Ursula K. Le Guin
A Response to the Le Guin Issue (SFS #7)
It seems a curious fact that among the academically oriented critics of Le Guin's work, not one has turned for elucidation of the later fictions to the early works of scholarship. Some, indeed, allude to her parents' scholarly qualifications, but none has pursued the lode which lies, obscure but probably still available to the persistent researcher, somewhere in the dimmer galleries of the Romance Languages departments of Radcliffe College and Columbia University, to the former of which institutions she submitted in 1951 an honors thesis on "The Metaphor of the Rose" in French and Italian literature up until 1550, and to the latter in 1952 a master's thesis on "Ideas of Death in Ronsard's Poetry"; and thus no attention has been drawn to the themes selected by the aspiring student- aspiring secretly, to be sure, to a career as novelist, but aspiring, and perspiring, openly to qualify herself to earn a living teaching French to Freshmen for the next fifty years: the Rose that bloometh but a day, and Death, so nobly apostrophised by the subject of her thesis, "Je te salue, heureuse et profitable Mort!" But is there not, in that very line which culminates Ronsard's great ode, some hint of the role played by Death and Darkness in the novels, some illumination-not by influence, perhaps, so much as by the very affinity or bent of mind which led her to select these thesis topics-of the essential themata of the novels, and even of their technique, in which a rose, however much a rose is a rose is a rose, is also a metaphor, a symbol containing, in an almost intolerable yet perdurably stable tension, the ideas both of Life and of Death, of the Transient and the Eternal? Incredible that professional critics have ignored this rich field of inquiry, the Le Guin Theses! Indubitably-
No, I can't keep it up. Why am I doing it. Embarrassment. Embarras de richesses. After all, what can I say? I am too grateful to the authors of the articles for their hard and honest thinking about my books, too fascinated by the light thrown by one after another on things I never saw clear in my own work, too confused by their insights and their oversights, to respond adequately at all. I flinch or rejoice at the insights, I laugh or swear at the oversights; I cower; I preen. But those are emotional responses. And these are intellectual: thoughtful, intelligent articles. I must, I must pull myself together and make a worthy response, something—something more than Thank you! Thank you all very much!
Well. I might say this. Some of the articles were in my language, and some of them weren't quite in my language. Some of them dealt almost exclusively with ideas. They gave me the impression that I have written about nothing but ideas, and I was enormously impressed with myself. By God! did I really think all that?-The answer is, No. I didn't. I did think some of it. The rest of it I felt, or guessed, or stole, or faked, or intuited; in any case achieved, not deliberately and not through use of the frontal lobes, but through humbler and obscurer means, involving (among others) imagery, metaphors, characters, landscapes, the sound of English words, the restrictions of English syntax, the rests and rhythms of narrative paragraphs. Mr. Watson with his forests, and several others, are perfectly on to this. But at times ideas alone are discussed, as if the books existed through and for their ideas; and this involves a process of translation with which I am a bit uncomfortable. Somehow the point has been lost in translation. It's as if one should discuss the ideas expressed by St. Paul's cathedral without ever observing that the walls are built of or how the dome is supported. But it wasn't Wren's ideas that kept that dome standing through the bombings of 1940. It was the way he used the stones he built with. This is the artist's, the artisan's view; it is a meaner, humbler view than the philosopher's or ideologue's. But all the same, what makes a novel a novel is something non-intellectual, though not simple; something visceral, not cerebral (sorry, Dr. Plank, there's that stomach again); something that rises from touch not thought, from sounds, rests, rhythms... It involves ideas, of course, and ideas issue from it, the splendid affirmation of the dome rises above the terror and the rubble and the smoke ... but all the thinking in the world won't hold that dome up. Theory is not enough. There must be stones.
You see what I mean about my language. I can't even think one stupid platitude without dragging in a mess of images and metaphors, domes, stones, rubble. What is Christopher Wren doing here? This lamentable concreteness of the mental processes is supposed, by some, to be a feminine trait. If so, all artists are women. And/or vice versa.
May I make one remark about the Tao? In one or two of these pieces (certainly not Barbour's or Nudelman's), and all too often elsewhere, I find the critic apparently persuaded that Yin and Yang are opposites, between which lies the straight, but safe, Way. This is all wrong. There is some contamination from Manichaeanism/Christianity, or Marxian dialectics, or something. I really do not dare try to explain about the T'ai chi t'u, I will get wandering off and end up with Christopher Wren again, or even Grinling Gibbons; but I recommend reading Joseph Needham (NB: a Marxist), or Wilhelm's introduction to the I Ching, or Holmes's Porting of the Ways. The central image/idea of Taoism is an important thing to be clear about, certainly not because it's a central theme in my work. It's a central theme, period.
Dr. Suvin (who extracted this response from me with the mild firmness of a great surgeon extracting an appendix-and without anaesthetics, too) remarks that he was unable to extract from any a satisfactory article about the Earthsea trilogy. Some of the pieces do speak of it, and cast much light on it for me, but it's true that nobody seemed to want to linger on it. I don't think it's because General Macho, that sleasiest of dictators, forbade grown-up, male critics to stoop to the serious consideration of a "juvenile"; that's usually the reason for critical silence, but not with this group, or this journal. Perhaps it is the matter of language I spoke of above. The ideas of the trilogy are more totally incarnated, less detachable from the sounds, rests, and rhythms, less often stated as problems and more often expressed in terms of feeling, sensation, and intuition. If you dissect the ideas out of those books you get things like Don't Meddle. Keep the Balance. Man is Mortal.-Fortune-cookie ideas. And no politics, and no economics, and no sex. A Freudian might plunge in none the less (keeping in mind, I hope, Freud's statement that an artist is an artist because he "wants to achieve honour, power, riches, fame and the love of women"-one of my favorite Freudianisms), but what will he find? Jung's Shadow! (As I found it: having never read a word of Jung when I wrote the book.) Horrible, horrible. Why an orthodox Marxian would want to plunge in at all I can't really imagine. All he'll meet is a bourgeois preoccupation with ethics.-And yet, as Dr. Suvin remarks, those probably are my best books, as art; why? Ideas will not explain it. Theory is not enough. I say this in sober earnestness, as an intellectual born and bred, one who would not despise or deny reason though the kingdom of heaven were offered as reward-which, indeed, it frequently is.
A few more brief comments. I do not like to see the word "liberal" used as a smear-word. That's mere newspeak. If people must call names, I cheerfully accept Lenin's anathernata as suitable: I am a petty-bourgeois anarchist, and an internal emigree. O.K.?
ESP. Some writers give me the impression that, because I talk about mind speech, I must believe in telepathy. Having never experienced anything Psychic whatsoever and finding the experts all at odds, I am merely feebly openminded. ESP is a metaphor in my books, not an observation, nor a prediction. Probably it's not necessary to say this. But I do loathe occultism, and so feel impelled to remind my more positivistic readers that one can go a very long way with Jung and the I Ching, as I do, without the slightest leaning towards occultism or obscurantism. (Indeed, the irony which is often sub-audible in my treatment of "mindspeech," "foretelling," etc., may well be an expression of suppressed fear.)
On influences. I think Suvin is on a safer course than Theall in finding my elective affinities among the foreigners. It's a sticky bit, because I am certainly an American and therefore, I'm tempted to say, certainly a Puritan (Motto: Se piace, non lice!) and probably a Transcendentalist.... But the fact is, I read Moby Dick last in 1947, and no other Melville; never could get into Hawthorne at all; impatient with Poe, Dickinson, Henry James; know Emerson's poetry but not the essays; like Thoreau, but of all American writers truly and deeply love only Mark Twain. After all, I am a Westerner! Antecedents Colorado and the Rhineland; formative ambiance, Northern California. I squeezed myself into New England for four years of college, but the sky's too small there.-My own list of "influences" might go Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Leopardi, Hugo, Rilke, Thomas and Roethke in poetry, Dickens, Tolstoy, Turgenyev, Chekhov, Pasternak, the Brontés, Woolf, E.M. Forster in prose. Among contemporaries, Solzhenitsyn, Böll, Wilson, Drabble, Calvino, Dick. I wonder why we literati always talk about literary influences? I doubt that any of those writers, even Tolstoy, has helped me make a world out of chaos more than Beethoven, or Schubert, or I.M.W. Turner. But there, again, it's so hard to talk about the ideas in a quartet or a watercolour, though they are there, indubitably....