I’ve recently re-read Ursula Le Guin’s most famous novels, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) — the former for the first time in, yeeesh, I don’t want to think about how long. The latter, which has always been my favorite among her novels, revealed some structural flaws this time around: I really don’t think she brings Shevek’s story to as successful a conclusion as it deserves. The Dispossessed would have been better as a longer and more sweeping book, something more Tolstoyan in scope, perhaps with more of the history of the Odonian movement — but then, Le Guin really doesn’t do Tolstoyan sweep. A shame, in a way, given that so many of her themes invite it. (I wonder if Virginia Woolf’s famous comment in A Room of One’s Own that women’s books are likely to be shorter than those of men is relevant here?) By contrast, on this reading The Left Hand of Darkness struck me as a genuine masterpiece, perfectly calibrated and balanced, and even more moving than I had remembered.
In both books, Le Guin is great on sexual politics, in several senses of that phrase: she shows the ways that the political order is shaped by sexual experience, and sexual experience by the political order. (The former is primary in The Left Hand of Darkness, the latter in The Dispossessed.) I’m reminded that both books were written in the era of “The personal is the poltical”, and it shows — in important and useful ways.
Le Guin’s interest in showing how dimensions or facets of our experience that we like to keep separate, or at least to conceptualize separately, ceaselessly impinge on one another is a testimony to her moral realism, her unsentimental acknowledgment of what we Christians would call fallen human nature. There’s an important passage in The Dispossessed where Shevek’s friend Bedap argues that the very inequities of power that the Odonians fled when they colonized Anarres have subtly and quietly found their way back into the society. He illustrates this by referring to Sabul, an intellectually limited physicist who has been clever enough to build up his own little sphere of power, and is constantly thwarting Shevek’s work.
“You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change. And that’s precisely what our society is doing! Sabul uses you where he can, and where he can’t, he prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working. Right? In other words, he has power over you. Where does he get it from? Not from vested authority, there isn’t any. Not from intellectual excellence, he hasn’t any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the average human mind. Public opinion! That’s the power structure he’s part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind.”
When I read this passage I think of “The Day Before the Revolution,” the companion story to The Dispossessed, in which Odo reflects on her own life’s work:
She had never feared or despised the city. It was her country. There would not be slums like this, if the Revolution prevailed. But there would be misery. There would always be misery, waste, cruelty. She had never pretended to be changing the human condition, to be Mama taking tragedy away from the children so they won’t hurt themselves. Anything but. So long as people were free to choose, if they chose to drink flybane and live in sewers, it was their business. Just so long as it wasn’t the business of Business, the source of profit and the means of power for other people.
Human nature is such that “misery, waste, cruelty” can never be eliminated. Thus The Dispossessed is not a utopia, even an “ambiguous utopia,” in the phrase that has gradually become the book’s more-or-less-official subtitle. For Le Guin, the question is whether we accept a social order that is effectively designed to exacerbate misery, waste, and cruelty, or whether we will choose one that makes domination more difficult for the Sabuls of the world. Either way there will be costs, and Le Guin isn’t shy about showing what they are. That’s why, for all its flaws, The Dispossessed is an essential book for our times.