(crossposted at a personal blog where I keep in touch with some friends; I don’t care if you look it up)
I’ve been on a huge Le Guin kick lately. One of my friends likes to say “Le Guin makes me angry because she’s too perfect”.
She has an interview about the Dispossessed and its use by the Occupy movement, so I read that one first. Followed by “The word for world is forest”, and “The left hand of darkness.” I’d already read “Gifts” and “Voices” and “The Telling”, some time ago, but never the Earthsea books, which is ridiculous really.
The protagonist of the book comes from a society that we learn more about as the book unfolds. It is not only a society that doesn’t believe in authority, it also doesn’t believe in ownership of anything: objects, space, anything. In some ways it seems like the perfect, nonviolent anarchist society, but it gets deconstructed later in the book. Nevertheless it is contrasted with what I might call a steampunk society: full of futuristic technology and science as predicted by a 70’s sci-fi writer, but with class divisions, codified sexism, and capitalism that remind me of the Gilded Age.
The protagonist is actually traveling from a moon-with-an-atmosphere to its Class M planet, and the first conversation takes place between him and the ship’s doctor. To give the full effect I’d have to excerpt two or three pages. But here are three quotes:
Kimoe’s ideas never seemed to be able to go in a straight line; they had to walk around this and avoid that, and then they ended up smack against a wall. There were walls around all his thoughts, and he seemed utterly unaware of them, though he was perpetually hiding behind them. Only once did Shevek see them breached, in all their days of conversation between the worlds.
He had asked why there were no women on the ship, and Kimoe had replied that running a space freighter was not women’s work.
and after some conversation,
‘You can’t pretend, surely, in your work, that women are your equals? In physics, in mathematics, in the intellect? You can’t pretend to lower yourself constantly to their level?’…’Of course, I have known highly intelligent women, women who could think just like a man,’ the doctor said, hurriedly, aware that he had been almost shouting–that he had, Shevek thought, been pounding his hands against the locked door and shouting…
This brings up the first metaphor that really fascinate me. It is the idea of mental walls and obstacles: concepts so inflexibly reinforced by society that one cannot think through them without a great deal of effort. Rather than the idea of a force or direction as “cognitive bias” conveys, it has the idea of rigidity, of forcing ones mind into strange courses that I usually call “rationalizations”. But the metaphorical possibilities are endless. Mazes where one sets out confidently in one direction, but is guided by walls and choices to one altogether opposite. Circular logic, of course, when the walls are in the center. And so on. And then there are the tactics of what you do when you realize you’re stuck: scream for help, find a hand over the wall, try to force your way through the hedge, or trim the hedge until you have room. And then there are the people grabbing pieces of your life and using them violently to cement their own walls…I love it. I suppose the idea of “walls” has been said before but never has it been so clear to me.
Later, when the protagonist meets a few other intellectual men of the new world, and starts another conversation about the absence of women, another metaphor comes up:
Shevek saw that he had touched in these men an impersonal animosity that went very deep. Apparently they, like the tables on the ship, contained a woman, a suppressed, silenced, bestialized woman, a fury in a cage. He had no right to tease them. They knew no relation but possession. They were possessed.
I realize that the theme Leguin was actually driving at with the second metaphor was that if you see someone as property, you cannot know them and value them in a healthy way. But the idea I fixed on here is about each person having a woman within their minds: I think that idea goes farther, nowadays. It is a breathtakingly beautiful* summation of prejudice. These fictional men have in them such strong ideas of what “a woman” is like, what her place should be, how they should relate to her, that it seems that all women are close to interchangeable. Their actual personalities are given only a small mold within each man to wriggle around within, and it might be impossible for a woman to get through to these men as a person outside of the category “woman”.
In this metaphor, to view someone without prejudice is to allow “them”, meaning your impressions of their personality, a full range of humanity to move about in. To view someone with bias is perhaps to allow them that range, but to make it hard for them to move in some directions. To challenge one’s own biases about someone is to look to see what forces and walls you are putting up, to relax them or (if that is too hard) to allow that person through them.
The above quotes are certainly not the only reason I recommend reading “The Dispossessed”. I think Leguin does an amazing job of stretching human nature to the limits of possibility of a nonviolent, non-proprietarian anarchy, and showing the costs of such a society. Costs that I find I would not want to pay: the loss of individuality, of treasuring things, of treasuring people as irreplaceable individuals, of shameless pride in oneself. But it also is a great perspective on the connections between capitalism, the basic concept of money and property, greed and corrupt power, and violence.
Not that I do this all the time, but money and property, prices and the basic assumptions of economics, are definitely frameworks it is fun and often useful to challenge. As someone who has always loved money (I spent years of my childhood gathering money for its own sake before I spent any!) and hates losing things, it’s a good exercise.
*In the sense that art can be beautiful even when its subjects are so ugly.