Tag Archives: Literature

Ursula K. Le Guin and the “myth of the veneer”

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin (who is easily in the topmost tier of my favorite writers ever) dismantles a common conception I’ve had a problem with for a long time — the idea that everything good about human society is merely a mask concealing our “true” destructive urges:

If you peel away a veneer, you reveal a solid substance of a different nature from the veneer. If law and moral convention are a veneer, the implication is that they are a thin, artificial disguise or prettification of something substantial but less pretty.

What is this substance?

Are we to assume the substance revealed is that of social relations in their raw state?

Does a raw state postulate some “natural” or prehistoric phase of human existence, a pre-social state in which there was no social code, and each individual invented behavior and relationship from scratch?

Social animals such as man all live within a system of rules of behavior and relationship, some innate and some learned, which limit violence within the group, facilitate communication, and make repeated betrayal of trust unprofitable. Almost all human beings, even infants, are continuously engaged in intensely complex mutual human relationships taking place within a society and culture consisting of rules, laws, traditions, institutions, etc. that specify and regulate the nature and manner of those relationships.

There is no evidence that human beings ever lived in asocial anarchy, and much evidence that, like other social animals, they have always lived within a social system. The rules differ greatly, but there are never no rules.

In other words, law and moral convention — social control of behavior and relationship — is not an artificial, enforced constraint, but a substantial element of our existence as members of our species. Non-violent, informative, trustworthy behavior is fully as natural to us as violence, lying, and betrayal.

I’m reading Le Guin’s The Eye of the Heron right now, and I’m struck by how this theme plays out in that novel as well, as two groups of people explore different conflict-resolution strategies — violence versus nonviolence, cooperation versus coercion, reasoning together versus deception and terrorism — and Le Guin awesomely refuses to privilege one approach as more “natural” or “valid” than the other.

We’re all people, figuring things out, and there’s no “human nature” that dictates that we must inevitably take the darker road; whenever we choose the more civilized path, we’re not denying our nature but affirming it, as evolved social beings. We are, by nature, capable of both the best and the worst that we can imagine. What’s left is the will to choose.

There’s more to Le Guin’s essay; read it in its entirety here.

(Photo by Andy Black)

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The angry optimism of Gore Vidal

I haven’t read anything by Gore Vidal, who passed away yesterday. But after Takeaway host Celeste Headlee’s fascinating conversation with writer John Nichols about Vidal’s legacy, I’m thinking I probably should. Here’s a snippet:

Celeste Headlee: We’re talking about a man who gleefully said he thought we were watching the decline of American civilization. I wonder if it’s fair to call Gore Vidal a pessimist?

John Nichols: No, I think it’s not. It is true that because of his amazing intellect, his remarkable delight in all things, he contained pessimism within him. Walt Whitman’s line about containing multitudes certainly applied to Gore Vidal. But the truth is, in knowing him over the years, I came to see him as a great optimist. He believed in the American experiment to such an extent that he was still incredibly capable of getting angry about its missteps — of getting angry about when his country did the wrong thing. […] He delighted in impeachment; he delighted in something that most people see as a great political crisis, because he saw it as one of those places where the people rise up and hold a leader to account. And so he was always believing in, always fascinated by, explosions of democracy.

Headlee: So much so that he at one point called for a new constitutional convention to fix the mistakes of the founders.

Nichols: Absolutely. And you know, the funny thing is that if you know about the founders, you would know that they would have been right with him. The truth is that Jefferson suggested that the worst thing that one generation could do to the next was to hand it a constitution and say “You must live by this.” Gore Vidal really believed that.

Fascinating. And yes, this is one of the things I’m always trying to communicate when making the case for optimism: that it isn’t an attitude of blithe happiness, or of ignoring all the grave problems that face us, but rather a commitment to ideals and to the notion that positive change is possible through human agency, on both an individual and a societal level. Optimism isn’t the opposite of anger; rather, it’s the opposite of despair, of the poisonous notion that there’s nothing to be done. Indeed, anger is often the necessary first step towards change. And to believe in change is to be an optimist.

(Image via The National Post)

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Ursula K. Le Guin: Beyond “literature” versus “genre”

Ursula K. Le Guin demolishes anti-genre snobbery:

Some things have to happen before there can be more intelligent discussion of what literature is. And some of them are in fact happening, at last. […] English departments have largely given up trying to defend their ivied or ivory towers by shooting down every space ship that approaches. Critics are ever more clearly aware that a lot of literature is happening outside the sacred groves of modernist realism. But still the opposition of literature and genre is maintained; and as long as it is, false categorical value judgment will cling to it, with the false dichotomy of virtuous pleasure and guilty pleasure.

To get out of this boring bind, I propose an hypothesis:

Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.

The value judgment concealed in distinguishing one novel as literature and another as genre vanishes with the distinction.

Every readable novel can give true pleasure. Every novel read by choice is read because it gives true pleasure.

Literature consists of many genres, including mystery, science fiction, fantasy, naturalism, realism, magical realism, graphic, erotic, experimental, psychological, social, political, historical, bildungsroman, romance, western, army life, young adult, thriller, etc., etc…. and the proliferating cross-species and subgenres such as erotic Regency, noir police procedural, or historical thriller with zombies.

Some of these categories are descriptive, some are maintained largely as marketing devices. Some are old, some new, some ephemeral.

Genres exist, forms and types and kinds of fiction exist and need to be understood: but no genre is inherently, categorically superior or inferior.

This makes the Puritan snobbery of “higher” and “lower” pleasures irrelevant, and very hard to defend.

Of course every reader will prefer certain genres and be bored or repelled by others. But anybody who claims that one genre is categorically superior to all others must be ready and able to defend their prejudice. And that involves knowing what the “inferior” genres actually consist of, their nature and their forms of excellence. It involves reading them.

Yes, yes, yes.

Much more here, and as always with Le Guin, worth reading.

(Image via Shallowreader’s Blog)

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The case for optimism, cont’d: Towards a literature of hope in the “age of man”

I like how David Biello thinks:

We move more earth and stone than all the world’s rivers. We are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere all life breathes. We are on pace to eat to death half of the other life currently sharing the planet with us. There is nothing on Earth untouched by man — whether it be the soot from fossil fuels darkening polar snows or the very molecules incorporated into a tree trunk. Humanity has become a global force whose exploits will be written in rock for millennia. […]

As in all things, however, it is up to fiction — make-believe, imagination, speculative play — to really show us what the Anthropocene could be. And it is in science fiction that the Anthropocene often plays out, most recently perhaps in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which depicts a Bangkok post-apocalypse, with high sea levels kept out by dikes, an absence of fossil fuels replaced by manually wound springs to run robots or sailing ships, and the routine use of genetic modification and warfare. It is typical of the genre, which features, above all, doom. Yet, in all this dystopia — albeit resilient dystopia where humanity endures against all odds — can no one imagine hope? […]

Ultimately, I’d argue the Anthropocene needs a non-fantastic literature that directly grapples with the problem of managing a planet so that it can remain the sole (known) home in the universe capable of providing life support and a passage through the void to a rich array of animals, plants, minerals, microbes and more. This literature will need [Ray] Bradbury’s optimism and imagination, heralding a new “green morning,” rather than the end of nature we find in Blade Runner’s dystopian portrait of a world whose only hope lies in migration to other presumably, less ruined planets or Frankenstein’s suggestion that we will be undone by our own creation. […]

Things can get better, and there’s a large portion of humanity working towards that these days, a global hive mind connected by the internet. In the end, science will give us clues and cues for the pathways that will either save or destroy us, but it is our own imagination that will light the way.

There is no other planet like Earth, no other home than the one we now run […] The most important literature we write in the Anthropocene will be the words that enable us to ensure breathable air, drinkable water, nutritious food, and the persistence of the abundant life that makes it all possible on this rocky mothership. […] We need an enduring, resilient, hopeful literature for the Anthropocene.

Read the rest here. More reasons for optimism here.

(Photo via Wondering the World)

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Moby-Dick and Martians

Margaret Atwood offers a reading list to visiting Martians, as a window into American politics and culture. The aliens dissect Moby-Dick:

“Holy crap!” they said. “Does this mean what we think it means?” they said.
“What do you think it means?” I said. “I’ll do the popcorn myself: you might get the wavelength wrong.”

“ ‘Moby-Dick’ is about the oil industry,” they said. “And the Ship of American State. The owners of the Pequod are rapacious and stingy religious hypocrites. The ship’s business is to butcher whales and turn them into an industrial energy product. The mates are the middle management. The harpooners, who are from races colonized by America one way or another, are supplying the expert tech labor. Elijah the prophet — from the American artist caste — foretells the Pequod’s doom, which comes about because the chief executive, Ahab, is a megalomaniac who wants to annihilate nature.

“Nature is symbolized by a big white whale, which has interfered with Ahab’s personal freedom by biting off his leg and refusing to be slaughtered and boiled. The narrator, Ishmael, represents journalists; his job is to warn America that it’s controlled by psychotics who will destroy it, because they hate the natural world and don’t grasp the fact that without it they will die. That’s enough literature for now. Can we have popcorn?”

More here. My own thoughts on Moby-Dick here.

(Image via Bookman’s Log)


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Miscellany, and an apology for long silence

I’ve been away from this blog recently, trying to devote some more time to fiction writing (but not yet quite comfortable enough to talk about that personal creative process, as I know others do). Working on this blog has been, and continues to be, an interesting writing experience — but a reactive one, a curatorial process of finding and commenting on cool things that others have said or done. It’s rewarding to be plugged in to the cultural conversation on the net, adding my humble two cents; but it’s been a while since I’ve made something of my own, and that’s something I’d like to spend a little more time doing. If you’ve been following my posts, I’m very grateful for your time and attention. I’ll try to keep it up as best I can.

Meanwhile, some things of interest:

1) Gregory Benford writes about the future of space exploration, arguing that the time has come for NASA to give way to commerce-driven space initiatives. Neil deGrasse Tyson (whom my family and I just saw giving a brilliant talk at the American Museum of Natural History) offers a different take on NASA and the vital importance of government funding for exploration. (Tyson videos have been popping up all over YouTube recently, eloquently presenting and sometimes re-editing his arguments: some choice ones here and especially here.)

2) A fascinating talk by author Neal Stephenson on our society’s increasing inability to get big stuff done, and why it’s important to revive that sense of ambition and possibility.

3) Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie has a must-read essay on “The Storytellers of Empire,” asking America why “Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t.” She makes a compelling argument for empathy, connection, and identity beyond ethnicity: “The moment you say, a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying, as an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.”

4) NPR host Bob Mondello points to a science fiction story by E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” that eerily predicts our (sterile?) virtual culture, our overreliance on technology, and what that says about who we are.

5) Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova asks: “what if we engineered […] selective attention purposefully and aligned it with our emotional and mental well-being?” She calls our attention to Ruth Kaiser and the Spontaneous Smiley Project, which invites us to see — and photograph — the smiley-face configurations that are literally everywhere around us. Kaiser makes the case for optimism on her blog, and quotes some inspiring Dr. Seuss passages as well. You can also watch her TED talk here.

And now I’m off. Have a great day, wherever you are. Go make something beautiful. Make someone smile.

(Photo via Do Something)

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The 1% don’t get it: “What makes people furious is that they have stopped being citizens”

Matt Taibbi calls attention to an article at Bloomberg.com in which the much-put-upon billionaires of America frown upon the “imbeciles” of the Occupy movement for hurling abuse their way:

Asked if he were willing to pay more taxes in a Nov. 30 interview with Bloomberg Television, Blackstone Group LP CEO Stephen Schwarzman spoke about lower-income U.S. families who pay no income tax.

“You have to have skin in the game,” said Schwarzman, 64. “I’m not saying how much people should do. But we should all be part of the system.”

Taibbi responds:

But it seems to me that if you’re broke enough that you’re not paying any income tax, you’ve got nothing but skin in the game. You’ve got it all riding on how well America works.

You can’t afford private security: you need to depend on the police. You can’t afford private health care: Medicare is all you have. You get arrested, you’re not hiring Davis, Polk to get you out of jail: you rely on a public defender to negotiate a court system you’d better pray deals with everyone from the same deck. And you can’t hire landscapers to manicure your lawn and trim your trees: you need the garbage man to come on time and you need the city to patch the potholes in your street.

And in the bigger picture, of course, you need the state and the private sector both to be functioning well enough to provide you with regular work, and a safe place to raise your children, and clean water and clean air.

The entire ethos of modern Wall Street, on the other hand, is complete indifference to all of these matters. The very rich on today’s Wall Street are now so rich that they buy their own social infrastructure. They hire private security, they live on gated mansions on islands and other tax havens, and most notably, they buy their own justice and their own government. […]

People like […] Schwarzman […] who think the “imbeciles” on the streets are simply full of reasonless class anger, they don’t get it. Nobody hates them for being successful. And not that this needs repeating, but nobody even minds that they are rich.

What makes people furious is that they have stopped being citizens.

The rest here, and worth reading.

And this is precisely why government matters — good government, independent of the moneyed interests, insuring a fair playing field for all and making sure that America works well for the least fortunate as well as the wealthiest among us. It’s John Rawls’ notion of the “veil of ignorance,” of ordering society as if we didn’t know what position we occupied in it — a call for fairness that is very much in keeping with the demands of Occupy Wall Street. If that movement has accomplished anything, it’s in driving the national conversation towards this very necessary consideration of what principles constitute a just society. And it’s a conversation that needs to keep going.

Once again, Elizabeth Warren:

A caveat: I’ve just finished reading Animal Farm again, and can’t help being haunted by Orwell’s warning about the oppressed throwing off their shackles only to become mirror images of their oppressors (or as Jenny Holzer suggests, “Change is valuable when the oppressed become tyrants”). I don’t think that’s inevitable. With foresight, and self-doubt, and an unflagging commitment to hold our leaders — and ourselves — accountable, may we all have the wits (and the decency) to avoid that fate.

(via Pharyngula. Chart via Mother Jones; lots more here.)

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