Doris Lessing was never known for being a warm and fuzzy person. One supposes most truly great female authors–your Virginia Woolfs, Sylvia Plaths, Agatha Christies, Edith Whartons, et. al.–have always possessed a certain pragmatism about that Hollywood construct, love. Lessing was married twice, each marriage short-lived at four and six years respectively. Of leaving her two older children with her first husband in South Africa to pursue a writing career in London, Lessing commented, “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn’t the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother.”
Not many women, even now, have the courage to express themselves so completely as a man would. Then again, Lessing was never one for the oversimplifications of “man” or “woman,” as made clear in a New York Times interview from 1982 in which she explains why she renounced being labeled as a feminist author: “What the feminists want of me is something they haven’t examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, ‘Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.’ Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I’ve come with great regret to this conclusion.”
Lessing proves the conviction of her stance through the eponymous short story that commences her second collection, The Habit of Loving, originally released in 1957. In it, her tone as ubiquitous narrator is merciless toward both sexes in their views on and aims in love. The cutting prose tells the tale of aging theater actor George Talbot, and his initial desire to rekindle an old romance with Myra, whom he has been separated from for four years due to circumstances pertaining to the war and whom he initially lived with for five years starting in 1938 and concluding in 1943. When he finally pays her passage for him to come visit him from Australia to London for a fortnight, he finds she does not love him in the same way or with the same zeal. After their visit is complete, “George’s eyes, as he drove away from the airport, were dry. If one person has loved another truly and wholly, then it is more than love that collapses when one side of the indissoluble partnership turns away with a tearful goodbye.” In contrast, Myra sheds her fair share of tears as she departs from George, knowing full well this is the coda for them, though George still seems to hold out hope despite her obvious lack of interest. Thus, he falls back into his career at full force, especially after a rejection from his own ex-wife, Molly, herself planning to marry yet another new man at age fifty. His pitiful plea to her to get back together again is met with a leaden response, prompting her to remind him that he’s only interested because Myra is not to be recaptured. But George insists that what they had together was pure and true, even despite all his affairs while they were married. She, of course, little humors him in his reasoning.
So he finds himself wandering alone in the park, as is often the case now, perpetually enmeshed in his own loneliness, and “when the gates shut, he walked through the lighted streets he had lived in for fifty years of his life, and he was remembering Myra and Molly, as if they were one woman, merging into each other, a shape of warm easy intimacy, a shape of happiness walking beside him.” This is where Lessing gets to the core of her apparent vitriol toward the concept of maudlin love. Proffering that so often those searching desperately to have love end up never receiving it because all they care about is the having of it–not who they have it with. Plus, the scent of desperation is pretty potent to others. As mentioned in The Opiate Vol. 10, in the criticism of Rivkah Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances, there is a moment when psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein explains, “Freud takes his idea to the extreme–he seems to think transference explains the origin of all love, that there’s always a thicket of past people between any two lovers.” There is no better example of this than George Talbot, whose aching loneliness becomes such a source of daily agony that he can barely function.
At one point, the torment reaches such a fever pitch that, “George came to understand the word ‘heartache’ meant that a person could carry a heart that ached around with him day and night for, in this case, months. Nearly a year now. He would wake in the night because of the pressure of pain in his chest; in the morning he woke under a weight of grief. There seemed to be no end to it; and this thought jolted him into two actions. First, he wrote to Myra, a tender, carefully phrased letter, recalling the years of their love. To this he got, in due course, a tender and careful reply. ” Myra’s simultaneously rebuffing yet entertaining of George’s love only speaks to Lessing’s harsh stance on women throughout the story, painting them as practical creatures using men for their purposes when they need them, displaying a cold magnanimity that lures them in and spits their fervor out.
As George’s illness mounts, his ex-wife eventually helps him find a “girl” of thirty-five (which seems girlish to him at nearly seventy) in between theater work to care for him without the sterile aura of a conventional nurse. Bobby is her name and stoicism is her game. And yet, her daily presence sewing beside him and chatting with him as George likes eventually convinces the latter that this girl has got to be the one for him. As Lessing sets the stage: she’s there, she’s charming, why not?
Hence, it’s no great surprise that, once he does manage to get Bobby to marry him, he is all too suddenly disappointed by her persistent callous demeanor, particularly after every time they have sex together. Namely, she never allows him to hold her. When he at last points out that what they have is not love, she snaps, “You know what, George? You’ve just got into the habit of loving.” George returns, “What do you mean, dear?” Bobby expounds, “You just want something in your arms that’s all. What do you do when you’re alone? Wrap yourself in a pillow?” Hurt by her abrupt show of contempt for his need of love, George tries his best to once again throw himself into work while Bobby stays at home, utterly content to do nothing and be on her own. But this makes George even more uneasy, convinced somehow that her ability to so effortlessly be alone is a testament to her lack of humanity.
Upon encouraging Bobby to take up acting again, she performs in a successful musical called The Offbeat Revue with an actor nearly twenty years her junior named Jackie. The revue goes on for a year to great success. Except, as George watches the opening night, he can’t help but feel something tantamount to horror. He questions internally, “What am I feeling? What am I supposed to be feeling? For that insane nihilistic music demanded some opposition, some statement of affirmation, but the two urchins, half-boy, half-girl, as alike as twins (George had to watch Bobby carefully so as not confuse her with ‘the other half of her act’) were not even trying to resist the music.” The play mimics George’s own love life at the moment, a danse macabre that he tries his best to take seriously even though everyone else can seem to see that it’s all a joke. And though Bobby and Jackie had plans to create another project together, it is ultimately foiled by George showing up to Jackie’s apartment in search of his wife and catching that look in her eye that so obviously means love. When he asks her what the project was going to be, Bobby begins to explain that they parody love. He inquires incredulously, “‘You make fun of love?’ ‘Well, you know, all the attitudes…the things people say. It’s a man and a woman–with music of course. All the music you’d expect, played offbeat. We wear the same costume as for the other act. And then we go through all the motions… It’s rather, funny, really…’ she trailed off, breathless, seeing George’s face. ‘Well, she said, suddenly very savage, ‘if it isn’t all bloody funny, what is it?'”
Some people would rather laugh in the face of their inhumanness–their need to put up a defense mechanism force field–than admit that love isn’t a habit, but a genuine emotion not to be hemmed in by the limits of “intellectualism” or cynicism. True, there are many like George, simply seeking love for the sake of staving off solitariness and therefore misery. Yet there are still just as many who love because the person they’re in love with is “their person.” And that’s it. Maybe Lessing isn’t endorsing a way of life, merely describing one–but “The Habit of Loving” certainly speaks to her own hardened views on the matter.