I miss beautiful ideas. More specifically, I miss reading a book where, interspersed with an intense and riveting story, are beautiful ideas. Ideas about how the world should work, about the human condition. Ideas to make the soul and brain expand. (and no, I am not talking about unfortunate bloating or swelling. Expanding in the good way.)
The thing about beautiful ideas is that you don’t know you are missing them until you come into contact with them again. And mostly they come from places you never expected them to be. In this case the beautiful ideas came disguised as an old, browning paperback with a ridiculous cover.
But holy bells in hells, if ever there was an argument for NOT judging a book by its cover, it would be The Dispossessed by Ursula Leguin. I have a new love, a new mentor, a new political allegiance now. I am in love with Shevek the phycisist, the man, the anarchist. Or maybe I am in love with Ursula Leguin. Or maybe I am in love with the beautiful ideas in the book. I don’t know.
As I would only harm the beautiful ideas by trying to describe them, here will follow a selection of passages I want to memorize. To needlepoint and frame and then fling into the world.
“Suffering is a misunderstanding….It exists,”Shevek said, spreading out his hands. “It’s real. I can call it a misunderstanding, but I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, or will ever cease to exist. Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. Nut no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality. All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we’ll have no pain for fifty years. And in the end we’ll die. That’s the condition we’re born on. I’m afraid of life! There are times I– I am very frightened. Any happiness seems trivial. And yet I wonder if it isn’t all a misunderstanding–this grasping for happiness, this fear of pain…If instead of fearing it and running from it, one could…get through it, go beyond it. There is something beyond it. It’s the self that suffers, and there’s a place where the self–ceases.I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality–the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness–that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it, if you can endure it all the way.”
I think this passage might explain much of the book. Shevek makes a journey out of his world, experiences the pain of misunderstanding, the grief of injustice, the ache of dissatisfaction and comes back.
“They were superbly trained, these students. Their minds were fine, keen, ready. When they weren’t working, they rested. They were not blunted and distracted by a dozen other obligations. They never fell asleep in class because they were tired from having worked on rotational duty the day before. Their society maintained them in complete freedom from want, distractions, and cares.
What they were free to do, however, was another question. It appeared to Shevek that their freedom from obligation was in exact proportion to their lack of freedom of initiative.”
Wham, bam thank you ma’am. This issue has been on my mind for a while now. Our children have everything they need- the best schools, adequate food, parents who are willing to give up significant portions of their lives to make sure their young get the best grades, get fit, stay safe. And yet, when asked to solve a simple problem where they are not given the exact formula, thy are unable to do so.
For example, a student today stood before the printer today. She stood there until I looked up and then she said, “Miss, only one page of my essay was printed.” She didn’t look at the printer. She didn’t go back to see if she had made a mistake in her printing options. She just stood there clutching her first page, looking at me blankly, waiting for me to fix it. (If she had simply looked down at the printer, the yellow flashing light and the wordf “tray empty” would have given her a huge hint).
This bothers me.
“He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand.”
And there we have one of the most succinct, scathing indictments of our modern school system.
“An Odonian undertook monogamy just as he might undertake a joint enterprise in production, a ballet or a soap works. Partnership was a voluntarily constituted federation like any other. So long as it worked, it worked and if it didn’t work it stopped being. It was not an institution but a function. It had no sanction but private conscience.
This was fully in accord with Odonian social theory. The validity of the promise, even promise of indefinite term, was deep in the grain of Odo’s thinking; though it might seem her insistence on freedom to change would invalidate the idea of promise or vow, in fact the freedom made the promise meaningful. A promise is a direction taken, a self-limitation of choice. As Odo pointed out, if no direction is taken, if one goes nowhere, no change will occur. One’s freedom to choose and to change will be unused, exactly as if one were in jail, a jail of one’s own building, a maze in which no one way is better than any other. So Odo came to see the promise, the pledge, the idea of fidelity, as essential in the complexity of freedom.”
This is the first time I have ever read such a clear description of my own view of a monogamous relationship. It moved me. I always considered monogamy a choice, not a biological or societal prerogative. I do not believe in the concept of the soul mate- I find it very narrow-minded and ultimately harmful (not to mention the fodder of asinine twilight-esque romance novels) What I do believe is that you can build a life with someone, a life that is more productive, more meaningful by being with that person. The rules of fidelity or non-fidelity should howver only be the business of the couple. Society has no right to tell us who or how we should be with people. Besides “the idea of fidelity as essential in the complexity of freedom”? Isn’t that one of the most beautiful thoughts you ever did hear?
And these are just a few of the moments in the book that made me think of how my world is structured and what my role is in it. What is choice? What is freedom? Jealousy? Longing?
Besides being chock full of beautiful, thought-provoking ideas, Ms. LeGuin also writes a mean story. Some of her scenes are so visceral I physically cringed, felt the claw of horror and grief clutch at my heart. Two in particular stand out for me- one when Shevek is young and they are playing a pretend game of jail. Jail is a foreign concept to them as they live in an anarchist society that has no police, no law enforcement, no law. It is a harrowing scene where these innocents get a taste for power over another. So simple and beautifully done, it was a gut-wrenching demonstration of that old adage, power corrupts.
The other scene is when Shevek is on the mother planet, the planet where his group of anarchists left a couple of hundred years ago. He has not realised until now that he has been living in a guilded cage. He escapes one night to visit a woman he met with a fellow professor. She has a party, and he drinks alcohol for the first time. His drunkenness and sense of desolation contribute to a sequence of humiliating events.
I won’t tell you what happens -nothing and everything, really. Suffice it to say, if I could ever write a scene like that, I would die happy.
In short, my first foray into classic science-fiction (brought on by my reading of Jo Walton’s Among Others) was a resounding success. I now want to go purchase all of Ms. Leguin’s books. The idea of laying them out on an altar beside her picture has crossed my mind, but that would be distinctly un-Odonian. I will content myself with simply reading the books I have in the library, at least for now…