Monday, January 10, 2011

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

[Wikipedia article for your reference]
I doubt I will find many fellow readers of Le Guin who will agree with me, but I was shocked (and obviously seriously dismayed) to find a subterranean similarity to Ayn Rand, and particularly to Anthem, in this novel.

There are a couple of positive references (1, 2) to libertarianism in The Dispossessed, but that is somewhat misleading and not what I am talking about; Anarres, the homeworld of the novel's protagonist, is diametrically opposite to the unfettered market and ultra-individualism that mark Rand's political visions. Anarres lacks any form of market whatsoever, and its basic unit of political organization is not the individual nor even a family but a syndicate or a work gang; the only forms of exchange are carried out in central depots or stockrooms where one may swap a broken chair for a new (or more likely a newly repaired) one, a mended pair of boots for a worn set. Possessiveness is absolutely minimal in Anarresti society, and if its inhabitants have a fault, it is that they push back too reflexively against anyone "egoizing"—drawing attention to themselves or attempting to consolidate power or authority, preventing either from being continuously and randomly distributed and redistributed. And if this weren't clear enough, Le Guin offers us a sort of techno-capitalist society for contrast: A-Io, a nation on Anarres's twin-world Urras, is much like the United States, only it reveres scientists and engineers much more, treating them like pashas. The class structure is also much more openly defined; the only societal arrangements that Le Guin shows resemble the upstairs-downstairs divisions of British manor houses. This isn't very much like Rand either.

What Le Guin's book holds in common with Rand, however, is an unfailing excitement at the quite adolescent belief that genius, like murder, will out, that the brightest lights can never be smothered or hidden, that even if you try, no bushel-basket will obscure nor occlude nor even diminish the full force of one's magnificence. "But you are not like other men," Shevek, the galactically brilliant physicist-protagonist, is told, "There is a difference in you." "Since he was very young he had known that in certain ways he was unlike anyone else he knew. For a child the consciousness of such difference is very painful, since, having done nothing yet and being incapable of doing anything, he cannot justify it." "If there was a circle of silence around him, it was no bother to him, he had always been alone." The scientist (or industrialist, for Rand) is a hero not so much for specific real achievements, but for being a sort of symbolic force in and of himself, a natural aristocrat, uncontainable, transcendent, magnetic. His suffering, which is a sort of Passion, occurs because (or occurs if) he feels slightly bad for being so naturally transcendent and wants to try to be ordinary, to put his shoulder against the common load.

I frankly found the supposedly charismatic Shevek to be fairly flat and dull, although I suppose some will claim that his blandness and generally self-righteous insipidity is beside the point—I forget, the focus of the book is the world-building, the world-building. I would believe that, only the world-building falls into some grey limbo midway between ethnography or microhistory and allegory; we get lots of lovely and highly textured detail, but Le Guin seems dissatisfied with letting anything remain a detail—her worlds don't just function (and frankly, I feel that at some points, their functionality is very open to question), but more importantly, they mean. Le Guin's world-building is too efficient—all material problems, such as famine, communication, violence, sexual reproduction, and so on, are squeezed for every drop of potential macro-level political analysis: every situation, every feature, every difference is an opportunity not for description, but for observation and a full-scale society-wide evaluation—an opportunity to turn the society into a metaphor, singular, smooth, and homogeneous.

Unlike many readers, I don't particularly mind preachiness or even propaganda in literature—or in film: concurrent with reading this novel, I watched and hugely enjoyed the USSR-Cuban collaboration Soy Cuba, which one might say is on the didactic side. I adamantly do not think that undigested political content is objectionable or automatically flaws a work. What I am objecting to about Le Guin's novel is not that its fingers of rhetoric are blunt and rather clasping. My objection is simply that Le Guin, rather like Rand, fails to acknowledge that those fingers might not grasp firmly enough: Le Guin has too much faith that her political analysis and her world-building are mutually supporting, that the worlds she builds furnish all the evidence she needs for the hypotheses she is testing, and that those hypotheses adequately encompass the worlds she is building. Nothing escapes.

It's not that there isn't variety within Anarresti society (or Urrasti society): there are people of many kinds, certainly. But society isn't really made up of people or even structures for Le Guin: it's made up of ideas—big solid ones, like anarchism or social Darwinism, which can be chosen as if on a menu, only not ever a la carte but always prix fixe. Furthermore, these big ideas, and the choices between them, are always present, even immediately available, to all the characters. There is no mediating term, or set of mediating terms, between the symbolic and the material—everyone is always conscious of the full ideological ramifications of each decision, each action, each word—there is basically no such thing as false consciousness or even indifferent consciousness. No one writes, no one works, no one speaks without considering where they stand ideologically. Everything is a clash of ideas, a validation of one idea or a rebuttal to another. It's somewhat exhausting, like an all-night freshman year bull-session. Or, perhaps, like certain moments in the Cold War.

This super-consciousness of ideology is, in a kind of brilliant but also a very overstated way, a politicization and massive enlargement of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which Wikipedia pointed out to me is a major theme of the novel). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is, in simplistic terms, that the language you use (more accurately, the language that your society gives you to use) determines the way that you can think about the world. For instance, early in the novel, Shevek notes that the way Anarresti society acknowledges the importance of something is to say that it is "more central," whereas the way that Urrasti society flags importance is through height—better things are "higher," worse things are "lower" (15). The political ramifications of this basic divide are clear and rather elementary, although for a truly radical anarchism (as Le Guin claims Anarresti society is), ranking things based on their relationship to a center would still be a form of hierarchy; to some extent, it is that Le Guin's own conceptual categories are impeding her ability to form a clear distinction between the societies—she assumes hierarchy can only be vertically oriented.

Yet that is not the vindication of Sapir-Whorfianism that one might think, as the whole distinction makes little practical or experiential sense. It is worth noting, as it is rather indicative of my issues with Le Guin's schematism, that most English-users, at least those I have encountered, often use a mixture of these categories, and at times even invert the "high-low" valuation—when you say something is "more fundamental" or "more basic" or that you are "getting to the bottom of something," isn't the idea that the more valuable or more important things reside lower down? We may also conjoin temporality with significance: something that has greater "priority" is obviously more important, better for you to attend to. Even weight may serve to order degrees of importance: a light matter is a lesser matter. For Le Guin, as for the stronger versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, these kinds of mixtures are at least unlikely if not illusory; one can divide and analyze societies based on the metaphors or conceptual categories they employ because they are assumed to employ only one.

I think Le Guin probably knows that, actually, but the reason she makes things so stark and univocal is that she believes that a revolutionary society (like Anarres) will enforce such univocality (how that explains the starkness of Urrasti linguistic categories, I don't know). And to some extent, this is historically correct: in the wake of many revolutions, an attempt to "correct" or standardize language is common, from the renaming of months and the abolition of hereditary titles after the French Revolution to the distribution of Mao's pamphlets in the Cultural Revolution. Yet the story she tells about her revolutionary society—150 years before the action of the novel, there was a minority religious dissident group who convinced the Urrasti majority to transport (and abandon) them to their habitable but desolate "moon," Anarres, where this dissident group founded a new anarchist society and invented a new language—is peculiar, or rather inconsistent.

The point of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, at least as I understand it, is that someone is generally not aware of the conceptual limits placed upon her by the language she uses: she doesn't experience her language as insufficient, as "not having words for some things." The conceptual limits of a language are experienced as natural limits. Natural, that is, unless one comes into contact with a language that has words which have no possible cognate, or none that is easily articulable. Now, Le Guin attempts to isolate her revolutionary society so that these limits should not be experienced; communication with Urras is extremely limited, taking place within a very small circle of people, and knowledge of the Urrasti language is highly controlled. Yet the fact that the Anarrestis originated on Urras makes this isolation sort of hopeless: for instance in one scene, Shevek addresses his partner Takver thus: "What are you doing—indulging guilt feelings? Wallowing?" And Le Guin tells us in an aside:
The word he used was not "wallowing," there being no animals on Anarres to make wallows; it was a compound, meaning literally "coating continually and thickly with excrement." The flexibility and precision of Pravic [the revolutionary language of Anarres] lent itself to the creation of vivid metaphors quite unforeseen by its inventors. (332)
The Pravic word that Shevek uses—whatever it is—may be new, revolutionary, not indebted to Urras, but the concept "coating continually and thickly with excrement" is unthinkable apart from a memory of something that actually does this action—an Urrasti memory. Humans do not undertake this action and no one would think to associate self-indulgent self-recrimination with this action merely out of the blue; it seems implausible that anyone would even conceive of this action without some awareness of it being done by something somewhere. The name may have changed, but the persistence of the concept proves a continuity that suggests that Anarrestis must, from time-to-time, still experience linguistic lacks, unnameable residual concepts that make visible the artifices of their recently created language.

It is possible—in fact, it is definite—that Le Guin knows that the Anarresti revolution, the overthrow of "archism" (as in the opposite of anarchism) is always going to be incomplete, that power collects, aggregates, if not in the hands of individuals, then in the customs of society. This is largely the "lesson" one gets from reading the book. Yet that does not really let her off the hook. The point is not that no revolution can ever be complete (or, in slightly different language, that any revolution is perfect), but that the distinctions she draws between Anarres and Urras are not supported by the world she describes. The incomplete revolution is still so nakedly different from the lack of a revolution, and no one ever forgets that, not even while dealing with "excrement." Le Guin seems to assume that this permanent consciousness in fact determines the social being of her characters, but it becomes quite clear that this idealism is no more convincing than a vulgar materialism—social being mechanically determining or producing consciousness.

The Dispossessed is an experiment that quietly buries a number of its variables under the weight of metaphor. It wants to dramatize ideas without dramatizing enough life, and even on its own terms, I think it misses the mark it sets for itself.


Biblibio said...

I've only read two books by Le Guin (and neither is The Dispossessed...) so I cannot comment fully, but this is a fascinating post on a book that I would still really like to read. I've often heard in criticism of The Dispossessed that it's far more a political, philosophical and very dense novel than science fiction. Thus the comparison to Rand doesn't really surprise me, but I am curious to experience it for myself... I'll be interested to reread this post (which is great even without the context) afterwards.

Nuno Miranda Ribeiro said...

The Google search that brought me here was one of those very naive (but sometimes rewarded by a surprise) attempts of finding a very specific thing. I'm a bit embarassed about it, but you could find it anyway, in your stats: I was trying to find any comments of Ursula K. Le Guin about Ayn Rand. I had just watched "The Fountainhead" and read about "Atlas Shrugged" on Wikipedia and was intrigued by this very ingenious fictional consctruction that Ayn Rand pulled on "The Fountainhead".

Like you, I have no problems with ideology on a movie, a novel or any other narrative. I'm not using "preachiness or even propaganda", your expressions, because sometimes ideology is not very explicit. Or, in other terms, it is explicit propaganda (if you want to read it as such, and can understand the context and underlying messages and symbolism) but you don't really feel being preached at.

"The Fountainhead" is a brilliant movie. And a very ideological movie. After reading in Wikipedia about the novel "Atlas Shrugged", I felt even more curious about Ayn Rand. Sometime ago, I had stumbled upon something about her work on Objectivism, but did not look further into it. But this time I did dig deeper. This time I even read on Wikisource, her testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, on 1947. And it's a brilliant critique, before the Committe, of how the film "Song of Russia" is really communist propaganda.

Ursula K. Le Guin is my favorite writer. I have trouble with the concept of "fan", so I would not consider myself her fan. But "The Dispossessed" was my first book from her. I read it in a portuguese translated version. And then all (but one, that I still couldn't find and buy) of the Hainish Cycle novels and shortstories on the original english.

I think that Ursual K. Le Guin, and don't trust me fully, because as someone who admires her, I am biased, does not try to think for the reader. She uses her view on society, of course, but what she does is what she calls (and I trust her, because I admire her) "thought experiments", where she, by the artifice of science fiction, creates situations (societies, civilizations, moments in history) where elements of human nature, of the dynamic of society, of the complexity of gender relationships, can be looked upon. But then she never tells the reader, "this is what you should think about it".

Well, I was confronted with a masterpice, "Fountainhead", and I am convinced it is a masterpiece, that uses the opposite aproach. It tells me exactelly what to think. It displays situations, characters, a plot, to demonstrate me what is correct, what I should think. And, if that isn't enough, at the end, there is a heartbreaking, inspiring speech, in a courtroom, where the hero expresses cleary what is the right way to think.


Nuno Miranda Ribeiro said...


Because it is so brilliant, and because, when I looked on Rand's Wiki, the plot of "Atlas Shrugged" seemed interesting enough, I was in my mind just thinking, "I wonder what Ursula thinks about Ayn Rand's books?". And I had the google page in front of me, and I still don't know what Ursula thinks about Rand's books, but I know what you shared about my favorite book. And it was one of the most interesting, most comprehensive and though provoking critiques I read about that book. It's easy to just dismiss one book, and say a lot of clichés, or to praise it with a whole set of different clichés. But it's harder to actually go deep into the meaning of the book, and the way it was written. And that's what you did.

You made me want to read the book again. And now I have another edition, in the original english. It's about time I confront my fear of being disappointed, with a book that has meant so much for so many years. I'm not sure I would disagree with you, as much as I do now, on a point or two, after I finish rereading the book.

Something that usually disapoints science fiction readers is the perception that a world, a planet, a society, a piece of technology is not sufficiently described, in a manner that conveys credibility, that makes it feel authentic. They usually focus on technology, and the ability to create an image of an exotic future, or an exotic alien elsewhere. I was happy to see that you are far from this. From what I could understand you found that Ursula lack the capacity to make you feel like you were reading about real people. It was as if you were just communicating with her ideas, and the characters never stopped being characters in the very detalied scenario she set up for you. I was delighted by your irony, saying that her world-conceiving is too efficent.

Well, you know. I think that maybe this is part of why I like her "though-experiments". Maybe she can make clear for me, in a very eficient way, what the experiment is. The ideas are very solid, and well structured and explicit. And societies are built in a way that is very plausible, not a in future-guessing way ("oh, we could be heading that way"), but because I recognize human nature and human societies there.

A lot different from the compelling nature of the movie "The Fountainhead", that wishes to seduce me to think "oh, if only", and to persuade me to actually think that the human nature is as portrayed in the movie. The ideology in the movie is not an experiment, it is the message that wants to be passed on.

Ideology, on "The Dispossessed" is being looked at. And Shevek, even if dull (when I rearead, I will be able to be disapointed there), can express either our look as a proponent from one side to aproach the other and try to understand it (it was published in 1974, during the Cold War), or the wish that science and rational thinking can be the mediator between two ideological forces, or just our swinging eye from one society to the other. Of course, being published in the USA during the Cold War, where anti-communism was so prevalent, it was a chance to let people see both what a colectivist society could be like (and there was never a human society like that, for 150 years), inststead of just relying of the official standard portrayal of all communist societies and look with a distance to their own society. And see what they could extrapolate for their own present geo-politics and the USA/USSR tension.

It's getting too long, I'm afraid I lack the ability to be brief. Thank you for making me think about a book that I was beggining to take for granted. It's good to be able to think about what is getting cristalized in your emtional and political self. Your analisys allowed to rethink myself and I only refer to a small part of all the interesting things you said.

Thank you for what you wrote,
I'll check your blog,