The Black Madonna by Doris Lessing, 1966

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THE BLACK MADONNA by Doris Lessing, 1966

The formal aesthetic elegance of "The Black Madonna" coupled with its political content make it one of Doris Lessing's best African stories. It offers a biting sociopolitical and cultural commentary on the social structure and British colonial attitudes in Zambesia, once part of Southern Rhodesia, now the independent nation of Zimbabwe. Modern-day politics are very different from those of the 1940s when the story takes place and the 1960s when it was first published. Nonetheless, this story stands up very well over time. Lessing's control of the narrative voice, her very considerable descriptive skills, and her ability to meld fact and invention to create a plot that carries the weight of her sociopolitical commentary all manifest her extraordinary talent. Initially Lessing's progressive critique of apartheid contributed to the popularity of both her novel The Grass Is Singing (1950) and her stories of Africa collected in The Black Madonna (1966). Recently the critical response to her ideological views has been more mixed, in part reflecting the dramatic changes in the geopolitical world. An understanding of her subject position as an author helps to explain the mixed responses her story produces.

Lessing is a white woman, born in Persia (now Iran), who grew up in Southern Rhodesia under British colonial rule before moving permanently to England in 1949. When she tried to return to South Africa she was denied entrance by government officials, who found her communism and politics unacceptable. She also has been condemned by others of a more liberal and progressive persuasion for being too slow to break with the Communist party at a time when many left due to Stalin's excesses. In an essay for In Pursuit of Doris Lessing (1990), Anthony Chennells analyzes the views of Lessing's Zimbabwe critics, reporting that they find her Rhodesian stories deficient. They think that her criticism of colonialism and the West does not go far enough. Although "The Black Madonna" identifies with the plight of the Africans driven by their colonial oppressors, it does not look to the Africans to regain their tribal authority and create an independent African nation. Lessing's narrator is scathing in passages depicting the ways in which the general in the story and the white colonialists exploit the hardworking Africans. The narrator shows how the Africans are trifled with by the leisured wives of those wielding power. The story starkly displays white arrogance, describing the ways in which men like Captain Stocker use the African women sexually while denying them respect or personhood. "The Black Madonna" can be admired for its critique of colonialism but it can also be seen as a force that perpetuates the modes of representation of the oppressors. Lessing's studied attempt to give a "masculine prose style" to the narrator of the story (whose gender often appears to be feminine) is further evidence of the author's concessions to patriarchy. In these many ways it is possible to see how a postcolonial critique of Western cultural and writing practices and Lessing's constructedness illuminates her stories.

Lessing writes in the tradition of Isak Dinesen, Olive Schreiner, and Joseph Conrad, all exiled writers who criticize British colonialism and its oppressive regime in Africa. However, her own subject position makes her an agent of oppression, reproducing the kinds of representations of patriarchy and colonialism that she condemns. Her imagery of Captain Stocker's native mistress participates in the stereotype of the black native's primitive, unself-conscious sexuality. She exoticizes the native Africans, and in many of her stories she imbues the African veld with savagery and mysticism. Furthermore, Lessing's account of Captain Stocker's double-life—the one inside the African bushstations with his native wife, the other in the African cities with his white wife—would be written differently if the author were not entangled in Western fictions of travel and exploration and the consequent displacements they cause.

"The Black Madonna" is set in Zambesia at the end of World War II. It explores the relationship between Michele, a feckless Italian prisoner of war who paints to while away the time and gain favor during his period of imprisonment in a Zambesian internment camp, and Captain Stocker, a military figure assigned to supervise him. When the story starts, Michele is the benefactor of Italy's swift transformation from the status of enemy to honorary ally. Free in Zambesia with little to do but paint for the leisured wives of the military, he is fetched into labor by the general, who is planning a Military Tattoo to lift the morale of the civilian population and boost the war effort. Captain Stocker is to supervise Michele while he constructs an artificial city that can be spectacularly bombed in the climax of the Military Tattoo. Captain Stocker, with his Northern temperament, prejudice against the Italian enemy, secret admiration for Hitler, and military precision, stands in stark contrast to Michele, with his indolent, sensuous Southern temperament and his capacity to feel.

Michele is ordered to use his artistic skills (actually he is a bricklayer) to construct this artificial city. While a prisoner in the camp he had assisted in the decoration of the interior of a church, painting sensuous murals. His murals depicted the swarthy Italian peasantry gathering grapes with dancing Italian girls and dark-eyed children playing. In the midst of the happy Italian scene he painted the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. The turning point of Lessing's story comes when a drunken Michele paints Captain Stocker's bushwife, giving her the appearance of a black Madonna complete with a halo and rendering her every bit as appropriate to Captain Stocker's black world as the Madonna is to the Italian people.

Captain Stocker and Michele are each complicit in the other's transformation and undoing in ways not unfamiliar to those who have studied the relationship between captive and oppressor. Captain Stocker initially chastises Michele for his careless dress, his lack of respect, his drunkenness, and his easy talk. Later, the captain is found seated on the campground, careless of appearance and drunk himself. The two men, who initially loathe each other, bond in a drunken camaraderie, confessing to each other their private lusts and loves. Lessing's description of Michele and the words she gives him to utter call forth images of Christ and his last words on the cross. With deep irony, Lessing's story reveals how Michele's inherent goodness and the innocence that lies behind his depiction of women as Madonnas are misunderstood both by Captain Stocker and the colonial institutions that have shaped him. In the misunderstanding lies Lessing's condemnation of a culture that has produced a Captain Stocker with his schizoid life and the civilization that fails to understand the right relationship between art and ethics, wantonly playing at imperialistic fantasies of domination and militarism.

The final line of Lessing's story imitates James Joyce's epiphany, offering a sudden illumination of the "whatness" (quidditas) of the thing. It reveals Captain Stocker, a man in the midst of a breakdown, weeping silently at the loss of his friend, Michele, the artist of sorts who has painted him a native, young, plump woman with her dress falling off her shoulder, a black Madonna with her black baby slung in a band of red cloth. Michele, sensing Stocker's harsh disapproval of the image, strips the woman of the halo and poignantly offers him the gift of the revised painting. At the same time, however, he apologizes for it, saying it's a black Madonna for a black country. But Captain Stocker cannot acknowledge the gesture, nor the innocence of this Christlike Michele, and he sinks back into the role of a lost man, unable to assimilate the parts of his life, ordering Michele to leave, taking the gift away. Dumbly, Captain Stocker hears the soul-breaking words—"yes, Sir "—as Michele salutes and leaves, mocking the unfeeling military values that the captain cannot abandon. The unbearable burdens of the irreconcilable ironies of colonial life undo Captain Stocker. The story ends with an indictment of colonialism, militarism, and the senselessness of war.

—Carol Simpson Stern