The Unexpected Twists & Turns of Doris Lessing’s Briefing For A Descent Into Hell

There is something deeper within every human consciousness that allows him to tap into the desires he suppresses, the memories he wishes he had. In Charles Watkins’ case, those memories are a cocktail of wartime imagery and a Lord of the Flies meets The Beach island experience.

Of course, when we first meet Charles, we are just as clueless about his identity as he is. Found wandering near the Thames in a state of essential catatonia, he is then taken into a mental institution where Dr. X and Dr. Y offer their medical attention–though Charles insists Dr. X isn’t there and blatantly seems to favor Dr. Y. Initially told in a play-like format with dialogue exchanges between the patient and his doctors (Lessing had originally intended the book as a screenplay), the narrative then transforms into a stream of consciousness type of flashback that may or may not have occurred–what’s real and imagined is extremely subjective both in this novel and in life.

One second Charles is on a boat being left behind by his friends who are being beamed up by some sort of Other, the next he’s riding a porpoise to shore and happening upon rat-dogs of a hyper-sexual nature who have dominion over subservient monkeys. From there, we’re taken out of his consciousness and into an epistolary rehashing of just who exactly Charles was before being admitted into the hospital. And who he was, exactly, appears to be a stodgy and infuriating professor of Greek Classics.

By and large, the accounts of Charles’ persona are unfavorable, as confirmed by his longtime colleague and childhood friend, Jeremy Thorne, who notes in his letter to Dr. Y, “I am at this moment in the usual frame of mind when it comes to thinking about Charles–he forces me to ask myself what it means to like or dislike a person? I conclude from all this that we do not know very much about human relationships.” And then there is his mistress, Constance Mayne, who became intimate with Charles while she was one of his students and changed her focus to Greek and the Classics instead of something more practical while at university. In spite of her fervor for him, Charles ultimately drops her coldly, which, of course, inspires within her a need to prove herself to him before she finally ends up hating him completely whilst carrying his child.

Still, there are those who actually quite like Charles, particularly a woman named Rosemary Baines, who caught a lecture of Charles’ that moved her to write him a gushing letter about how much the speech meant to her and how she would be happy to have him visit her anytime in London. Apparently, this is just what he did the night he lost his memory, according to Rosemary’s account in a letter to Dr. Y. He seemed to be acting disturbed while in her house, but she didn’t see the need to call for help as it’s one’s prerogative to act a little loony now and then. Indeed, Rosemary represents a small sect of society willing to accept “abnormality” rather than trying to stamp out any traces of it. Charles’ wife, Felicity, on the other hand, is the very embodiment of societal convention, manifesting that part of Charles’ life that he is so far removed from now that he’s achieved a more elevated metaphysical state of being.

And yet, this is exactly what Drs. X and Y want to get him away from, so that he can again go on as an obedient member of the race. After dosing him with Librium and other sedatives, Charles lapses into a coma and then comes out somewhat more “normal,” but this still isn’t enough for the doctors, who have to have him removed from the facility within a certain timeframe. Thus, electroshock therapy is the next method of treatment recommended for Charles’ “recovery.”

Although he is fully functional and comes across as happy, restoring his memory is key to the doctors deeming him well. He tells Dr. Y that he feels close to recalling the revelation that led him to the Thames in the first place, but this isn’t what Dr. Y wants from him. What he wants is for Charles to go back to being a professor and family man. This is what will allow him to be deemed “mentally stable” in the eyes of the average.

Before Charles agrees to go through with the electroshock treatment, he meets with his friend, Violet, a fellow mental patient who prefers to act like a little girl. Charles tells her, “My sense of urgency is very simple. I’ve remembered that much. It’s because what I have to remember has to do with time running out. And that’s what anxiety is, in a lot of people. They know they have to do something, they should be doing something else, not just living hand-to-mouth, putting paint on their faces and decorating their caves and playing nasty tricks on their rivals. No. They have to do something else before they die–and so the mental hospitals are full and the chemists flourishing.” The next day, Charles’ gets shocked and remembers his old self, never again to return to that outer sense of being that prompted his amnesia.

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