I keep wanting to write about the work of Ursula K. LeGuin, and am intimidated by the number and variety of things I want to say, and frankly by the depth of emotion involved. So I’m just going to write a little chunk at a time.
LeGuin wrote the only Taoist novel I know of, The Lathe of Heaven. (I hope if you know others, you’ll name them in the comments.) Taoism arises in The Left Hand of Darkness, also–most explicitly in the scene from which the title is taken, when Genly draws a yin/yang for Estraven, and Estraven shares a poem from the Handdara tradition, a paradox-drenched religion she creates for the novel:
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.
More broadly, the complex balance, the dance of dualities, that is of such concern to the Taoist sages is clearly one of LeGuin’s abiding concerns as well; we see it in work from Earthsea to Searoad. Still, The Lathe of Heaven engages the question most directly, not because it quotes liberally from Taoist sources (though it does, including in the title), but because it looks at it ethically: when should we act and when should we refrain from action? If you could change the world with a wave of a wand, or in her protagonist’s case, with a few minutes of dreaming, would you? Or would it depend–and in that case, on what? Are we really supposed to live by Lao-Tzu’s teaching, “The Sage occupies himself with inaction”–is that the height of moral responsibility or the abdication of it?
George Orr has dreams that change reality, retroactively and invisibly to anyone except him. He dreams that his aunt dies in a car crash and when he wakes, she has died in a car crash. The awesome power and, to his mind, responsibility, of his dreaming self are tormenting him, so he seeks the help of Dr. Haber, a psychiatrist who specializes in dreams. Once Haber begins to believe George’s claims, he starts suggesting improvements to the world that George then makes, unwillingly, while asleep.
PBS made a movie of the novel, a rather low-budget affair, as PBS movies generally are. Given the spending constraints they were under, they did an admirable job, and there’s excellent acting, but one thing the adapters got badly wrong, in my view, was the character of Dr. Haber. They turned him into an evil scientist, but he’s not. He’s a humanitarian; he wants to use George’s power to end hunger, poverty, and racism. His noble motives are all mixed up with base ones–he gets himself promoted in dream after dream, until he has risen from unknown Portland shrink to special advisor to the world government–but that’s not the main reason he goes wrong. He goes wrong because he utterly lacks awareness of himself and, most of all, a sense of connection to anyone or anything outside himself. To him, dreams are just a tool to manipulate reality, whereas to George they’re a seamless part of the whole, as are (in some fashion) the ills he’s redressing, and as is George himself. Haber is about as far from the ideal of the Taoist master as you can get: at one point George privately observes that the psychiatrist seems not to know the uses of silence, and it’s just as clear that he doesn’t know the uses of inaction.
Making him a bad guy misses a very deep point of the novel, about how our best intentions go awry if we live in the illusory belief that we are separable from the interdependent web of all things. It’s easy to fall into that illusion. I can even see myself, potentially, in Haber: the do-gooder gone off the rails. What’s the solution? Not to refrain from doing good, certainly. That would be nihilistic. Nor to use every tool at our disposal to fix the world. We need a certain kind of harmony that “Mr. Either Or,” the somewhat passive, somewhat uncertain and indefinite, hero has, and that his dynamic doctor lacks. How to find that harmony seems to be the key. I can’t state the key in one sentence, or even sum it up to myself, but when I read Chuang-Tzu, or Lao-Tzu, or The Lathe of Heaven, I start to feel as if it really exists.