Wednesday, March 2, 2011

LeGuin's debts

As Jasmine and Arlyn have already perceptively fleshed out LeGuin’s reliance on, or reversion to, essentialist gender divisions, I’d like to try to advance the argument one more step, for it seems to me that LeGuin’s gender essentialism is largely a consequence of her decision to hue rather closely to the paradigm of existing human society in other respects. I’d hardly hold this against her—it’s a common feature of utopian fiction, and says more about the difficulty (and perhaps even ultimate inutility) of utopian fantasy than her skills as an author. Besides, for the most part this objection is somewhat necessarily exaggerated in conversation about the novel’s premise and style (both of which strike me as quite fantastic, after Kai), fading upon further exposure.

First, though, I’d like to hesitate on this idea—on the observation that a society perennially at peace lurching towards war sounds less like the fictional utopian product of cognitive estrangement than that process’ abandonment halfway. What particularly interests me is the possibility that one might follow this only half-estranged mode of authorship (“this estrangement which is not one”?) into the world of Gethen. Hints are available on the very first page, where the inventiveness of (science) fiction seems to unify more than it divides: “if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them is false, and it is all one story” (Left Hand of Darkness 1).

The real discovery, however, comes with a lavish description of a spiritual sect in kemmer. I, at least, expected to find a kind of depersonalizing, anarchist transcendence; perhaps I was projecting too forcefully the American versions of “Eastern” spirituality popularized in LeGuin’s 60s and 70s, although the elucidation of “the Handdarata discipline of Presence, which is a kind of trance . . . involving self-loss (self-augmentation?) through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness”—especially in light of LeGuin’s explicit admission that she was “thinking of a Taoist ideal”—is relatively unambiguous in its debts (LHOD 57, Dancing at the Edge of the World 12). (The derivation of “Handdarata” from “Handdara” would even allow us to specify our subject as Indian orientalism.) Instead, however, the psycho-sexual episode proves to be mastered by “the Weaver”: “the center was still Faxe.” (65) The content and context of the fiction is fantastic, in other words (in every sense of the word), but its structure is as familiar to the modern human reader as mind control. That one of the most transcendent forms of interpersonal communication on Gethen should retain such a stark degree of individual authority says, I think, quite a bit about LeGuin’s idea of authority in general.


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