March 18th, 2010
|12:07 pm - Powers|
I have just finished Powers by Ursula Le Guin, winner of the 2008 Nebula Award for best novel. It is the third part of her Young Adult Trilogy 'Annals of the Western Shore'. I think this whole trilogy is closely linked to Lavinia, and represents a particular and new stream of thought and writing for Le Guin.
The penultimate chapter of the Dao De Jing says (this is not Le Guin's translation which I don't have with me).
If a country is governed wisely,
its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands
and don't waste time inventing
Since they dearly love their homes,
they aren't interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats,
but these don't go anywhere.
There may be an arsenal of weapons,
but nobody ever uses them.
People enjoy their food,
take pleasure in being with their families,
spend weekends working in their gardens,
delight in the doings of the neighborhood.
And even though the next country is so close
that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking,
they are content to die of old age
without ever having gone to see it.
If I had to sum up Le Guin's writing I would say that her work in the eighties and nineties, such as Always Coming Home, asked what is a good society, and how social differences lead to better or worse development of the human personality or soul. I think she was attempting to see how this vision of a low-aspiration society - although line for line it defines the opposite of the SF vision - has merit. The tension between her own expansive SF instincts and this inward-turning model of society drove her writing for many years I believe.
But with the Werel stories in her Hainish cycle, the Annals trilogy, and Lavinia, I believe that Le Guin is attempting to resolve a different tension - how nobility and the development of the soul can flourish and be celebrated in societies where women are given without their consent to be owned by men, in slave owning patriarchal societies, in war-based cultures, in countries where books are banned. In other words she is thinking about how goodness shines through imperfect cultures, rather than how cultures shape virtues. The decade just gone does make this question particularly urgent to us.
I think this question arose for Le Guin because the philosophies that she draws on, such as stoicism and Daoism, arose from cultures that were repressive, slave owning, violent, male-supremicist. And people of those days were not rooted outside the world they found themselves in - the poetry and mythology was made by people who were part of those cultures. In other words the vision of the ideal society which would allow us to be better people, was itself created by people within a repressive society.
I think there is also a story in these recent works about religion, which is slightly in opposition to what I have said here, but I want to post separately about that.