Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reading and Misreading: Author as Guide

My discussion in last week’s blog post about Tiptree and Klimt might have been a bit of a stretch, but this week’s connection between Le Guin and Tolstoy may actually be justified! In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin refers a few times to the battle of Borodino (xiii), which to me, brings only one thing to mind: WAR AND PEACE. Besides the problematic issue of truth and lies in fiction, an issue Tolstoy dealt with quite a bit and that appears in both Le Guin’s introduction and the book itself, there are certain parts of The Left Hand of Darkness that seem to echo Tolstoy. For example, here is a bit of conversation between Genly Ai and the Weaver, Faxe:

“Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable—the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?

“That we shall die.”

“Yes. There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer…The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” (70)

And here are a few lines from Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace:

What is bad? What is good? What should we love and what hate? What do we live for? And what am I? What is life, and what is death? What Power governs it all?

There was no answer to any of these questions, except one, and that not a logical answer and not at all a reply to them. The answer was: ‘You’ll die and all will end. You’ll die and know all, or cease asking.’

…All we can know is that we know nothing. And that’s the height of human wisdom. (372)

Perhaps I imposed this connection on the two texts merely because I happened to be reading this very part of War and Peace (SLA 415 is awesome) and The Left Hand of Darkness at the same time. But, like Tolstoy in his defense of his work in “Some Words About War and Peace,” Le Guin feels the need to defend her novel in “Is Gender Necessary?” As stated in one of the bracketed sections added in 1987, Le Guin felt “resentful” of critics who looked at The Left Hand of Darkness as an essay on “gender problems” and not as a novel (8). Le Guin emphatically states that the book is in fact a novel, “the record of my consciousness, the process of my thinking” (8). This also prompts the question of just what a novel is. Tolstoy famously argues that War and Peace is not a novel at all, but that is a whole other issue.

Le Guin and Tolstoy both felt the need to explain their works more fully to readers—books on their own might be misunderstood and misread, as essays or epics or philosophical tracts instead of novels. What does it mean when an author feels the need to step forward and explain their work? Should a novel be understandable on its own, and readers free to interpret it however they wish, or should the writer exert control not only on what is read but how it is read as well?

*Side note that does not relate to the rest of my post but that might be of interest: In Plato’s Symposium, which includes a variety of short discourses on the nature of love, Aristophanes proposes that in the past, the “sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word ‘Androgynous’ is only preserved as a term of reproach.” According to Aristophanes' account, primeval man consisted of what we would think of as two different people (of the same sex or different) merged together: everyone had four hands, four feet, two faces, and two “privy members.” Zeus then split everyone in half so that “Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half.”

Obviously, the androgyny of the Gethenians is quite different from this account, but it might be interesting to compare the two.

If anyone would like to take a look at Plato’s Symposium: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html


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