Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Gender of War

As someone who approached The Left Hand of Darkness expecting it to be, fundamentally, a gender-focused text, I was surprised at how much of the novel seemed either a) totally unrelated to the issue of gender or b) applicable only by forced contortions of analysis that I’m not entirely confident making. While the Gethenians’ ambisexuality is arguably their most famous trait, it was their total lack of war that inspired their creation. In a telephone interview I found online, LeGuin is quoted as claiming the following concerning her writing process:

It all started when I began to imagine a society without war, a people that does not think in terms of war. They have murders and forays but never wars. What kind of people would they be? I thought. Obviously, they'd be different from us. But in what way? That's how I came to the idea of an androgynous society. As one character says in the book, war is a displaced male-generalized activity, something that men do and women don't.

The mental leap from (relative) pacifism to androgyny is not one that strikes me as particularly natural. While the traditional stereotypes are there (men as aggressive and independent, women as passive and communal), I don’t think the lack of a wholly male presence is enough to explain this implied link between bisexuality and war. After all, despite its uniformity of gender, Gethen is a world rife with tension and dualism, the most dramatic being the competitive political divide between Karhide and Orgoreyn.

A more likely explanation (although one that, too me, seems even less understandable) is the connection that LeGuin draws between women and anarchy. In her essay, “Is Gender Necessary? (Redux)”, she claims that:

The ‘female principle’ has historically been anarchic; that is, anarchy has historically been identified as female. The domain allotted to women—‘the family’, for example—is the area of order without coercion, rule by custom not force. Men have reserved the structures of social power to themselves… (11-12).

According to this analysis, the “feminine” Karhide exists under a system of authority “without appeal to patriarchal ideals of divine right, patriotic duty, etc.” In this way, Tibe’s attempt to draw Karhide into a war as a quick and dirty way of mobilizing the land into a true “nation” by unifying the disparate “hearths” represents a shift from the feminine (or at least, balance) to the masculine.

Similarly, the concept of patriotism is a puzzle that haunts Ai and Estraven (and, by extension, the reader) throughout the text. Although Ai initially views it as a positive attribute (which seems fitting, as it is “male” according to LeGuin’s classifications, and Ai is the only truly male character), he comes to understand Estraven’s definition of patriotism as “the fear of the other” (19) and potentially “hate of one’s uncountry” (212). Taking the novel’s apparent endorsement of cooperation and interdependency into account, this seems to be a condemnation. By the end, Ai acknowledges, not precisely the evils of patriotism, but rather its potential for corruption. He notes: “And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend's voice arises: and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?” (280)

To sum up, LeGuin seems to imply that patriotism, as a divisive force, is both “masculine” and tied to war in such a way that, without men, there is no patriotism, and without patriotism, there is no war. While I still don’t entirely agree with this (I don’t think that concepts like “patriotism” can be assigned a gender), it’s a philosophy that seems consistent throughout the novel.

Interview source: http://www.angelfire.com/ny/gaybooks/lefthandofdarkness.html#interview


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