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Powers (part 2) - The Ex-Communicator

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March 19th, 2010

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08:28 am - Powers (part 2)
I was saying that I thought that Ursula Le Guin's 'Annals of the Western Shore' trilogy and Lavinia both explored the possibility of developing personal integrity and nobility within repressive patriarchal cultures, and in material deprivation. But I think this description, which almost presents pre-classical culture as inferior to ours, is only half the picture.

The other half of the story is the other way up. That is, Le Guin's narrative presents pre-classical religious ideas as superior to modern god-based religious ideas. With these goggles on our culture is the inferior one. I am simplifying but that's my general idea of what she is saying, and I agree with it.

There's almost a Whig view of religion, like the Whig model of political progress. This envisages religious development like a pyramid. Before civilisation there are thousands of local gods, then these are consolidated into city gods, these in turn consolidated into a well-defined Empire-wide pantheon, and finally we - the fruit or blossom of history - achieve a vision of a single monolithic god who 'rules' all men. Modern atheism makes sense within this pyramid model: it knocks the single top god off the pyramid cap, and thus repudiates the entire story.

The model I think Le Guin is using in these stories - she didn't invent it of course - is that pre-modern spirituality can't be properly understood by imposing modern models of gods as Big People who have likes and dislikes and inflict punishments and give rewards. Even modern ideas of atheism vs faith don't make sense in this context, just like they aren't really issues in older cultures. Certain 'Powers' exist, they are not human, they may or may not be capable of being communicated with (they may be natural forces such as seasonal change). Acting appropriately towards these powers, such as honouring them, makes us live better. That is the model of pre-urban religion in a nutshell. What 'gods' there are, such as rainbow serpent or raven, are more like story-figures, they aren't Big People who will punish us.

For some reason, I think to do with social change, existing models of religion don't suit all of us that well. The pre-modern models have a lot to recommend them in my opinion.

(8 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:March 19th, 2010 10:29 am (UTC)
I'm loving these posts on Powers and Lavinia (which I've just started), although I don't have much to say in response that's coherent. I hadn't thought at all about the religious aspects of Powers: that's a real extension of my understanding of the book, thank you.

(BTW, I think that Whig history is already implicitly religious, advocating /justifying the superiority of Protestant parliamentarianism over Stuart/Catholic absolutism. I do think this aspect has diminished as Britain has secularised, and that the discourse is in a complex relationship with other discourses concerning scientific progress. It would be interesting to examine this in the contemporary American context in which Le Guin is writing, where Manifest Destiny and fantasies about the best form of government have obviously been increasingly coupled with evangelical Christianity post-Reagan. I'm reading Marilynne Robinson's books of essays at the moment, she writes within the Puritan tradition, so it will be interesting to compare and contrast these two writers... Hope I'm making sense.)

Edited at 2010-03-19 10:30 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:March 19th, 2010 11:19 am (UTC)
Yes. I don't see Catholicism as different from Protestantism in its assumption of being the pinnacle of human development. The assumption that religion is like that - about rivalry to be Top and Right - has corrupted both sides I think.

The issue about the new gods being a derivation from older forces which were not conceived as having personalities is expressed explicitly in Lavinia - in a discussion of the rivalry of Juno and Venus. It's not expressed so bluntly in the trilogy, I think the stories express what I have called the pre-classical model of religion, with perhaps a suggestion that it is degenerating to a cruder modern model.
[User Picture]
Date:March 19th, 2010 11:29 am (UTC)
My copy of Voices is on loan, and it's while since I read it, but IIRC, the subjugated gods of the conquered city were diverse and benign, aspects of life rather than supreme judges. I'm only a few pages into Lavinia (Turnus has just put in an appearance), and can see connections.

Don't remember if you ever saw my essay on Powers, here.
[User Picture]
Date:March 19th, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
I didn't ever read it before, because I wanted to read the book first. I know it hasn't affected me as strongly as it has you. I think it must speak directly to something within you. Though in general Le Guin does harmonise with my world view more closely than almost any other writer.

I think in these recent books she responds to the criticism of her previous work that the stories rely on people being more goody-goody than people are in real life.

I am impressed that a writer in her eighties (I've got that right haven't I?) is still changing and revising her approach, taking criticism on board and working with it. I think Suzette Haden Elgin (=ozarque) is also an example of constant renewing the work of writing.
[User Picture]
Date:March 20th, 2010 07:18 am (UTC)
Yes, it was definitely a book that I opened and realized, "I have been waiting to read this book." She was eighty last year (the piece was written for a Festschrift). I am somehow gaining an impression that eighty is a creative milestone, that writers (other artists too? don't know) get a new burst of creative energy. Something to do with uniqueness of their perspective on time and on living, or a new sense of the importance of the immediate? Whatever it is, Le Guin's recent output has been extraordinary.

Got a train trip today so hope to make headway on Lavinia.
[User Picture]
Date:March 19th, 2010 12:27 pm (UTC)
There are a lot of statements here that I'd love to unpack, but I'm too knackered to do it properly.

explored the possibility of developing personal integrity and nobility within repressive patriarchal cultures, and in material deprivation
Not that that is particularly new for Le Guin - I'm reminded of "The Dispossessed", which explored the thesis that true Anarchism, true equality, can only work in a situation where material scarcity requires that everyone work together in order to survive.

pre-classical religious ideas as superior to modern god-based religious ideas
I'm suspicious of assertions that wax lyrical about the "good old days" (or "good old centuries", whatever). Especially since we have so little data about what pre-classical religious ideas were. The writer is free to project whatever they want onto it.

This envisages religious development like a pyramid ... and finally we - the fruit or blossom of history - achieve a vision of a single monolithic god who 'rules' all men
On the other hand, I hate historical arrogance too - that we are the pinnacle of history, that we know better than everyone who came before. (rolls eyes)
There's also an un-examined assumption here: that there actually is such a thing as "religious development". The Jews were monotheists centuries before it became fashionable to be monotheist. According to this model, they should have been pantheists like everyone else.

The pre-modern models have a lot to recommend them in my opinion.
In one sense, it doesn't matter whether they are truly "pre-modern models" or someone's projection - their value probably lies not in the question of whether people really thought like that way back then, but simply that they are different; that they shake up modern assumptions and thus provide a different lens to examine the universal truths that remain the same no matter what the century is.

If religion is merely a social construct, then of course religions will be as fluid and fickle as the societies which espouse them, and there are no universal truths to be found. But if there is something outside of our own projections, then there are models which are closer or further away from what it actually is; closer or further away from the truth of it, and fashions in religion are completely irrelevant to whether or not a given model is more accurate than another model. What complicates that idea, though, is the question of whether or not the non-material is actually discoverable; whether it will stand still to be examined, whether it will hide or reveal different aspects of itself at different times or places or to different people; whether it has agency and initiative. That it exists independent of our ideas about it, but that we end up with a situation like the blind men and the elephant.
[User Picture]
Date:March 19th, 2010 04:06 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the long reply. I know you feel comfy with modern monotheistic religion, which means you come at this from a very different angle.

I think the transition of Jewish religion to monotheism took place as part of a pan-Eurasian religious reformation in about 500-300BC, which included Buddhism, reform of Hinduism, Confucianism, Platonism, etc. So, I don't think they were really outliers.

I do think there are religious models which are nearer or further from 'the truth' - I think most people do, many think atheism is more true for example. My feeling is that models which are more true are also more healthy, even if they aren't as comforting, but that's obviously a complex issue, as people's needs vary even within one country at one time, as well as over time and between countries.

[User Picture]
Date:March 20th, 2010 02:23 am (UTC)
My feeling is that models which are more true are also more healthy, even if they aren't as comforting
Well, of course. The truth is the truth. Any model which is closer to the truth is going to work better.

The question that arises here is whether any given person chooses a world-view (a world-model) because it is comforting or because it is true; and whether or not comfort and truth are mutually exclusive; and the implication that a world-view is more true because it is less comforting. When people assess world-views that are different from their own, they tend to say "My world-view is obviously true; I bravely face the uncomfortable truth, while these other poor deluded souls hide in the bunker of their comforting illusion." It doesn't matter which world-model you're talking about, they all have their own slant on this.

For example:

Atheist: I face the uncomfortable truth that we are alone in the universe, while those poor monotheists need the comfort of a Santa-Claus God to take care of them.
Monotheist: I face the uncomfortable truth that God rules the universe and is owed our obedience, while those poor atheists need the comfort of thinking that mankind is the pinnacle of creation, answerable to no-one.
Buddhist: I face the uncomfortable truth that the world is an illusion, while those poor others are mired in the bog of the material world.

And so on.

It's ruddy patronizing, but people do it all the time. Atheists do it to me; I hope I don't do it to atheists, but I personally know Christians who do do it to atheists (especially the ones who consider the Theory of Evolution to be the work of the Devil).

Any given person's model is going to start with what they were taught by their parents (and later by their teachers and peers). Then as they go on in life, they assess that model against their life-experience. Some will find their initial model wanting, while others will find that their initial model still works, to a greater or lesser degree. Some people will tinker with their model, fine-tuning it. Others will reject it completely, and go off looking for another model which better fits their life-experience. There will be less introspective people who don't assess their world-model at all. It can be difficult to tell the difference between those who don't assess their world-model, and those who do assess their world-model and didn't find it wanting, since in both cases they've kept the model that their parents taught them.

Whether or not any given model is more comforting or less comforting, whether any given model is one that the person knew about when a child or when an adult, these things are tangential to whether or not the model is true. I am not Newton, I did not discover the principles of gravity on my own, I was taught them at school - does that make them less true?

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