‘Moving Sideways, or in Reverse: spiritual directions in Ursula K. Le Guin’, by Liesl King


In Le Guin’s introduction to her own ‘rendition’ of Lao Tzu’s ancient Chinese poetry, Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about The Way and the Power of the Way (1997), the writer explains that she has been influenced by Lao Tzu’s work ever since she found a translation of his poetry in her father’s library as a young adult. Her interest in Taoism is reflected in her concept of the ‘yin-centred’ utopia, which arguably she addresses in a wide range of texts—not by imagining fully articulated utopian landscapes, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman does for example with Herland in 1915, or which Marge Piercy does in 1976 with Woman on the Edge of Time, but instead, by revealing glimpses of what a ‘yin-centred’ way of interacting and behaving might look like in the midst of crisis. For Le Guin, ‘utopia has been the big yang motorcycle trip’ (1989, 90) and to progress, paradoxically we need to move sideways, or even backwards, as ‘side trips and reversals are precisely what minds stuck in forward gear most need’ (95). In the essay that I’m quoting from here —‘A Non-Euclidean View of California As a Cold Place to Be’—Le Guin describes the yin utopia as one which would be ‘dark, wet, obscure, weak, yielding, passive, participatory, contracting and cold’ (Le Guin, 1989, 90). So what does she mean; what might that look like in practice?

For insight, we can turn to her fiction. In the fantasy story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ (1975) we see an example of yin-centered practice in the characters who choose to walk away from a beautiful city, a city which is permitted to preserve its wealth and happiness as long as it keeps one miserable, hungry and lonely child in a filthy cellar. In one of the best loved young adult novels of all time, The Wizard of Earthsea (1968), the young wizard Ged, in his boat on the Open Sea, finds that ultimately he has to stop, go backwards, move inwards to face the shadowy, unpleasant part of himself in order to recover a sense of peace. And in one of the most celebrated science fiction novels of the twentieth century, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), protagonist Genly Ai experiences an about-face, a cultural reversal, as he finds his way to ‘accept’, and finally ‘to love’, ‘a man who [is] a woman, a woman who [is] a man’ (Le Guin, 202). Le Guin’s work insistently underlines Socrates’s sentiment—‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. To be ‘yin-centred’, perhaps, is to cultivate an active and ongoing dialogue with oneself. In Le Guin we see that a shift in direction often occurs in those characters who aim to see clearly, to live wisely, but who somehow get stuck in ‘forward gear’: the ‘fast forward’ movement, the seemingly inexorable tide to which the character at first succumbs, creates disorientation, confusion, a sensation of drowning—until at the point of spiritual crisis the character is forced to either move in another direction or sink. It is at this point that the character—Ged, or Genly Ai, Shevek or Sutty—moves into a metaphorical ‘child’s pose’, folding to a place of quiet contemplation in order to hear the insight spoken there.

The word ‘spiritual’ rarely appears in Le Guin’s writing, but to me, this is the word that best describes the fictional space she opens between ‘faith’ and ‘unbelief’.   Lynn Hume and Patricia McPhillips suggest that ‘like the breath, which rises out of the body, spirituality stems from a quest that reflects a deep inner hunger for meaning and connectedness’ (2006): it is just this quest that each of Le Guin’s protagonists undertake. Her favoured genres—science fiction and fantasy—allow her to introduce characters who engage in what we might call spiritual practice—meditation, nature-based ritual, communal invocations of the transcendent, but who live on far-flung planets, with histories all of their own. In so doing, she invites us to think about the socially constructed aspects of our own traditional religions. Her notes on one poem in her ‘rendition’ of the Tao Te Ching comment that ‘to believe that our beliefs are permanent truths which encompass reality is a sad arrogance’ (1997). Simultaneously, however, Le Guin’s prose—spare, clear, truth-seeking—reminds us that the desire to feel connected to that which is vast, unknowable, mysterious is in itself an impulse that engenders self-awareness and by extension, compassion. In The Left Hand of Darkness, the Handdaran Foretellers practice ‘the Handdara discipline of Presence, which is a kind of trance … involving self-loss (self augmentation?) through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness’ (1969). ‘Sensual receptiveness’ appears to be a meditative practice which blurs perceived barriers between the body and the world, contributing to a sense of balance and connectedness. Genly Ai, ‘earth normal’ from Terra, observes that the cult of the Handdara is ‘without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows’. We are invited, perhaps, as we encounter this group of people who practice ‘unknowingness’ and ‘sensual receptiveness’ daily, to think about an alternative way of understanding ‘faith’—can one hold faith in ‘Presence’, for example, without the need to give it an anthropomorphised name, a history, a future? Can one find a way to practice self-awareness and compassion, but without the need for institutions, priests, hierarchies, vows? What we can know for certain is that the Handdaran strategy is working well on Planet Winter, on Gethen, where it is always Year One.

Le Guin’s narrative voice sings through style and story, form and content, aesthetic and polemic. Forty years after publishing The Left Hand of Darkness she introduces readers to Lavinia, a character who like the Handdaran foretellers might be said to practice ‘sensual receptiveness’ as she enacts ancient rites in the Forest of Albunea, and who like the foretellers, through nature-based ritual, gains access to visions of the future. Unlike the practitioners of Handdara however, Lavinia becomes aware that she is a figment of someone else’s imagination—and in a dream-state she meets her poet, Virgil, who comes as a time-traveller, moving in what we might call his ‘astral’ body. The poet in his own time is gasping out his last breath, and is most surprised to meet an unremarkable character from his own epic, a character to whom he has offered only a few lines, a mere bit part. Le Guin, canny, in metafictional mode, underlines for us the appeal of invention through Lavinia, for the character is already firmly lodged in the reader’s mind’s eye—real in the way Art can be real, offering up Presence—Alive. We already know her history—we have felt the rip of her mother’s fingernails across her face; we know the hot flush of exposure, the sense of body as meat, experienced under King Turnus’s gaze.   But perhaps I can only speak for myself here, and so I will tell you—there I was with Lavinia in the forest, in Albunea, before Rome was built, alert and receptive when she told me:

The presence of the trees was very strong. For the first time I wondered if I might hear the voice that my father heard speak from among them in the dark. The big oaks stood so many, so massive in their other life, in their deep, rooted silence: the awe of them came on me, the religion. I went back to the sacred enclosure praying, very humbly beseeching these great powers to have pity on my weakness. (40)

As I read this I shivered; I stopped and sat in the space that the rhythm and simplicity of each line had created and made vast—I mentally gave thanks to the writer.   I had been drawn in, willingly, to a space between faith and unbelief.


Liesl King

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