Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Trapped in Kemmer

Alien; gender; androgynous; war; normalcy

There were several things that struck me as amazing about The Left Hand of Darkness. The most memorable one after finishing the book was the way that my own sense of normalcy as a reader shifted with Genly Ai. Throughout the first chunk of the book when he is still marveling at the androgynous nature of their society, even though they call him a pervert he and we feel more like the Gethens are the strange ones. However, by the very end when Genly’s starship lands and he touches a female again, distinct genders seem strange; not androgyny.

In fact, his reaction (which forces him to seek asylum in his room and be stabilizes) implies that as opposed to his earlier analysis of kemmering—assuming that Gethens were at a heightened state of passion during that stage as opposed to the human norm—may have been wrong. Perhaps the Gethen analysis of him as ‘always beings in a state of kemmer is the more accurate view and this realization, although intentionally left for us to ponder as readers changes quite a lot. LeGuin is quite detailed in her description of the kemmer state as one in which base passions rule everything the Gethens do; and since it is such a stark contrast they as a society of set up release valves and learned to manage it. However, in our society if we are constantly being ruled by our baser passions, is it no wonder that we have war and the Gethen people do not.

This concept of the existence of permanent male/female gender roles being one of the possible causes of war is extremely interesting to ponder—as is the much slower pace of technological progress. While both of these things can also be rationalized by Winter’s remarkably cold climate; it is more interesting to consider the necessity of irrational actions to both war and inspiration. On Winter, technology that is necessary, like the remarkably efficient space heater carried during their trek across the ice, is fully realized and better than many things we have in reality. However, much other technology seems stalled, primarily because they see no need to make technological improvements just to make things easier or because “they can” instead they only waste the resources to modernize if it is necessary to overcome a problem.

Similarly, although killing exists in their society, large scale war and the inherent waste that comes as part of it (lost labor, scorched earth type tactics) are so irrational that although the concept exists in Gethen society; it has never been acted on. Their humanity, despite their dramatic difference from us, defines them perhaps more than it does us. As Genly says, when his young physician comes to sedate him after he reunites with his crew, “his face, a young, serious face, not a man’s face and not woman’s, a human face, these were a relief to me, familiar, right.”


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