Sunday, May 22, 2005

Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

"I don't trust Estraven, whose motives are forever obscure; I don't like him; yet I feel and respond to his authority as I do to the warmth of the sun." Something rings true in this, for all authority is personal and hangs on a perceived difference in knowledge or wisdom. That unknown in the motives is what we trust because we do not trust ourselves. We put into it what we are seeking. God is like this in one aspect; even the abstraction of this. Decision however is another requisite; requisite perhaps for the illusion that what is unknown is in fact there. "Fear is king!" triumphs the mad Agraven, communicating in the subtext that the unknown is fear.

Part of the emphasis on fear of the unknown reads like meditations on Negative Capacity. Estraven's jottings: "To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness." Authority (shifgrethor) is a curious focus, and a good one. One of the delights of Estraven's POV is to reveal how adept LeGuin is at politicking: the diplomacy is the drama of the novel. But questions. Foretelling is a practice whereby sibyls "exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question."

Ambisexuality of kemmer. Asexuality of somer. Hence "the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter." Hardly a shock to learn that the novel was published by a woman in 1969, after (and as) feminism found wings. That is not to say treatment is not evenhanded, as for instance: "A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications...On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience." That gasp of humor is an enduring surprise. LeGuin could play more, in the novel, with how much we depend on assurances from others of their respect for accessories to "ourselves," or how her conceit disintegrates that concept. In this novel as in Arcturus the hostility of one sex to another, save in the hermaphrodite part. Genly Ai says to Estraven: "In a sense, women are more alien to me than you are. With you I share one sex, anyhow..."

But perhaps the greatest passage is this one. Remember that trust, in relation to fear and the unknown, form the heart of the diplomacy of the novel, and here that theme converges with the ambisexual one: "He had been quite right to say that he, the only person on Gethen who trusted me, was the only Gethenian I distrusted. For he was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me personally and given me entire personal loyalty: and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance. I had not been willing to give it. I had been afraid to give it. I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man." That is a shockingly good apercu. Loyalty and trust are words used in place of love. (Sentimentalism is not a danger in this novel.) Since the Gethenians have no sexuality, all human relations are power-relations. Sexuality is a hindthought in principle, but here it becomes a forethought, and LeGuin locates the nucleus of eros in all our thinking of power. Does it remain or is it achieved to further bind eros to the unknown?

LeGuin also has religious insight. "Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion...But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion"--spoken by Faxe, one of the foretellers. At the finis Estraven skis into foray guns, after which we learn that suicide "is not to them, as to us, an option. It is the abdication from option, the act of betrayal itself. To a Karhider reading our canons, the crime of Judas lies not in his betrayal of Christ but in the act that, sealing despair, denies the chance of forgiveness, change, life: his suicide."


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