Appreciating Ursula K. Le Guin and Cultivating the Right Kind of Rebellion
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you find the right books at the right time; more rarely and therefore more miraculous, the right books find you.
After first experiencing (not reading, experiencing) “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” as a college freshman –the right rite of passage to begin absorbing that message, reducing so many pages of scripture to their philosophical and moral essence– I was, with the aid of other indelible books, albums, friends, and experiences, on my own peculiar path, still half-blind but with an awakened mind.
Fast forward a few years: grad school, all literature all the time. It was still, despite the immersion in so much wisdom and inspiration, at times lonely and confusing. For me, at 22, to read The Dispossessed, (in a class focused on utopian fiction which, for my artistic and political sensibilities, remains the gift that keeps giving), was game-changing in all the best ways. There are certain books that don’t merely affect or influence you, but change you.
Books like this one (and much of what Le Guin wrote during her remarkable career), achieve all we ask of or reasonably hope for from art: they reassure you that you’re not alone, that your occasional disenchantment can, and should, be fodder for change –the kind only you can manage, and the kind you can collaborate on with others– and it’s not the answers, but the willingness to ask questions and insist on truth, that reminds us why we’re alive, and why that matters.
Eternal gratitude to Ursula K. Le Guin for being the best kind of guide. She’s not gone; she’s forever.
In tribute, here’s a series of thoughts from my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone, entitled “Rebellion.”
Question: What are you rebelling against?
Answer: Whaddya got?
The thing most adjusted adults eventually understand is that everyone who marches to that proverbial different beat does so not necessarily out of abandon or indifference; it is usually a calculated, even cultivated design for defiance. Of course, when you’re young you have your youth to burn, like Marlon Brando on a motorcycle. Or perhaps you long to improve upon the petulance of previous generations: you hear the different drummer and then refuse to march even to that music. It isn’t that you’re going nowhere; you are content to not even go there — to keep one step ahead of oblivion, and achieve it by any means necessary so long as you’re still inside the cyclone. Or something.
You think: Sometimes it’s better not to think.
Ignorance, after all, is bliss and a little ignorance goes a long way, especially in this hyperspace, computer-chip information overload moment in time. A moment that is in perpetual fast-forward. Time, it seems, can scarcely keep up with itself.
On occasion (every day, more or less), you find yourself overwhelmed by a compulsion to comprehend the things you cannot control that have complete control over you. Things like aging and illness and quantum space and the mysteries of compassion. For starters. The things that only poets understand, and who understands poets? Each person, it seems, must ultimately develop a progressive inability to understand this world in which they suffer and survive. And maybe this is a good thing, all things considered. Maybe this is for the best. If the necessary miracles of evolution unfolded in ways we could readily fathom, anarchy would likely ensue. If people understood how Nature really worked and the ways in which the game is rigged, think of all the would-be Robinson Crusoes, setting sail for the deserted islands that no longer exist. They simply aren’t there.
The future, as it always seems to be, remains at once exciting and intimidating to consider. And yet: thinking about the reality, the inevitability of the 21st century, it doesn’t seem altogether possible. Can’t we just slow things down a bit and grapple with the century that we let get away from us sometime back in the mid-to-late 1800’s? The Pony Express, the phone, the phonograph, pasteurization, planes, product assembly lines, atomic bombs, Apartheid, All The President’s Men, politics as usual. Prosperity. Privation. Privacy. The Internet. Enough.
After a century of explosions — overpopulation, death, wealth, squalor, apathy, ethnic cleansing, e-mail — is there anything left to establish or invent? Haven’t we already outdone ourselves? What does the new century, the future, have to dole out that we have not already discovered? What do we have to fear that doesn’t already stare us dead in the face? Aside from the fact that we are still unable to cure ancient diseases, we can’t feed everyone, superstitious tribes are ceaselessly quarreling, and every single one of us will eventually, inevitably die.
To be continued.
Milan Kundera, in the book Testaments Betrayed, explains his vision of the novelist’s acumen, which is “a considered, stubborn, furious nonidentification, conceived not as evasion or passivity but as resistance, defiance, rebellion.”
In The Brothers Karamazov, there is a chapter entitled “Rebellion” wherein the mercurial Ivan lays out his rationale for rejecting God. If the ostensibly benevolent — and omnipotent — Being that created us in His image can be credited for everything we see and achieve, He must also be accountable for all the inexplicable misery. Ivan is, ultimately, less concerned with Heaven or Hell but what occurs on God’s watch, here on earth. Even if his personal salvation were secured; even if every soul’s redemption was guaranteed, the calculus is intolerable if it depends upon one innocent child being forced to suffer. Ivan is incapable of accepting any circumstance where ultimate peace is contingent upon anyone’s pain. This is his rebellion.
Taking this scenario one step further, Ursula K. Le Guin, in her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, synthesizes elements of what both Kundera and Dostoyevsky are describing. In her tale, once certain types of people ascertain the way things really work (on earth as it is in heaven), they turn their back and forsake the security of organized society. Unable to reconcile the cost of a not-so-ignorant bliss, Le Guin’s heroes rebel by refusing to endorse — or even abide — the practical, and spiritual cost of doing business.
In Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut draws an intractable line in the sand (or salt), siding with vulnerable humans over an infallible God: “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”
What they said.
Once I’d dispensed with organized religion and then determined that academia was no longer a suitable solution, I might have become paralyzed, either because of other options or the lack thereof. Instead, I felt oddly liberated, although that realization by no means occurred overnight. Eventually, I found I was not running away from anything so much as I felt compelled to run toward almost everything. Avoiding quiet desperation became my approach; finding ways to make art into life and life into art was my new mantra.
My rebellion, if it could accurately (or fairly) be described as such, was rather simply an antagonism against cliché: clichéd thoughts, actions, excuses and even intentions. I was still not certain what was going to work for me, but I was steadily recognizing what wasn’t going to work. Understanding that bills had to be paid, relationships had to be cultivated, mistakes had to be made and, above all, that one day I would no longer be around, my objective revolved around an obsession to live a life nobody but I could live. During those post-graduate years I steadily fortified, for all time, the most important — and rewarding — relationship of my life: the one with myself.