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,"
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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