Friday, January 26, 2018

Thank you, Ursula le Guin

In her speech on receiving the National Book Foundation Medal in 2014, Ursula Le Guin, who died this past week at the age of 88, scolded publishers for giving over their responsibility to support good writing and great literature to the sales department, which often promotes authors as if they were deodorant. Books ae not just commodities, Le Guin argued, and said that now that she was nearing the end of her career she did not want to watch American literature get trivialized, for, she proudly insisted, the name of the beautiful reward writers seek is not profit, but freedom.
.  La Guin called her most famous short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a variation on a theme by William James. In her introduction to her book The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975), she cites the following passage from James's essay "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" as the ideological source of the story:
[If] the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specific and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain."
Indeed, the story is geometrically neat in its exploration of the nature of human happiness. The first half presents the familiar convention in science fiction and fantasy of the futuristic utopia. 
However, the narrator, aware of the perfect utopian nature of Omelas and of the human skepticism about such complete happiness, chides readers for the bad habit, encouraged by sophisticates and pedants, of considering happiness as something rather stupid and only evil interesting.  To belie these very words, the story inevitably reaches a point at which the narrator says that if we do not believe the joy of the beautiful city, then one more thing must be described.  At this point, the narrator shifts to a description of the hidden child, which is, as Collins suggests, the classic image of the scapegoat.  The magic of the scapegoat depends on the willingness of the people to rationalize the existence of evil as something that exists outside of themselves, for which they have no responsibility.
The people of Omelas are not happy because they are ignorant of the child, but precisely because they are aware of it.  The ones who leave Omelas may be the weaker ones because they cannot live with the knowledge of evil, and thus they leave for some place where they think there is no evil.  As the narrator says, such a place may not even exist. 
Changing Planes, one of her last books, before she decided that her fiction inspiration had dried up, is a classic example of the “what if” school of literary creation. “What if” you took the most tedious hiatus of modern life—the mind-numbing wait in an airport between changing planes—and transformed it into a marvelous opportunity to change planes of reality? 
After a brief introduction describing the method of one Sita Dulip of Cincinnati, who discovered that by an imaginative twist she could go anywhere “because she was already between planes,” Le Guin “what ifs’ her way through fifteen Gulliverian and Borgesian explorations of “interplanary travel.”
Although these playful pieces make no pretense to the biting satire of Jonathan Swift or the profound epistemology of Jorge Borges, Le Guin seems to have great fun here puncturing some of the pretenses of modern society and examining some of the paradoxes of the human condition. Among the Swiftian satires are stories about the Veksi, a species of angry people whose social life consists of arguments, fights, sulks, brawls, feuds, and acts of vengeance; the Ansarac, a migratory race whose elegant birdlike beauty is intolerable to more “civilized” planes; and the Hegns, all of whom are members of a Royal Family. 
The Borgesian explorations include tales of the Asonu, a profound people who have no language because transcendent knowledge cannot be expressed in language; the Hennebet who, because they make no split between body and spirit, have no need for religion, dogma, or formulated metaphysics; and the Frin who all dream the same dreams and thus experience a true communal bonding.
This “what if” method of creation, although sometimes satirically scintillating and occasionally philosophically profound, runs the risk of every so often becoming merely sophomorically silly. For example, if there is an actual Easter Island and an actual Christmas Island, “what if” there were a Halloween Island, a July Fourth Island, a New Year’s Island, etc.? And what about Wake Island?   What would life and reality itself be like if there were a people who never slept at all?  Would they all be geniuses because they did not waste time in idle slumber, or would they only be able to live in mundane fact because the way to truth is through lies and dreams?
The great nineteenth-century poet and thinker Samuel Taylor Coleridge once made an important distinction between Fancy and Imagination.  Creative products of Fancy, he suggested, are clever composites of disparate things that may amuse and edify, but creations of the imagination are genuinely new entities that exceed the mere sum of their parts. Although Ursula K. Le Guin has succeeded in the past in creating provocative works of true imagination, in Changing Planes she is mostly just having some fanciful fun.  These are not masterful satires that will alter your view of society, nor are they profound parables that will change your notion of what reality is.  But they are amusing “what ifs” with which you can pleasantly pass some stale time while you are waiting to change planes in an airport, which Le Guin describes as a “nonplace in which time does not pass and there is no hope of any meaningful existence.”
Ursula Le Guin, thank you for the profound sense of a meaningful existence you gave us.  We will miss you.