Posted by: Sally Ingraham | July 21, 2014

The Dispossessed

by Ursula K. Le Guin

I came across Le Guin’s collection of short stories titled The Wind’s Twelve Quarters a few months ago, and was delighted by what is her earliest work, including her very first published tale. Even better than some of the stories were the descriptions she included of how she came to write them, whether they were sparked by a personal experience or were the reaction to an event or to a book she was reading, or were the exploration of an idea that was puzzling or fascinating her. She called the book a retrospective, and it is delicious to read as a fan of her novels because many of the tales are the seeds that would later germinate into full blown, gorgeous books. The world of Earthsea is recognizable in at least two stories, and settings and characters from her Hainish cycle pop up all over the place. Two of the stories felt very important to me and deserve to be discussed on their own – ‘Nine Lives‘, a relatively straight sci-fi story that explores ideas of self and identity and features clones and a mining disaster, and ‘Vaster than Empires and More Slow‘, which is about a man who is able, for better but mostly for worse, to empathize with every living creature, from the scientists traveling through space with him to an entire planet populated by nothing but plants. Someday I’ll write about them – you should probably just go read them though. *grin*

Two award-winning stories in the collection led me to Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, which brings us to the topic at hand. ‘The Day Before the Revolution‘ is pretty much a prequel. I read a bunch of Le Guin’s sci-fi in 2008 and though I (probably?) read The Dispossessed, it didn’t matter to me the way it does in 2014. The short story sparked my interest thoroughly, for in it Le Guin began her exploration of anarchy and societal change, following elderly Laia Odo – anarchist philosopher and founder of what became the utopian society of Anarres – through what is likely the last day of her life, and certainly the day before the General Strike that kicked off the revolution. Because this is Le Guin writing, the huge, historical events swirling around Laia are almost a distant roar when compared to her extremely personal experience throughout the day, coping with aging, grief, her own sexuality, and the quiet knowledge of her coming death.

I was grateful to have this glimpse into the life of the legendary Odo, going into my reading of The Dispossessed, which takes place about 200 years after the revolution that Odo inspired. Laia spent some of her last hours questioning if, already, her ideas were being warped and if the human tendency toward authoritarianism would upset her ideal society before it even got started. I appreciate that Le Guin’s story, start to finish, pushes hard at every idea it presents, and that both Laia and later Shevek, the main protagonist in The Dispossessed, question and test and doubt and challenge themselves to take nothing for granted. The writer behind the story is perhaps more present, because of this, than I would sometimes choose. However in this case I felt like Le Guin was making a place beside her for you, presenting a partnership, not nailing the answers to the wall but asking you to join her in thinking about the questions.

And beyond that, The Dispossessed is a damn good story. It begins with Shevek, a brilliant physicist, leaving Anarres – the habitable moon of the planet Urras, where the Odonian anarchists were sent 200 years before by the Urras governments, to prevent a world-wide anarcho-syndicalist rebellion. Shevek is the first man to leave the moon since the anarchists came there, since part of the deal was a guarantee of non-interference on both sides. He is working on a General Temporal Theory, which will eventually lead to the development of the (fictional) ansible, an instantaneous communications device that makes a lot of what happens in the rest of the Hainish Cycle possible (incidentally…) The Urras governments, especially the state of A-Io, want the theory badly enough that they agree to ship Shevek down, and give him whatever support he needs until he finishes the work.

Shevek, who has been creatively stifled in his own world, is eager for the resources, exchange of ideas, and positive reception that A-Io promises. He has other motives as well though – the wall between Urras and Anarres is more than empty space. Hatred for the capitalist, egoistical, coercive authoritarian societies of Urras has festered in his people, causing a stagnation of creativity and a fear of change. Meanwhile, despite their best efforts at building a consensus-based society, people have found ways to gain power and even build a subtle form of government. Shevek aims to tear down walls, open lines of communication, and bring fresh ways of thinking to his moon and the old home-world of Urras.

The story-line bounces back and forth from Shevek’s adventures on Urras to his upbringing on Anarres and the gradual development of his thinking (and his physics). This makes for a fascinating exploration of both the good and the bad aspects of the society he was born into, and Le Guin’s characterization is as masterful and complex as her world-building. The story is compelling and full of drama, but it is also slow – not in a dragging way, but in a thoughtful fashion. Ideas are hashed out in real-time, often enough. You’re there when Shevek talks himself into a whole new realm of thought, or when an old friend points out something he’s been missing. If you are more interested in a smash-and-grab story this won’t be the book for you. If, like me though, you enjoy a mental work-out, you’ll find a lot that is interesting and pertinent here.

And that’s the kicker. The Dispossessed was written in 1974. If you want, you can liken the state of A-Io, with it’s capitalist economy and grimace-inducing patriarchal system, to the USA. The state of Thu comes off as rather Soviet Union-y. There are left-wing groups in A-Io who are sympathetic to the ideas of Thu. An uprising in the under-developed state of Benbili gives A-Io and Thu a chance to conduct a proxy-war. Sound familiar?

That was then. But I found the book to be still incredibly relevant to today, with the capitalist economy of A-Io still being comparable to the USA, complete with an incredible gap between the very rich and everyone else. Of course we’ve cleaned up our act considerably when it comes to embracing the equality between the sexes that Odonian orthodoxy insisted upon (Le Guin certainly put in her time as a feminist). However, some of the more subtle problems that Shevek noticed in his society are things that I see developing in this country – sometimes without much subtlety.

There were walls around all his thoughts, and he seemed utterly unaware of them, though he was perpetually hiding behind them.’ – p. 16

Even when we’re aware of it, in this society the struggle to possess things defines much of our life. It’s one of the walls around us. So, so often, as Shevek observed of the people in A-Io, we have ‘no relationship to the things but that of possession.’ (p. 132) We didn’t make the thing. It wasn’t made by someone we know, or even made nearby. It was made ‘out of sight, somewhere else. Behind walls.’ (p. 132)

They think if people can possess enough things they will be content to live in prison.’ – p. 138

They won’t even notice that they’re in prison. Walls.

In Shevek’s world they are vigilant against the desire to posses things, to posses anything at all, looking squinty-eyed at people who choose to partner for life, who spend more time than is necessary with their children, who have an original idea… And Shevek sees how that extreme can be an error too.

In his 20s he came up against a huge wall, a wall pushed up by the fear and hatred for Urras and what it represented, accompanied by the ‘innate cowardice of the average human mind.‘ (p. 165) Careful, quiet resistance to change, to new ideas. He crashed into the power structure that had evolved around him, a form of government that ruled Odonian society not through ‘vested authority‘, or ‘intellectual excellence‘, but through ‘stifling the individual mind‘. (p. 165)

When his friend Bedap points this out to Shevek, he resists the concept violently. This is a fascinating conversation, with Shevek sticking up for the good aspects of the society they’ve built on Anarres and Bedlap showing him how those good things have grown toxic. On a barren world where everyone must work together in cooperation to survive, human solidarity is the only resource. Bedlap argues that obedience has replaced cooperation.

‘ “It’s always easier not to think for oneself. Find a nice safe hierarchy and settle in. Don’t make changes, don’t risk disapproval, don’t upset your syndics. It’s always easiest to let yourself be governed.” ‘ – p. 168

‘ “…we forgot that the will to dominance is as central in human beings as the impulse to mutual aid is, and has to be trained in each individual, in each new generation. Nobody’s born an Odonian any more than he’s born civilized! But we’ve forgotten that. We don’t educate for freedom. Education, the most important activity of the social organism, has become rigid, moralistic, authoritarian.” ‘ – p. 168

Some would claim that America is the land of the free, that we fought a revolution in order to be free, that we continue to fight tooth and claw to stay free. Le Guin noticed in 1974 that the wall around this country was, like all walls, ‘ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.‘ (p.1) Does the wall around America enclose the universe, leaving us beyond the wall, free? Or is America inside the wall, a great prison camp?

We don’t educate for freedom in this country, while still calling it the land of the free. We don’t learn to see the wall. We’re content to live in a prison. But the lie of that drives us crazy. We can feel the wall, even if we can’t see it. It is there in the corner of the eye, sensed in the small of your back, a whisper behind you. Evading reality will drive you crazy.

But that’s okay! We have medication for that. And we must medicate, because otherwise we might feel pain.

Take a pill! Otherwise we might notice that we are enduring an ‘earthquake of the soul‘ (to mix book references…) Every day I walk around this city, and I pay attention. People are in agony. I see ‘ “the spiritual suffering! –

‘ “Of people seeing their talent, their work, their lives wasted. Of good minds submitting to stupid ones. Of strength and courage strangled by envy, greed for power, fear of change. Change is freedom, change is life…but nothing changes any more. Our society is sick. … Its suicidal sickness!” ‘ p. 166

I think we need to feel pain. Over the last few years I have made myself feel more, I have embraced days of feeling sad, let myself be angry, pushed away the habit of thought that tells me I should, I must be happy all the time! I don’t cause myself intentional harm, don’t seek out highs and lows of emotion, but when I feel sorrow I let it fill me just as thoroughly as I do joy. It is terrifying. It is thrilling. It is truthful. It is not socially acceptable in America.

And because of that, because we lie about our own pain, we can never fully empathize with each other. We won’t ever see each other fully, won’t love each other truthfully, won’t achieve brother/sisterhood. I think Le Guin is right (Shevek as a teenager explores the idea) in saying:

‘ “Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality. All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we’ll have known pain fifty years. And in the end we’ll die. That’s the condition we’re born on.” ‘ – p. 60

‘ “It’s the self that suffers, and there’s a place where the self…ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality – the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness –  that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.” ‘ – p.61

It seems to me that in our current society, our unwillingness to accept our own pain, the reality of it, stops us from preventing even the suffering that we can, as a social organism. We isolate ourselves, medicate, and ignore. We’re insensitive to our own suffering and therefore to the suffering of others. If this continues, there’s no way that any of us can endure. And ultimately, after all, we can’t save each other or ourselves from death. When Shevek voices this comment to his friends, all born into an anarchistic society, they protest ‘ “You’re denying brotherhood, Shevek!” ‘

‘ “No – no, I’m not. I’m trying to say what I think brotherhood really is. It beings…it begins in shared pain.”

“Then where does it end”

“I don’t know. I don’t know yet.” ‘ – p. 62

Where do we go from here, from accepting our own pain, and sharing the pain of others? In this early part of the book I was grateful for Le Guin’s ability to put some of what I’ve been thinking lately into words. She continued doing that, sharing my realization that perhaps the most we can do for each other is hold each other in the darkness. This passage, a moment shared between Shevek and his partner Takver, is lovely. Shevek speaking:

‘ “All you have to do to see life whole is to see it as mortal. I’ll die, you’ll die; how could we love each other otherwise? The sun’s going to burn out, what else keeps it shining?”

“Ah! your talk, your damned philosophy!”

“Talk? It’s not talk. It’s not reason. It’s hand’s touch. I touch the wholeness, I hold it. Which is moonlight, which is Takver? How shall I fear death? When I hold it, when I hold in my hands the light – “

“Don’t be propertarian,” Takver muttered.

“Dear heart, don’t cry.”

“I’m not crying. You are. Those are your tears.”

“I’m cold. The moonlight’s cold.”

“Lie down.”

A great shiver went through his body as she took him in her arms.

“I am afraid, Takver,” he whispered.

“Brother, dear soul, hush.”

They slept in each other’s arms that night, many nights. ‘ – p. 190-191

It’s hand’s touch. There’s power in that.

In this country, blinded by possessions, ownership, and the need to dominate, thwarted by states, nations, presidents, chiefs, bosses, generals, bankers, landlords, wages, charity, police, soldiers, and war, we’ve completely forgotten that we are brothers/sisters, that we come into this world empty-handed and will leave that way too. We knew it once, but we’ve forgotten it. We MUST learn it again. We must learn that –

‘ “…there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.” ‘ – p. 300

‘ “You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.” ‘ – p. 301

Shevek spoke these words before a peaceful protest on Urras, one that was ruthlessly shut down moments later. Meanwhile, back on his home moon many of his people called him a traitor for leaving Anarras. There are no solutions here.

There’s just the revolution in your spirit, the condition of pain you’re born to, the relearning of brother/sisterhood, and hand’s touch.

Keep living the questions.

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