Saturday, January 27, 2018

Five Lessons from Le Guin

RIP Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday at the age of 88.  She was, as I’ve said before, “a national – nay, international, nay, intergalactic – treasure.” 

I’ve often wondered why people mourn celebrities the way we do in our celebrity-obsessed age.  After all, I didn’t know Le Guin personally.  Sadly, I never even met her once.  But I have to admit that her death has hit me pretty hard this week.  (I’m not the only one: see this list of SFF authors’ commemorations).

Le Guin combined literary beauty with philosophical depth in a way nobody else ever did, nor, I suspect, ever will again.  She could make you feel as deeply as she could make you think.  She could wiggle into your consciousness to plant seeds of questions and ways of seeing you had no way of imagining, at least not before she had cast her authorial spell.  She possessed the ansible that could communicate directly with the reader’s deepest core of being.  Her dreams could change your reality.

I think Le Guin’s work has meant a lot to me because Le Guin was not merely an entertainer.  She was an educator.  Her work contains profound lessons for those open to learning them. I thought that the best way to commemorate her on this blog would be to list some of the lessons she has taught us and will continue to teach us as long as people keep reading her work.  (It is a bittersweet coincidence that I will for the first time be introducing students to The Left Hand of Darkness in my philosophy and science fiction course this semester).

Lesson 1: Everything is more complicated than you think it is (including this statement).

Interestingly enough, I also think this is the deepest lesson of studying philosophy.  Perhaps it is the deepest lesson of studying any real or imagined reality.  In Le Guin’s work, for instance, the line between heroes and villains is not always as sharp as we pretend it is.  In an interview about The Lathe of Heaven, she claimed that she doesn’t do villains at all.  Le Guin’s work rewards re-reading in a way that the work of all great authors does.  There are always deeper lessons there waiting to be found, lessons that may surprise you by contradicting your earlier lessons, but that’s okay: Le Guin’s work contains multitudes.

Lesson 2: Everything is more connected than you think it is.

This lesson is deeply connected with Le Guin’s Daoist sensibilities, which are present throughout her work.  She even published her own translation of the Daoist classic Dao De Jing.  The poem that gives The Left Hand of Darkness its name is a beautiful example.

Light is the left hand of darkness,
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way. 
(The Left Hand of Darkness, Ch. 16)

Lesson 3: The way things are is not the way they have to be.

On the face of it, this is the most explicitly political of Le Guin’s lessons.  One can point of course to her 2014 speech upon receiving the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.  She spoke of the need for “realists of a larger reality” and on the idea that capitalism is no more inevitable than the divine right of kings: that people think something is inevitable does not make it so.  One might also point to her classic novel The Dispossessed, which explores contrasts between a peaceful anarcho-socialist culture and a militaristic capitalist culture.  It would be easy to read Le Guin as a plain vanilla old school leftist or a quasi-Marxist of the type championed by the more obnoxious Bernie Bros and Zizek Zealots of our day. While Le Guin’s work often contains a leftist slant, it is by no means simplistic (as befitting Lesson 1, of course).  The subtitle of The Dispossessed is “An Ambiguous Utopia.”  Both Le Guin’s utopians and her dystopians are real people filled with ambiguities.  Life in the “utopian” society is in many ways harder than in the “dystopia,” but is it better nonetheless?  Her famous story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is often straightforwardly read as a rejection of utilitarianism (the ethical theory that what is right is that which promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number).  This isn’t necessarily wrong, but when I re-read this story this week I noticed deeper dimensions: Is a society (like ours?) built on the suffering of others actually happy in the first place?  Are those who walk away better off?  Where are they going?  Le Guin doesn’t answer these questions for the reader.  That’s not her intention.  Instead she encourages readers to let these questions expand their sense of what kinds of worlds are possible.  Le Guin’s imaginary worlds remind us that the real world we inhabit was not always the way it is today and that it need not be this way in the future.

Lesson 4: You are not the center of everything.

Another Daoist lesson, but with a political edge.  As a woman entering a male dominated field in the 1960’s, Le Guin’s work was often marginalized by people who thought of themselves as the center of everything.  Several decades before the regressive barking of the Sad and Rabid Puppies, Le Guin was working to expand notions of who counts as fully human (a point that gives lie to the Puppies’ claim that diversity is a new imposition on science fiction).  Le Guin is often cited as a feminist author because her work de-centers a certain masculine way of thinking; this is accomplished, perhaps most subversively, even with her male characters.  Before the trolls emerge from their dismal internet hovels to blather on about how feminists are just reverse sexists or some such nonsense, let me say that Le Guin’s deeper Daoist lesson is that each of us is merely one of many beings in this universe, no more deserving of respect than anyone else.  Given the power structures of most real world human societies, it is men who are typically taught that we are the center of everything and who most need to learn this lesson.  As a man, I am personally grateful for this lesson.

Lesson 5: Be patient; don’t force things.

By contemporary standards most of Le Guin’s work is quite slow.  Sadly, in our click-bait, bombastic internet age, I imagine some new readers losing patience and giving up.  But Le Guin’s work will reward those who can be patient and enjoy the ride.  Another Daoist lesson: sometimes you do by not doing (what Daoists call wu wei).  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t act at all, but that you should act as skillfully as possible to accomplish a lot by doing little.  Don’t force things.  Don’t try too hard; try just enough.  Learning to be “in the zone” is not a matter of knowing that but a matter of knowing how.  Learning how to do by not doing is not easy.  It takes patience.  It takes time.  It might help to have a Daoist sage to point you in the right direction.  Was Le Guin a Daoist sage?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Perhaps this question can be answered by taking the time to breathe deeply, think deeply, and put one’s being in tune with the polyphony of the universe.

These are merely five of many, many lessons from Le Guin.  There are others, most of which I am sure I have yet to discover.  Please feel free to leave your own lessons in the comments.  Also, I have intentionally concentrated on Le Guin’s more popular works in this post (with the exception of the Earthsea books, which I will be reading soon).  I recommend branching out to her lesser-known works – collections of her short fiction (The Unreal and the Real and The Found and the Lost) are great places to start.

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