Saturday, April 18, 2009

Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974) SFMW 16

“I have something they want,” he said. “An idea. A scientific theory. I came here from Anarres because I thought that here I could do the work and publish it. I didn’t understand that here an idea is the property of the State. I don’t work for a State. I can’t take the money and the things they give me. I want to get out. But I can’t go home. So I came here.” (pp. 242-43)

The physicist Shevek flees his native Anarres, an independent planet settled by former citizens of Urras, in order to continue his work on the ‘theory of the General Field in temporal physics’ (p. 283) having elicited little interest in his endeavours on his isolationist home planet: “I must explain to you why I have come to you, and why I came to this world also. I came for the idea. For the sake of the idea. To learn, to teach, to share in the idea. On Anarres, you see, we have cut ourselves off. We don’t talk with other people, the rest of humanity. I could not finish my work there. And if I had been able to finish it, they did not want it, they saw no use in it. So I came here.” (p. 284). In contrast, Shevek is enthusiastically received on Urras as consequence of the fact that it is anticipated that he will make a significant scientific breakthrough whilst residing there, and that the Urrasti will subsequently be able to capitalize upon it: ‘if you provide the theory, the unification of Sequency and Simultaneity in a general field theory of time, then we’ll design the ships. And arrive on Terra, or Hain, or the next galaxy, in the instant we leave Urras!’ (pp. 73-74).

After long periods of inactivity and distraction, Shevek does finally make significant progress with his work. Rather bravely, considering the suspension of disbelief required in the reader, Le Guin chooses to describe the physicist's moment of revelation, wisely choosing to focus on his self-observed response to the discovery: ‘the fundamental unity of the Sequency and Simultaneity points of view became plain; the concept of interval served to connect the static and the dynamic aspects of the universe[…] The moment was gone; he saw it going. He did not try to hold on to it. He knew he was part of it, not it of him. He was in its keeping’ (pp. 231-32).

As a resolution to his investigations seems to draw nearer, Shevek becomes more disillusioned with Urrasti life, and comes to distrust his hosts’ motives for sheltering him: “what they want[…] is the instantaneous transferal of matter across space. Transilience. Space travel […] without traversal of space or lapse of time. They may arrive at it yet; not from my equations, I think.” (p. 283)

Shevek’s disenchantment is largely a result of the time he has had to study the disparities between the harsh life on the desert world of Anarres and the easy existence enjoyed by the ruling classes of the verdant world of Urras. The people of Anarres are ‘members of a community, not elements of a collectivity, they were not moved by mass feeling; there were as many emotions as there were people. And they did not expect commands to be arbitrary, so they had no practice in disobeying them’. (p. 7). Acknowledging the tenets of the physicist Odo, the founder of Anarresti society, that ‘power inheres in a centre’ (p. 50), the desert-dwellers ‘keep free’ by practicing their social, economic and political arrangements anarchistically. On Urras, Shevek soon comes to understand that ‘the lure and compulsion of profit was evidently a much more effective replacement of the natural initiative than he had been led to believe’ (p. 70), and comes to question every element of the order of the things on the world on which he finds himself a guest: ‘they told Shevek with pride that the competition for scholarships to Ieu Eun was stiffer every year, proving the essential democracy of the institution. He said, “You put another lock on the door and call it democracy.”’ (p. 108)

The physicist can make little sense of the capitalist structure he is suddenly immersed in: [Shevek] ‘tried to read an elementary economics text; it bored him past endurance, it was like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream’ (p. 109), and is physically and morally shocked the by waste of resources and human endeavour in the plethora of goods that are available to buy, characterizing the shops as containing ‘acres of luxuries, acres of excrement’ (p. 110). In contrast to the citizenry of Urras, Shevek reflects that on Anarres 'our men and women are free, possessing nothing they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison. It is all I can see in your eyes – the wall, the wall!' (p. 190)

Finally, Shevek comes to realize that he too is nothing more than a commodity whilst he remains on Urras: ‘You are aware, then, that you’ve been bought?[…] Call it co-opted, if you like. Listen. No matter how intelligent a man is he can’t see what he doesn’t know how to see. How can you understand your situation, here, in a capitalist economy, a plutocratic-oligarchic State? How can you see it, coming from your little commune of starving idealists up there in the sky?’ (p. 113)

The physicist’s slow recognition of the alien economic conditions constraining him stands in stark contradistinction to the secondary motive that brought Shevek to Urras: ‘I want my people to come out of exile[…] I want solidarity, human solidarity. I want free exchange between Urras and Anarres. I worked for it as I could on Anarres, now I work for it as I can on Urras.’ (p. 116). He nevertheless manages to find satisfaction in the research in itself: ‘Work is done for the work’s sake. It is the lasting pleasure of life. The private conscience knows that’ (p. 125). It should not be concluded from Shevek’s comment that work on has an individualistic rather than a communitarian bias conceptually: ‘To assert, by his talent, the rights of any citizen in any society: the right to work, to be maintained while working, and to share the product with all who wanted it. [These are] the rights of an Odonian and of a human being.’ (p. 228)

Indirectly, the narrative gradually discloses the fact that Shevek’s concerns have a basis in fact, and also infer that the protagonist has something of a mythical-prophetical association within the world-view of the inhabitants of Urras. A government offician, Pae, collects Shevek, who is insensible as a consequence of the consumption of an excess of alcohol to which he is unaccustomed, from a party thrown by his sister Pae, to whom Shevek fled having bolted from the university compound. ‘I don’t care what he sees. We don’t want him seen. Have you been reading the birdseed papers? Or the broadsheets that were circulating last week in Old Town, about the ‘Fore-Runner’? The myth – the one who comes before the Millennium – “A stranger, an outcast, an exile, bearing in empty hands the time to come”. They quoted that. The rabble are in one of their damned apocalyptic moods. Looking for a figurehead. A catalyst. Talking about a general strike. They’ll never learn. They need a lesson all the same. Damn rebellious cattle, send ‘em to fight [the imperalist wars on] Thu, it’s the only good we’ll ever get from them’ (p. 192). This is not a view shared by the Urrasti population in its entirety, however, as Shevek discovers on becoming embroiled in an uprising in the planet: “Do you know that when people want to wish each other luck, they say, ‘May you get reborn on Anarres!’” (p. 243)

It emerges that the Urrasti political underground admire Anarres as ‘an experiment in non-authoritarian communism that […] has survived for a hundred and seventy years’ (p. 282). At a council meeting, one of the Urrasti revolutionaries recounts some of the teaching of the founding mother of Anarres society, Odo: ‘“For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think”. They were of course Odo’s words from the Prison Letters, but spoken in the weak, hoarse voice they made a strange effect, as if the man were working them out word by word himself.’ (p. 295).

It is difficult to read this passage and not think of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, and similarly many passages in the text evoke the spirit of Leon Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution: ‘We are not subjects of a State founded upon law, but members of a society founded upon revolution. Revolution is our obligation: our hope of evolution. “The Revolution is in the individual spirit, or it is nowhere. It is for all, or it is nothing. If it is seen as having any end, it will never truly begin”. We can’t stop here. We must go on. We must take the risks’ (p. 296); 'There is nothing on Urras that we Anarresti need! We left with empty hands, a hundred and seventy years ago, and we were right. We took nothing. Because there is nothing here but States and their weapons, the rich and their lies, and the poor and their misery. There is no way to act rightly, with a clear heart, on Urras. There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter in, and fear of loss, and the wish for power.’ (p. 285)

Finally, there is an enviromentalist parable to be discerned within The Dispossessed. Whilst the planet Anarres features a good deal of desert terrain as a consequence of its evolution, the planet Earth, which exists within the novel’s conceptual universe, has become a desert due to the activity of its inhabitants, with drastic consequences in terms of the political structure that has to be adopted in order to ensure species survival, and a concordant restriction of the liberties afforded to the individual. It is interesting to consider this outcome, and specifically the ways in which the assumption of choices which appear in the short term to promulgate the expression of individual identity but which over a longer period of time can serve to constrain the freedom of the individual disastrously, in parallel with the analysis of disparate forms of politico-economic forms found elsewhere in the work. 'My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite, nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable – but not as [Urras] is. This is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert[...] We had saved what could be saved, and made a kind of life in the ruins, on Terra, in the only way it could be done: by total centralization. Total control over the use of every acre of land, every scrap of metal, every ounce of fuel. Total rationing, birth control, euthanasia, universal conscription into the labour force. The absolute regimentation of each life towards the goal of racial survival.' (pp. 286-87)

Regardless of the whether the reader happens to agree with the sentiments they contain – and this reader indubitably does concur with them - the somewhat mechanical political theorizing within the The Dispossessed serves to imbue long tracts of the work with all of the pliability characteristic of a rainforest hardwood: ‘With the myth of the State out of the way, the real mutuality and reciprocity of society and individual become clear[…] The Odonian society was conceived as a permanent revolution, and revolution begins in the thinking mind.’ (p. 274)

Indigestible passages such as this may serve to diminish the impact of the work as a theoretical treatise for me, but they appear to have enthused legions of academics to study the work in granular detail (see below). The Dispossessed has inspired a considerable amount of scholarly secondary literature and commentary from a number of disciplines. There is a noteworthy share of philosophy tucked away in the text. Early on in the work, we encounter one of Zeno’s paradoxes (‘Achilles and the tortoise’) ‘“Why can’t it reach the tree?” said a girl of ten. “Because it always has to go half of the way that’s left to go,” said Shevek’ [as a child] (p. 27). Heraclitus puts in an appearance too: ‘You shall not go down twice to the same river’ (p. 48)

The Dispossessed contains a number of observations based on simple humanist considerations, and these are for me some of the highlights of the novel. ‘There are souls, [Shevek] thought, whose umbilicus has never been cut. They never got weaned from the universe. They do not understand death as an enemy; they look forward to rotting and turning into humus’ (p. 154). Also: ‘“If you can see a thing whole […] it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives… but close up a world’s all dust and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance – interval. The way to see how beautiful earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is to see it from the vantage point of death”’ (p. 158). ‘Fulfilment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal[…]It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell’ (p. 275); “It isn’t changing around from place to place that keep you lively. It’s getting time on your side. Working with it, not against it” (p. 256); ‘If you evade suffering you also evade the chance of joy. Pleasure you may get, or pleasures, but you will not be fulfilled. You will not know what it is to come home’. (p. 275); ‘The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts’ (p. 276). Finally, and with a reference to E.M. Forster, perhaps: ‘To [Shevek], a thinking man’s job was not to deny one reality at the expense of the other, but to include and to connect. It was not an easy job’ (p. 235)

Le Guin has some rather laboured things to say about gender and sexuality. Not only is Urras the crucible of capitalism’s evils, we also learn, perhaps with some weariness, that it is unashamedly misogynistic. There are, for example, no female scientists: ‘[Women] can’t do the maths; no head for abstract thought. You know how it is, what women call thinking is done with the uterus! Of course, there’s always a few exceptions, God-awful brainy women with vaginal atrophy[…] I’ve always said[…] that girl technicians properly handled could take a good deal of the load off the men in any laboratory situation. They’re actually defter and quicker than men at repetitive tasks, and more docile.’ (pp. 63-64)

The human sentiment iterated and sifted over in The Dispossessed is somewhat moving and struck a chord with me, especially when it interfaces with the novel’s philosophical leanings. The author’s musings on the nature of relationships and fidelity are touching: ‘We came, [Shevek’s life-partner,] Takver thought, from a great distance to each other. We have always done so. Over great distances, over years, over abysses of chance. It is because he comes from so far away that nothing can separate us. Nothing, no distances, no years, can be greater than the distance that’s already between us, the distance of our sex, the difference of our beings, our minds; that gap, that abyss that we bridge with a look, with a touch, with a word, the easiest thing in the world. Look how far away he is, asleep. Look how far away he is, he always is. But he comes back, he comes back, he comes back…’ (p. 265). ‘Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.’ (p. 276)

Reading the text some thirty-five years after its composition, there is an intriguingly contemporary social media reading of The Dispossessed to be discerned: ‘Nothing is yours. It is to use. It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it’ (p. 26) On his arrival on Urras, Shevek’s is of the opinion that ‘To deny is not to achieve. The Odonians who left Urras had been wrong, wrong in their desperate courage, to deny their history, to forego the possibility of return. The explorer who will not come back or send back his ships to tell his tale is not an explorer, only an adventurer; and his sons are born in exile’ (p. 76). 'The strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical. You see, we have neither prey nor enemy, on Anarres. We have only one another. There is no strength to be gained from hurting one another. Only weakness.' (p. 183) Regidly in keeping with these ideas, Le Guin portrays the Anarresti as socially bisexual: ‘Shevek was pretty definitely heterosexual and Bedap pretty definitely homosexual; the pleasure of it would be mostly for Bedap. Shevek was perfectly willing, however, to reconfirm the old friendship’ (p. 144)

'My people were right, and I was wrong, in this: we cannot come to you. You will not let us. You do not believe in change, in evolution. You would destroy us rather than admit our reality – rather than admit that there is hope! We cannot come to you. We can only wait for you to come to us' (p. 288); 'Men cannot leap the great gaps, but ideas can.' (p. 283)

Ursula Le Guin’s ambitious, Nebula-winning meditation on political, social, economic and personal arrangements is most commonly referred to as The Dispossessed, with its frank subtitle (‘An Ambiguous Utopia’) seldom being acknowledged. That the implied theoretical value to the reader of this much-discussed work should be so starkly undermined by its author prior to their even having begun to read it explodes for me the idea that Le Guin was seriously interested in presenting a compelling fictive account of alternative social structures. However, this has not stopped professional literary critics and exponents of the soft sciences championing their interpretations of the work’s various themes in support of disparate theoretical agendas. I remain unconvinced by the work’s utopian elements, and ambivalent about its ambiguities. It is nevertheless an engaging addition to the SF Masterworks library.

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