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Submitted Literature

Briefing for a Descent into Hell

By Doris Lessing


 “Briefing for a Descent into Hell” is an alternating narrative exploring the internal world of madness and the perceptions of those witnessing the unwell Charles Watkins, a Cambridge University classics professor, who is found wandering incoherently on the banks of the Thames in the middle of the night. “Briefing for a Descent into Hell” features questions of the paradoxical allure of the descent into madness.

Key Themes:

  • Depression
  • Professional / Occupational Stress
  • Psychosis
  • Revealing Reads

Significant Quotes / Pages

11 – “…At midnight the police found Patient wandering on the Embankment near Waterloo Bridge.  They took him into the station thinking he was drunk or drugged.  They describe him as Rambling, Confused and Amenable.  Bought him to us at 3 a.m. by ambulance.  During admittance Patient attempted several times to lie down on the desk.  He seemed to think it was a boat or a raft.  Police are checking ports, ships, etc.  patient was well-dressed but had not changed his close some time.  He did not seem very hungry or thirsty.  He was wearing trousers and a sweater, but he had no papers or wallet or money or marks of identity.  Police think he was robbed.  He is an educated man.  He was given two Libriums but did not sleep.  He was talking loudly.  Patient was moved into the small Observation ward as he was disturbing the other Patients.”

102-3 – “Here was the frightful cold weight of sorrow that had lain on the edge of my mind since I had first been absorbed into the Crystal-the knowledge of the Moon and its need.  So close was the Moon, so much part of birth, that it was earth”

“On the surface of the little Earth, a little green film, and part and parcel with this film, being fed by it, the crust of my groups, mankind, mad, moonmad, lunatick.  To celestial eyes, seen like a broth of microbes under a microscope, always at war and destruction, this scrum of microbes thinks, it can see in itself, it begins slowly to sense itself as one, a function, a note in the harmony, and this is its point and function, and where the scummy film transcends itself, here and here only, and never where the mad microbes say I, I, I, I, I, for saying I, I, I, I, is their madness this is where they have been struck lunatic, made moonmad, round the bend, crazy, for these microbes are a whole, they form a unity, they have a single mind, a single being, and never can they say I, I, without making the celestial watchers role with laughter or weep with pity-since I suppose we are free to presume compassion and derisive nurse in the guardians of the microbes; or at least we are free to imagine nothing else-compassion and amusements being qualities but who knows what sort of a colour or a sound laughter, tears make there in that finer kind of air?”






130 – “As the Earth revolves, one half always in the dark, from the dark half rises up a wail, Oh, I can't sleep.  I want to sleep, I don't sleep enough, but give me pills to make me sleep, give me alcohol to make me sleep, give me sex to make me sleep.


In mental hospitals where the millions who have cracked, making cracks where the light could shine through at last, the pills are like food pellets dropped into battery chickens’ food hoppers, SLEEP, the needle slide into the outstretched arms, SLEEP, the rubber tubes straps to arms drip, SLEEP.

SLEEP, for you are not yet dead.

I must wake up.

I have to break up.

I can feel myself struggling and fighting as if I were sunk a mile deep in thick dragging water but far above my head in the surface shallows I can see some-laced waves where the glittering fishes dance and swim, though, let me rise, let me come up to the surface like a cork or a leaping porpoise into the light.  Let me fly like flying fish, a fish of light.

They hold me down, they cradled me down, and a harsh and they croon, SLEEP, and you'll soon be well.”

Reference: Doris, Lessing. 1971. Briefing for a Descent into Hell. London: Flamingo, 1971


- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Friday 20th March 2009