Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ai and Estraven

The relationship between Ai and Estraven takes long to develop because of Ai’s distrust and Estraven’s failure to communicate. But the biological division is still greater than the social ones, and the journey across the ice parallels the slow process of empathy. Genly Ai describes Estraven in physical, somer-kemmer or woman-man dualized terms, especially by sight: “I saw [Estraven] now defenseless and half-naked in a colder light … and saw him as he was” (201), “I saw then again … what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in [Estraven]: that he was a woman as well as a man” (248). For Ai, their defining moment of friendship came from accepting the difference between the two, and yet the power in the scene (248–249) derives from the great potential of their mutual love during Estraven’s kemmer.

Ai’s valuation of physical sexuality and love contrast Estraven’s use of intuition and psychological understanding, as mysterious as the nature through which they travel: “There is a frailty about [Ai] … he has a spirit easy to despair and quick to defiance: a fierce impatient courage” (227), “[Ai’s] name is a cry of pain” (229), “I am infected by Ai’s pure pleasure” (230). Even Estraven’s curiosity of Ai’s kemmer-perversion is framed in terms of what Estraven believes is Ai’s “low-grade sort of desire” (232) and not primarily a physical description.

Ai and Estraven also differ in their narrative styles. Whereas Ai frequently writes as “I” and recalls dialogue, Estraven instead observes, describes, and conjectures. Again one sees the dualism between seeing, through one’s own eye, and intuiting as facets of getting to the truth, which for each is appreciation for the other. The physical love, seeing-is-believing methodology of Ai then is a rather Western perspective next to the Estraven’s Eastern intuition: emotional, patient, trust-valuing, believing-is-seeing. But their apparent equality in the fairness of a harsh environment covers, with a layer of snow, the dominance each school exerts on either Ai or Estraven, who only when stripped bare of the social and normative values of Karhide or Terra—shifgrethor and masculinity—contemplate a substantial friendship aided by the tension of kemmer between aliens. The periodic changes in narrative voice provides a better “blending process” than, say, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” which as Rhiannon pointed out is characterized by a marked imbalance.

On the other hand, such an imbalance is present but not at the detailed, personal level which suggests a gradual acceptance of otherness. Instead, the ultimate arrival of Ai’s ship, the prophecy of Gethen’s alliance, and Estraven’s death are each conquests, however empathetic or nonviolent, which in this case are of the Western ideas over the Eastern. More important than the exactly posed conflict is Ai’s final isolation following his transformation across the ice. In a position to understand and appreciate both worlds, Ai instead sees in his own kind as “great apes with intelligent eyes” while finding “familiar” the ungendered face of a Gethenian (296). Had Estraven survived, they may have experienced a similar alienation among his Karhidians, who in fact betrayed him to punish his own attempt for understanding. Is this the cost of acknowledging the other? The story ends before we see the Ekumen and Gethen’s progress, so Ai and Estraven are tragic characters. Or, perhaps the way to reaching out to the other may be attained, as Ai did, at the level of personal touch, and its prevalence increased by diffusion rather than swept away by some clash of cultures.


Anonymous said...


I've just come across your blog while writing/drawing about the ansible and the Ekumen in Le Guin's work. I'd like to follow but I'm not sure how from my Wordpress account.

Anyway: Here is me talking ansible, ekumen, empathy:



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