This article deals less with the overt content of The Four-Gated City – the last novel in Doris Lessing’s largely autobiographical sequence begun in 1952 with Martha Quest – and more with certain clues which allow for a reading of the text that might not be immediately obvious to those unaware of Doris Lessing’s interest in Sufism.

There were hints from the start that Lessing was not writing conventional social realist fiction. Her alter ego is born with the name Quest and ends up marrying someone called Hesse. And The Four-Gated City certainly has something of the ‘seeker’ fiction of Herman Hesse about it.

The novel sequence starts with a young girl growing up in a country in southern Africa, as Lessing herself did. By the time of The Four-Gated City, the protagonist has reached London and works as a housekeeper to a well connected family whose children are growing up in a society that is falling apart. This dystopian strain – which ends with a world collapsing amid outbreaks of infectious disease and gangs of roaming youths – is in contrast to the protagonist’s optimistic, curious and far-from-hopeless perspective on life. The kind of put-upon nihilism of Beckett and other fashionable writers of the era is absent in Doris Lessing. It is my contention that this essential optimism is very much connected to Lessing’s involvement in the work of Idries Shah.

The novel starts with a dedication, worth giving here in full:

Once upon a time there was a fool who was sent to buy flour and salt. He took a dish to carry his purchases.

‘Make sure,’ said the man who sent him, ‘Not to mix the two things – I want them separate.’

When the shopkeeper had filled the dish with flour and was measuring out the salt, the fool said: ‘Do not mix it with flour; here, I will show you where to put it.’

And he inverted the dish, to provide, from its upturned bottom, a surface upon which the salt could be laid.

The flour, of course, fell to the floor.

But the salt was safe.

When the fool got back to the man who had sent him, he said: ‘Here is the salt.’

‘Very well,’ said the other man, ‘but where is the flour?’

‘It should be here,’ said the fool, turning the dish over.

As soon as he did that, the salt fell to the ground, and the flour, of course, was seen to be gone.

A dervish teaching story, from The Way of the Sufi, by Idries Shah[1]

As a former communist, Lessing had all the credentials to become part of the Hampstead intelligentsia, and enjoyed being a member of the group. Yet here she is, in the super-sophisticated age of Lacan, Guattari and Adorno, quoting a traditional tale – something which the eggheads of the time would have dismissed as a ‘fairy tale’ or kid’s story. That takes courage – which Lessing never lacked – but also foresight: today the eggheads are promoting such tales (albeit draped in the usual academic frippery) as worthy of serious study….

Every one of Lessing’s intellectual friends would have lifted an eyebrow at this dedication (obviously apart from those who had also taken an interest in Sufism), or ignored it. But it’s there, Lessing’s statement of intent, and very much evidence of her real commitment to her observation made six years later that Sufism is ‘my main current… deeper than any others, my real preoccupation.’[2]

The Four-Gated City finishes the Children of Violence series, reflecting Lessing’s growing belief that children born during and just after periods of extreme violence – such as the two great wars – will bear those scars all their lives. And there is some anecdotal evidence for this: the ‘revolutions’ of the 1960s were waged by those born during WWII.

The dedication, like all teaching stories, is open to multiple, but non-trivial, interpretations. We can see the fool (i.e. most of us most of the time) failing to look ahead, and simply reacting to very narrowly set up current circumstances. He reacts, and loses what he thinks he has already secured. People try to solve a perceived problem without realising they may have to sacrifice other things, things that may be very important, like the flour. So they close their minds and blunder on.

So the dedication echoes the Children of Violence theme in that the revolutionaries fail to see very far ahead. During this period (1971) UK Ambassador Geoffrey Jackson was taken hostage by the Tupamaro guerrillas of Uruguay[3]. Bored in his cell, he tried to engage the fighters in discussions of what would come AFTER the revolution. But many of them had no clear idea. Even the most articulate simply repeated bland and abstract statements. He realised their real interest was the noise and excitement of the revolution itself. That was its real function, rather than a method for achieving desired change. In other words they were entertaining themselves.

People doing ‘serious’ things but actually just entertaining themselves is a constant theme in the work of Idries Shah. In fact it is directly connected to the technical definition of hypocrisy which Shah re-introduces. A hypocrite is not simply a person who says one thing and does another (the degraded meaning). A hypocrite is someone who is conning himself that he is doing something for one reason when in reality he is doing it for another reason. This notion of hypocrisy had made its way into Lessing’s works by the time she was writing The Four-Gated City. In the earlier Lessing ‘classics’ – The Grass is Singing and The Golden Notebook – it is absent. People are taken at face value, more or less. The notion of wholesale self-deception – especially in the intellectual class – is not really considered.

(Oddly enough, the only two paperbacks on the shelf in my local Waterstones are these two earlier novels – an example of the way things of real value suffer gradual deterioration in the world. There is a tale for this: a man cut the beak and claws of an eagle so it would look ‘more like a pigeon’. Lessing’s earlier books look more like a pigeon, so they are selected for the bookshelves…)

Another sentiment that shows a break from her earlier commitment to the communist cause is her repudiation of the value of a formal oath. Lessing writes, ‘betrayal is implicit in formal oaths. Promises had value only between friends…’[4] Her growing belief in friendship, and the power of friendship groups to triumph, is essentially what happens in the novel. This is contrasted with a deeply cynical view of politics and institutions.

And yet, apart from in the dedication and later quotations, Sufism is never mentioned by name in the novel. Again this is the influence of Shah, who counselled many writers to present the insights which studying Sufism had brought them, rather than propagandising a few slogans. He would repeat a Sufi adage: ‘Sufism was once a reality without a name. Now it is a name without a reality.’

In Lessing’s works, the mentor figure who provides Sufic insights is often portrayed as a scientist. In the later part of the book telepathy is mentioned by a scientist as something which the Russians – and indeed any government – would misuse if they could control. So those who did know about it must keep it secret. This is certainly an idea that emanates from Shah – although one suspects it may also have been a way of stopping unhealthy and premature interest in ESP among his students by invoking the common bogeyman of misuse by an amoral government.[5]

The idea of ESP is implicit in the fourth section of the book, which reaches into the future. This section starts with another quotation from a Sufi classic and an excerpt from The Sufis, the book that heralded Shah’s re-introduction of much traditional knowledge to the West. It is again worth quoting in full:

From realm to realm man went, reaching his present reasoning, knowledgeable, robust state – forgetting earlier forms of intelligence. So, too, shall he pass beyond the current forms of perception… There are a thousand other forms of Mind…

But he has fallen asleep. He will say ‘I had forgotten my fulfilment, ignorant that sleep and fancy were the cause of my sufferings.’

He says ‘My sleeping experiences do not matter.’

Come leave such asses to their meadow.

Because of a necessity, man acquires organs. So, necessitous one, increase your need…

The Master Rumi of Balkh, born A.D. 1207

Sufis believe that, expressed in one way, humanity is evolving towards a certain destiny. We are all taking part in that evolution. Organs come into being as a result of a need for specific organs. The human being’s organism is producing a new complex of organs in response to such a need. In this age of the transcending of time and space, the complex of organs is concerned with the transcending of time and space. What ordinary people regard as sporadic and occasional bursts of telepathic and prophetic power are seen by the Sufi as nothing less than the first stirrings of these same organs. The difference between all evolution up to date and the present need for evolution is that for the past ten thousand years or so we have been given the possibility of a conscious evolution. So essential is this more rarefied evolution that our future depends on it.


The latter part of the book is Lessing’s imaginary account of how ‘necessity’ is increased for the human race. In her version she fictionalises the future from the late 60s until the year 2000 (the very symbol of the future in the twentieth century, now just another date between 1999 and 2001). Lessing imagines a complete breakdown of society, outbreaks of disease and mass uprisings of disaffected people. Partly that is simply a requirement of drama – it wouldn’t work to finish a series called ‘Children of Violence’ on a lesser note. But also it is Lessing’s way to show how stretching the human self beyond its conformist comfort zone is the only way to develop the potentialities that Rumi and Shah hint at. Why only hint? For the very reason that Lessing explains in the book: if ESP were made explicit it would be abused.

With its science fiction elements, The Four-Gated City was again a brave move to make in a literary world that considered, then, SF to be beneath it. Lessing would take this interest much further when she wrote the ‘space fiction’ of the Canopus in Argos series in the 1980s. In these novels Sufi ideas go from the background to take a much more explicit role. They are already there, however, in The Four-Gated City, albeit mixed with a Laingian critique of psychiatry and apocalyptic drama.







[1] Doris Lessing, The Four-Gated City, 1969

[2] Doris Lessing. Guardian article. If you knew Sufi.1975

[3] Geoffrey Jackson, People’s Prison. 1973

[4] Ibid P642

[5] The Four-Gated City P641