Archive for November, 2016

Notes on Ursula K. Le Guin

Several months ago I set myself the task of reading as many of Ursula K. Le Guin’s books that I could get my hands on. I’ve always wanted to delve into her writing, and her name frequently being dropped as a potential recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature gave me the impetus to launch my Le Guin reading blitz. Her imagination and interests are wide-ranging. She draws upon her vast background in language, anthropology, and science to tell her stories. She prefers to create new myths and new worlds to illustrate truths about human culture in general and the big issues of war, peace, love, and death. She is also a poet, which often goes unmentioned; yet her writing has the beauty, flow, and richness of great poetry. The philosophical underpinnings of her work and her elegant writing style mark Le Guin as an exceptional writer.

Where to begin in defining the nature of Le Guin’s books? After due consideration, I’ve decided I don’t want to mainly summarize plots or dissect her b00ks in any way. To introduce her to readers unfamiliar with her books, I present the notes I wrote while I pursued this literary odyssey. I read the books in no particular order, only as I could obtain them from the library. I offer my sampler of comments and quotations from her books that may spark interest in your reading Le Guin.

Orsinian Tales, 1976, is set in the mythical country of Orsinia (derived from Latin origin of bear evoking Ursula’s name). It is her imaginative country with the flavor of an Eastern European communist country. My favorite in the collection of eleven stories is “An die Musik” about Ladislas Gaye who works in a ball bearings factory and tries to compose music in the little spare time he has between his job and family responsibilities. He brings four lieders and his unfinished Mass to Otto Egorin, a music agent. Otto tells him to not waste time on the Mass, to write lieder songs and to leave his wife and children so he has more time to compose great music. Gaye will not abandon the Mass for popular music. This is the choice of the great artist–not to cave into popular pressure but to pursue the desire of his soul.

“What good is music? None, Gaye thought, and that is the point. To the world and its states and armies and factories and Leaders, music says, ‘you are irrelevant’; and, arrogant and gentle as a god, to the suffering man it says only ‘Listen.’ For being saved is not the point. Music saves nothing. Merciful, uncaring, it denies and breaks down all the shelters, the houses men build for themselves, that they may see the sky.”

Changing Planes, 2003, (irony in the title) is another wonderful collection of stories all premised on the notion that when one is confined in the sterile going-nowhere space of an airport waiting for your next flight, you can travel to imaginary countries–other planes. You have your ticket to anywhere from the Interplanary Agency. Each story represents a trip to a different plane in which Le Guin details the customs, language, habits, and physical features of the humanoid species that inhabit that place. It is clever and funny, an amusing commentary on the relativity of surface differences. We are all animals. She has a very anthropological approach to story-telling, as if the traveler is a field anthropologist taking notes on the cultures she visits. My favorite story is “Social Dreaming of the Frin” in which Le Guin imagines a people who share dreams and explores the consequences to the society of that phenomena. The Frin also share the dreams of animals. Because of that, they don’t eat meat. This is a very deep story, questioning Freud’s interpretation of dreams as a search for the buried self. The communal dream “puts the notion of self deeply into question. I can imagine only that for them to fall asleep is to abandon the self utterly, to enter or reenter the limitless community of being, almost as death is for us.” As one of Frin’s own philosophers explains: “The purpose of our dreams is to enlarge our souls by letting us imagine all that can be imagined: to release us from the tyranny and bigotry of the individual self by letting us feel the fears, desires, and delights of every mind in every living body near us.”

“The Royals of Hegn” is a clever story of class role reversal in a kingdom where almost everyone is a royal and the commoners are a minority that the royals love to gossip about and whose scandalous behavior the tabloids write about. When the commoner celebrity dies, the entire royal population cries, much like commoners did over Princess Diana’s funeral, which makes me think Le Guin had the British royal family in mind when she wrote this story.

Le Guin’s imagination always posits interesting alternative universes/planes; for instance, Wake Island where no one sleeps is an exploration of the consequences of such a supposition. Le Guin has a marvelously inventive mind, and the strange countries are designed to consider the human condition in all its manifestations. This is a really profound story, deeply philosophical. Of the country of the insomniacs, she writes: “But they can’t live in truth, because the way to truth, says the philosopher, is through lies and dreams. “The Flyers of Gyr” is about a race of feathered humanoids, some of whom grow wings. Some pick one flyer to sacrifice in flight, shooting him down with arrows, reminding me of the plumed serpent of Mexico. Flying is risky; the fliers are subject to fatal falls, so some choose not to exercise this ability: “I don’t understand the people who have wings and don’t use them,” Ardiadia conjectures. “I suppose they’re interested in having a career. Maybe they were already in love with somebody on the ground. But it seems . . . I don’t know. I can’t really understand it. Wanting to stay down. Choosing not to fly. Wingless people can’t help it, it’s not their fault they’re grounded. But if you have wings . . . Of course they may be afraid of wing failure. Wing failure doesn’t happen if you don’t fly. How can it? How can something fail that never worked? I suppose being safe is important to some people. They have a family or commitments or a job or something. I don’t know. You’d have to talk to one of them. I’m a flier.” A non-flier who doesn’t use his wings says, “Fliers are stupid, their brains go all to feathers.” The narrator asks him at the end of the story, “Do you ever dream of flying?”

In The Lathe of Heaven, 1971, Le Guin hypothesizes about the nature of dreams and of reality. If creatures can inhabit each other’s dreams, then why not the possibility of effective dreams, in which what we dream in dreams becomes reality. If we have good dreams, then could we create a peaceful world? Or is even this good intention subject to go astray as are all good intentions? There are many deep philosophical constructs in this short novel of less than 200 pages. It draws much from oriental philosophy, particularly Buddhism, I think, although many of the chapter inscriptions are from the Chuang Tse, 4th century Chinese philosopher.

The Telling, 2000
“One of the historians of Darranda said: To learn a belief without belief is to sing a song without the tune.” Teachers of the old ways and the old language were called maz. “The maz, however, were mostly middle-aged or old, again not because they were dying out as a group, but because, as they said, it took a lifetime to learn how to walk in the forest.”

“The subject matter of the tellings seemed to be endless, even now, when so much had been destroyed.” Sutty finally finds their sacred book The Arbor. “There was no correct text. There was no standard version. Of anything. There was not one Arbor but many, many arbors. The jungle was endless, and it was not one jungle but endless jungles, all burning with bright tigers of meaning, endless tigers . . .”

The central idea, Sutty thought, was Two that are One, because everyone was paired.

The Eye of the Heron, 1978
What is the symbolism of the heron? Why the title, particularly when Le Guin starts the story with Lev holding a wotsit, a small three-eyed bird that looks like a blue toad? The wotsit appears again when the band of colonists reaches the hidden valley at the end of the book and so does a heron. Force, represented by the city, is posed against Peace, represented by the town. Vera says at the beginning, “We don’t intend defiance, we shall simply hold fast to the truth. But if they begin with force, you know, Elia, even our attempt at reason becomes a resistance.” Elia argues, “Force will rule, as it did on Earth!” He argues that they must talk. The issue is moral force opposed to physical force. A single pair of herons lived near the town meeting house; they’re described toward the beginning of the book when Lev goes to the pool where they fish in order to contemplate. They are solitary, silent, watchful, elusive creatures that show no fear of men but never allow men to approach. These are the characteristics the band has to assume when they retreat to the wilderness to establish a colony free from the violence of the town. The focus on its eye would seem to suggest that the People of Peace must be ever watchful, careful, steadfast, and removed from physical force.

“Nobody had made this wilderness, and there was no evil in it and no good; it simply was.”

The tragedy of the story is that “They had died in the name of peace, but they had also killed in the name of peace. It had all fallen apart.”

The women’s names are very suggestive: Luz, meaning light, and Vera, suggesting veracity or truth. The female powers are positive. Light and truth are the principles that the people must “hold fast” to. The group discover the wotsits at the place where they settle. Andre says, “This is where we build the world out of mud.” They call their settlement Heron or Heron Pool, for the pair of gray creatures who live there across the stream, silent and untroubled by human presence. Watching them, Luz says they will dance tonight. “Elegant, long-legged, silent, the herons went about their own business of food gathering on the other side of the wide, dark pool; sometimes they paused in the shallows to gaze at the people with clear, quiet eyes. Sometimes, on still cold evenings, before snow, they danced.” I think the heron symbolizes peace–a peaceful existence in which no creature intrudes on another creature’s business, or exerts force whatsoever. They exist; they simply are. Is the heron also a code word for feminism formed as it is from her and on?

Rocannon’s World, 1966

Mindspeech is the fascinating concept elucidated in this short novel. Rocannon obtains the gift of mindspeech in the cave. “He had learned to listen to the minds of one race, one kind of creature, among all the voice of all the worlds one voice: that of his enemy . . . . Understanding must be mutual, when loyalty was, and love.”

The guardian of the well had that gift. . . . “of unsealing the telepathic sense.” Mindhearing was not hearing words, but intentions, desires, emotions.

Planet of Exile, 1966
This story seems to be about alien groups breaking down barriers and finding a common purpose. Building trust is a matter of listening to–in other words communicating both on a verbal and non-verbal level–with the other. Two peoples have to form an alliance to oppose the invasion of barbarians. “She shared nothing at all with him, but had met him and joined with him wholly and immediately across the gulf of their great difference: as it if were that difference, the alienness between them, that let them meet, and that in joining them together, freed them.”

“An untrained man, if you bespeak him, will shut his mind to it before he knows he’s heard anything. Especially if what he hears isn’t what he himself wants or believes. Non-Communicants have perfect defenses, usually. In fact to learn paraverbal communication is mainly to learn how to break down one’s own defenses.”

Cities of Illusion, 1967
When Remarren’s ship lands on Earth from the planet Werel and the expedition is destroyed, the Shing people raze his mind, that is, his memory is erased for six years. He comes out of his cave in the forest, blind, and without knowing where or who he is to meet the Forest People, who help him construct a life as Falk. Then he goes on a quest to recapture who he was originally. After many wanderings among different peoples, from whom he considers the meaning of trust and hope; lies and truth, he arrives at Shing. The Shing agree to restore his identity as Remarren if he will tell them the location of Werel, which they want to reach and conquer. He submits to the procedure only to realize he now has a double identity–Falk-Remarren, but he uses this dual consciousness to gain control of a Shing spaceship and return home to Werel. Le Guin poses important questions about the nature of humanity and of consciousness in this short novel. Sprinkled throughout are philosophical passages such as: “Hope is a lighter, tougher thing even than trust, he thought, pacing his room as the soundless, vague lightning flashed overhead. In a good season one trusts life; in a bad season one only hopes. But they are of the same essence: they are the mind’s indispensable relationship with other minds, with the world, and with time. Without trust, a man lives, but not a human life; without hope, he dies. When there is no relationship, where hands do not touch, emotion atrophies in void and intelligence goes sterile and obsessed. Between men the only link left is that of owner to slave, or murderer to victim.”

“Laws are made against the impulse a people most fears in itself. Do not kill was the Shing’s vaunted Law. All else was permitted: which meant, perhaps, there was little else they really wanted to do . . . Fearing their own profound attraction towards death, they preached Reverence for Life, fooling themselves at last with their own lie.”

“Against them he could never prevail except, perhaps, through the one quality no liar can cope with, integrity. Perhaps it would not occur to them that a man could so will to be himself, to live his life, that he might resist them even when helpless in their hands.”

“They were afraid to kill and afraid to die, and called this fear Reverence for Life. The Shing, the Enemy, the Liars. . . . Did they in truth lie? Perhaps that was not quite the way of it; perhaps the essence of their lying was profound, irremediable lack of understanding. They could not get in touch with men.”

The Beginning Place, 1980
This short novel is about the absence of time in a world that stands still and silent–an undeveloped, non-industrialized, non-commercial domain. Hugh, who has a mundane job as a checker in a supermarket, escapes through a hole in time.”Here there was no use asking, “What time is it?” because there was nothing to answer for you, no sun saying “Noon” and no clock saying “Seven-thirty-eight and forty-two seconds.” You had to answer the question yourself and the answer was “Now.”

“For the time beyond the clocks is always now and the way to forever is now.”

Hugh and Irene, another teenager who previously penetrated the hole in time,  lead parallel lives; both are visitors of the beginning place in the woods. Tembreabrezi is the mountain-top town to which they retreat from their troubled families. Both are caretakers of their mothers, dependable children. There is a lot of stark realism in this novel, of the tawdriness of contemporary life, of lower working class life, of broken families, of scraping out a living in a market-driven society increasingly devoid of spiritual values. Irene thinks, “Her mother had to have somebody around to depend on.” The retreat in the woods is termed the “ain country.” The writing is remarkably poetical in this book: “Sleep in the ain country was so deep it had no dreams. I am the dream, she thought drowsily, the dream am I. I am the mare but there’s no night.” Hugh explains to Irene how he got to the beginning place: “I was running away. From . . . I don’t know. See, I’m sort of stuck. Not doing what I want to do.” For Irene it was a place where love was possible, not like the marriage who mother Mary had with Victor. “. . . There was room for desire without terror, there was room and time for love without effect, without penalty or pain. The only price was silence.” She loved the master. But she always had to leave the town. “This was not her home; she had always called it home, but she had no home; she stayed at the inn, there was no room here or anywhere that was hers.”

Earthsea, 1968

Earthsea is an mythical archipelago of islands of different cultures, one in particular inhabited by dragons, another the Island of Roke is the training ground for wizards and mages. What is the shadow following Ged the wizard? Is it the shadow of death? A creature of the underworld?

Central to Le Guin’s novel is the idea that power abides in the knowledge of a person’s or creature’s name. Knowing someone’s name in turn imbues the knower with power over him. “To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its true name. And to do that, my son, even to so small a scrap of the world, is to change the world,” Master Hand instructs Ged in the School for Wizards on the Island of Roke. A person’s name changes when his role or station in society changes. This idea is seen in other Le Guin novels.

The Master Namer Kurremkarmerruk further instructs, “For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing . . . . Many a mage of great power has spent his whole life to find out the name of a single thing–one single lost or hidden name. And still the lists are not finished. Nor will they be, till world’s end.”

The Master Changer explains how “if a thing is really to be changed into another thing, it must be renamed for as long as the spell lasts, and he told how this affects the names and natures of things surrounding the transformed thing. He spoke of the perils of changing, above all when the wizard transforms his own shape and thus is liable to be caught in his own spell.”

The Archmage tells Ged, “And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, every the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do . . . ”

A wise man has a close connection with all nature and communion and affection for animals as Ged has with the creature Otak, his pet. “From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.”

Ged gains power over the dragon of Pendor by pronouncing his name Vedaur.

The Roke-wind rises against Ged who asks to be put ashore at Serd He felt the shadow upon him. “But if once the shadow caught up with Ged it could draw his power out of him, and take from him the very weight and warmth and life of his body and the will that moved him.”

Skiorh, the oarsmen on the ship to Osskil and his guide to the Court of the Terrenon, is a gebbeth. Ged runs away from the gebbeth.

“He had come to this towerkeep by chance, and yet the chance was all design; or he had come be design and yet all the design had merely chanced to come about.” He meets Serret and Benderesk in the tower.

“It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.”

To free himself of the Shadow, Ged must learn its name. Ged meets the shadow when the sea turns to sand far to the east of Astowell, the Lastland: “Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of the shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.” The story implies that we must face our inner demons and that man is composed of both lightness and darkness.

“And he [Vetch] began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.”

This is a quest story in the classical sense that eschews violence and warfare as the necessary component of becoming a man or a hero. After finishing the book, written in 1967, I wondered if LeGuin had anything to say about the Harry Potter books of such popularity that came later, certainly more popular than Le Guin’s book ever was, and I found this:

“This last is the situation, as I see it, between my A Wizard of Earthsea and J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter. I didn’t originate the idea of a school for wizards — if anybody did it was T.H.White, though he did it in single throwaway line and didn’t develop it. I was the first to do that. Years later, Rowling took the idea and developed it along other lines. She didn’t plagiarize. She didn’t copy anything. Her book, in fact, could hardly be more different from mine, in style, spirit, everything. The only thing that rankles me is her apparent reluctance to admit that she ever learned anything from other writers. When ignorant critics praised her wonderful originality in inventing the idea of a wizards’ school, and some of them even seemed to believe that she had invented fantasy, she let them do so. This, I think, was ungenerous, and in the long run unwise. I’m happier with writers who, perhaps suffering less from the famous “anxiety of influence,” have enough sense of their own worth to appreciate their predecessors and fellow-workers in the saltmines of literature. The whole history of a literature and of every genre within it is a chain of influences, inventions shared, discoveries made common, techniques adopted and adapted. Must I say again that this has absolutely nothing to do with copying texts, with stealing stuff?”  From

In another interview, LeGuin comments on J.K. Rowling:

Q: Nicholas Lezard has written ‘Rowling can type, but Le Guin can write.’ What do you make of this comment in the light of the phenomenal success of the Potter books? I’d like to hear your opinion of JK Rowling’s writing style.
UKL: I have no great opinion of it. When so many adult critics were carrying on about the “incredible originality” of the first Harry Potter book, I read it to find out what the fuss was about, and remained somewhat puzzled; it seemed a lively kid’s fantasy crossed with a “school novel”, good fare for its age group, but stylistically ordinary, imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited. (From horror.ursulakleguin)

Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems, 2012
All I can say is that her poetry is wonderful, as shining as her prose. It has a clarity and originality of language absent from contemporary poetry. She believes in rhyme, rhythm, and metrics. She creates her own forms. Her language is clever and playful. I’m with her in how I discovered and first loved poetry. In “Meters” she writes:

And in old age, as strength again grows faint,
That poetry of order, wit, restraint,
Braces my soul; I honor the clear art,
And let the heroic measure pace my heart.

The Tombs of Atuan, 1970
Naming is the key to being human; naming is the way to freedom. Arha, the priestess, has to learn her true name, and in learning it of the mage Ged, she is liberated from her servitude as priestess of the dead.

“Knowing names is my job. My art. To weave the magic of a thing, you see, one must find its true name out. In my lands we keep our true names hidden all our lives long, from all but those whom we trust utterly; for there is great power, and great peril, in a name. . . . But what a wizard spends his life at is finding out the names of things, and finding out how to find out the names of things.”

Ged tells Arha his name in a gesture of trust to seal their joining as symbolized by the two halves of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. He says, “Alone, no one wins freedom.”

“. . . When you eat illusions you end up hungrier than before. It’s about as nourishing as eating your own words.”

“What she [Tenar/Arha] had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not east. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one.”

“In the darkness I found light.” Ged argues that any of Tenar’s sins have been expiated. He will take her to Gont and to Ogion.
“Gravely [she walked into Havnor] she walked beside him up the white streets of Havnor, holding his hand, like a child coming home.”

The Farthest Shore, 1972

“But when we crave power over life–endless wealth, unassailable safety, immortality–then desire becomes greed. And if knowledge allies itself to that greed, then comes evil.”

Here is an example of Le Guin being very philosophical: “We must learn to keep the balance. Having intelligence, we must not act in ignorance. Having choice, we must not act without responsibility. What am I–though I have the power to do it–to punish and reward, playing with men’s destinies?”

Everything’s grey in Lorbanery. They lack joy in life.

The Left Hand on Darkness, 1969
The only known thing is that we shall die. Faxe tells Genry: “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” And not knowing is what keeps us reading stories. Genry Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen on Earth sent to the planet Winter to forge a peace alliance. In the process he studies their Gethenian culture and learns of their concept of shifgrethor  Here is the definition from

“Shifgrethor is a fictional concept in the Hainish universe, first introduced in The Left Hand of Darkness. It is first mentioned by Genly Ai, when he thinks to himself “shifgrethor—prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen”.[26] It derives from an old Gethenian word for shadow. George Slusser describes shifgrethor as “not rank, but its opposite, the ability to maintain equality in any relationship, and to do so by respecting the person of the other”.[54] According to University of West Georgia Professor Carrie B. McWhorter, shifgrethor can be defined simply as “a sense of honor and respect that provides the Gethenians with a way to save face in a time of crisis.” 

Shifgrethor is a way to manage differences without conflict. It is the management of dualities, sexual dualities too, light and dark, etc. Ai attempts to define it as “prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untanslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen.” Ai notes that Tibe in his rants does not speak of shifgrethor. He was advocating for war in his avoiding shifgrethor.

Obsle says, “The unexpected is what makes possible.”

The idea of the shadow is important in the book. Ai describes the leaders of Mishnory as somehow not casting shadows.

“To oppose something is to maintain it . . . To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road.” [Is this why opposition to the vulgarian Trump went nowhere?]

The prisoners were administered a drug to prevent–kemmer–their sexual active cycle. “They were without shame and without desire, like the angels. But it is not human to be without shame and without desire.” The suppression of sexual desire produced passivity.

In their struggles, hardships, and isolation on the ice; Ai and Estraven come to love each other. “There is no world full of other Gethenians here to explain and support my existence,” Estraven writes in his journal. “We are equals at last, equal, alien, alone. He did not laugh, of course. Rather he spoke with a gentleness that I did not know was in him. After a while he too came to speak of isolation, of loneliness.”

Estraven recites Tormer’s Lay:

Light is the left hand of darkness
And darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
Together like lovers in kemmer,
Like hands joined together,
Like the end and the way.

Ai says to him “Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.” Estraven asks him about the differentiation of the sexes in his race. Ai speculates upon them, but really can’t say which traits are inherent and which are learned.

Lavinia, 2008

“It’s not death that allows us to understand one another, but poetry.” I couldn’t agree more with the words Ursula Le Guin puts in Lavinia’s mouth. Time is a motif in this novel well that re-visualizes the Aeneid, showing that Le Guin is as interested in re-imagining the past as well as envisioning futuristic worlds. She plays with a past-future time warp here and examines humanity wrestling with death, time, and immortality and their interconnections.

It seems a feminist book, recognizing women’s stories are often lost to history, but it is also a disquisition on the effects of war on the conscience and the personality of the warrior–the inconsistencies and contradictions he must practice to pursue the fight and consider war to be glorious. Aeneas lives to rue some of the killing he has done. Ironically when he tries to expiate a prior angry murder, he is killed because he spared another man’s life. The ironies of war are legion.

Aeneas ruminates: “I think I could have beaten Menelaus. And what if I had? Would I be a better man for it? Would my virtue be greater than it is? Am I who I am because I killed men? Am I Aeneas because I killed Turnus?” To his son Ascanius he says, “If you are to rule Latium after me, and pass it to your brother Silvius, I want to know that you’ll learn how to govern, not merely make war, that you’ll learn to ask the powers of the earth and sky for guidance for yourself and your people, that you’ll learn to seek your manhood on a greater field than the battlefield. Tell me that you will learn those things, Ascanius.”
Lavinia communes with the poet Virgil of Mantua in the sacred grove in a time warp with the poet’s ghost, for when Lavinia lived, Virgil had not been born yet. He prophesies she will marry the foreigner Aeneas who will shortly land on Italy’s shore. At the end of book she compares herself to Creusa of Troy and Dido of Carthage, the other women Virgil gave life to and that Aeneas loved. “But I will not die. I cannot. I will never go down among the shadows under Albunea to see Aeneas tall among the warriors, gleaming in bronze. I will not speak to Creusa of Troy, as I once thought I might, or Dido of Carthage, proud and silent, still bearing the great sword wound in her breast. They lived and died as women do and as the poet sang them. But he did not sing me enough life to die. He only gave me immortality.”


My grocery list of quotations gives a taste of the aphorisms sprinkled throughout Le Guin’s writing and illustrates how deeply philosophical, imaginative, and poetical that her mix of fantasy and science fiction is.



The Writer and Politics

Writers form part of the intelligentsia–the group of creative minds who through their writings, paintings, sculpture, music, and other forms of art, reflect upon and portray the spirit of their times. In doing so they cannot ignore politics. Who are the current players upon the national stage? What is the moral climate? How is the fabric of society being effected by events, styles, fads, popular opinion, new inventions, gadgetry, and fashions? Even if they write historical fiction, their narratives of the past seek to shed light on the contemporary milieu. It is not necessary for them to be polemical or take to the streets as activists. They can stay home and compose The Grapes of Wrath.

In the two weeks since the shocking election of Donald Trump, I have reflected how this event, thought so impossible by the intelligentsia, could have occurred. Like so many citizens who prided themselves on being informed and thoughtful voters, I was stupefied within one hour of listening to the election returns on November 8th and, thoroughly aghast, I turned off the television by seven o’clock. The country rejected elitist thought and chose a vulgar, ignorant, duplicitous man to be its president. My judgment had been terribly wrong. All Trump’s negatives, lack of temperament and qualifications did not matter to a goodly portion of Americans, both educated and non-educated, well-informed or ill-informed. They kicked elitists in the butt. Crudity and vulgarity ruled, which translated into not being politically correct–now considered a virtue. I moped. I still admired good manners.

I had invested time and energy in the last year and a half expecting him to be defeated. He was too absurd, too bizarre, too incoherent, to ever be elected. I am a pointy-headed intellectual who misread my country and my countrymen. It is a humbling experience. It is my comeuppance. It is the pride that goes before the fall, and the outcome made me extremely crestfallen.

Water therapy helps. Several bubble baths later, I can calmly reconsider this catastrophic event. This is my wake-up call, my eye-opener, not exactly being knocked off a horse like Saul on the way to Damascus, but it will have to do to give me new vision. I now have regained some serenity in the matter. My daily anodyne for twenty-five years has been A Course in Miracles, which tells me now “to loose the world from all I thought it was” and “not value what is valueless.”

Escaping from the political bombshell, I soaked in the tub, reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. In the first paragraph the narrator Genly Ai, the peace envoy to the planet of Winter, states “Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.” I nod my head, thinking “Isn’t that the truth in this campaign cycle?” Facts were inconsequential, ephemeral, irrelevant; but still precious as pearls. This science-fiction novel holds out the hope for peace when the two main characters, alone crossing the glacier, build trust and love for each other despite their differences. A dose of the Chinese yin and yang was a salve to my jangled soul. Light is the left hand of darkness/and darkness the right hand of light, Le Guin writes. Bingo! A light seemed to glimmer in my darkness. Trump is the shadow side of America, and I am a part of that America. I must own it, and in that darkness also acknowledge there is accompanying light. Something good may come of this bad.

Trump can’t fix the world; no one can, and certainly not one elected official alone. What’s real is love–the only fix-it-upper. To continue to lambaste this man is not the road to peace. To continue to find fault and to blame will not solve one problem (even if he did that in spades). The problem is in ourselves–our failure to forgive. Politics too much lately has been an exclusive game of fault-finding and finger-pointing. After the car breaks down, the owner has to fix it or buy a new one. I do not wish a failed presidency on anyone, but I feel the elevation of Trump to high office is bound to enlighten him and everyone who voted for him despite his inadequacies. He will have ample opportunity to fall off his high horse as I did. If he stumbles and falls, the experiment in electing an unqualified, low-minded person will have been tested, and we will have to form and test another hypothesis.

What I want to do in the next four years is first, stay alive; two, read a lot more books because that’s what an egghead does; three, play my harp while Washington squabbles; fourth, write some more blogs like this one that few people will ever read; five, knit fifty lace shawls; and last but not least, make new friends but keep the old ones. Have I given up following politics? No. I’ll just get my information entirely from reputable print and online news sources. Will I break down and watch the inauguration on January 20? No. I’ll be remembering my mother who was born on that day in 1917.

I append to these election reflections a two-part poem on the subject. The first part I wrote the morning of November 8th; the second part I wrote ten days afterwords.

Election Reflections


Election morning brings feeling
That in the evening
We’ll have a leader that is female
Then the world in one breath will exhale.

To play footsie with an ignoramus
Was terribly dangerous.
The chance of a bigot as POTUS
Was a blemish on all of us.

With the counting seek the polestar
That in the evening
Will project in bright light
All are not without foresight.

Election morning I’m foreseeing
That in the evening
Love’s heel crushes the head of hate
Then binds a divided state.


Premonitions are often wrong
Like morning’s hopeful song
That collapses like the twin tower
Folding in upon itself in horror.

Beyond dumbstruck by the dumb
Who’ve elected the worse than dumb
Stupefies and I’ve become the buffoon
Babbling like a baboon.

Reason is trumped, resentment
Excuses bad judgment,
Moral compass is jettisoned
And I’m utterly disillusioned.

The navigational guides are jinxed;
We’ve been hoodwinked.
The ship of fools sails on with broken spar,
Can Ahab steer to safe harbor?