I’m always fascinated when seemingly different subjects of my academic focus intersect in unexpected ways, as happened to me recently with Ursula K. Le Guin and Benjamin De Casseres. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: It may be that I am drawn to both subjects because I had already identified certain similarities subconsciously. However, the rising to consciousness of those similarities is nonetheless astonishing when it does occur.
De Casseres and Le Guin
Before getting into specifics, I would like to point out that De Casseres and Le Guin share a number of biographical similarities. For one thing, they both consider themselves anarchists, albeit different strains: De Casseres called himself an individualist anarchist and was very much enamored of free market capitalism; Le Guin’s anarchism leans more toward syndicalism, which rejects capitalism in favor of grassroots organization and cooperation, as perhaps best exhibited in her novel The Dispossessed. (As a sidetone, it’s both funny and frustrating to me that people see these ideas as being in opposition to each other.)
Another similarity is that they are both rather prolific. As a freelance writer, De Casseres produced a massive amount of text that appeared in newspapers, monthly periodicals, and books throughout his lifetime, on a wide variety of topics and in many different forms. Likewise, Le Guin has written novels, short stories, poetry, essays and articles in many different publications, genres and styles.
Finally, both writers got their start at an early age. De Casseres once called himself the “youngest editorial writer in America on a first-class newspaper” (he began working at the Philadelphia Press at the age of 15, and apparently wrote editorial paragraphs very early on) and published his first piece with a byline in 1890 at the age of 18. Le Guin submitted her first story for publication at the age of 11, and while it took her 10 more years to actually be published, she spent the interim period writing many different pieces that later found audiences.
Given these similarities, it’s too bad that the two do not overlap at all in their careers. De Casseres died in 1945, and while Le Guin was alive at the time, she was yet a young woman, and her first piece was not published until 1951. I am intensely curious to know what De Casseres would have written about her work, but unfortunately that curiosity can never be sated.
Le Guin, Lao Tzu and Estraven
In a week I will be traveling to Mythmoot III to present a paper (abstract) on Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I originally wrote the paper for the second half of Dr. Amy H. Sturgis’ two-part class on the History of Science Fiction (which is being offered again this spring). At the time I had not yet read Le Guin’s rendition of the Tao Te Ching, although I was aware of the influence that Eastern philosophy had on Le Guin and her works. So in preparation for my upcoming presentation, I read the Tao (review), and now in my re-reading of The Left Hand of Darkness, I am definitely noticing a number of ways that one has influenced the other.
Darkness takes the form of a set of documents written or acquired by Genly Ai, an Envoy from the Ekumen – effectively a trade association of eighty-some planets – to the world “Winter,” which has not yet had any interstellar contact. About halfway through the book, one of the documents that tells the story consists of pages from the journal of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who is the prime minister of Karhide (one of the two largest nations on Winter) at the beginning of the story but then quickly falls from grace. Although Genly does not realize it at first, it turns out that Estraven’s actions throughout the book are attempts to help the Envoy complete his mission of recruiting Winter into the Ekumen. However, due to cultural differences, the help is often mistaken by Genly and even considered to be a hindrance.
The character of Estraven, as seen from his journal pages, is where the influence of the Tao most readily emerges. Part of it has simply to do with writing style. Estraven frequently sums up his thoughts in the form of pithy maxims that have an unexpected turn. For example, when pondering the public excursions of Genly in Orgoreyn – the other large nation on Winter, to which Estraven is exiled and Genly later visits – Estraven writes, “I wonder if Genly Ai sees that in Orgoreyn, despite the vast visible apparatus of government, nothing is done visibly, nothing is said aloud. The machine conceals the machinations.” That metaphorical summation at the end follows a very Tao-ish formula. Ideologically, that summary is also taoist (cf. verse 17, which includes the lines “When the work’s done right, / with no fuss or boasting, / ordinary people say, / Oh, we did it.”) Similar lines are found throughout Estraven’s journal pages.
One section that struck me recently is Estraven’s distinction between opposition and redirection.
To oppose something is to maintain it.
They say here “all roads lead to Mishnory.” To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road.
Unlike the first example of a Tao-ish maxim, this time the aphoristic summary comes first. The effect is to ask a question about how exactly this seeming paradox works. Given the fuller explanation and example, it becomes clear that true opposition is not conflict, but a shift in focus.
This idea is almost directly out of the Tao. In fact, the very idea of non-opposition seems to be the heart of the Tao, according to Le Guin’s interpretation. In a note to chapter 3, she writes:
Over and over Lao Tzu says wei wu wei: Do not do. Doing not-doing. To act without acting. Action by inaction. You do nothing yet it gets done….
It’s not a statement susceptible to logical interpretation, or even to a syntactical translation into English; but it’s a concept that transforms thought radically, that changes minds. The whole book is both an explanation and a demonstration of it.
In a note to chapter 58, Le Guin reinforces the idea, writing, “The point is that Taoists gain their ends without the use of means.”
Estraven’s journal philosophy seems to be an application of this same idea. While he does not exactly advocate doing nothing, he does advocate doing nothing about a particular circumstance in order to achieve his goal of opposing it. Continuing his metaphor, he writes about the border conflict between Karhide and Orgoreyn:
[Genly] must offer an alternative. Orgoreyn and Karhide both must stop following the road they’re on, in either direction; they must go somewhere else, and break the circle.
Estraven’s understanding here informs his actions throughout the rest of the novel. Again, though he does not advocate inaction in the sense implied by the Tao, he advocates that Genly ignore the desires and motives of those who would use him for various political or personal ends, and focus on a new direction – which is, of course, Genly’s whole mission as an Envoy in the first place.
De Casseres, Nietzsche and Subversion
While, and even before, I have been revisiting The Left Hand of Darkness, I have also been doing a lot of research into the life and works of Benjamin De Casseres. De Casseres was an early 20th century critic who was well known and respected among his contemporaries, but who has since largely fallen out of the public consciousness. My research has led to a number of interesting connections – such as how De Casseres can be a model for modern-day digital marketers or how his views on popular fiction seem to have changed over time – and I am always happy to discover new ones.
In addition to his reviews of books, theater and cinema, De Casseres was known as something of a pop-philosopher. He was a huge fan of Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch – which many people translate as “superman” but De Casseres preferred “Overman.” De Casseres’ philosophical streak no doubt developed in part from his extensive reading, and likely he was influenced by his status as a “collateral descendant” of Baruch Spinoza. He frequently referred admirably to a number of other philosophers and philosophically inclined writers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, who along with others had a clear effect on De Casseres.
As with many writers, De Casseres was not wholly consistent. Nonetheless, certain threads of style and thought can be traced throughout his writing. One of those threads is a concept of transcendental individualism, pulled particularly from his fascination with Emerson. In March 1903, De Casseres garnered a lot of praise for two essays written on the occasion of Emerson’s centennial birthday. One of these, “Emerson the Individualist,” was printed in The Bookman and explores the Emersonian idea of individual persons being part of an Oversoul: It opens epigrammatically with the statement, “The individual is God differentiated.” Few people would automatically draw comparisons between Emerson and Nietzsche, but De Casseres does so in that essay, stating,
Nietzsche sought to manufacture a God; Emerson sought to fabricate a man. Nietzsche conceived power as something that primarily flowed out of man; Emerson conceived it as something flowing into man from the Oversoul.”
According to De Casseres, Emerson and Nietzsche pulled on the same rope from different ends – yet they did not play tug-of-war.
In July 1905, De Casseres wrote an essay titled “The Great White Negation” for the philosophical journal Mind. (The title refers to an extended metaphor of a white dome over the “Eternal Black Hole,” upon which “renunciants” stay focused—it’s rather dense.) The essay is filled with pithy negations and maxims not unlike that of Estraven’s in Darkness. For example:
- “There is a latent Yea in each great Nay.”
- “The universe is eternally dying in order to live.”
- And my personal favorite, “To desire not to desire—that is wisdom,” which of course reminds of the eponymous line from the Sirsy song “Wishless” (“Don’t we all wish sometimes we were wishless?”)
De Casseres expresses similar negations in his other March 1903 essay on Emerson, “Emerson: Sceptic and Pessimist,” published in The Critic. In this essay, his characterization of Emerson is nearly taoist in a way similar to Le Guin’s characterization of Estraven.
Rest on the Oversoul and watch the water-flies flit over the darkling currents of life. Bid no thing go; bid no thing stay; welcome the good and bad—and stand still. Action is founded on fear—the fear of one’s self, the fear of silence, the fear of being alone. Action is an opiate, not a stimulant—it drugs the introspective self. Those who sleep, dream, meditate, achieve all that action unconsciously aims at and never attains—peace, calm, the lustral redemption.
Perhaps the closest link between De Casseres and Le Guin (via Estraven) is seen in references to unknowability. In 1911, De Casseres wrote a letter to the editor of The Sun about acatalepsy, the philosophical idea of being unable to comprehend something.
To say “I know” will be to put the stamp of ignorance on oneself. If catalepsy is a possession, acatalepsy is a state of ultimate freedom. The brain of the acataleptic was an eye that through an eternity of time focused its vision in an infinite number of directions. The world to it was a whimsey. Nothing can be proven; nothing can be disproven. “Eureka!” was uttered by a madman. And if this is true of science, why not of religion also?
In his journal, Estraven writes:
To be an atheist is to maintain God. His existence or his nonexistence; it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof. Thus proof is a word not often used among the Handdarata [a semi-religious sect of seers], who have chosen not to treat God as a fact, subject either to proof or to belief: and they have broken the circle, and go free.
To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.
It is worth noting that in Darkness, the Handdarata consider ignorance to be a supreme good. Ignorance, they teach, can only be acquired through the practice of “untrance,” which itself can only be achieved by not trying to achieve it…and so forth.
I will conclude with a non-conclusion. Other than pointing out these similarities, I have no real goal with this post. I just found the parallels interesting.