2003-07-27: The Language of the Night

The Language of the Night

Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1989)

by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-)

This is a revised edition, based on the original of 1979. Le Guin has added notes, in some cases repudiating earlier statements, but has not actually rewritten history. It’s interesting to see where her views have changed.

I have read some (or parts of some) of these essays before, but never the collection. It is well-organized and presents an interesting view of a writer’s view of writing.

My first bookmark is on the essay The Child and the Shadow (1974). I would like to transcribe it, as I like its description of the way fantasy fits into the needs of children for myth-like works. It’s interesting to note that this essay has evidently not been revised. At least there are no notes, other than bibliographic notes. Le Guin seems to have found a lot to like in C. G. Jung, Psychology and Religion, especially pp. 76 and 83. She also mentions Jolande Jacobi’s The Psychology of C.G. Jung, p 107.

In her essay Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown (1975), she laments the inability of much fantasy (including sci-fi) to deal with real personalities, using Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Brown as symbol. In it she mentions Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We as an early exception. I have obtained it from the library. She also seems to recommend Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia. She almost includes Frodo Baggins in the roster of personalities, but hesitates as she really sees him as one personality split among Frodo, Sam, Gollum and Sméagol; and maybe Bilbo. In modern sci-fi she includes Nobusuke Tagomi, from Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, and Thea Cadence from D. G. Compton’s Synthajoy.  Her vision is that a novel is written about characters. She mentions Angus Wilson (The Old Men at the Zoo) as another who writes this way (though not categorized as sci-fi).

In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (1976), she has this to say about fiction:

In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find – if it’s a good novel – that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.

The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.

The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot  be said in words.

Words can be used thus paradoxically because they have, along with a semiotic usage, a symbolic or metaphorical usage. (They also have a sound – a fact the linguistic positivists take no interest in. A sentence or paragraph is like a chord or harmonic sequence in music; its meaning may be more clearly understood by the attentive ear, even though  it is read in silence, than by the attentive intellect.)

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life – science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of tese metaphors; so is the alternative society, an alternative bioology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphore.

A metaphor for what?

If I could have said it nonmetaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination.

In The Staring Eye (1974), she discusses Tolkien, and his impact on her. She dismisses critics’ glib rejection of his treatment of “the Problem of Evil”. She says their arguments are the same arguments Tolkien himself exploded in his 1934 essay on Beowulf, “The Monster and the Critics”.  “an article which anyone who sees Tolkien as a Sweet Old Dear, by the way, would do well to read.”

In The Modest One (1976), she speaks well of four more of Philip K. Dick’s works: Dr. Bloodmoney, Martian Time-Slip, Clans of the Alphane Moon, and “the extremely funny” Galactic Pot-Healer. She compares Dick writing Manfred in Martian Time-Slip as the same risk Virginia Woolf took in writing Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway. Both are studies in madness, and the writers paid a price.

In Escape Routes (1974-5), she addresses the charge of escapism often leveled at fantasy/sci-fi. She begins with a paraphrase of Tolkien’s response to the charge:

Yes, he said, fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? The moneylenders, the know-nothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can.

But people who are not fools or bigots, people who love both art and liberty … reject science fiction flatly as a genre not worth discussing. Why? What makes them so sure?

The question, after all, must be asked: from what is one escaping, and to what?

Evidently, if we’re escaping a world that consists of Newsweek, Pravda and the Stock Market Report, and asserting the existence of a primary, vivid world, an intenser reality where joy, tragedy and morality exist, then we’re doing a good thing, and Tolkien is right. But what if we’re doing just the opposite? What if we’re escaping from a complex, uncertain, frightening world of death and taxes into a nice simple cozy place where heroes don’t have to pay taxes, where death happens only to villains, where Science, plus Free Enterprise, plus Galactic Fleet in black and silver uniforms, can solve all problems, where human suffering is something that can be cured – like scurvy? This is no escape from the phony. This is an escape into the phony. This doesn’t take us in the direction of the great myths and legends, which is always toward an intensification of the mystery of the real. This takes us the other way, toward a rejection of reality, in fact toward madness: infantile regression, or paranoid delusion, or schizoid insulation. The movement is retrograde, autistic. We have escaped by locking ourselves in jail.

In The Stalin in the Soul (1973-7), she addresses censorship. First she sketches the case of Zamyatin, censored by the Soviet state. Then she rants against the censorship of the market, or self-censorship by artists who want to sell to the mass market. It’s all very sad. She makes the point that freedom of expression is not a privilege granted by our Constitution but denied by other governments: it is a right of every person, which can be accepted by government, or denied and withheld by force. At the end of the essay she quotes from Zamyatin:

A literature that is alive does not live by yesterday’s clock, nor by today’s, but by tomorrow’s. It is a sailor sent aloft: from the masthead he can see foundering ships, icebergs, and maelstroms still invisible from the deck.

In a storm you must have a man aloft, and SOS signals come from every side. Only yesterday a writer could calmly stroll along the deck, click his Kodak; but who will want to look at landscapes and genre scenes when the world is listing at a forty-five degree angle, the green maws are gaping, the hull is creaking? Today we can look and think only as men do in the face of death: we are about to die – what did it al mean? How have we lived? If we could start all over, from the beginning, what would we live by? And for what? What we need in literature today are vast philosophic horizons – horizons seen from mastheads, from airplanes; we need the most ultimate, the most fearsome, the most fearless “Why?” and “What next?”

What is truly alive stops before nothing and ceaselessly seeks answers to absurd, childish questions. Let the answers be wrong, let the philosophy be mistaken – errors are more valuable than truths; truth is of the machine, error is alive; truth reassures, error disturbs. And if answers be impossible of attainment, all the better! Dealing with answered questions is the privilege of brains constructed like a cow’s stomach, which, as we know, is built to digest cud.

If there were anything fixed in nature, if there were truths, all this would, of course, be wrong. But fortunately, all truths are erroneous. This is the very essence of the dialectical process: today’s truths become errors tomorrow; there is no final number.

Revolution is everywhere, in everything. It is infinite. There is no final revolution. There is no final number.

Several of the revisions Le Guin makes (notes really) concern changes in her feminist views over the years from 1979 to 1989. She is more firm, less compromising, in her choice of words. In part this is a greater willingness to allow her words to offend, to make the (male) reader notice the point, rather than comply with social niceties. That’s interesting, but hardly the most interesting part of the book. I like the way she says writers are supposed to write truth, and fantasy is one way to do it.


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