After•Word: Doris Lessing, Shikasta: Re Colonised Planet 5 (George Sherban Emissary)

Independently, both of us found ourselves reading Lessing’s novel this summer. Both of us were struck by its uncanny accuracy as applied to the present moment.

The novel is an account of human history from its beginnings through the last years of the “century of Destruction” (our 20th century) told mostly by Johor, an emissary from the galactic collective called Canopus. Canopeans work physically and spiritually to help planets and their inhabitants stay aligned with the vital “substance of we feeling” that emanates from galactic centre and makes possible all life. Due to a cosmic event, Shikasta, Canopeans’ name for our planet, fell out of alignment in ancient times. The planet as they see it now is “the hurt, the wounded, the damaged one. The stricken.” As civilization on Shikasta globalizes and hurtles towards catastrophe, Johor and others from Canopus attempt to nourish a sense of wholeness and harmony with earthly and cosmic life—the tendrils of a new age.

We have selected and rearranged some representative passages. We do not feel any comment is necessary. We hope they inspire you to read the whole book.

Before the Catastrophe, in the Time of the Giants, who had been their friends and mentors, and who had taught them everything, Shikasta had been an easy pleasant world, where there was little danger or threat. …everybody accepted that their very existence depended on voluntary submission to the great Whole, and that this submission, this obedience, was not serfdom or slavery—states that had never existed on the planet, and which they knew nothing of—but the source of their health and their future and their progress.

Canopus was able to feed Shikasta with a rich and vigorous air, which kept everyone safe and healthy, and above all, made them love each other. But because of an accident, this substance-of-life could not reach here as it had, could reach this place only in pitifully small quantities. This supply of finer air had a name. It was called SOWF—the substance-of-we-feeling…The little trickle of SOWF that reached this place was the most precious thing they had….

For long periods of the history of Shikasta we can sum up the real situation thus: that in such and such a place, a few hundred, or even a handful, of individuals, were able, with immense difficulty, to adapt their lives to Canopean requirements, and thus saved the future of Shikasta.

…it is nearly impossible for people with whole minds—those who have had the good fortune to live (and we must never forget that it is a question of our good fortune) within the full benefits of the substance-of-we-feeling—it is nearly impossible, we stress, to understand the mentation of Shikastans.

For a couple of centuries at least…a dominant feature of the Shikastan scene was that a particularly arrogant and self-satisfied breed, a minority of the minority white race, dominated most of Shikasta, a multitude of different races, cultures, and religions which, on the whole, were superior to that of the oppressors. These white Northwest fringers were like most conquerors of history in denuding what they had overrun, but they were better able than any other in their ability to persuade themselves that what they did was “for the good” of the conquered…

[The minority white race] left behind [in colonies] technology, an idea of society based entirely on physical well being, physical satisfaction, material accumulation—to cultures who before encounter with these all-ravaging Northwest fringes had been infinitely more closely attuned with Canopus than the fringes had ever been.

The time gap between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II was twenty years…This war saw, too, the use of weapons that could cause total global destruction: it should go without saying, to the accompaniment of words like democracy, freedom, economic progress.

There was no part of Shikasta by the end of World War II left unsubjected to untruth, lies, propaganda.

The two great Dictatorships established themselves with total ruthlessness.&Both spread ideologies based on the suppression and oppression of whole populations of different sects, opinions, religions, all over the world, and these Dictatorships, and their followers, saw each other as enemies, as totally different, as wicked and contemptible—while they behaved in exactly the same way.

In large parts of the northern hemisphere was a standard of living that had recently belonged only to emperors and their courts. Particularly in the Isolated Northern Continent, the wealth was a scandal, even to many of their own citizens…The continent was heaped with waste, with wreckage, with the spoils of the rest of the world. Around every city, town, even a minor settlement in a desert, rose middens full of discarded goods and food that in other less favoured parts of the globe would mean the difference between life and death to millions….

The dominant culture set the tone and standard for most of Shikasta. For regardless of the ideological label attaching to each national area, they all had in common that technology was the key to all good, and that good was always material increase, gain, comfort, pleasure. The real purposes of life—so long ago perverted, kept alive with such difficulty by us, maintained at such a cost—had been forgotten, were ridiculed by those who had ever heard of them, for distorted inklings of the truth remained in the religions. And all this time the earth was being despoiled. The minerals were being ripped out, the fuels wasted, the soils depleted by an improvident and short-sighted agriculture, the animals and plants slaughtered and destroyed, the seas being filled with filth and poison, the atmosphere was corrupted—and always, all the time, the propaganda machines thumped out: more, more, drink more, eat more, consumer more, discard more—in a frenzy, a mania. These were maddened creatures, and the small voices that rose in protest were not enough to halt the processes that had been set in motion and were sustained by greed. By the lack of substance-of-we-feeling.

Inside each national area everywhere, north and south, east and west, discontent grew. This was not only because of the gap between the well off and the poor, but because their way of life, where augmenting consumption was the only criterion, increasingly saddened and depressed their real selves, their hidden selves, which were unfed, were ignored, were starved, were lied to, by almost every agency around them, by every authority they had been taught to, but could not, respect.

…the people of Shikasta, being as they are now, at this time, the children of technology, of materialism, have been taught that they are entitled to everything, can have everything must have everything…

For Duty, in that last time, was all but forgotten. What Duty was, was not known. That something was Due, by them, was strange, inconceivable news they could not take in, absorb. They were set only for taking. Or for being given. They were all open mouths and hands held out for gifts… All grab and grasp.

And here is the place to say that the mass of the populations, the average individual, were, was, infinitely better, more sane, than those who ruled them: most would have been appalled at what was being done by “their” representative. It is safe to say that if even a part of what was being kept from them had come to their notice, there would have been mass risings across the globe, massacres of the rulers, riots… unfortunately, when peoples are helpless, betrayed, lied to, they possess no weapons but the (useless) ones of rioting, looting, mass murder, invective.

On the whole, the morale of the white “race” in the northern hemisphere did not assist our efforts. …their slow acceptance of the rest of the globe’s view of themselves…caused a sharp painful readjustment and a relinquishing of assumption of superiority which had sustained them for centuries—all this lowered the tone, and stamina, in the Northwest fringes particularly, to the point where it was affecting not only their own will to live, but the also the emanations from these areas… The failure of morale swung so far that large numbers of—first of all—the youth, and then the older people, were unable to sustain in themselves any pride in their past at all. All they had accomplished in the way of technical advances, energetic experimentation in patterns of society, justice… these accomplishments of theirs seemed to them to be nothing at all, and they were tending to sink into abasement and sullen withdrawal. In fact, this emotional reaction, seeing themselves entirely as villains, the despoilers of the globe, a view reinforced every moment by a thousand exterior sources of propaganda, was as narrow and self-centred as their previous view—when they saw themselves as God-given benefactors of the rest of Shikasta. Both viewpoints failed to see things in interaction, a meshing of events, the reciprocation of needs, abilities, capacities… The “white race”… [was] as unable to see itself as part of a whole as ever it had been. The Shikastan compartmentalism of mind reigned supreme, almost unchallenged—except by our servants and agents, continually at work trying to restore balances, and to heal these woeful defects of imaginative understanding.

Nearly all political people were incapable of thinking in terms of interaction, of cross-influences of the various sects and “parties” forming together a whole, wholes—let alone of groups of nations making up a whole. No, in entering the state of mind where “politics” was ruler, it was always to enter a crippling partiality, a condition of being blinded by the “correctness” of a certain viewpoint. And when one of these sects or “parties” got power, they nearly always behaved as if their viewpoint could be the only right one. The only good one…

This period saw the beginning of a way of looking at government, judged “good” and “bad” not by performance, but by label, by name. The main reason was the deterioration caused by war: one cannot spend years sunk inside false and lying propaganda without one’s mental faculties becoming impaired (This is a fact that is attested to by every one of our emissaries to Shikasta!)…

The qualities prized in “public servants” on Shikasta were, almost invariably, the most superficial and irrelevant imaginable, and could only have been accepted in a time of near total debasement and falseness. This was true of all sects, grouping, “parties”: for what was remarkable about this particular time was how much they all resembled each other, while they spent most of their energies in describing and denigrating differences that they imagined existed between them.

In fact, most of the politicians of that time needed psychiatric support, because of the nature of their preoccupations: an unreality at the very heart of their every-day decision-making, thinking, functioning.

This period can be—is by some of our scholars—designated The Age of Ideology.

About the Authors

Sharon English

Sharon English is a writer and teacher whose work emerges from a deep interest in how place and placelessness shape us, and how writing matters in a time of ecological and cultural unravelling. She’s the author of the story collections Uncomfortably Numb and Zero Gravity. Her novel Night in the World is forthcoming in 2022 from Freehand Books.

Lise Weil

Lise Weil, editor of Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, was founder and editor of the US feminist review Trivia: A Journal of Ideas (1982-1991) and co-founder of its online offshoot Trivia: Voices of Feminism, which she edited through 2011 ( Her memoir, In Search of Pure Lust (She Writes Press, U.S., Inanna Press, Canada) was a finalist for an International Book Award. She lives in Montreal and teaches in Goddard College’s Graduate Institute, where she recently helped found a concentration in Embodiment Studies.

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