Friday, February 28, 2020

Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I put off writing my review of Ursula K. Le Guin's Four Ways to Forgiveness for a week. Some it was that I was busy (with Con Nooga and other things). But I didn't put it off because I didn't like it. I loved it. Yet here's the thing: what to say about a Le Guin novel set in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed? Okay, actually I have a lot to say about Four Ways to Forgiveness, but everything I say feels shallow compared to the depths of Le Guin's work.

Let me make a few inadequate remarks, anyway.

This is one of Le Guin's later Hainish books, written after she made a more explicit turn toward feminism. While the earlier stories (especially the classic The Left Hand of Darkness) contain some innovative interrogations of gender concepts, they usually center men and male points of view (The Left Hand of Darkness uses the male pronoun "he" for everybody, which Le Guin herself later came to regret).

Four Ways to Forgiveness contains four stories (the longer ones are novellas), three of which are mostly from a woman's point of view. There's also a great deal more sex than in the earlier books, so well, maybe this is a sex-positive feminism, too. The appendix also contains the sort of anthropological information that Le Guin lovers will love. The societies in these stories are hardly egalitarian between the sexes, which creates interesting questions when they are encountered by the more egalitarian characters from the Ekumen, a loose galactic federation of sorts. How far should respect for other cultures go? Can anyone really be a cultural relativist in either the philosophical or anthropological senses of the term?

These questions are deepened by some of Le Guin's Daoist reflections. The following passage could almost come right from the Zhuangzi:

"'All knowledge is partial--infinitesimally partial. Reason is a net thrown out into an ocean. What truth it brings in is a fragment, a glimpse, a scintillation of the whole truth. All human knowledge is local. Every life, each human life, is local, is arbitrary, the infinitesimal momentary glitter of a reflection of...' His voice ceased; the silence of the glade among the great trees continued" (p. 116).

Does this indicate an "anything goes" sort of relativism? Are we really meant to not judge the misogyny of some of the characters and cultures we encounter? Can an over-concern for non-action (wu wei) and cosmic harmony blind one to the sufferings of concrete individuals in the world? Or is that suffering itself ultimately a fragment, a momentary glitter in the grand way (Dao) of things? Le Guin doesn't provide easy answers to these questions. I doubt there are such answers. But she does what she does best--she deepens the questions to allow readers to explore them for themselves.

Concerning that sort of exploration, Le Guin also reminded me why history, philosophy, and history of philosophy can be so important.

"What I loved to learn was history. I had grown up without any history. There was nothing at Shomeke or Zeskra but the way things were. Nobody knew anything about any time when things had been different. Nobody knew there was any place where things might be different. We were enslaved by the present time."  (p. 172)

The study of histories and philosophies other than one's own, whether in the past or present here on Earth or on imagined planets and interstellar federations far into the future, opens up one's sense of possibility. To live totally within one's own socially and historically prescribed conceptual scheme is to leave one, as Le Guin says, "enslaved by the present time."  I like to say that philosophy and science fiction both demand of their audiences an enriched sense of possibility, an ability to look beyond what IS to see what COULD BE. Or as Le Guin famously put it in 2014, one must become "a realist of a larger reality."

It may be, as Zhuangzi and Le Guin remind us, that we can in our short lives only ever glimpse a small sliver of that reality. But there is a freedom in this realization that there is more to things--vastly, unimaginably more--than we can see or imagine.

The suspicion that the way things are is not the way they have to be, the inkling that the thoughts people have had are not all the thoughts there are to be had... these can liberate us from the tyranny of the present ... of "everybody knows" ... of "this is how it is"or "that would never happen"... of "common sense" or "it's just human nature." Ultimately it would seem to be imagination that opens us up to deeper, more meaningful connections to the larger reality. And I have yet to find many writers of either science fiction or philosophy who do this as well as Ursula Le Guin.

See also my Goodreads review.

1 comment:

  1. I shall have to add Ursula Le Guin's Four Way's to Forgiveness to my reading list. I feel certain that I read one of her books many years ago but my memory fails me. Being a big picture person in general, sometimes the memories get swept away to make room for new ones.
    The current state of life provided time to return to reading prolifically. That has certainly been a gift and it is a shame it took a pandemic for me to see that I have had that time for two years now. I am retired after all.
    Somehow, in my search for hard science fiction, I came across the Culture Books by Iain M Banks. Searches for more meaning concerning the Culture and also a simple list of Bank's Culture books brought me to your blog. I have begun to read your blog in a more systematic manner because there are so many ideas to think about here.
    The discussion here about being "enslaved to the present time" will surely enter my dreams and percolate in the background of my mind for many days. I cannot help but feel somewhat "enslaved to the present" to some degree due to the way the pandemic has been managed (or not) and the feeling of sliding backwards, in a cultural sense, with respect to our treatment of people in the United States. Perhaps, Le Guin can help renew my somewhat faltering hope in humanity.