Science Fiction Studies

#23 = Volume 8, Part 1 = March 1981



John Fekete

Circumnavigating Ursula Le Guin: Literary Criticism and Approaches to Landing

Joe De Bolt. ed. Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space. Port Washington. NY & London: Kennikat Press. 1979. 221p. $15.00.

In 1973, Ursula Le Guin wrote in Foundation,: "Outer Space and the Inner Lands, are still, and always will be, my country."1 As the title suggests, the volume now under review is concerned to present Le Guin through her pivotal allegiance to "true journey" and to interpret her journeys to interior and exterior realms. In this context, the essays touch on interfaces between self and world and argue the connections between the shapes of the universes that she invents and the shapes at the depths of human personality with its responsibilities, possibilities, and processes of formation. This may not be inappropriate, either to Le Guin's richly elaborated preoccupation with Bildung, or as a complement to the more systematically socio-political orientation of the only other full-scale collection of essays on Le Guin. assembled in SFS four years earlier.2 It is nonetheless fair to note that the discussions do not sustain a clear focus on the large crucibles within which the self is formed nor--therefore--the veritable dimensions of the self's situation, movement, and scope of intervention in a given historical-cosmic reality.

Anthologies are notoriously difficult to assess because neither their intention nor their conjunctural position is likely to be transparent and because the central communications imperative of discovering meaning through the juxtaposition of what is said and what could have been said is doubly hard to satisfy. Essay collections may he designed to reach for the comprehensive, or to probe selected aspects provocatively with no desire to control the illuminative fallout, or to be theoretically cogent: they may be celebratory or critical or indifferent. And then a further complex of parameters having to do with the market and the sociology of reception is needed to determine the cumulative impact of the essays and their insertion in the given cultural field.

In this instance, we get what appears to be a celebratory volume designed for the general educated reader. To its credit, the collection touches a number of bases. "The Bibliographic Checklist of the Works of Ursula K. Le Guin" provided by Jeff Levin expands his earlier bibliography in the special Le Guin issue of SFS and remains a useful scholarly instrument. Joe De Bolt's "A Le Guin Biography" follows her from birth to success, collating the information fragments about her life and views which are now widely circulating in the SF subculture. He highlights Le Guin's "faith in human nature's capacity for goodness" (p. 14) and her high regard for SF for its "capacity to face an open universe" (p. 27).3 The general tenor of the biography, as of the other essays in the volume, precisely contradicts Barry Malzberg's provocative introduction, "Circumstance as Policy." Malzberg argues that Le Guin's anthropologist's outlook foregrounds cultural background to convey "the message...that culture predominates," with the result that her characters bear greatly diminished responsibility for their acts: "the connection between individual and culture is seamless: .... no human impress can be left upon the social abstract" (p.7). By inference, it becomes intriguing to consider (and as the critical literature develops, to assess) the various tensions among the Le Guin personalities, including that between Le Guin the dynamic, optimistic libertarian moralist whose ontology, like Odo's, pivots on choosing and the responsibility of choice and Le Guin the stoical Taoist metaphysician whose cosmology provides, in part, for a counter-utopian, anti-rationalist anthropological stress on the permanence of evil as a dimension of human existence.4 Her profound sense of the "mystery of the real"5 accounts for her consistent and salutary resistance to the vulgar rationalist escapism which proposes that "human suffering is something that can be cured--like scurvy"6 yet, in historical terms, the position remains ambivalent pending a re-alignment of reforming social forces.

James Bittner's "A Survey of Le Guin Criticism" reviews favorably the rise of her critical reputation, with a concluding stress (characteristic of these essays) on Le Guin as a discoverer and celebrant of "the patterned richness and variety of life" and, following Susan Wood's contention, a cartographer of its true ethical and aesthetic laws (p. 48).7 Important in connection with this cognitive claim made on Le Guin's behalf is the attention drawn to Eleanor Cameron's 1969 talk on Earthsea,8 "the first serious criticism of Le Guin's fiction," and in general to criticism from England, where "the American preference for science fiction over fantasy is inverted" (pp. 32-33). Bittner argues against imposing the biases of genre boundaries on a work that is concerned with breaking down cultural walls. Imaginary countries in different literary modes are all part of the same world, he suggests (p. 49) and "criticism that concentrates on her science fiction can produce only a partial view of her creative range and artistic power" (p. 31)

This perspective is supported by the presence in the volume of three pieces on Earthsea by Rollin A. Lassiter, John R. Pfeiffer, and Francis J. Molson. Whether in Lassiter's close reading of the trilogy, or in Pfeiffer's discussion of oral traditions in a comparison with Beowulf, or--especially--in Molson's designation of Le Guin's work by the term "ethical fantasy" as distinct from "heroic" or "high" fantasy, all three essays stress the learning process and cognitive themes. The matter is of real significance, in as much as this emphasis both complements the neglect of Le Guin's fantasy in the 1975 SFS collection and also contradicts that distinction between fantasy and SF based on cognitive grounds that is integrated into one of the dominant genre specifications of SF: that of "cognitive estrangement" as elaborated in the work of Darko Suvin.9 Unfortunately, these essays do not perform the theoretical work that is needed in this regard, so that the challenge they implicitly pose remains latent. Nonetheless, this is a challenge that persists, even if rhetorically, and remains stimulating and suggestive, particularly in the light of Le Guin's work in the area and her vigorous argumentation in the cause of fantasy as evidenced, for example, in the texts grouped together under the title The Language of the Night.

Le Guin proposes that fantasy, though not factual, is nevertheless a vehicle of truth,10 and that the means to perception, compassion and hope may be those "precise and profound metaphors of the human condition" which imagination provides for us by way of the ancient archetypes of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology."11 In this sense "it is a modern province of fantasy's ancient kingdom."12 Meanwhile, fantasy as a whole is the key to the dark side of the dialectic, to the dark side of the soul, the repressed, the shadow, the unknown and irrational depths of the unconscious which constitute integral dimensions of the whole. "We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark," writes Le Guin, "and fantasy.... speaks the language of the night."13

In other words, Le Guin, relying heavily on Jung, presents a view of fantasy as a cognitive- evocative translation of interior processes and the best mode of journeying to, exploring, and making accessible the collective unconscious. The great fantasies, then, "speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious--symbol and archetype."14 Characteristically, Le Guin insists on sustaining access to the collective by way of the personal, and hence emphasizes the need to connect the rational conscious and irrational unconscious realms.15 Only a genuine myth rising into its consciousness through art can keep open the tenuous, difficult, essential connections between the two extremes"16 and enable the readers to make this same courageous journey to the inner lands of self and species that the artist undertakes. By way of this artistic effort, then, civilization's highest achievement, differentiated individual consciousness, is nourished by linking it with its deepest roots. The motivating hope is that alienation may be overcome if we can meet and communicate on this common ground. She writes: "There will be--openly in fantasy, covertly in materialism--dragons, heroes, guests, objects of power, voyages at night and under the sea, and so forth. In narrative, as in painting, certain familiar patterns will become visible."17

Le Guin's position in this regard has substantial implications for psychology, culture, and more directly, literary theory. One difficulty worth noting is that it begs the question of what accounts for genre differentiation within literature, for example, between fantasy and naturalism: indeed what accounts for the differentiation between literature and myth. Certainly, her archetypalism challenges Suvin's SF/fantasy, even naturalism/estrangement distinction. But this is accomplished only to the extent that literature can he seen primarily as pattern, structure, in the manner of the Jungian tradition and (with some differences) of Northrop Frye.18 Such a strategy fails, of course, if Suvin's distinction can hold to the effect that literature may be mythomorphic but is decidedly not mythopoeic,19 in which case, one would suppose, ideological theory and ideographic criticism must complement mythological structuralism. Otherwise, consciousness, the domain of value, meaning, and history, does not get its due in contrast with the unconscious. In this sense, Le Guin's argument seems incomplete, if not inconsistent with her own insistence that literature builds a bridge between consciousness and unconsciousness. The problem may lie with the implicit assumption that the union of conscious and unconscious will yield the archetype as pure object or form, as non-ideological manifestation--i.e.. as veritably uncontested, or immediately given, common ground. This could be the case semiologically only if a universal Unconscious were recovered through means of Consciousness endowed with universal consensus. But consciousness is not universal but conflicted and there is a mediating material translation process whereby any unconscious elements are consciously retrieved and appropriated, with the effect that any recovery of these elements is ideological in historically and culturally specific ways. Le Guin's own opus, I would say, touches authentically on our common and genuine humanity, but at the same time embeds specific ideological currents that merit examination, debate or even criticism.

It is a shortcoming of the book and its relatively uncritical festschrift type of approach that such problems are in fact not explored or even approached directly, and it will remain to future discussion to see whole the many dimensions of Le Guin's work, including her discursive writing. Two of the essays in this collection, it merits observing, raise related questions in the course of thematic considerations that may be worth pursuing further. Peter Koper's "Science and Rhetoric in the Fiction of Ursula Le Guin" stresses the crippling emotional fallout from the prevailing scientific formalism of our culture, with its celebration of the universe of rational cause and of a cult of objectivity singularly ill equipped to deal with the unconscious core of personality" (p. 84). He attributes the power of Le Guin's work to the fact that it, like and better than most SF, restores personality and the deeper dimensions of self to the realm of operations of alienated scientific rhetoric. There are certain problems with Koper's analysis. For one thing, he presents the alienated scientistic attitude as a dominant and autonomous feature of reality in a manner that is a repression with regard, for example, to a half-century of Husserlian discussion about the "natural" attitude of pragmatic everyday life underlying and rooting the development of objectivist science, not to mention with regard to a philosophy of science and of social relations that could account in an authentically historical way, beyond phenomenology, for human mental and cultural development. For another, Koper neglects the contemporary repressive desublimation of culture and the extent to which subjectivism and immediacy become bearers of alienation on a scale comparable with objectivism and distance.

At the same time, his elucidation of Le Guin's challenge to scientific rationalism in the form of a turn to the depth and fullness of self is valuable in focussing (even if perhaps too narrowly limiting) her concerns in this area: and he thereby keeps open the critical door to a complex cultural analysis that has always been the (generally unfulfilled) promise of SF criticism. In addition, Koper's anti-objectivist perspective that "the areas in which the quality of human life is decided are the areas of opinion and uncertainty, of hope and faith, rather than of doubt and certainty" (p. 74), combined with his methodological commitment to the stress in rhetorical criticism on the persuasive dimensions of discourse (p. 70), at least opens by implication onto the around of ideological commentary and debate.

In a similar vein, Karen Sinclair's "Solitary Being: The Hero as Anthropologist" zeroes in on the existential and philosophical ramifications of the outsider or marginal figure in Le Guin's fiction as a structural pivot for a critical assessment of social and communicative relations. Following in the tradition launched by Rafail Nudelman, Douglass Barbour, Donald Theall and others, of seeing Le Guin's central problematic as the transition from fragmentation to unity, she argues through textual analysis the extent to which Le Guin thematizes a differentiated cultural unity that appreciates and celebrates differences and that postulates differences, not primarily as boundaries, but as essential means to self-transcendence and relationship. I have suggested elsewhere that there may be some problems with the hyper-normative anthropological pressures of Le Guin's libertarianism and her theory of social co-ordination.20 But Sinclair's point is nonetheless helpful, both to assert the value of and the right to difference (one of the decisive lacunae in our culture) and also to balance consideration of Le Guin's psychological/archetypal universalism. Particularly fruitful may be the suggestion Sinclair makes that the extent to which we can grant humanity to others and enlarge our own humanity is linked to the extent to which we can "cease to glorify or stigmatize that which is not immediately comprehensible" (p. 65). In other words, we might conclude, following Le Guin, that the crucial social and cultural transformations that could ensure tolerance and the enhancement of a variegated wholeness may be ineluctably dependent on a certain degree of epistemological stoicism or agnosticism--i.e.. on a revaluation of our characteristically rationalist cognitive romanticism in order to renew our sense of what is at stake in how we live the limits and modalities of the process of understanding.

The last two essays in the volume. organized broadly around The Dispossessed, raise the questions of Le Guin's cosmology and sociology. Elizabeth Cummings Cogell's "Taoist Configurations" proposes that The Dispossessed is clearly the culmination of Taoist philosophy in Le Guin's writing. The Taoist configuration includes the model of nature which offers the anarchist and revolutionary pattern for society, the attitude of wu wei [letting alone, passive receptivity and relativism] in human relationships which unifies the novel, and the acceptance of the eternality of change which structures the novel" (p. 179). Cogell has been analyzing Taoism in one or another Le Guin text for the last five years, and the arguments are perhaps most stretched and least compelling here, in application to Le Guin's major social drama. It is true that as late as 1978 Le Guin described the marriage of yin and yang as "the central and constant theme"21 of her work. Still, this article does not fully come to terms either with David Porter's periodization of Le Guin,22 attibuting Taoist mythopoetics most centrally to her middle period (late 1960s, early 1970s) or (especially) with Darko Suvin's contention that Le Guin's work is in evolution, that its ambiguities and balancing of oppositions are intrinsically dynamic at every point, so that "attempts to subsume her under Taoism...are in view of her development after The Lathe of Heaven not only doomed to failure but also retrospectively revealed as inadequate even for her earlier works."23

Although Cogell works heroically with her materials within the central problem complex of Le Guin's ecology of balances, her key concepts (such as an undifferentiated--rather than hierarchical--nature, or wu wei, founded on a "natural self" uncontaminated by society, or the process of eternal change within which means are ends and truths relative) are difficult enough to work with at best and in many respects philosophically problematic and incomplete. Unfortunately, the whole range of totalizing Le Guin criticism that takes as its starting point the search for wholeness and balance has experienced great difficulty in staying clear of identity theory, in distinguishing between oppositions that interlock and contradictions that do not, and generally in charting with historical specification the structural levels and dispositions and options that make the problems of social ecology interesting. At the highest levels of metaphysical generality, the "balance of opposites" or "eternal change" concepts yield neither discriminations for assessing society or works of art nor aesthetic, ideological, or political strategies for change, and can be discovered in or hung rapturously on virtually any writing of quality. The schematic deductive application of such abstractions to a work like The Dispossessed, it seems to me, does not finally illuminate the Western historical and cultural traditions of the work and its set of problems and stakes, nor the salient aesthetic features of its problematizing of given human interrelations, nor the role it assumes within the ideological field of its appropriation.

A similar comment may be made about Larry Tifft and Dennis Sullivan's much more sympathetic and elegant, self-consciously anarchist "Possessed Sociology and Le Guin's Dispossessed: From Exile to Anarchism." They elucidate dialectically the revolutionary challenge posed by Le Guin's "total engagement in life" (p. 182) for alienated, personally or socially disconnected, analytics by raising the issue of the relationship between person and social structure and stressing connectedness through shared speech about shared personal journeys. The essay is continuous with others in the volume in its concerns with self and journey toward rejuvenation and the reconciliation of opposites, and in its phenomenological postulate of a core of universal basic human values, dilemmas, and emotions that constitute a web of human connectedness and commonality beneath all erected forms of separation, a core that is "forever seeping through the most rigorous walls of our current social orders" (p. 189). There is an optimistic and complex social analysis implied here, perhaps more explicitly than in the other essays.

Yet, here too, a pre-existing conceptual framework is schematically applied to a hermeneu- tically tolerant (even welcoming) text, so that the seamless rhetorical flow makes it difficult to raise troubling qualifications: for example in philosophical anthropology. (If connectedness is a given of species life in itself, how do its forms vary with social structure, how does it come to be valued for itself, and how can it be distributed in specific historical circumstances as a value for us, individual by individual?). Similar problems arise in cultural ideology (given our own society's material horizons, is scarcity really an appropriate conditioning frame for a revolutionary drama?) and in aesthetics (is Shevek satisfactory as a representative figure and is the literary form adequately multidimensional to ground a utopian narrative?).24

In sum, then, I am drawn to the following observations. This volume of essays could be regarded as helpful in continuing the process of establishing an agenda for discussions of Ursula Le Guin, SF, and literary theory. Its own contribution to advancing those discussions, however, is limited by the relative lack of theoretical depth and range in the selected materials. The pull of the market produces a pressure to popularize, and this text is likely to function chiefly as a means to the further appreciation and easy assimilation of Le Guin's work. I am not sure that preparing her for ready consumption is doing a real favor to a serious artist, and it may be that a too rapid and too uncritical approbation does more harm than good.

Be that as it may I am struck by the extent to which the Le Guin secondary literature consists mainly of thematic textual analysis, often of single texts. This is surely an early stage of the scholarship and in my view needs to he developed in a number of dimensions. In concluding, then, I would make the following proposals for methods to be included in a critical agenda:

(1) Transcontextualized criticism. Ian Watson is almost alone in having tried to illuminate Le Guin by comparison with other writers.25 We need more of this, as well as juxtaposition of literary discourse with other modes of discourse for their mutual illumination. If objective absolutes are no longer available to us, as many of these essays accept, then transcontextual interilluminations are our best means of insightful exploration.

(2) Ideological/rhetorical cynicism. Needed to resituate the author in a many-sided social conversation replete with intentionality and strategic concerns.

(3) Reception Studies. Particularly with SF, a form on the edges of both popular and canonical literature, the formation of audiences both as commodities and as ideological appropriators, is important to the elaboration of meanings, especially in the light of Walter Benjamin's discovery of the degree to which reception, and the anticipation of the quality of reception, play a role in aesthetic formation itself.

(4) Deconstructive criticism. With a genre that is readily confused with social prediction and futurology and so imprecisely investigated as to the qualities of its extrapolations, analogies, or world-reduction, it would he important to explore the extent to which the text confesses its own literariness and problematizes itself as well as the objects of its discourse.

(5) Formal criticism. Needed to contextualize a text against the history and taxonomy of literary form. There is a need, for example, to account for Le Guin's classicism (to which Malzherg refers) and to assess its impact. It is only in the frame of this kind of discussion that Le Guin's formal experimentation (SF, fantasy, stories, essays, the Orsinian materials, poems, and the new historical novel) can be properly situated and evaluated.

Finally, beyond method, it seems to me that there are central constellations of problems that are endemic to our society and its current blockage and struggles, and these recur regularly in the frame of Le Guin's work. They merit concentrated interpretative effort, and that against the background of our real historical situation (to the extent that we can know it through a juxtaposition of her words and other words). In one way or another, all of these have been placed on the agenda in this volume and in earlier essays, but they probably need to be specifically identified, developed, and debated. Among these interrelated and inter-determining areas I would highlight:

(1) The public sphere/private sphere relationship, their respective claims, pressures, and rewards, and the actual and possible forms of interplay of social structure, civil society, and the State.

(2) The difference/wholeness relationship and their historically specified bearing on alienation and domination.

(3) The formation of personality and the reconstitution of everyday life.

(4) The nature, scope and limits of rationality, its Western and Eastern history, and its objectifications: the process of social institution.

(5) The physiognomy of alternative society and vectors pointing to it. (For example, Suvin sees and approves in The Dispossessed the adequacy to one another of hero and territory, hence the identity of individual and humanity.26 Arguably he might have valued the social options and aesthetic fullness of the work differently had he shared Fourier's libidinal bias or Morris's pacification bias and hence a vision filtered through different co-ordinates of social possibility.)

(6) The history/art/criticism/theory/appropriation complex.


1. See the autobiographical "A Citizen of Mondath."in the new collection of Le Guin essays. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. ( NY. 1979): p. 19. The volume is hereafter abbreviated as LN.

2. See "The Science Fiction of Ursula Le Guin" in SFS no. 7 (Nov. 1975).

3. Cf. "Escape Routes." LN. p. 165.

4. Cf. LN passim: esp. "The Child and the Shadow." pp. 50-51, 53: "The Staring Eye." p. 136.

5. "Escape Routes." LN. p. 164.

6. Ibid.

7. Cf. Le Guinian realism, contra the whole Kantian, Hegelian rationalist tradition. "Dreams Must Explain Themselves," LN. p. 35: "The Taoist world is orderly, not chaotic, but its order is not one imposed by man or by a personal or humane deity. The true laws--ethical and aesthetic, as surely as scientific--are not imposed from above by any authority but exist in things and are to be found--discovered."

8. See "High Fantasy: A Wizard of Earthsea." Horn Book 47 (April, 1971):129-38.

9. See Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven & London. 1979),esp. the essays in "Part I: Poetics." which have been influential through periodical publication beginning in 1972.

10. "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?." LN. p. 32.

11. "National Book Award Acceptance Speech." LN. p. 43.

12. "Science Fiction and Mrs Brown." LN. p. 84.

13. Cited in the "Introduction" by Susan Wood. LN. p. 1. Originally from "Fantasy, Like Poetry, Speaks the Language of the Night." World. in Sunday Examiner and Chronicle (San Francisco, 21 Nov. 1976).

14. "The Child and the Shadow." LN. p. 47.

15. "Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction." LN. p. 59-60.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.,p.61.

18. It is interesting to note that the Le Guin challenge ("both are true") to Suvin's ("only literature is true") myth/literature distinction preserves his epistemological realism. By contrast, the contemporary convention in disputing a myth/literature distinction is to approach it from the anti-realist pole ("neither is true"). None of these positions seems entirely satisfactory and we still seem to lack a theory that would jointly account for the place of aesthetic expression in human life, historical genre differentiation, and the specification of truth in a frame of epistemological creativity. The problem of relativism today haunts intellectual exchange, remains unresolved, and is little advanced toward clarity by simple re-assertions of classicism.

19. Cf. "SF and the Genological Jungle." op. cit., pp. 3~36.

20. See John Fekete, "The Dispossessed and Triton: Act and System in Utopian Science Fiction," SFS, 6 (1979): 129-43. esp. 132-33 and 137.

21. "Introduction to Planet of Exile," EN, pp. 112-13.

22. "The Politics of Le Guin's Opus." SFS, 2 (1975):273-78.

23. "Parables of De-Alienation: Le Guin's Widdershins Dance," ibid., p. 301.

24. For a more direct effort to raise some of these questions, see Fekete, op. cit., esp. pp. 132-35.

25. "The Forest as Metaphor for Mind: `The Word for World is Forest' and `Vaster Than Empires and More Slow'," SFS 7 (1975): 261-67. Cf. also Nadia Khouri, "The Dialectics of Power: Utopia in the Science Fiction of Le Guin, Jeury. and Piercy," SFS 6 (1980) :49-60; and Fekete. op. cit.

26. "Parables of De-Alienation." loc. cit., p. 295.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home