Science Fiction Studies

# 8 = Volume 3, Part 1 = March 1976

Robert Plank

Ursula K. Le Guin and the Decline of Romantic Love

The function of the predominant delusions in paranoia is primarily one of restitution. The patient has lost his normal contact with the world, his ability to maintain human relationships, to understand his experiences; they become as incomprehensible as they are tormenting. He does not know what happens to him, by whom or what he is surrounded, indeed who he is. Then one day, like lightning from heaven, the answer strikes him: a clear idea of who he is, what he is in the world for, why he is so cruelly persecuted. Everything falls into place. The doubts and anxieties lose their terror.

So his personality becomes reconstituted—but on a foundation of unreality.

However clear and convincing to him, his idea of his identity may be totally false (he may be convinced, for instance, that he is Jesus Christ returned to Earth). Any cure of the illness requires that the process be reversed, and this is shattering and painful. It may never succeed; the delusion may become fixed. But even so it will give him a sense of security that makes life tolerable again.

If unhappy conditions make both solutions impossible, the turmoil never ends, the agitated and terrorized state persists to torment its victim. Such an unfortunate man is the hero of City of Illusions who never becomes quite certain whether he is really Falk or the Lord Agad Ramarren. The understanding reader responds with terror and pity—the novel has fulfilled the task that Aristotle set for tragedy.

This is one of the strands forming the warp and the woof of Le Guin’s earlier works. Another one is the complex of telepathy and related gifts ascribed to characters in her books. Sometimes an entire complicated hierarchy of people so endowed is paraded before us: "listeners," "paraverbalists," "mindhearers," "empaths." Characters may "bespeak" others, they may engage in activities that sound like Orwell’s Newspeak: they "mindspeak," "mindhear," "mindlie."

The psychologically interesting question is not whether such processes can possibly take place, but why an author—with his (or her) readers—is attracted to imagining them. The probable answer is that people will resort to extrasensory bridges from mind to mind when they feel terribly frustrated by observing, or believing they observe, that the more conventional route of language and of empirically given non-verbal communication will no longer bear the traffic—just as they resort to other Psi-powers or to magic or miracles when they are agitated by finding that the habitual means of problem-solving no longer suffice for their needs. This deeply and hurtfully felt inability to make the regular methods do the job may be rooted in a psychological deficit (thus leading back to our first "strand"), or it may have its main cause in cultural-historical factors. The two, of course, interact.

Psi-powers in SF generally represent regression to the level that psychology calls infantile omnipotence—the individual’s belief that his wishes will instantly and automatically come true. Characteristic of a very early stage, it normally persists throughout childhood in an attenuated form in play (the boy points his wooden gun, he yells "ta ta ta ta!"—and the playmate drops "dead"). Later it may return in psychosis, but normal development pushes it back into day dreams and half-admitted fantasies. By granting license to the reader to engage in such fantasies freely, be it vicariously, fiction featuring Psi-powers appeals especially to those whose ego strength is not sufficient for a secure hold on reality.

A comparison between Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (LoH) which has given infantile omnipotence a highly original twist, and Orwell’s 1984 is instructive here. LoH harks back to 1984 in some details—e.g. the ominous antique shop [§10] -- but mainly in the idea of "altering the past." However, note the difference: when the men in power in 1984 "alter the past," it means that they forge a documentation of a false past and use their monopoly of information to make the people believe their concoction. Nothing like Psi-power or the supernatural is involved, and they do not (unless they contort their minds through "double think") consider their fake past as reality. The narrator, of course, does not: his indignation is the very point of the novel. The characters in LoH, on the other hand, believe that the past has really been altered, and the persona of the author as narrator believes it with them.

A third strand in Le Guin’s skein is a less modernistic one: the "quest." A hero sets out—often with companions who are swiftly eliminated so that he has to face his challenge alone—on a mission of crucial importance: usually, to rid the world or a substantial part thereof of an enormous and enormously odious peril. Thanks to his physical, mental, and moral superiority he wins out against the most incredible odds and earns the gratitude of the people and undying fame. If he is an ancient Greek or otherwise lucky, he may be received among the gods. Rocannon, in Rocannon’s World, is such a hero and is finally thought of as a god (§9). There are always readers to lap this up. Still, one Tolkien is perhaps enough for one generation, especially since he did his job with such unmatched verve, prolixity, taste, and talent.

Instead of going out to save the world, the questing hero may simply go to find himself. The two goals can be fused. This has been done since long before the concept of SF developed. Falk/Ramarren is of the noble lineage of Parsifal; the modern touch, not too rare in SF and contemporary fantasy, is that he doesn’t even really know why he sets out on his quest or what for.

The struggle with delusion, the practice of paranormal communication, the quest: if these three strains were the whole tissue—if, in other words, the Le Guin canon consisted only of the earlier works we have discussed, then this would be about all that from a psychological viewpoint needed to be said about them. In another sense, it would not even be necessary to say anything: these motifs, singly or in combination, are too common in modern SF (or in modern fantasy that calls itself SF) to make them particularly worthy of attention. The Left Hand of Darkness (LHD) and The Dispossessed (TD) are a different species. Our three strands are still woven into the texture of these more recent novels, but only as though the author had thriftily used some remnants of yarn left over from previous work. They are no longer allowed to form the predominant pattern.

Thirty years ago, in the flush of victory over the Nazis and over the atom, American SF worshipped righteous power and the physical sciences; it could consider itself their fifth column in the camp of belles lettres. Then came the well-known shift to soft sciences. It was mostly to psychology and sociology, or rather to pseudo-psychology and pseudo sociology—more soft than sciences. Enter the new Le Guin, and a new type of SF.

Ursula Kroeber, Le Guin’s mother, is a distinguished writer (best known for Ishi in Two Worlds, 1961). Her father was one of the most eminent anthropologists. Her childhood and youth evidently stood under cultural influences the like of which few SF writers, as indeed few people, are privileged to experience.1 Once she had exhausted the potentialities of conventional SF in her earlier novels, she was qualified to write in a new key—not by presenting the self-revelation of human beings through their dominance over nature, but rather by presenting different types of man, with their corresponding different cultures, and by revealing their nature and potential through intercultural contact.

The study of a work of literature requires empathy but also distance: it can be done more effectively if another discipline is used, X-ray-like, to disclose its structure. We may explore psychological SF by examining whether it makes anthropological sense. Equally, we may profitably bring psychological analysis to bear on Le Guin’s anthropological SF.

Now psychologists, particularly psychoanalytically oriented psychologists (and readers of my earlier writings know where I stand), have a reputation, deserved or not, for seeing sex everywhere. I dislike falling into this stereotype as much as into any other. I would much rather discuss Le Guin’s work without even mentioning sex. But this is, of course, impossible.

Unlike the three strands we have discussed, sex—especially in LHD—is not an issue that in a pinch could be skipped. The peculiar sexual constitution of the inhabitants of Gethen is by far the most original and important invention of Le Guin’s. Even farther, I do not think there can be much doubt that it is this invention which made the book famous, which gave readers what they felt they needed. The question then arises, what is the readers’ psychological set? What are the problems to which these special innovations seem the solution? How has a situation developed where this, rather than something else, was "in the air"? Three historic trends have to be considered, the vicissitudes of romantic love, of permissiveness, and of ambisexuality.

First, romantic love. Both as a pattern and as an ideal, it has been so much a part of our present, and especially of our fairly recent past, that we are inclined inadvertently to assume that it has always existed and always played a similarly outstanding role. Actually it may have existed "always," but this is not really the issue: many, if not perhaps all, significant forces have always existed, but much of the time only in a negligible degree. In our civilization, romantic love became a major mood at some time in the late Middle Ages. Its "invention," usually ascribed to the troubadours of the 13th century, consisted essentially in the fusion of affection and sexual desire. Before that, and where romantic love does not rule, affection was and is not consciously sexually tinged, and may exist in a hierarchical context, with love between parents and children the paradigm, or in an egalitarian context, the paradigm here being brotherly love. Sexual desire within that scheme of psychic economy is essentially lust, with emphasis on pleasure and possession, rationalized as obedience to biological necessity.

When romantic love reaches its full bloom, it forms a pattern marked by several interconnected features: one human being experiences—is smitten with—a powerful feeling for a person of the other sex.2 This emotion, equally marked by sexual desire and by tremendous idealization of its object, is given overriding importance. It may be supposed to occur but once in a lifetime, and to be life’s culmination. It is expected to lead either to consummation and enduring bliss, or to be unrequited by the beloved or frustrated by a hostile environment, leading to death or at least permanent misery.

Romantic love in this pure form—Romeo and Juliet—is of course an "ideal type." Actual life approaches, but does not reach it. Still, actual fates have often come close. And literature, music, theatre, film, TV have been full of it.

It is difficult to say when the influence of romantic love reached its zenith, or whether it perhaps continues in the ascendancy. We note that a couple of generations ago a "love match" was still something slightly suspect or ridiculous and rare enough to be commented on—as marriage was usually entered upon on the basis of more mundane considerations—while in the 20th century it is taken for granted that marriage is normally based on romantic love. On the other hand, when Goethe calls romantic love "the holiest of our drives,"3 such effusions have begun to seem to us quaint, naive, and odd. Less and less romantic love is found in the literature of the most recent decades—a "debunking" process that may be seen as the laudable tearing away of a veil of illusion, deception, and hypocrisy, or alternatively as the obliteration of the civilizing work of centuries and a relapse into ancient savagery.

Second, permissiveness. Permissiveness is not a recent invention of hippies. It has not, on the other hand, been a powerful social force "always," and it is doubtful whether it caused the Fall of the Roman Empire. Its rise to power in our culture can be even more closely fixed in time than that of romantic love: it arose with the Renaissance. The tersest and most radical formulation of the principle is a line by Torquato Tasso (1544-1595): S’ei piac’ ei lice—"If it pleases, it is permitted." Tasso was an extremely influential court poet. The principle enunciated by him, surely not meant as a license for lesser breeds, filtered down and in the course of subsequent centuries became increasingly a "guiding rule" for the behavior of people in general.

The relationship of permissiveness to romantic love is not simple. By its stress on self-determination and on the imperious demands of individual emotion, romantic love implies a degree of permissiveness; it is no coincidence that its consummation was long sought in adultery rather than in marriage. On the other hand, being unique and "for ever," romantic love also implies the fiery oath of eternal dedication, the unbreakable bond—the very opposite of permissiveness. Romantic love can only come about in a growingly permissive atmosphere; but it is bound to wither when that growth overwhelms it.

This may have happened. Value, in emotional as in economic life, is a function of scarcity. Emotions can be inflated like money. If everything is available, nothing is worth anything. If the lover recognizes no more the command that he bind himself, his experience is no longer the peak of his life. If he sees through the veil, only naked sex remains, and we are back where we were before romantic love was invented.

Third, ambisexuality. We have known since Freud that in the individual’s development sexuality is originally diffuse, way beyond the imagination of earlier ages, and that the processes of growing up in our society normally involve the narrowing of the sex drive toward a tightly circumscribed goal, the "normal" heterosexual intercourse. It is obvious that this end result is not always reached. It is in fact hardly ever (or perhaps never) reached completely. The "polymorphously perverse" strivings of childhood sexuality may persist to a greater or lesser degree into adulthood.

Certain cultural factors favor their persistence. If through the interplay of the vicissitudes of romantic love and permissiveness the pull of the conventional ideal is lessened, monogamy—be it in its romantic or in any other form—gets weakened. Its role may be contested by the "revolutionary" concept of "general copulation."4 In our society, developments in economics, ecology, and techniques of birth control have powerfully contributed to this shift.5

The question of heterosexuality versus homosexuality is part of this general picture. The channeling of the individual’s sex drive toward concentration on "normal" heterosexuality is strongly abetted by mores that stress the differences of the sexes and by devices that wrap them in mystery. Obversely, breaking down these differences and de-emphasizing them tends to replace such a one-channel maturation by a development that allows for a variety of sexual expressions: "unisex" apparel; men’s long hair; the emergence of transsexual surgery; on a different level, the "women’s lib" movement and the new respectability of homosexuality—all are unmistakably indications of such a trend in our time.

When we consider the people around us, we cannot be sure that any of these three sexual models has made them happy. Romantic love was not designed to bring happiness. But permissiveness was, though trained psychological thinking would have warned us that it would not always do that job. If we look, as we must, at the human personality as composed of different forces, often in conflict, from whose interplay behavior results—psychoanalysis speaks of the id, the ego, and the superego, but other conceptualizations would also serve—we must recognize that permissiveness, by giving greater freedom to all these forces, may alter their balance and enhance their struggle. In some cases happiness would not result. As to the third mode, ambisexuality, several forces militate against its making people happy: the developmentally established set of the individual, which may be strictly and defensively heterosexual; the unresponsiveness of a person who would be the object of desire; and the still prevailing mores. The last is the most conspicuous, but may be the least formidable. If, however, human nature were such that ambisexuality were "programmed" into every individual, then these obstacles would fade away and happiness would be within reach. This is the paradisiac picture that Le Guin dangles before the readers’ eager eyes.6

Like all literature, and perhaps more so than most, SF appeals to the reader by supplying a trellis for his fantasies to climb up on and bloom. Le Guin does this splendidly; we must examine how she does it, and why.

First, the surface messages—for Le Guin likes occasionally to play hide-and-seek with her audience. In TD, for example, she refers to Einstein, "an alien physicist ... of Terra," as Ainsetain (D and later). She reports how Shevek, accustomed to a vegetarian diet, reacts to meat: "He had tried it ... but his stomach had its reasons which reason does not know, and rebelled" (§5). The allusion is to an aphorism by Pascal; some readers would catch it, but many wouldn’t. Pascal, however, speaks of the heart’s reasons. The downward shift from heart to stomach is not coincidental. Pascal was the very embodiment of existential malaise, but it does not appear that he felt a need to express it by vomiting, or to talk about such a need.7 In modern literature people vomit all over the place—or, as we shall see, the platter.

There are in TD passages like these:

He copulated with a number of girls, but copulation was not the joy it ought to be. It was a mere relief of need, like evacuating, and he felt ashamed of it afterward because it involved another person as object. Masturbation was preferable, the suitable course for a man like himself. (§6)

... he could not stop, her resistance excited him further. He gripped her to him, and his semen spurted out against the white silk of her dress .... .. For God’s sake!" Vea said, looking down at her skirt... "Really! Now I’ll have to change my dress." Shevek ... ran up against a table. On it lay a silver platter on which tiny pastries stuffed with meat, cream, and herbs were arranged in concentric circles like a huge pale flower. Shevek gasped for breath, doubled up, and vomited all over the platter. (§7)

Romantic love was never like that. Still, it would be rash to conclude that Le Guin’s message is really that vomiting is to be preferred to orgasm. Even if outward appearance were suggestive, the real message of a book does not entirely depend on what the author intentionally puts in as a message. The audience responds to a work’s driving force, not merely to its final shape.

What is the driving force here? Neither LHD nor TD can in any way be called novels about happiness or about disgust. If there is a human quality they can be said to probe, it is endurance. Their manifest subject is frustration tolerance; it is the capacity to suffer, not the capacity to enjoy. Le Guin herself calls LHD "a book about betrayal and fidelity."9

But why would readers like that? And how does the impression get about that betrayal and fidelity in these works have sexual roots (Russ for instance says of LHD, "it is about sex")?10 Not because of homosexuality, since this solution as such plays a lesser role even than one might expect in a book that deals chiefly with relationships between men. In LHD homosexuality is on the whole covert, though the emotional temperature of the relationship between Genly and Estraven, the two principal characters, rises (it approaches the boiling point in §18), and though Genly’s loss of a clearly defined sex role threatens to make all sex repellent to him (§20). In TD homosexuality is overt, but minor. In Lathe it is very minor: it occurs only in Dr. Haber’s reminiscences (§8).

As to the hidden driving force, Le Guin says of LHD that "the real subject of the book is not feminism or sex or gender or anything of the sort," but relates in the most straightforward manner that "a certain unease" brought to the surface by the development of the women’s movement caused her to write the novel:

I began to want to define and understand the meaning of sexuality and the meaning of gender, in my life and in our society.... The way I did my thinking was to write a novel. That novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, is the record of my consciousness, the process of my thinking.11

So the book was not written about sex (or gender etc.) but at least partly because of it.

A book’s origin may be a more valid cause of its characters’ feelings and fate than the author’s rationalizations. When SF conjures up an imaginary society, it matters little why according to the writer its citizens feel the way they do. The reader may judge that a certain system displayed before him would make people unhappy, even though the author claims it would not (the reef on which so many utopias have foundered). Unhappiness in LHD and TD is supposed to result primarily from political complications, not from the society’s underlying foundations; but it is to these foundations that the reader responds.

None of this is simple, but Le Guin’s mature work isn’t for simple people. She has perhaps never forsworn the ideas and clichés that informed her earlier books, but she has outgrown them. She has muted the old strains and woven them into the brilliant tapestry of her anthropological fiction where the outstanding motif reflects an important dislocation in our emotional equilibrium. Her intimate message is an answer to the reader’s prayers, and the more effective for that prayer not even having been consciously uttered. She does not proclaim ambisexuality as a solution; but she depicts a world where ambisexuality is institutionalized; where it is universal, inescapable, not the result of individual choice or even individual nature, hence free of guilt and conflict. The observer who gazes at the ebb and flow of sexual patterns may now only hear "its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar."12 The reader who contemplates Le Guin’s planet feels the new, the future life-giving flood.

But why, then, is the human condition seen in these books in such a grim light? Why the frustration and nausea?

It is of the essence of SF that it lures the reader into daydreams and fantasies of which he knows that their fulfillment is not in his reach. Caught between the decline of romantic love and the pitfalls of permissiveness, he may dream of fulfillment by ambisexuality. But he cannot help realizing that it is not for him to take the plunge.


1. See Theodora Kroeber, Alfred Kroeber: A Personal Configuration (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1970).

2. For the expression "other sex" being preferable to "opposite sex," see Charles Rycroft, "Freud and the Imagination," The New York Review of Books, April 3, 1975.

3. "Der heiligste von unsern Trieben..." in a brief poem, "Aus den Leiden des jungen Werthers."

4. The term is effectively used in Peter Weiss’s play usually referred to as Marat/Sade.

5. Let us note, rather than fully discuss, the view which would be in accordance with Marxism, that these forces are actually the ultimate causes of the changes in the "superstructure."

6. The testimony of zoology is inconclusive. Nature has made a few classes of animals bisexual, notably snails. It is not known whether they are happy. Snails seem upon the whole to lead placid lives; they don’t amount to much. Some people would draw an analogy and claim that an ambisexual species of hominids would lack the incentive to develop higher civilization (I am indebted for the observations on snails to Ambassador Karl Hartl of the Austrian Foreign Service).

7. It is true, though, that he suffered from stomach trouble much of his life.

8. In Norman Mailer’s An American Dream for instance, vomiting is virtually a way of life. I must doubt that this is realistic. I have rarely seen an adult vomit. But perhaps I do not move in the right circles.

9. "Is Gender Necessary?" in: Susan Anderson and Vonda McIntyre, eds., Aurora: Beyond Equality (in press at Fawcett, 1975).

10. Joanna Russ, "The Image of Women in Science Fiction," in: Susan Koppelman Cornillon, ed., Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green Univ. Popular Press, 1972).

11. See note 9.

12. Matthew Arnold in "Dover Beach" thus refers to the "sea of faith," but the same can be said here.



This essay takes a psychoanalytic approach, discussing the probable functions of such motifs in early LeGuin novels as identity (the hero of City of Illusions never becomes quite certain whether he is really Falk or the Lord Agad Ramarren) and telepathy ("listeners," "paraverbalists," "mindbearers," "empaths"). The psychologically interesting question is not whether such processes can possibly take place, but why an author is attracted to imagining them. The probable answer is that people will resort to extrasensory bridges from mind to mind when they feel frustrated by observing that the more conventional route of language and of empirically given non-verbal communication will no longer bear the traffic. In the same way, they resort to Psi-powers or to magic or miracles when they are agitated by finding that habitual means of problem-solving no longer suffice. A third strand in LeGuin’s skein is less modernist: the "quest." A hero sets out—often with companions who are swiftly eliminated—on a mission of crucial importance. Rocannon, in Rocannon’s World, is such a quest hero and is finally thought of as a god. While these motifs preoccupy LeGuin in her early fiction, the pessimistic consideration of the collapse of ideal romantic love preoccupies her in The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. LeGuin does not proclaim ambisexuality as a solution in LHD, but she depicts a world where ambisexuality is institutionalized, universal, inescapable, not the result of individual choice or even individual nature; hence, it is free of guilt and conflict.

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