is yours?
DL — No, it's disappeared into the bush. Very many people in the world nowadays can never go back — their homes have been swept away by 'natural' disasters, war, famine and mass migration — so you're lucky if you can go back.
LA — I did go back once and it was profoundly alienating. I'd rather go there in my mind. I'm tryinq to get rid of these things, this dependence on external physicality for emotional stability. What makes me feel centred is looking at my hands and feet and realising that in the all the time since those hands and feet were very small I've been breathing continuously, without interruption.
DL — Kurt Vonnegut, who I admire very much, spoke about there being a group of people in the world who are your family (or karass) for no apparent reason at all, many of whom you may never meet. These people for whom you feel an immediate affinity — while for others you experience an immediate antipathy.
LA — Intuition is undervalued: we know so much more than we realise; we have more trust in technology than we have in ourselves.
DL — We don't know what we've lost. There are people in tribes in Africa who routinely used to enjoy a degree a telepathy with relatives in nearby villages, sending messages from a particular tree — but with the arrival of the telephone this faculty has been lost through atrophy.
LA — At the same time there are the love affairs that start on the phone, because, as a technology, the phone has a peculiarly intimate connection with the ear, that enables you to become confidants. I've found that by using Google's search facility for images I discover photos of myself like a scrapbook of pictures that I thought I'd lost.
DL — I don't look at the stuff on the Internet about me, because I'm worried it could take me over and inhabit me.
LA — We also thought we might talk about maxims and aphorisms, which for me are things that push you in a direction. I like the story of an elderly French courtesan who lived on the sixth floor of an apartment building: when asked if she did not find inconvenient living so far up, she replied, "The stairs are the only thing I have left that can make a man's heart beat faster". What pulls you forward into the future?
DL — Being a pragmatic kind of person, I think of the push of deadlines; the guilt. I am very good at doing nothing, and I enjoy it. African cultures don't have this alter ego looking over your shoulder all the time, making sure you are doing what you 'should' be doing.
LA — When I was younger I used to review each day to see whether its good developments had outweighed its bad ones. Then I thought: why are you being such an accountant in rating happenings as good or bad all the time? Why can't you just accept life as an experience without having to record it on a ledger?
DL — But you can't bring up children without this false conscience. Of course, it's false, but at the same time you can't do without it. I once sent myself mad on purpose, out of curiosity. I encountered my self-hater. It took about three days without eating or sleeping… We're much more programmed by conditioning than we like to think.
LA — It may be difficult to get over this conditioning, but it's not impossible.
DL — I'm not so sure.
LA — The beginning of freedom is to acknowledge how unfree you are. I think of a saying by John Berger, one of my favourite writers, "It takes a mouse a very long time to realise it's in a trap, but when it does, it doesn't stop trembling".
DL — The Chinese have a saying, "Wherever you go, you'll find yourself".
The questions that followed this conversation yielded a few more tips and anecdotes. For example, Laurie Anderson prescribed a recipe of calcium (milk) and salt (a cracker) for encouraging clear, vivid dreams. She mentioned her time as artist-in-residence at NASA and her curiosity at their claim that 90% of the universe is invisible. "How do they know it's not 99%?", she asked. When she was offered the post and thought about it, the first question she asked was "Can I go up?" They strung her along for quite some time with a series of "maybes". Doris Lessing spoke of ghosts, and her frustration and jealously directed at friends of hers — clear-headed, rational people, she stressed — who had seen ghosts. Anderson said she'd once seen the ghost of a friend who had just died. She didn't feel any particular fear or excitement because fundamentally she doesn't believe in ghosts.
Spotted in the audience: Lou Reed, Jem Finer (unsurprisingly), Michael Nyman, Miranda Richardson, and (I think, though I can't be sure as it's a long time since I've seen him, and my copy of one of his books with jacket photo is in storage) Roy Bhaskar.Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Long Now on 1 June 02005 | TrackBack