Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Garden of Literature: Ursula Le Guin, Creator of Worlds Where People Can Find Themselves and, Possibly, Make Sense

         Ursula Le Guin was not only America's best writer of imaginative literature, she deserved a seat on the Council of the Wise, the body I am currently imagining to replace the increasingly corrupt and anachronistic US Senate.

           How many people do we have who invent universes of interconnected planets in order to explore basic problems of human existence such as loss, loneliness, the need for love, cloud control, societal conflict, war, interstellar communication, gender roles, youthful uncertainties, political dysfunction, and dragons -- to mention a few standout examples...?

           My encounters with Le Guin began with the fittingly named short novel "The Beginning Place," in which an invented society with its attractions and dangers provides a perfect setting to explore the adolescent and early adulthood struggle for identity. The story takes place in a parallel-world forest that you enter simply by passing through some invisible gate in an 'our-world' forest. When I was younger I used to stumble into such places, which are of course places inside ourselves. In "The Beginning Place," Le Guin leads her characters (and readers) into a Medieval forest village setting. I love stories with faux-Medieval forest settings. We can all think of examples. The relentlessly popular film "The Princess Bride," for one, plays itself silly with one of these.

            We can't spend all our lives in the presumably (though not really) safe worlds of our upbringings, even less so in mediated or 'virtual' versions of the world constructed for us by others. We have to get out of our other-conditioned selves to find our real 'selves' -- that is, the voice that tells us what we really think. We have to go where Stephen Sondheim does in that most philosophical of his musicals, "Into the Woods." 

             I think the books of the "Earthsea Trilogy" came next for me. Again, the hook that drew me is the story's unstated heart, the realization in the human soul of the young person's quest for self. We don't learn the deep personal truths by stories about people who are too much like ourselves, but those who strike us as really strange. That's probably why myths and legends and folk tales (sometimes called fairy tales) have lasted so long. Sophocles put the gods on stage. Wisdom teachers through the ages, Freud and C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, went back to the oldest stories we know.

             The Earthsea Trilogy are the stories in which Le Guin gives us the wizard Ged -- who I think of as the 'interesting wizard' to distinguish him from that other too-popular 'wizard' who is more commercial vehicle than prince of literature. The book I remember best of these is the second (though maybe I read it first), "The Tombs of Atuan," in which a child is separated from her family and raised in some ritualized condition of darkness that -- for my own needs, perhaps, or imagination -- seemed to symbolize the darkness in which all human beings are 'thrown' into existence. "Thrown," a term I learned from the 20th century philosopher Heidegger, represents the impossible -- or wondrous -- condition of all human existence. We don't why we are here, where we came from, and what this business we find ourselves part of is all about. (Hence the eternal question: does it mean anything?)

            In the "The Tombs of Atuan," when the heroine explores the obscure condition of her existence, actualized by Le Guin as a gloomy "Labyrinth," she has the good fortune to come across the wizard Ged. Most of us have to make do without anyone like him. 

            In these Earthsea stories as in her sci-fi novels set in deep space, we understand that these settings and situations are reflections of our own problematic times and places. All worthy scifi and fantasy settings are allegorical by nature. They are literary machines for barraging us with unstated questions: how do the dangers, hardships, pressures, bizarre customs, and mysteries of these imagined settings become dark mirrors for the circumstances -- social, anthropological, corporate, whatever -- in which people in our world are forced to contend with? Needless to add, the answers are unstated as well.  

                I'll mention a few of the books in the Hainish world, where some of her most widely read and enduring novels are set. "The Left-Hand of Darkness," the book most people mention first when they recall Le Guin's works, give us a human-enough race of people whose gender changes as a natural part of their biology. What would that do to sex roles? To personal identity? Le Guin stated long afterwards that she never solved the problem of creating a third-person pronoun that was free of gender -- and neither have we.

            In "The Dispossessed," I was excited to find a novel based on the stunning premise of a "world," a small planet, based on the theories of a foundational anarchist. But it's not a book of theoretical arguments; Le Guin's stories always have a plot. In "The Dispossessed," the the anarchist society fights for survival while its earth-like neighboring planet overpopulates and the rich oppress the poor, and the novel's central figure, a genius scientist who's a committed product of the anarchist world, realizes he has made a discovery that may help both societies out of their crises.

            Another story of the Hainish world, "The Winter King" was the first book to posit a peopled world forced to endure decade-long stretches of a single season, a life-threatening winter; its plot imagines the consequences for the various peoples who share the planet. We who live on our own little planet are living with the comparable threat of climate change, though we may be facing the opposite condition: a hot, rainy season that never ends. 
          It turns out that Ursula Le Guin's prophetic storytelling is based on another human universal -- a love of our world. The natural one. 
          "My poetry and my fiction are full of trees," she wrote only last year in her introduction to a re-publication volume of some of her books, under the title Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories, Volume One. "My mental landscape includes a great deal of forest. I am haunted by the great, silent, patient presences we live among, plant, chop down, build with, burn, take for granted in every way until they are gone and do not return. Ancient China had our four elements, earth, air, fire, water, plus a fifth, wood. That makes sense to me. But China’s great forests are long gone to smoke. When we pass a log truck on the roads of Oregon, I can’t help but see what they carry as corpses, bodies that were living and are dead. I think of how we owe the air we breathe to the trees, the ferns, the grasses—the quiet people who eat sunlight."
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            We eat sunlight too, only after it's been through the bodies of plants and, in many cases, animals. 
             Reading this great author's observations on her own canon makes me want to go get lost in the woods again. I wonder who I'll find there.  

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