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Into the Oak Brush

A review of Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places by Ursula K. Le Guin (New York: Grove, 1989) from Brick 38.


What is certain for Ursula K. Le Guin is that non-fictional writing presents her with a too terrible certainty. How can anything be understood fully, she argues, through the father’s voice (nonfiction—the critical, authoritarian tongue); only the mother’s voice (fiction—the relational, engaged tongue) can speak truly of experience. A writer like Le Guin—most of whose thirty books are fiction—expresses ideas and experiences with her natural voice, with the yielding uncertainty of fiction or poetry, the language she calls “a carrier bag . . . for people who don’t understand.” Cut off and adrift from fiction in these essays, she aches for the creative and despairs over the analytic. A recurring theme is her reluctance to write them at all.

But she perseveres, if only to emphasise that the limitations of language differ from the unlimited resourcefulness of people. Hers in particular. In the “Introductory Note” to these talks, essays, occasional pieces and reviews written over the past ten years, she says that her essays “are going to bother people who are able, as I am not, to make clear distinctions between Art and Politics, between High Art and low stuff, between being a woman and being a feminist, and so on.” And she adds, subordinately, “my goal being to subvert as much as possible without hurting anybody’s feelings.”

But is Le Guin aware that her own reformist zeal not to typecast might subvert her own thinking? The trouble with categories is that though we know we can’t remain liberated from them, we persist in imagining we can. I declare I’m free, says the androgyne: no more Ms. Clear-Headed, no more Mr. Gruff; we can have market sociaism and enjoy minimal relationships. The danger lies in not seeing that any new grouping, though inspirational at first, may potentially entrap us. Le Guin seems to play with all this emancipating, while also making choice distinctions in ways she says are minimally necessary.

Items. The book is chronologically arranged, providing a “record of responses to ethical and political climates”—the churlish moral majority and the feminist’s foe Ronald Reagan. “I ought to stand up and be counted,” she says, “lest silence collude with injustice.” The book collects a decade of reviews and short statements from various symposia, of which the main defect is they are too short, too breezy. Bridled is her clever, quixotic style; truncated are her rapturously extended images; although relief here from her outrage at men is welcomed. The reviews may have been added to make the book thicker, more important, and to justify a higher price, but they allow for the inclusion of her reviews of Doris Lessing’s fantasy tales, which in Le Guin’s judgment rank much lessingly than her own. As a last category of organisation, the book features small symbols in the table of contents to indicate the articles’ foci: feminism, social responsibility, literature, travel. Half the articles have two symbols, creating a new category—the hybrid. So saying what she’d like the collection not to be becomes what she feared—a collection of kinds. I don’t know that it’s important to try at every turn to avoid categories. Sure it’s anarchistic; but it’s also misleading to be continuously claiming one’s distaste for order with such orderly acumen.

All that said, I for one am glad Le Guin battles categories, or, more Le Guinish, confronts their usefulness. She confirms the fact that we have divisions, especially within our cultural and religious lives, to identify that we do it and that we do it far too much, and that reasons why we do it do exist.

Le Guin says that categorically she is not a “theoretician, a political thinker or activist, or a sociologist. I was and am a fiction writer.” She does her thinking novelistically, through the plot, using the disciplined choices her characters make to lead her towards unaccountable possibilities. Fiction she says is “an active encounter with the environment by means of posing options and alternatives.” If while on a new path the novel sounds any tendentious notes, for Le Guin such music has arisen organically, ex proprio motu.

For example, her novel The Lathe of Heaven (1971) is an imaginative balancing within the Taoist ethic that merges a male character’s inner peace and dream state with a world that accommodates itself to his rhythm. Philosophy, history, fantasy, religion, science—all are typical pursuits of a Le Guin novel. But the reader of these essays searching for planetary maps and intentioned guides to her novels will receive little instruction—with the notable exception of a discussion, in “Is Gender Necessary? Redux,” of the ambisexual Gethenians of The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Yet her explanations centre more on our sexual differentiation and the sexual ghetto women inhabit rather than on answering any questions the novel poses.

The novels are ends in themselves, fastidiously crafted, obscure, evolutionary adventures conceived with thick anthropological possibility: utopian, dystopian, and semi-utopian societies; human behavioral conditioning based on climatic changes; Fibonacci-like puzzles structured into the plots; the use of the psychomyth, an imagined cultural precursor of a utopian ideal. The novels—from the first, Rocannon’ s World (1966), to Always Coming Home (1985), the latter with musical accompaniment available on cassette tape—have combined inventive and speculative strategies in sci-fi and fantasy literature with deeper ways of experiencing the deadening course of twentieth-century technocracy via civilisations depicted that run clearly parallel to our own. Can anyone who has read the exhilarating novel, The Dispossessed (1974), forget how Le Guin ridicules and challenges the claims capitalist and communist societies herald as achievable with the accomplishments of the pacifist-anarchist, near-utopian culture of Anarres, and its great scientist-hero, Shevek? Can anyone remember a novel with a scientist hero?

However, in the four or five longer and most compelling essays, the main attack—and Le Guin’s tone seldom withdraws its blunt indignation—is on behalf of feminist issues and women writers, those who practise “undifferentiated engagement” with their work, as opposed to the masculinist scallywags of “alienated consciousness.” (Her term, masculinist, is for the human trait. She uses male for the men in-the-flesh or the institutional sources of chauvinism.) She hammers and smelts her way through a number of papers and speeches, often given at West Coast women’s conferences, on two fronts: first, that women writers should write more as women, as feminists, as mothers, as artists because they are all these, and second, that women writers need to understand better how the canoneers have cast their identity. “Most women’s writing—like most work by women in any field—is called unimportant, secondary, by masculinist teachers and critics of both sexes; and literary styles and genres are constantly redefined to keep women’s writing in second place. So if you want your writing to be taken seriously, don’t marry and have kids, and above all, don’t die. But if you have to die, commit suicide. They approve of that.”

In “A Non-Euclidean View of California” she contrasts at length the gender-based concepts of utopia. “Utopia has been euclidean, it has been European, and it has been masculine.” “Utopia has been yang . . . the big yang motorcycle trip. Bright, dry, clear, strong, firm, active, aggressive, lineal, progressive, creative, expanding, advancing, and hot.” Her wish is to rethink utopia (as enacted in The Dispossessed) more as a process: conununitas—“existential . . . potential . . . as expressed in art and religion.” “What would a yin utopia be? It would be dark, wet, obscure, weak, yielding, passive, participatory, circular, cyclical, peaceful, nurturant, retreating, contracting, and cold.” Utopias, Le Guin seems to say, need to evolve too; the more perfected we imagine ourselves (and occasionally we become), the more stasis we engender. Can we, instead, think of imperfection as a goal, of perfection as already attained? But Le Guin’s notion is not Edenic; no prior scripture need pull us. Rather it recalls a Native American idea—or any nativist idea—of the present always becoming something more to become, never forward/backward, never either/or, but as Joseph Campbell said recently a pursuit not for the meaning of life, but for “an experience of being alive.” I would say again that Le Guin’s fiction expresses this bi-utopian view: exceedingly creative, with bright male heroes, the novels’ moral consequences often turn on the characters’ being nurtured by their imaginations and the lure of the unknown. Clear and obscure.

Le Guin’s main thesis states that the West has over-stressed its masculinist energies through its literary culture, and this accounts for humankind’s present imbalance. The West is in need of a Great Unlearning. The way of unlearning is taken from Le Guin’s own heroes, from the lives of Tillie Olsen, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Oliphant, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who all appear in quoted quantity in these essays. Much of this feminist tact is revealed in her most eloquent description of the gender/energy divisions, in the “Bryn Mawr Commencement Address” of 1986, a speech given to a group of masculinist-emergent women—poised (under their gowns) in blue suits and two-inch heels, ready to scale the male bastions of law and business—that must have sent their mortar-boards spinning.

In it she describes the specialities of the mother and the father tongues. The father tongue, used in “works of law, philosophy, social thought, and science . . . in the service of justice and clarity . . . is immensely noble and indispensably useful. When it claims a privileged relationship to reality, it becomes dangerous and potentially destructive.” Further on she says that “using the father tongue, I can speak of the mother tongue only, inevitably, to distance it—to exclude it.” She cites herself as a victim, albeit a willing one, a woman speaking to a class of graduating women in the father tongue. “I can’t say what I want to say about women in the language of a capital M Man. If I try to be objective I will say, ‘This is higher and that is lower,’ I’ll make a commencement speech about being successful in the battle of life, I’ll lie to you; and I don’t want to.”

The mother tongue, that which moves “yinward,” is, curiously, “the language stories are told in,” and, although I hear, ostensibly, that analysis is the bugaboo, I know that this commencement address, once heard, is actually the story of how difficult it was for Le Guin to speak to the Mawries in the appropriated language of the father. (Especially since she feels the need to warn them of their own latent masculinist potential!) The story of . . . that quality of her speech is inescapable. Which prompts me to ask, why can’t we have both voices, why can’t we be ambitongued? Using both Le Guin writes marvellous essays, largely because the submerged tongue pops up time and again, gives her prose its expansive aliveness. Indeed her essays are best when she narrativises her struggle to write essays (although Le Guin lacks the craftiness of say Maxine Hong Kingston’s ghost-ridden memoirs). She makes no real rapprochement between the forked tongues, and I wish that, once she makes these incisions, she sewed them back together more often than she does. Driven as she is, far too much in the feminist essays repeats the point: We must unlearn, continually, the analytical reasoning prowess of our schooling. This means—and Le Guin admits to it often—the tongue of her left-brain parents, Alfred and Theodora Kroeber, and her own Radcliffe education. Yet though she understands her class determinants, she remains only semi-conscious of how to fuse the new categories she finds herself speaking in.

Lest we hold Le Guin too responsible for her own liberation, there is a larger point here that needs underscoring. In spite of the potency of fiction or the dexterously tongued essay, the analysis-crazy fools who run the world are succeeding in destroying it. And they’re doing it with “Nobodaddy’s” language, the same language spoken from the corporate podiums (majored in at some of the Great Universities), such as Exxon’s un-self-critical sorriness in its newspaper ads for the Alaskan, cops!, the Exxon oil spill. Eco-system-talk: skimmer crews’ on-site expertise with wildlife-related procedures. That’s the father tongue, hiding its “responsibility guidelines” with techno-chatter. While the corporations corrupt the language with equivocation, we, the literary gang, distance ourselves from such inexactitude, particularly its sources. We cannot force Exxon to clean up their spills in water or on paper. But we risk an impotent isolation if we believe that the language—i.e. the people—will automatically survive through our care of the word. On this point, Le Guin’s work takes a stand: to write well is not enough. One must also expose whenever possible those whose language abuse fouls the environment of discourse.

Finally there is the most personal essay, “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter.” Here Le Guin argues that women have been tracked (like the currently hot debate for careerist females that places Mommy-Women on one track and Management-Women on another) to be writers or mothers, never both. Keying on Margaret Drabble and herself as women who have avoided the either/or trap, Le Guin discusses passages from Woolf, Alcott, Dickens, Stowe, and Oliphant, in which each writer portrays women disavowing one life for the other or women who watch, helplessly, their disavowal made for them. The modern martyr to the cause of feminist writers is Sylvia Plath, a mother and a poet, “who put glasses of milk by her kids’ beds and then put her head in the oven.” What is demanded of women is to sacrifice themselves either to their art (not have babies) or for their children (not write novels). The sacrificial either/or has fuelled all-too familiar masculinist assumptions about women’s lives. Consider motherhood and romantic love. When male novelists write about women—or as women, as John Updike, Jay McInerney, and others have lately—mothering-as-a-theme has been censured in favour of the male vision of women-in-love: romantic, sexual, bidden and smitten by men. The most limited woman writer would be one who wrote like a man, of woman only in romantic relations. But even this, for Le Guin and other feminists, would outrank most male writers’ vision of women—in heat or the deep freeze. As novelist Carolyn See recently wrote of John Updike: “I might as well say I never saw a woman I recognised in any Updike story.” (Do you notice the pause in “might as well” before the claim, as if she knows she’s gonna get it for not milking the ego of that sacred cow.)

Talking about gender and language, I sometimes feel inadequate and self-conscious; something in the discourse sails way over my head. It’s nice to have a Carolyn See or a Le Guin or, in terms of race or ethnicity, a James Baldwin or a Louise Erdrich, point out omissions in my thought, the perils of bias—be they phallo-, Euro-, dodocentric. I fear misunderstanding the experience of others more than I do constructing a new category for the liberated literary person, as if any one of us can ever successfully, regardless of our desire, live androgynously in heart, mind, and action, turning the gender fact or lore, like a Gethenian, off and on, to sex, to un-sex.

Le Guin’s tempting call to partially un-sex the species raises questions yet gives exciting new directions too, suggesting as Robert Bly and Alice Walker have that with new myths and stories the species is transformable. To change we need to go first to the darkest part of the forest, and I feel Le Guin, the trailblazer, leads us in a few of these essays into the oak-brush. It is remarkable to find so many women becoming themselves in the masculinist literary culture, in the late twentieth century, which ages hence ambisexual critics will regard as the Golden Age of the Woman Writer. But just when I start to praise, here comes the father again, the canon-maker, separating the one from the many, the deserving from the mass: Blessed be the mother, the daughter, and the living ghost. . . . I wonder if in the coming age of intersexual lit we will recall the ghost of Ursula K. Le Guin’s struggle, echoed in this final revelatory passage, to bring us into balance:

For years  . . .  personal freedom allowed me to ignore the degree to which my writing was controlled and constrained by judgments and assumptions which I thought were my own, but which were the internalised ideology of a male supremacist society. Even when subverting the conventions, I disguised my subversions from myself. It took me years to realise that I chose to work in such despised, marginal genres as science fiction, fantasy, young adult, precisely because they were excluded from critical, academic, canonical supervision, leaving the artist free; it took ten more years before I had the wits and guts to see and say that the exclusion of genres from “literature” is unjustified, unjustifiable, and a matter not of quality but of politics. So too in my choice of subjects: until the mid-seventies I wrote my fiction about heroic adventures, high-tech futures, men in the halls of power, men—men were the central characters, the women were peripheral, secondary. Why don’t you write about women? my mother asked me. I don’t know how, I said. A stupid answer, but an honest one. I did not know how to write about women—very few of us did—because I thought that what men had written about women was the truth, was the true way to write about women. And I couldn’t.

Journalist, book/music critic, and memoirist Thomas Larson is the author of Spirituality and the Writer: A Personal Inquiry. He has also written The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart DiseaseThe Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. He is a twenty-year staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a six-year book review editor for River Teeth, and a former music critic for the Santa Fe New Mexican. As a lecturer, Larson speaks about his book on heart disease, holds workshops on “Writing the Memoir” and “The Spiritual Memoir,” edits nonfiction manuscripts, and gives talks on jazz, American composers, and non-fiction narrative.

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