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It’s been a while since I wrote one of my appreciations of Ursula K. Le Guin, though I keep reading new and old works of hers. During my sabbatical last year I read Malafrena and Unlocking the Air for the first time and enjoyed both. This week I pulled one off the shelf that I have read once before–only once, several years ago, and I won’t wait that long again before my next reading, because there’s a lot to discover in Changing Planes (Ace Books, 2003). It’s a volume of short stories, in a sense, though what draws my attention in each is less plot or character, and more what, if this were non-fiction, might be called ethnography. The narrator is writing as a tourist, though a reflective one, of fifteen societies. They are sketches: brief anthropological visits to some of the rooms of Le Guin’s imagination. It’s as if she decided to just play at world-creation for awhile, and it’s something she does with so much creativity, humor, and generosity of spirit that I feel possibilities expand.

I would like to comprehend the language of the Nna Mmoy, whom no visitor has yet understood and whose texts “are not linear, either horizontally or vertically, but radial, budding out in all directions like tree branches or growing crystals, from a first or central word which, once the text is complete, may well be neither the center nor the beginning of the statement. Literary texts carry this polydirectional complexity to such an extreme that they resemble mazes, roses, artichokes, sunflowers, fractal patterns.” (166)

I would not like to visit the Veksi, who are perpetually angry: fighting, sulking, quarreling. But as unpleasant as they are, after this peek into their community I wonder whether their anger is not mostly a response to the perpetual losses and griefs of life. Maybe that’s where our anger comes from too.

On Gy, about one in a thousand adolescents develops wings, in a painful process that changes all of their bones as well as adding these two limbs. As a result, life on the ground becomes difficult for them, with their delicate bones and ungainly appendages; however, many winged Gyr choose not to fly, because catastrophic wing failure is a constant and unpreventable risk. Le Guin draws no analogy, but I draw my own. Maybe wings are like extraordinary talents; flyers are the equivalent of certain artists, writers, scientists, mystics, choreographers–visionaries of all kinds, who take risks in order to experience the inimitable intensity of “one’s whole body, one’s whole self, up in the whole sky. . . . It takes everything to fly. Everything you are, everything you have” (210). Do I live like that? Do I want to? And is it as risky as the Gyrs’ flights, fatal one time in twenty?

I’m both drawn to the migratory life of the Ansarac and sobered by the homesickness that must accompany it. Each of their years is about as long as 25 of ours, and they seldom live much longer than three of their years, never as long as four. So the annual migration north in spring, to where they live in families, in rural villages, and there dance their courtship dances, is made by each of them no more than three times. Come fall–which is a good dozen years later, in our terms–they migrate to an urban life in the south. Couples separate, children go off to school and away from parents, not to be reunited until the following spring, after another one-sixth of their lives has passed. What happens when they are offered a new development that would allow them to travel as often as they wish between the two places is vintage Le Guin. She is never naive, but resists the simplistic stories both of technology as ruin and technology as salvation. She’s interested in how and why people choose the changes they do–and so she imagines for us a more discerning, deliberate approach to “progress” than we have generally imagined for ourselves or our society.

This book doesn’t get the attention it merits. It’s a beauty. And it’s yet another reason that, when my daughter asked me this week who my favorite writers are, Ursula Le Guin was the first name from my lips.

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As I drove to work today I was musing about a new installment in my very occasional series of appreciations of Ursula LeGuin. When, a little later, I saw her photo in my Facebook page, I thought, “Oh no! She’s died!” (Sorry, Ms. LeGuin. I have a morbid turn of mind.) Fortunately, she was just being cranky about Amazon, and this is not a eulogy.

As a teenager and earlier, I read my share of teenage-problems books, about people my age dealing with such issues as divorcing parents, homosexuality and homophobia, friends who shoplift, siblings who bully, hypocritical adults, you name it. But absent from all of them was one of the problems I struggled with most: the growing realization that I cared about ideas–that I was, in short, an intellectual–and that this was not all that common. In fact, if any of the kids in these books were even interested in ideas, it must have been one of those background characters, a girl reading in the last row who didn’t even get a character description. I’m not blaming the books; they were busy with other matters, and many of them handled them beautifully. I’m just giving some background about why it was a gift and a revelation to open up one of LeGuin’s least-known novels, Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, and discover Owen and his friend Natalie.

Owen is an intell9780553128642ectual. He’s not only good at math and science, but loves them. He’s not only going to go to college, a bright kid taking the expected next step; he’s looking forward to being part of a community of scientists doing experiments for the sheer passion of finding out what is true. His parents don’t understand this, and expect him to go to State, which is local, affordable, and familiar; one of the chief conflicts of the slim book is his difficulty sharing with them who he really is and what he longs for. I didn’t share that particular problem–my parents enthusiastically encouraged my intellectual explorations–but I was perfectly aware that to much of the world, and especially my peers, I was an oddball. One teacher who gathered together students who, in his words, cared about a “life of the mind,” gave me a haven, and others did too, both teachers and friends. Still. Just being offered that phrase of his, tasting it on my tongue, was like a secret pleasure hidden away from the grim hallways of high school, where we were supposed to do well in class but we were viewed with suspicion if we actually loved the life of the mind. And here was a book about loving it.

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Oddballs find their own communities in time. The kid who thinks no one else loves railroad trains finds the rail club; the girl who wants to not only play the viola, but compose music for it, connects with other musicians who take her seriously. We grow up to see a world beyond our families and the 29 other people in our class, and find kindred spirits there. Sometimes, when that hasn’t happened yet and we’re confined to a world with such a small population that very few people in it seem to resemble us, we find our communities in books. This short novel assured thirteen-year-old me that somewhere out there, there were people who shared my passions. It might be very far away from anywhere else, but I’d find Owen there, and Natalie, and Ursula LeGuin herself.

(Available through my local indie bookseller, and yours)

A brief prayer from The Left Hand of Darkness comes to me often. On the planet Gethen, in the book, it’s from the Handdara; here on Earth, it sounds like something from process theology. I was moved to say it by today’s photo on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day:

“Praise Creation unfinished!”

 

 

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.

I’ve been putting my thoughts about linked ideas, images, and events in The Dispossessed into what the software, MindMeister, calls a “Mind Map,” here.

Whole sections haven’t been transcribed from my mind to the map, such as the multiple valences of possession, but it’s fun and helpful to get it into this form. What would you add?

Looking forward to class tonight, 7:30 in the UUCPA Fireside Room. Directions here, campus map here.

Cross-posted to the UUCPA blog, which is where comments may be made.

Tim Bartik, who I wish lived near Palo Alto instead of in Michigan so he could be there tomorrow night, has been contributing really interesting and careful comments on The Dispossessed at the UUCPA blog, and his last one, written on February 24, was so helpful in clarifying my own thoughts that I want to post my response here as well.

Forgive the length of this response, but you’ve helped me understand a real key to this novel. I’ve been thinking about your previous comment, which made me realize for the first time the connection between The Dispossessed and Le Guin’s essay (which I cannot recommend highly enough) “The Stalin in the Soul,”  and how I would concisely sum up my scattered thoughts, and before I got back to the internet you did it:

“as long as he or she can find an audience that is willing to pay for that art”

That’s the rub, isn’t it? That’s why our freedom isn’t free. Not only because many great artists never make their art, or many people never get to see it or hear it, because they are busy working in an office or factory; but because many potentially great artists censor themselves for the market. They make what will sell instead of what their art calls them to make. That is an outcome of our economic system. It might be a price worth paying, in the last analysis, but we mustn’t treat it lightly.

Le Guin’s essay describes two novels: a great one that is written and never published in the author’s native land, because it is repressive and censors him in life and death; another great one that is never published in the author’s native land because he never writes it, being too busy writing what will sell to ever get around to his true art. The first author is Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of We, and the second is anyone in the US, including herself. As she says, we’re free “not only to write fuck and shit, and to spell America with a k,” but “to write what we please,” and yet we often don’t. She’s a little hard on her imaginary author, making him concerned with riches and fame. Most artists surrender their freedom just to eat and pay the rent, so their selling out is more understandable.

You are right that Bedap is right–Shevek doesn’t accept it in chapter 6 but he comes to–but I think you are describing the repression on Anarres slightly inaccurately. The bureaucrats can assign Tirin to the Asylum, but they can’t send him there. There are no laws, no police; he can refuse to go. But he goes, under the pressure of his community. The distinction is key, because we also pride ourselves on the fact that no one is going to throw us in jail for expressing ourselves. But do we do it?

If we don’t–and most so-called artists don’t, most of the time–then what is keeping us from doing it? A kind of unfreedom. And if we say, “Well, we’re free really, as long as we find someone to pay us,” we’re being like the Anarresti who “keep their initiative tucked away safe” (chapter 10). We’re refusing our own freedom. And then how free are we? Less free, in a sense, than Zamyatin, who wrote his book at least, even under Stalin.

I’m not saying there’s a better alternative to what we’ve got. I’m not sure whether there is, though I hope so. What I’m saying is that we tend to hide behind our democracy, assuring ourselves that we’re all free, and not acknowledging the walls that our economic system puts up. For every artist I know, I know five other people who would create art if only they didn’t have to earn a living. And don’t ask me how many “artists” I know whose great novels never get out of their heads because they are too busy producing what their publisher tells them can earn them the next advance. I’m sure it’s a lot. Most of them. And let’s not even get started on physics. You create it for the military, or for sale, or you fit it into the ever-narrower realm of “pure research” enabled by the ever-poorer universities. For that matter, I know many ministers who are not pursuing the community ministry they are called to, which would be tremendously beneficial, because they don’t know any way to get paid for their ministry except by congregations.

Last night, when I heard UKLG speak at Berkeley, her interlocutor asked her about her passion for Virgil, since she has such leftist-anarchist politics and he’s a poet of empire. She said she’d thought of lefty excuses for him, which got a laugh, and then she said seriously, “He had to be. If you don’t have copyright, you need a patron, and his patron was the emperor.” Art has to be paid for. (Copyright is just a part of it, something she’s concerned with at the moment since it’s under assault.) One thing she fantasized in The Dispossessed was a society in which artists are supported the same way as anyone else: the only justification they need present for their receiving food and housing and medical care and time is that they are doing the work they need to do, and that they join in the tenthday rotation and do some kleggich like everyone. They don’t need to find a patron; they don’t need to sell their art. They just need to create it. And then, because she is an honest thinker, she identifies what might not work about this: even Odonians start to ask, implicitly about the art, the compositions, the physics maybe, “What is it good for?” (“music isn’t useful,” Bedap points out)–which makes them no different than Dearri, the stupid businessman at Vea’s party. If it doesn’t further their narrow ideas of Odonianism, so they block it. They miss the true Odonianism, of course, which is based on the conviction that if each person follows their calling the society will thrive.

She is very subtle in how she talks about what undermines a revolution. This novel is not Animal Farm. People aren’t shot or driven out of the community by force. Tirin is not SENT to the Asylum; no one can send anyone anywhere, on Anarres. His Stalin is in his soul. But social pressure is often enough to drive someone mad and punish him for his madness. So what’s our equivalent? What imprisons us, who are so free? Isn’t the purpose of Le Guin’s novel to get us to ask that? And she suggests one answer: part of it, a big, big part of it, is money.

Again, disabling comments here so as to consolidate them at the UUCPA blog.  “The Stalin in the Soul” is a very short essay collected in Le Guin’s The Language of the Night and also in a collection called The Future Now.

Two more questions in advance of my class on The Dispossessed next week.

(1) As a teenager on Anarres, Shevek sees a film about Urras, the home planet that’s a lot like ours–multiple countries, all with governments, some of which are capitalist and some communist. The film juxtaposes a famine in the country of Thu where the bodies of starved children are being burned with the wealth and plenty only 700 km away in the nation of A-Io, noting that these exist “side by side” (pp 33-34 in the Avon paperback edition). Do you think  this is a fair criticism? Can it be applied to our world? How would you defend us, or would you make the same criticism?

(2) If you suddenly discovered that Anarres existed and you could move there, would you trade the benefits of living in a society like ours for those of that society? For example, would you give up the various things you own, and the possibility of owning more, in exchange for life in a society where you have almost no private possessions and “no one eats while another starves”?

Cross-posted at the UUCPA blog, and I’ve disabled comments here so that all comments are in one place; please make them over there.

I’m facilitating an Adult Religious Education session on the novel The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin, on February 28. I know some people will come who haven’t read it, but you’ll get a lot more out of the class if you have, so you might want to get a hold of the book now.

As promised, I’m posting questions about it ahead of time. This first one is more along the lines of a thought experiment and can be carried out whether you’ve read the book or not.

As you go through your day, wonder what it would be like if no one in our society had money or private property–if everything belonged to everyone. (On Anarres, one of the novel’s invented worlds, if you want a new shirt, you walk into a clothing depository and pick one up.)

For example, if you go to a restaurant tonight: If this were Anarres, what would happen when you walked into a restaurant? Who is cooking, how does the food get there? Would there be a restaurant? Etc. This is repeatable wherever you are and whatever you are doing.

How does it feel to imagine this different economy? Freeing, frightening, fragile . . . ?

By the way, Ursula LeGuin will be speaking in Berkeley on Tuesday, February 26. I’ll be there.

Cross-posted at the UUCPA blog. I am closing comments here* so that responses are gathered in one place–click on over to the UUCPA blog to add your comments.

*Except Stacy’s. That got through before I remembered to close comments. 🙂

photo by Joy Morgenstern

Our neighborhood, Colonia San Antonio, is pretty working-class, and residences and businesses are all mixed together. (Actually, this mix is typical throughout the city; only some new, built-for-gringos neighborhoods follow the pattern of US suburbs, with tracts of housing uninterrupted by anything as useful as a grocery store.) Add to these factors a relaxed attitude toward time and a welcoming attitude toward children, and you get a walk home from school that is utterly fascinating to a three-year-old who loves to watch people making things.

Her favorite stop is a carpentry/cabinetmaking shop two blocks from school, where the whine of machinery tells us we’re getting close, and then the smell of pine tells us we’re there. Munchkin wants to know everything: What are they making? What is he doing? What are these curly things on the floor? The man who seems to be the chief carpenter always stops his saw when he sees her and squats down to talk to her, and to give her some of the wood shavings.

A few doors up from the wood shop is some kind of metalworking shop; we haven’t seen it open that often, but one time someone was welding inside, throwing exciting sparks, and we always hope to see it again.

If we take a different route home from school, we pass a mechanic who is just as willing as the cabinetmaker to stop and explain what he’s doing, and whose work is just as fascinating to the munchkin. She thinks it’s very cool that he can put cars together. I tell her maybe one day she’ll be able to do it herself, and she’s pleased by that idea. It will probably still be a useful skill in 20 years–or, if we dare to hope that private cars will be rarer than today, there will still be some kind of engines to repair.

On the street just by the San Antonio church, another mechanic shop seems to be right out in the street. It first caught our notice when there was a taxi out front in a sad state. We walked by it a few times, not realizing it was there to be repaired (I thought it looked like a car by the side of a New York City highway after the chop shop has gotten to it), and then one day a man was working on it and we realized that the whole street is the extension of a mechanic’s yard on the same block. Munchkin wanted to watch him work on the taxi, so we sat up on a wall next to the sidewalk for a long time and talked about what he was doing, which was soldering new parts onto the inside of the hood. He didn’t mind at all. The munchkin was very interested in all the things wrong with the taxi; I was impressed that with broken windows, no wheels, and a devastated front end, it was still going to be fixed up and put on the road again. It has long since left the mechanic street, so who knows, maybe we’ve ridden in it since.

We pass two tortillerias on the way home, one of which is right around the corner from our house. There are plenty of places where you can see women making tortillas by hand, or more often, gorditas (thick tortillas that are cooked, cut in half, and filled like a pita), but the tortilleria has a machine. If it’s running, we’ll stop and watch the tortillas come out of the machine onto a neat stack, just like the kids in a book the munchkin loves from the San Miguel Biblioteca, Sip, Slurp, Soup, Soup – Caldo, Caldo, Caldo. I think it looks like a big improvement over making each one by hand, but still a really hot place to work on a June day. The lady at the counter always gives the munchkin a warm rolled-up tortilla, even though we’re no one’s dream customers, the way we buy tortillas by the paltry quarter-kilo.

Munchkin loves to watch people work. So do I. Usually I’m shy about it except in the few situations where the workers expect an audience, such as at a crafts fair where someone is throwing pots on the wheel, or a factory tour. When I was a little girl, a big attraction of going to Pepe’s Pizza was how I’d spend the time waiting for the pizza to come: I’d watch the guys in the big open kitchen ladling sauce onto the dough, slapping down the mozzarella like they were dealing cards, and then sliding the pizzas in and out of the brick oven on their enormous wooden spatulas. When I went back as an adult and stood there watching, the nearest cook kept looking up in a disgruntled way. I hope he isn’t like that with kids, just with adults. Maybe the people in our colonia wouldn’t be so comfortable with my standing there if I didn’t have a three-year-old holding my hand, but all I know is they always seem happy to see Munchkin and to take a moment to chat.

Most of the places we’ve lived, this kind of work takes place behind closed doors and we don’t get to see it in action. Walking through this colonia makes me feel a little like Shevek, in one of my favorite chapters in one of my favorite books, The Dispossessed, when he first comes to Abbenay, and walks through the courtyards where people are building, dyeing, and doing all the other work of a city: “nothing is hidden.”

(#3 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)

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