So, I’m home from Mythmoot III, where yesterday I presented my paper on Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Overall, I think it went pretty well. Twenty minutes always goes by fast. I spent a little too much time on the setup rather than my argument and examples, but I was at least able to get in my primary point about the “terrible kindness” Le Guin discusses during Genly’s trip to Pulefen Farm, and the importance of cruelty and kindness as metaphors akin to the other dualistic symbolism in the text.
Those who attended seemed to like it. I got several good questions that indicated people were at least listening, which is always nice, plus a few comments from others after the official Q&A portion was over.
That said, my already high incidence of l’esprit de l’escalier was exacerbated by the five-hour-plus drive home. In thinking about some of the questions I received, I realized that I have more in-depth responses. So, while they are still fresh in my mind, here they are.
(I won’t note the names of those who asked the questions, in part because I’m afraid of getting it wrong, but also because I don’t intend to call anyone out. I’m more interested in simply responding to the ideas presented.)
Le Guin on Le Guin
Perhaps my favorite question was related to Le Guin’s commentary about her own novel. In particular, the asker wanted to know what I thought about Le Guin’s awareness of what her work might mean to others. The question reminded me of C. S. Lewis’s statement that authors are the worst people to ask about what their works mean. Generally speaking, my reply was that I thought Le Guin, who seems to have intentionally put in most (if not all) of the dualistic imagery that I discussed in my paper, might be the exception that proves Lewis’ rule.
The question was prompted, at least in part I believe, from a reference in my paper to Le Guin’s essay, “Is Gender Necessary? Redux,” collected in Dancing at the Edge of the World in 1989. The “Redux” refers to the fact that it was a self-annotated version of “Is Gender Necessary,” collected in Le Guin’s earlier set of essays, The Language of the Night. Both the original and annotated versions of the essay are primarily about Le Guin’s thoughts and goals related to The Left Hand of Darkness.
I found (and still find) it quite fascinating that Le Guin chose to republish her own essay with annotations on her thoughts a decade after the original was published. However, what I didn’t consider in the short time I had to respond during the conference, was that the very existence of “Redux” may require a negative response to the question asked.
Many of Le Guin’s annotations in “Redux” relate to changes in thought — both her own and throughout society – that occurred since originally writing both Left Hand and “Is Gender Necessary.” Some of these are simple emendations with stunningly large implications, such as noting that quotation marks around the word feminist should be removed, while others are snide or even caustic replies to her own phraseology.
Le Guin’s own commentary of her original essay, which itself is a commentary on the novel, shows that in fact she could not have known what was going on in her own story. In many cases, Le Guin’s commentary corrects, or at least attempts to mitigate, her earlier sentiments on the novel. In one particularly fascinating example, she calls younger herself out (both the original parenthetical and the reply to it are provided below with her own formatting and emphasis):
(…The fact is that the real subject of the book is not feminism or sex or gender or anything of the sort; as far as I can see, it is a book about betrayal and fidelity. That is why one of its two dominant sets of symbols is an extended metaphor of winter, of ice, snow, cold: the winter journey. The rest of this discussion will concern only half, the lesser half, of the book.)
[This parenthesis is overstated; I was feeling defensive, and resentful that critics of the book insisted upon talking only about its “gender problems,” as if it were an essay not a novel. “The fact is that the real subject of the book is…” This is bluster. I had opened a can of worms and was trying hard to shut it. “The fact is,” however, that there are other aspects to the book, which are involved with its sex/gender aspects quite inextricably.]
I think the biggest mistake I made in my original reply was to consider Le Guin as only an author; I did not consider her status as also a reader of her own work whose thoughts about it would change over time. While I still maintain that Le Guin did a wonderful job of addressing the issues she wanted to address, and knowingly added metaphors and symbols that supported her thoughts on the matter, I realize now that there’s no way she could have understood its impact on readers – even (and perhaps especially) when the reader was her own self.
Better Examples than This
One comment that I admit grated me a little was that The Left Hand of Darkness may not have been the best example as an exploration of dualism. The commenter noted that a number of other Le Guin novels – including The Dispossessed and The Word for World is Forest, both of which I have also read – also feature dualism, and are in fact better case studies of it.
My reply was two-fold. Initially, I reiterated that the prompt for the paper had come from Dr. Amy H. Sturgis’ Science Fiction II class, which I attended two years ago and in which I first read the novel. So even while acknowledging that there are other examples of dualistic thought in Le Guin’s work, my focus on this particular story was prompted by the occasion of me reading it. Furthermore, I am not in any way starting the study of dualism in Le Guin’s novel. As I presented, many others have written about Le Guin’s use of dualistic imagery to bolster the overall themes in the book, without pulling in references to other novels. My paper is, in part, a response to that earlier scholarship, which I think is very well done, but doesn’t fully cover the topics that may be explored. (Does any set of scholarship every fully cover anything?)
The second part of my reply was broader. Even if it is true that there are better examples of dualistic thought in Le Guin’s work, that does not mean we shouldn’t look at it. There is no doubt that Left Hand has had a lasting effect on many of its readers, and those who experience it in other ways. Certainly, I am not the only person engaging with the text – see, for example, writeups about recent stage productions of it – but even if I were, that statement would still be true.
The commenter’s opinion evinces what I see to be an unfortunately common mindset in literary analysis. There seems to be a meme that “serious” critics and scholars should spend their time looking only at the “best” works. This is a ridiculous sentiment. For one thing, designations like “best” are inherently subjective, and I am convinced that at least half of all literary scholarship is written with the attempt to prove that a particular story is de facto “the best” for one reason or another.
Such an approach is wrong. Literary criticism should examine what a text does. There may be a place to comment about whether there are other texts which do a thing better, based on whatever criteria the commenter decides, but that does not negate the value of studying the original text.
Furthermore, the idea that one should study only the best literature, even qualified as the best literature within a given topic, inevitably leads to a paradox. How does one know that a particular work is better at thing than another without studying it? Scholarship at its best is discovery.
The thing I did not say at the time of my response was that I believe there were several fallacies embedded in the question.
The first fallacy is a straw man. I never claimed to be presenting a paper about the best representation of dualism. My paper was only ever about the way that Le Guin uses character actions in Left Hand in a dualistically metaphorical way. Anyone who thinks my paper is arguing a position of superiority has not truly understood this central point.
The second fallacy is one of knowledge. I have not read everything that Le Guin has written about dualism. Nor have I read everything that others have written about dualism. The best representation of dualism may not even be a work by Le Guin. I don’t know whether any of Le Guin’s work is the best representation of dualism. It could be that the best thing ever written on dualism is an 8th century Sanskrit manuscript currently resting somewhere at the bottom of a pile in a New Delhi library. Since I don’t know what the best example might be, I’ll spend my time writing about the examples I do know.
The third fallacy is one of scope. The comment implies that my intent was to write about dualism as a broad topic. It was not. What I really wanted to write about was how Le Guin uses cruelty and kindness as a dualistic metaphor to comment on sexuality, gender, social behavior, institutionalization, militarism, and other things in Left Hand. In other words, my topic is much more specific than merely “dualism.” To my knowledge (and I admit that I have not read Le Guin’s follow-up short stories that are also set on Gethen), Le Guin does not explore this topic in the same way anywhere else. The dualism of The Dispossessed is tied to economics and political structures; the dualism of The Word for World Is Forest is tied to industrialization and environmental responsibility; the dualism of A Wizard of Earthsea is about internal psychology and learning how to accept the evil (or at least perceived evil) in one’s self. Of course, all of these bleed over, and there is probably an essay — nay, an entire series, which one might collect into a book — that could be written about how they all interact and intersect. However, to boil the topic of my paper, and the presentation on which it was based, to merely “dualism” is again to misunderstand my thesis.
Foretelling, Prescience and Psychohistory
One comment that I sort of brushed aside was related to a possible intersection between The Left Hand of Darkness and the paper presented by Neil Ottenstein in the same panel. Neil discussed similarities between the Hari Seldon’s psychohistory of Isaac Asimov’s first Foundation trilogy and the prescience of Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert’s book Dune. The connection made to Left Hand was with regard to the Foretellers of the Handdara in Karhide. Insofar as this relates to my own paper, the Handdara is in some respects a Zen-like or Taoist religion (although in the book itself, Estraven argues that the Handdara are not really a religion at all).
In Chapter 5, the primary viewpoint character Genly Ai visits a Fastness of the Handdara and goes to see the Foretellers. He asks the question, “Will this world Gethen be a member of the Ekumen of the Known Worlds, five years from now?” The question is answered positively, and indeed by the end of the book King Argavan XV of Karhide agrees to be the first of the rulers of Gethen to sign a treaty with the Ekumen. In “Winter’s King,” which tells the story of Argaven XVII, the Ekumen is still around (although David Lake writes that in that story “we see [Gethen] effectively lost to the Ekumen.”)
However, the Foretelling of the Handdara in Left Hand seems a different quality to me than that of the psychohistory of Foundation and the prescience of Dune. In both cases, the knowledge is given with an eye toward it being critical to know to either prevent or bring about certain changes. Neil’s paper even specifically drew that parallel and showed the attempts of the characters to act based on their predictions. The Weaver (one of the Foretellers) explains to Genly a different purpose for the Handdara: To learn the ultimate inconsequentiality of having such knowledge. “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”