Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Fundamental Truth

"His name is a cry of pain," Estraven says of Ai, as they cross the Ice together (229). Yet "Ai" also means "love," in both Chinese and Japanese, and Le Guin's description of the Gethenians as "yellow-brown" (35) and the similarity between the religions of Winter and some East Asian traditions suggest that this double meaning is not accidental. Le Guin's protagonist, in these two letters, captures one of the key ideas of The Left Hand of Darkness: opposites must exist together. Love cannot exist without pain. They are, in fact, the same: the same word, the same sound. How one interprets it depends on one's own perspective: Estraven, when he first hears Ai's name, "heard a cry of pain from a human throat" (299), but eventually grows to see him as a figure of love and support instead. As the two figures will learn in Estraven's final moments, the two perspectives must coexist: "he answered my love for him, crying out through the silent wreck and tumult of his mind" (284).

By mispronouncing Genly Ai's name as "Genry," the Karhiders also unwittingly make a statement about Ai's mission, his very nature. "Genri" (the closest approximation of Ai's name in the Japanese sound system) is a Japanese word meaning "basic principle" or "fundamental truth." But "Genry" is really "Genly"; the "fundamental truth" in his name is a misconstruction, a misunderstanding, grown from the restrictions inherent in the Karhiders' language.

"Truth is a matter of imagination" (1), Ai comments, in the novel's opening , but perhaps it would be better to say that truth in this novel is a matter of perception. On the world of Winter, where it is always Year One, people focus on the present moment, moving and reforming both the past and the future in relation to themselves. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin explores not only the problems of duality and wholeness, but also the problem of the self versus the world, of our inability to experience the world objectively, to know any "fundamental truths," because we are trapped within our own present, our own perspective.

In his role as envoy, Ai attempts to bring Winter into interplanetary cooperation, developing a "fundamental truth" of humanity through communication and exchange. Part of the Ekumen's mission appears to be to lead each planet to achieve the highest standards of humanity, to fill in the gaps in each one's development and knowledge, to create an assimilated form of "humanity" across every planet. However, the Gethenians, by their very being, contradict this mission, being the only branch of humanity thus-far discovered that is not divided into two separate genders. When confronted with these people, Ai must slowly learn that he is trapped in his own perspective, in the norms and fundamental truths that he expects from the world around him. He enforces his own experience of gender on the Gethenians, calling them "he," "men" (at least, until they display negative traits, which he often attributes to their femininity), partly because he knows no other way to think of a person. Just as he wonders, "How could I explain the Age of the Enemy, and its aftereffects, to a people who had no word for war?" (136), he himself is unable to understand the Gethenians in their entirety because his language (and the language with which Le Guin writes the novel) is unable to capture something that is simultaneously male and female: it must always choose one or the other.

If there is one "fundamental truth" of humanity to be learned from Ai, it is that one cannot escape from one's own perspective. One's impressions of the world and its truths must always be subjective, bound by one's own language, experiences and expectations. Ai's story may at first appear to be movement towards greater objectivity, to an understanding outside of himself, as he grows first to talk of himself and Estraven as "the alien" and "the other alien" (213), and eventually to accept Estraven "as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refuse him his own reality" (248). However, when his fellow envoys arrive at the end of the novel, he now considers them strange and inhuman: "great, strange animals, of two different species" (296). After three years on Winter, his perspective has simply shifted. The only fundamental truth, perhaps, is therefore that there is no fundamental truth. We cannot completely escape from our present perspective.


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