Beyond Al-Ith

Spoiler alert: This entry reviews the plot of Doris Lessing’s book “The Marriages Between Zone Three, Four and Five.”

In The Marriages Between Zone Three, Four and Five, Doris Lessing tells the story of Al•Ith, Queen of Zone Three, who is required to marry Ben Ata, King of Zone Four.   Zone Three is gentle, loving and rich in culture;  Zone Four is violent, oppressive and impoverished by supporting a huge army.  At the beginning of the relationship Ben Ata’s experience of sexual intercourse is basically rape;  Al•Ith teaches him lovemaking between equals, which bring “delights he had never imagined.”

Later, Al•Ith becomes acclimated to Zone Four, and discovers in herself heavy emotions she never imagined.  She grows to need Ben Ata to “f**k” her (though Lessing doesn’t use that word).   In a telling scene, Ben Ata says to Al•Ith, “It is as if you need me to extinguish you.  Put you out.  You lie there groaning away, and I … plough you under.”

Al•Ith answers,”Yes. Yes.  Now, Ben Ata.  I get so tense, so .. I could fly apart. I need you to  … fill me. To  …  just do it. Now.  You  must.  I need it.”

Lessing continues

And he did.  He ploughed into her, long, steady, on and on, while she groaned and died under him.

But that was not what he remembered, not what he looked back on as an experience so far above anything he had ever had with any woman anywhere, that sometimes he doubted it had ever happened.

But it had.  That was how they had been together. A marvellous subtle answering, touch for touch, glance for glance, a challenge that used chords and responses they had now, it seemed, forgotten entirely. [1]

Eventually, however, their relationship changes again.   Al•Ith begins to yearn for Zone Two, a place where the inhabitants seem to have become pure energy, like flames.   She feels called there, she feels that it is a destiny she — and others — should have been paying better attention to.

It seems as though the inhabitants of Zone Three were stuck in a pleasant dead end.  The turmoil Al•Ith experiences in Zone Four forces her to grow, to expand her awareness, even though it’s in directions she would have judged negative.  She brings turmoil back to the people of Zone Three, too, forcing them to confront their shallowness and enabling some to lift their eyes to the mountain frontier of Zone Two.

The first time I read this book, I was struck by the opposition between the styles of Zones Three and Four.  It seemed to me I’d experienced very little of Zone Three-style lovemaking, and all too much of ploughing.  I hungered for more of those respectful, playful delights.

At the beginning, Al•Ith judges Ben Ata’s sexual technique as deficient.  At the end, when he has learned what she had to teach him, she has learned something too about sexuality, but it seems to me she is still judging the sexuality of Zone Four as inferior, even though she finds it in herself.   Her subsequent longing for Zone Two takes this hierarchy futher:  she cannot live there because she is still too physical,  and not translated to energy, as are its inhabitants.

Lessing says clearly that Zones Three, Four and Five all needed to learn from each other.   Still she values more highly the less physical, violent and earthy.

As a response to the traditional polarity between spirit and flesh, Marriages only partly satisfies me.   I yearn for a way to resolve the opposition more dialetically.   A way to experience sexuality in terms of sunyata, the womb of ultimate reality — which contains all manifestation, all of our dramas and striving, provides the energy from which they spring and to which they return.  A way, through awareness of that ground of being, to transform all limited experience.

I would like to think that in Zone Two they do that, but I don’t think Lessing gives us much hope for it.  Rather she just complicates polarity with hierarchy:  to Lessing, Zone Two, where people are discarnate, is more advanced, the direction of destiny.

But for me, Al•Ith’s story leads me to suspect there’s a way to experience sex, body, physical reality … that goes so far beyond the ideas we use now to understand, that we will not be limited to any one Zone.

[1] Lessing, 1981, 181.

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