Tuesday, April 3, 2018
Science Fictional Feminist Daoism: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
The first time I read Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, I liked it a lot, but realized I didn't completely understand it. The second time I read it, I loved it, but still thought there was more to understand. This third time, I've realized that this is not so much a novel to understand as one to experience.
It is impossible to do justice to Le Guin's genius in this humble review. As a work of literature, Le Guin's writing is beautiful as is her use of mythological symbolism (from myths she herself created). As a feat of world building, Le Guin's Hainish universe (of which this is part) is as breathtaking as Frank Herbert's Dune or Isaac Asimov's Foundation. But I don't want to focus on the literary quality or world building here, as amazing as I think they are.
I've written before about how Le Guin was an educator more than a mere entertainer. Re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness, it occurred to me that Le Guin blurs the line between literature and philosophy as much as anyone ever has. Putting all this together, let's think of Le Guin as a philosophy professor.
Being a philosophy professor myself, I can say that, while I do have certain lessons for students about who said what, who belongs to what school, and so on, my hope is not merely that my students will learn facts about philosophy but that they will themselves philosophize, to learn what it is to encounter some of the deepest questions human beings can ask about ourselves, the universe, and our place in this universe. But I don't expect students to come to completely satisfactory answers to such questions. How could I, when I have yet to discover such answers myself? Recently I have come to suspect that this is a feature, not a bug of philosophy. To paraphrase the last chapter of Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy, philosophical questions expand our sense of what's possible, enrich the imagination, lessen dogmatism, and put us in touch with the universe.
And this is precisely what The Left Hand of Darkness can do for you. Will it tell you what to think about gender, politics, violence, ethics, the universe, and so forth? No. But that's not Le Guin's point. She's doing something else, something far deeper, more difficult, and more interesting. (This is why people who bemoan her "feminist agenda" are missing the point; Le Guin definitely has some kind of feminist agenda but it's not anything as shallowly prescriptive as such people usually think it is).
While there is a lot of philosophical material here ranging from political theory to friendship to ecology, let me concentrate on what I think of as two of the major issues that in many ways encapsulate all of the above: the gender thought experiment and the deeper Daoist themes.
That this novel is a thought experiment about gender is perhaps the least surprising thing you could say about it. Le Guin endorses this in the introduction included in most recent editions, although she warns us that it's not meant to extrapolate about some current reality nor is it meant as escapism. In some sense this thought experiment is about us here on Earth, even if it's set on a fictional planet light years away.
That the humans of Gethen have no fixed sex or gender is a way to ask: What does gender do for us or to us here on Earth? How do our ideas about gender impact our identities, families, child-rearing practices, economies, cultures, philosophies, religions, etc.? If you follow Le Guin's thought experiment far enough (it may take a few readings), you will find that the answers begin to look a lot deeper than we tend to think. Gender is dyed deeply into the fabric of Earthling cultures, which can be seen most clearly by juxtaposing it with the relatively undyed fabric of Gethen.
But what to do with this? Le Guin doesn't quite tell us. She's far too subtle a writer and a thinker for that. But maybe imagining different possibilities is the first step to change if we want it, and maybe encountering hitherto unthought of possibilities is a way to decide what we want. Le Guin is, to borrow a phrase from her famous 2014 speech upon winning a National Book Award, a "realist of a larger reality." This possibility for radical rethinking perhaps puts her in the company of radical feminist philosophers, who propose rethinking our very concepts of gender; the emphasis on care and friendship later in the novel perhaps puts her in touch with the ethics of care.
On Gethen everybody has a similar chance of having to bear and nurse children, so the types of inequalities of work that exist on Earth are not a factor. A casual remark in the novel is that on Gethen nobody is as free as a man elsewhere but neither is anybody as limited as a woman elsewhere. Gethen also has no war. Sloppy readers will take this to be Le Guin's definitive statement that war is uniquely caused by masculinity, but a more careful reading suggests that another possible cause is the harsh climate of the planet. But then again a few comments about how men often feel like they have something to prove in a way foreign to Gethenians might tip the scales back the other way. Le Guin is not here to give you certain answers. She wants something better: to give you material so you can think for yourself.
Before moving on, I want to mention the fun little details of the constant gender confusions from Genly (the main character who is from Earth). Le Guin delightfully plays up Genly's and the reader's disorientations. Some favorites: the king getting pregnant, Genly's phrases like "my landlady was a voluble man," and his later realization that Estraven (royal advisor and later Genly's travel companion) is properly speaking neither a man nor a woman, at least in Terran categories.
The other philosophical strand I want to mention is Le Guin's Daoist elements. Le Guin was deeply influenced by Daoism from a young age, having read a translation of Laozi's Dao De Jing early on and later composing her own translation (based more on other translations than on classical Chinese). I didn't notice the Daoist themes as much in earlier readings, but this time I could tell that they run deep on everything from anarchism and language to non-anthropocentric ecological views (or the idea that humans are part of nature but not the center of it).
Perhaps the deepest Daoist themes are on the correlation of opposites, the concept of non-action (wu wei), and the relation between knowledge and ignorance. The Daoist symbol of the yin-yang (aka, taijitu, aaka, that symbol on cheap jewelry at the mall) is specifically mentioned in Chapter 19. The people of Gethen in some sense represent the correlation of male and female within themselves, as when Genly realizes Estraven is a "manwoman." It's also represented in the heart-stoppingly beautiful poem that gives the novel its name.
Non-action (wu wei) does not literally mean doing nothing. Appropriately enough, it's a figurative use of language to mean something like acting as skillfully as possible, doing more with less, "being in the zone," going with the flow, not over thinking or trying too hard, and the like. When Genly arrives on Gethen, he has a plan to talk to the King of Karhide and then perhaps move to the leaders of other countries. The more he tries to stick with this plan, the worse things go for him ... all the way to the gulag prison farm in Orgoreyn. He only accomplishes his goal of establishing relations between the Ekumen and Gethen by letting go and moving with his circumstances rather than against them, by not closing himself off from the unexpected and surprising, to let nature take its course.
This also gets at the value of ignorance. Knowing can be good, but sometimes so is not knowing (or at least not thinking you know what you do not know). This comes out most clearly when Genly visits the Handdarata, who say that you have to realize what the wrong questions are and stop asking them. I'm reminded of the skeptical elements of the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, who attacks conceptions of knowledge as fixed, dogmatic, certain, linguistic, conceptual, and analytical. Zhuangzi's point might be not so much that this type of knowledge is wrong, but that it's limited: fixating yourself on it closes you off from something deeper and more important in life. Perhaps doing so closes us off from this "larger reality" Le Guin mentions, a reality that can be glimpsed through playful language, thought experiments, and complex stories about fictional humans on fictional planets.
Is Le Guin's science fictional feminist Daoism a way (dao) to touch this larger reality? I will leave that question appropriately unanswered. Whatever answers there may or may not be in The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin made our process of asking the questions enriching aesthetically, emotionally, and intellectually. As sad as I am about Le Guin's recent death in Jan. 2018, perhaps it helps to remember that death is the correlative of life, and we are all enriched by her having shared our reality as long as she did before merging back into a larger reality.
Rating: Amazing. Far beyond such petty things as ratings.
See also my Goodreads review.