Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 26th, 2018

Le Guin Again

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A few weeks after the presidential election, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote on her personal blog: “Americans have voted for a politics of fear, anger, and hatred, and those of us who oppose this politics are now trying to figure out how we can oppose it usefully. I want to defend my country, my republic. In the atmosphere of fear, anger, and hatred, opposition too easily becomes division, fixed enmity. I’m looking for a place to stand, or a way to go, where the behavior of those I oppose will not control my behavior.” The problem of opposing the situation “usefully” is one that evidently preoccupied her for the rest of her life, as Donald Trump, whom she had once dismissed as “the essentially harmless nut who thinks he’s Napoleon,” continued to dominate the conversation in the country that she loved. And she had been preparing for this fight for her entire career. Last February, after comparing Trump to the golem, a giant that could be turned back into mud if a single letter on its forehead were erased, she wrote:

[Trump] is a true, great master of the great game of this age, the Celebrity Game. Attention is what he lives on. Celebrity without substance. His “reality” is “virtual”—i.e. non-existent—but he used this almost-reality to disguise a successful bid for real power. Every witty parody, hateful gibe, clever takeoff, etc., merely plays his game, and therefore plays into his hands…Look away from him, and at the people who are working desperately to save what they can save of our Republic and our hope of avoiding nuclear catastrophe. Look away from him, and at reality, and things begin to get back into proportion…He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mike off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left—mud.

Two or three years ago, the strategy of collectively ignoring Trump might have worked well enough to get rid of him. It seems less effective now. But I think that what Le Guin was advocating was less the idea of reducing him to irrelevance through our collective indifference, which is a ship that has unfortunately sailed, than of limiting his impact on our inner lives. The relationship between the private self and the state is a mystery that has been investigated by countless American writers, and the beauty of Le Guin’s work was that she was able to explore it on an interplanetary level. Science fiction has a way of making individual human beings seem all but irrelevant, to the point where the genre’s true hero, as the editor John W. Campbell often argued, is humanity as a whole. Its depiction of societies evolving over time may well be a more accurate reflection of how the world works than conventional realism, which has a way of overstating the power of free will, but it can also be frustrating for those of us who look to fiction for answers. Le Guin’s genius lay in taking this inherent tension and transforming it into one of her great themes, which was the role that specific people could play in the rise and fall of planets. It makes for a stark contrast with Asimov’s Foundation series, in which history is reduced to the statistical aggregate of trillions of lives, and it also avoids the trap of the Star Wars franchise, which until recently seemed to identify the fate of the galaxy with that of a single family. Le Guin’s protagonists aren’t chosen by fate, but they also aren’t rendered irrelevant by the scale of the problems involved. They’re ordinary men and women doing what they can to affect systems of unbelievable complexity.

Earlier this week, I republished my post on The Left Hand of Darkness, which is the story of a solitary envoy, Genly Ai, who sets out to convince an entire planet to change its ways. A few years later, Le Guin revisited this basic story in The Dispossessed, which in some respects is even more interesting, because it comes closer to our own experience. If Genly Ai is almost unbelievably admirable and devoted to his cause, Shevek, the central figure of The Dispossessed, is a mess. The novel opens with Shevek traveling from his planet, Anarres, to its twin, Urras, which have been isolated from each other for generations. Anarres is an anarchist utopia, while Urras has developed along capitalist lines, and they exist in a state of mutual distrust. Shevek, a physicist, sees his visit to Urras as a way of bringing the two cultures closer together, or so he tells himself and others. In fact, his motivations are more complicated—he left Anarres largely because of professional frustration—and when he arrives at his destination, he makes a terrible job of it. He allows himself to be manipulated by the ruling class; he gets drunk and makes a clumsy pass at a married woman; and when he finally goes over to the side of the underground revolution, his only visible act is to give a speech at which scores of people are killed. In the end, when he returns to Anarres, he seems to have accomplished almost nothing, and the book ends on a note of ambiguity. (To be fair, Shevek also discovers the principles behind the ansible, a form of communication that travels faster than light, but this is handled almost as an aside.) It’s a messier, more frustrating novel than The Left Hand of Darkness, but it also more accurately reflects the nature of most political engagement, which is often driven by personal factors, and frequently leaves us unsure if any of it was worthwhile.

And it isn’t an accident that The Dispossessed centers on the image of a wall. On the very first page of the novel, Le Guin describes the wall around the spaceport on Anarres, which is the only legal boundary on the entire planet:

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

After arriving on Urras, Shevek finds himself on a planet of walls, including the ones inside the heads of the people whom he meets. He marvels of one of them: “There were walls around all his thoughts, and he seemed utterly unaware of them, though he was perpetually hiding behind them.” But Shevek soon finds walls in his own mind as well. Moving past them is Le Guin’s other major theme, and she returned to the image repeatedly in the months before her death. In February, she posted a poem by Anita Endrezze simply titled “The Wall,” followed a few months afterward by a poem of her own, “The Jaguar,” in which she remembers being given a piece of the Berlin Wall by a friend, and adds: “but this wall they are building / straight across my heartland / with our flag draped across it / is the coffin of my country.” She lived long enough to see many of her worst fears come to pass, and she died while they were still unresolved. But in her very last post, in a poem that she wrote a quarter of a century ago, Le Guin left us with what often seems like the only possible answer: “And I will honor only / my people, the powerless.”

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2018 at 9:26 am

Quote of the Day

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I take it that the scientific method, of which so much has been heard, is hardly more than the native method of solving problems, a little clarified from prejudice and a little cultivated by training. A detective with his murder mystery, a chemist seeking the structure of a new compound, use little of the formal and logical modes of reasoning. Through a series of intuitions, surmises, fancies, they stumble upon the right explanation, and have a knack of seizing it when it once comes within reach.

Gilbert N. Lewis, The Anatomy of Science

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2018 at 7:30 am

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