Cosmology of Consciousness

Since the times of antiquity, humans have wondered about the world around them. They observe natural phenomena, study the patterns created by them, and attribute meaning to them. Where understanding fell short, metaphor filled in nicely, giving rise to many philosophies the world over. This sense of wonder remains with us in our time, although we have the luxury of access to thousands of years of human observation, allowing us to make up better stories about how the universe works. The sun is not a chariot of fire pulled by the god Apollo, it is a massive sphere of hydrogen, fusing together in terrible splendor into helium, casting out light, heat, and energy. These stories, while appearing different on the surface, serve the same purpose: humans using their observations and the language they have at their disposal to describe their world. In our modern day, we have access to so much information that it may seem the time of mystique is behind us, however, authors, especially those of Science Fiction, retain the human heritage of exploring the unknown in the universe with the language we have available. Just because many old mysteries have been solved does not mean that there are no new ideas to discover or explore. Ursula K. Le Guin and Philip K Dick were two titans in this pursuit, especially in the undertaking of defining consciousness through their work. The workings of consciousness are still something we understand extraordinarily little about through our scientific breakthroughs, which makes discussing it in fiction a great way to reach for the metaphor in language we need to understand it better. This is just what Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin did with their work, especially in the matter of dreams.

In The Lathe of Heaven, we are introduced to George Orr, who has what are called “effective dreams.” In this dream state, he is able to alter the reality of the non-dream, physical world, often in dramatic ways. He is assigned to a psychiatric doctor to help him with his drug usage, a habit George has picked up to cope with his reality altering dreams, yet Dr. Haber becomes aware of his power and begins to use it to shape the world as he sees fit. Throughout the novel, the reader is introduced to a number of interesting pieces of information. For one, we discover that George experienced a nuclear apocalypse at the start of the novel, wiping out nearly, if not all life on earth (Le Guin, Ursula. 1971). Yet, as he lays in his irradiated blindness, he effectively dreams of a new reality, one where the bombs never fell. It is after entering this new world that George is forced to meet with Dr. Haber. The book is filled with surreal moments, yet one that stands out is George’s discussions on purpose, and the nature of the universe. Dr. Haber begins one of his meetings with George by saying that he believes it is mankind’s purpose to improve the world. He then asks George what he believes its purpose to be. George says, “I don’t know. Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the purpose of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass, (pg. 82, italics in original).” George makes an interesting distinction here between prevailing western ideals of the conscious self and those eastern, Taoist ideals. Where the former focuses on the singularity of the individual, the latter explores the connectivity between the self and the other, forming a tissue of many ‘ones’ who are in fact one. Like the thread in the tapestry, the concept of self is instead moored in a sense of collective oneness.

George continues to add to this concept as he struggles with the loss of personal freedom administered to him by the ever growing ego of Dr. Haber. One evening as he walks home from the shop of an alien junk peddler, he thinks, “… the whole world as it now is should be on my side, because I dreamed a lot of it up, too. Well, after all, it is on my side. That is, I’m a part of it. Not separate from I. I walk on the ground and the ground’s walked on by me, I breathe the air and change it, I am entirely connected with the world.” This connection in context of the text lends toward a sense of the connection between people and the world. George finds that the alien beings know him, and his ability, which they call iahklu’. Exactly what that word means is left to reader interpretation, yet it is heavily implied that it is the state of effective dreaming, and that the alien beings live in that state always. They also appear to be coterminous with one another, sharing experiences with one another.

The aliens in The Lathe of Heaven are a part of the fabric of the reality of the book. Just as is George Orr, and the entirety of earth. This fabric of reality, where all things are connected, are an echo of the words of Lao Tzu, who is credited with writing the Tao Te Ching. In it, Lao Tzu states, “Heaven will last, earth will endure. How can they last so long? They don’t exist for themselves and so can go on and on. So wise souls leaving self behind move forward, and setting self aside stay centered. Why let the self go? To keep what the soul needs,” (Tzu, Lao). Both speakers are saying a similar message of oneness found not in the selfish pursuits of life, but in the path of accepting the simplicity of life. What Lao Tzu calls the Way, George Orr calls stillness. These relationships in philosophy are apparent throughout the text, with references to the writings of Chaung Tse, another prominent voice for Taoism contemporary to that of Lao Tzu. There is, however, another way to interpret these pieces of information in The Lathe of Heaven: that everything which takes place in the book is an extension of George Orr. After the bombs fell and he dreamed into reality a new world free of the nuclear destruction, he becomes the choke point of a new reality, the wellspring from which all things form. Dr. Haber exists because George wanted someone who could help him, and while his methods are dangerous, he does help George become free of his effective dreams. Yet even with this interpretation, it changes nothing for the application of Taoist principles. George was already a part of the whole, containing the pieces of the universe within himself before the first destruction of the novel. Whether the new reality springs from him or from the continuity of the universe, it is the same. It is interesting to note as well are the implications of George Orr’s name. Some studies of the novel have suggested that Le Guin chose the name as an allusion to the novelist of 1984, George Orwell, who many view as having had a ‘vision’ of what could be if totalitarian regimes were allowed to get their way (Malmgren, Carl. 1998). By dreaming worlds, George creates paths out of disaster. It isn’t until Dr. Haber takes full control of the effective dreaming that things become dangerous to the point of the near total destruction of the human race. Some see the character as a parallel to the author, both providing the cautionary ‘vision’ humanity needed to avoid total destruction.

These elements connect as well with the works of Philip K. Dick. In Valis, the character’s Philip Dick and Horselover Fat both describe dreams of other lives, lives they believe they have lived, or will live. In the novel, the character Dick records the following regarding these dreams:

Dreams of another life? But where? Gradually the envisioned map of California, which is spurious, fades out, and with it, the lake, the houses, the roads, the people, the cars, the airport, the clan of mild religious believers with their peculiar aversion to wooden cradles; but for this to fade out, a host of inter-connected dreams spanning years of real elapsed time must fade, too.

Dick, Philip K. 1981, Valis

Both Philip and Horselover, who themselves are alluded to being a shared consciousness of a single person, experience these dreams of other lives. These dreams form a web of connectivity, which according to Horselover are evidence of not only other lives lived, but other times lived, even other timelines of reality relating back to the time of Christ and the first Christians. These relations of time and understanding of it in relation to consciousness are revealing of these concepts of consciousness already discussed. The line between one person and another is relatively thin, and with the right conditions those lines can be crossed (Cannan, Howard 2008). Whether it is through dreams of other worlds, manifestations of Christ through different people across different times, or even the sci-fi film in the novel by the same name of Valis, these all indicate a thread of connection across people and times. The novel can be used to explore these concepts for the reader; how does consciousness happen for us? And to what degree are we living in a world not too dissimilar from the ones described in these novels?

Dick also explores this in The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the first, we find the character Tagomi, who faces a crisis of identity after having to kill two men, is seeking something that can give him a return to meaning and self. He receives a unique pin and contemplates it, whereupon he is taken into another reality, one where the axis powers did not win the Second World War. This transition of worlds also shows a concept of the thinness of the line between concepts of reality. The concept of parallel timelines, or counterfeit realities, present in The Man in the High Castle also show principles of understanding reality in different lights (MacFarlane, Anna. 2015). Our ability to conceive of different outcomes appears in many respects to be innate, and using such concepts in the telling of stories allows us as a species the catharsis of experiencing the dangers of what could have been, just as George Orwell’s novel postulated a terrifying future, and, anachronistically viewed from our own time, a potential future, one which most of the human race would rather avoid. Indeed, the careful application of SF in literature allows for the exploration of these concepts so that readers, and the world, can see potential threats to us, and avoid them.

These concepts are united between Le Guin and Dick’s work (Watson, Ian. 1975). The SF author, especially these two authors, can imagine different worlds. Different timelines, and different threats to our species, are all on our minds as a collective organism going into the future of our technological advances. We are facing many challenges, Climate Change, pollution, political upheaval, and wealth disparity as well as bigotry, racism, and sexism. These challenges are real to us, just as they were in the days of Le Guin and Dick, and their work explored those fears, giving voice to the “what if” of coming days. This even comes up in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, where consciousness and reality are again challenged by the effects of Chew-Z. From the first exposure to the drug on, the story is unclear whether we are in the mind of Leo Bulero or not. And that in essence does not matter, because with the concept of human consciousness being explored as a continuum rather than many unique points, Bulero is an individual and the entire human race all at once. This comes back to the end of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, where people who have not even taken Chew-Z are experiencing the effects of it; it is possible it is leaking through the fabric of the conscious minds of the human race, connecting them.

In Androids, the people of the world frequently use what is called an Empathy Box to connect their minds to one another, to share experiences and to commune with a neo-messiah figure known as Mercer. This connection across the distance of personal self-consciousness is another place where the reader can observe the thinness of the line between one mind and another. The concept of the individual breaks down in these explorations, opening up a space where it is possible to be oneself and someone else, all at once. Indeed, by the end of Androids, Rick Deckard has become Mercer himself. For much of Dick’s work, the presence of these unique radio technologies act as a bridge between minds (Hulbert, Adam. 2016). The transmission of signals via a device allows for greater reception of signals to the human psyche. In essence, acting as a technological evolution along the path to enlightenment for the human race.

These connections to Taoist concepts of self are tropes of SF, and not knew ones (Huang, Betsy). Many authors have used eastern philosophy to explore new concepts for the western world, and have done so with great effect. One such example, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, shows that this connection of consciousness may not only cover the human race, but many others, across the universe. It is described in that consciousness is like a great ocean, with many islands. While the islands appear separate, if you removed the water, you would find they all are connected to the same earth. In Childhood’s End, humanity is on a path to become one with that universal consciousness, propelled along by the aid of servants of that consciousness. Some could read the story and find it bleak, an end to our species, absorbed into the consciousness of another entity. However, I find this not disturbing when viewed through the Taoist lens of consciousness, the self, and reality. There was no line between humanity and the greater consciousness to begin with; it was the next natural step of evolution in becoming one, becoming whole.

Le Guin explores these concepts once more in The Dispossessed, albeit in another, more subtle way. In this novel, there is a concept being explored in Physics called Simultaneity. This principle means that all things are happening at once in the universe, that all things are connected, and if one could understand how it is so, they could not only communicate across infinite distances instantly, but could even theoretically travel those distances just as fast. The character Shevek spends a great deal of time on the matter, describing in several places that the past and the present are all part of one great whole, not separated at all, simply only visible to us from our meager range of view where we happen to be along the spectrum. This principle of Simultaneity connects with these concepts of the principles of consciousness. All things exist at once, which would undoubtedly contain the conscious minds of every person in that oneness.

Even in Le Guin’s later work, such as Changing Planes, we continue to find these concepts of connectedness in consciousness. In one chapter, a people called the Frin share their dreams, forming a web of linked thoughts in their sleep. They do not view the dreams as one person’s or another, but as simply the dream; the one they all had. The Frin can even share dreams with other people not from their plane. However, those from other planes cannot share the dreams of the Frin. It becomes a point of contention in the story that the dreams of other planes are bringing with them ideas foreign to the Frin, ones that may even be overriding their own social development. In this situation, it could be interpreted that the story is an exploration of invasive cultures, such as those of the colonial era of the 16th century (LeRoy-Frazier, Jill. 2016).

Even more modern SF authors continue to explore the elements of consciousness. Andy Weir wrote in his short story The Egg of a concept of reality where all people on earth are in fact just one entity, the child of a deity, experiencing all of reality from beginning to end in an effort to mature into a deity themselves one day. His short story has leveraged a great deal of acclaim over the past few years, with a reference to it even appearing in a hip-hop album the artist Logic. SF provides a unique place for readers and authors to explore what it means to be human, especially in our day of increasing technology and shrinking borders. As we progress as a species, our boundaries of nations grow thinner, with new ideas entering our minds from all over the world daily. A person in Iran can speak instantly with a person in Canada on topics of Greek Philosophy, astrophysics, or romantic poetry. Already our barriers are coming down, much in the ways described by Dick, Le Guin, and Lao Tzu. As we progress, we are forced to observe reality with eyes of our similarities, with an understanding that even though we are all individuals, we are one species, one race, one earth.

Works Cited

Canaan, Howard. “Time and Gnosis in the Writings of Philip K. Dick.” Hungarian Journal of English and                 American Studies 14.2 (2008): 335-55. Web.

Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End, Ballantine Books (1953). Print.

Dick, Philip K. Valis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade & Reference, (1981).  Web.

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade & Reference (1962).                 Web.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Doubleday Publishing (1968). Print.

Huang, Betsy. “Premodern Orientalist Science Fictions.” Melus 33.4 (2008): 23-43. Web.

Hulbert, Adam. “Elsewhere, Elsewhen and Otherwise: The Wild Lives of Radios in the Worlds of Philip        K. Dick.” Journal of Language, Literature and Culture (Australasian Universities Language and            Literature Association) 63.2-3 (2016): 164-78. Web.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Lathe of Heaven: A Novel. Scribner Trade, New York: Scribner (1971).  Print.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed, Harper Collins Publisher Inc (1974). Print.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Changing Planes. 1st ed., Harcourt (2003). Print.

LeRoy-Fraizer, Jill. “Travels in Subjectivity: Post(Genomic) Humanism in Ursula K. LeGuin’s             ”                Changing Planes”.” Mosaic (Winnipeg) 49.2 (2016): 95-111. Web.

Malmgren, Carl D. “Orr Else? The Protagonists of Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven.” Journal of the                    Fantastic in the Arts 9.4 (1998): 313. Web.

McFarlane, Anna. “Sideways in Time: Alternate History and Counterfactual Narratives, University of                 Liverpool, 30-31 March 2015.” Foundation (Dagenham) 44.121 (2015): 79. Web.

Watson, Ian. “Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven and the Role of Dick: The False Reality as Mediator.” Science-                fiction Studies 2.1 (1975): 67-75. Web.

Weir, Andy. The Egg. Galactanet (2009). Web.

Look At Your Hands

I have lived on a farm, not just visited. 
I have trudged through great mountains of pig shit, pled 
With a damn milk cow as she stood on my foot 
For four gallons of sweet cream, as white as sand 
On Ozarks levee. 

I have made salt butter and cream cheese, pressed 
The cloths of thin whey, and drank the honeyed 
Cider from apples of Autumn’s dry boot, 
And heard music from a festival band. 
You are same as me. 

The rain that melted the cotton castings bled 
The choked city gutters all the same, and fed 
My fields and your fair parks where birds sing like flutes. 
Work in slick mud or cold offices takes hands  
Of natural men. 

Pastoral poetry is particularly interesting to me. I spent my high school years living on a farm my father bought after he retired from the Marine Corps. We had cows, chickens, pigs, and grew crops. It was hard work, and in many respects it was enjoyable, but now that I’ve lived on both sides of the concept, the city and the farm, I find that the similarities outweigh the differences. No matter where you live or what you’re doing, you’re working hard and often in situations that you do not enjoy. 

Many pastoral poems romanticize the idea of the rural because the poets went there on vacation. It isn’t so much the place itself that holds the wonder as it is the experience of being somewhere not as familiar. Granted, there are aspects of rural life that strike a chord in the human heart, such as proximity to the natural world. Those experiences are not as common in the city, and therefore being near those in the rural world does hold some mystique. The love of nature present in pastorals is present in my poem, but also the difficulty, the hardship of dealing with livestock.  

There are many wonderful things in the rural life, like visiting levees, drinking fresh fruit juice, going to small town festivals. But the difficulties of shoveling shit, struggling with massive creatures for their products, those are also present, and create in my mind a paradigm that life in either the city or the country are relatively the same, just with different set pieces.  

I reworked this poem after taking revision notes from a collective of fellow poets. A major note I was given was to include another verse, to flesh out the concept of sameness. I also cleaned up the form so that the second stanza is reflective of 10 syllabic lines, while the first and third have 11. The original poem is below. I also changed the title of the piece, to reflect the association with the hands that do the work in the poem, both in the cities and in the farmland.

Waking to The Pastoral Dream

I have lived on a farm, not just visited.
I have trudged through great mountains of pig shit, pled
With a damn milk cow as she stood on my foot
For four gallons of sweet cream, as white as sand
On Ozarks levee.

I have made salt butter and cream cheese, pressed
The cloths of thin whey, and drank the honeyed
Cider from the apples of Autumn’s dry boot,
And heard the music of a festival band.
You are same as me.

Let’s Review: Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement

Author Amitav Ghosh begins their essay The Great Derangement with a review of the human condition; how we as a species respond to the world around us, especially when it defies our expectations. With the line, “who can forget those moments when something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, even dangerously alive?” (Ghosh, pp. 3) Ghosh begins our journey into understanding that the environment is irrevocably a part of our social and biological make-up. How could a person start at the sight of a log which turns out to be a crocodile if they did not know what a crocodile was? In that situation, the offending person would fall prey to the reptile, and the other humans around them would then be engendered to that environment with the memory of their screams. It is experience with the places we inhabit that provides the context for our experiences in them.  

Amitav Ghosh tells how their forbears were inhabitants of a region of Bangladesh, near the Padma River, which is observed to change its behavior and the landscape around it rapidly. This change informed their ancestors’ understanding of the region, and their own understanding of the region as they continued their research on it. “Recognition is famously a passage from ignorance to knowledge,” (pp. 4). They continue with the paramount importance of recognition; it is not to be confused with comprehension. It is more instinctual in nature, coming to your senses to what dangers may be around you based on what you or your community may have faced previously. Ghosh then applies this experience with the rising evidence of climate change facing our species globally right now.  

The ancestral region of Ghosh’s people acts as a microcosm of climate change effects, because of its already volatile nature to change rapidly. However, with the growing evidence of climate change, there has not been an increase in recognition of the dangers of it among the human population at large.  

There is something confounding about this peculiar feedback loop. It is very difficult surely, to imagine a concept of seriousness that is blind to potentially life-changing threats. And if the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness, then, considering what climate change actually portends for the future of earth, it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over—and this, I think is very far from being the case. (pp. 8) 

Ghosh then goes on to explain that the western world is avoidant of this recognition likely because of what drives its society. The concern is less about the environment in which people live and more about what they use in their daily lives. Commodities have become their forests, gasoline their rain, smart phones their foraged produce.  

This disconnect is likely fueled by the corporations which act as the quasi-governing forces of the western world. They determine many policies through their generous donations to legislatures, taking a stranglehold on the world’s resources through their power and authority gained via their peddling of products to the common people. Regulations that would act in response to climate change, that would recognize them, would cause those corporations to lose wealth. So they hide from them. It is this hiding, this denial, which Ghosh draws from to coin the phrase, “The Great Derangement.” 

These tactics are not new. Many societies have employed propaganda in their communal share of information to either prevent or protect their citizenry from knowing of things which could harm them. For instance, World War II Britain told their citizens that eating carrots would improve their eyesight, when the real driving force here was to encourage them to grow their own foods in the face of shortages, and to hide their new radar system from the Germans by saying their pilots could simply see in the dark, which was why they could shoot down German planes with such accuracy( Spring, K. pp 323). These tales, while not new, have likely led to our current situation of continuing the obfuscation of the dangers facing us. Like it or not, the climate is changing and has been linked to human intervention. Our collective hiding from this fact will not serve us well and could result in the culmination of our extinction.  

Works Cited 

Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement, 2016. Chicago Press 

Spring, Kelly. Today We have All Got to be Fighting Fit’: The interconnectivity of Gender Roles in
British Food Rationing Propaganda during the Second World War. Gender & History,
Volume 32 (2). Pp. 320-340.  

Putting the LGBTQ in the Literary Canon

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote extensively on the place of homosexuality in the literary canon, especially in the authors thereof. The evidence of this lifestyle is apparent in some cases quite clearly, in others more obscured, but in most cases, hidden from the public view due to prevailing sentiment that homosexual lifestyles were wrong by the majority rule of white, cis male, heterosexual literary elites.

Two novels referred to by Sedgwick, Dorian Gray and Billy Budd, provide “a durable and potent centerpiece of gay male intersexuality and indeed [have] provided a durable and potent physical icon for gay male desire,” (Sedgwick, Eve, pp 183). The stories follow people living in lifestyles of homosexual desire, and the struggles which erupted from the societies around them as a result. Recognizing the value of these literary works “must cease to be taken for granted and must instead become newly salient in the context of their startling erotic congruence,” (pp 184).  

In the past, and even still today, the literary canon was not allowed to show homosexuality present in many of the writers. Socrates, along with many of his contemporaries, practiced homosexual relationships; this was considered normal for Greece at the time, but many arguments will claim that this normality nullifies its value in understanding it. “Passionate language of same sex attraction was extremely common during whatever period is under discussion—and therefore must have been completely meaningless,” (pp 186). This argument, however, is not extraordinarily strong. There are many things which are commonplace to the era which espouses them yet are not given any special recognition in the languages of those people.  

For instance, Roman concrete was lost to modern science for centuries, because the recipe called for “water” to be used in mixing it. However, the water they were referring to was salt water (Irving, Michael, 2017). There was not the need to specify the difference, because why would someone use water that was not salt water? This does not trivialize the necessity of using salt water in the mixing process for Roman concrete. Yet because the distinction was not made, future people could not determine how to replicate it for centuries because they missed the hidden cue. This is like the cues of homosexuality in the literary canon, as Sedgwick points out.  

The questions of “Has there ever been a gay Shakespeare… Proust?” (pp 186) could have clear answers when the canon is reviewed. That answer could very well be, “Not only have there been a gay… Shakespeare, and Proust but that their names were… Shakespeare, Proust.” Whether or not these individuals held relationships with members of the opposite sex does not remove the existence of homo erotic themes in their work, which provide if not a basis for their own homosexuality, one for an acceptance of the lifestyle and understanding that it had value even in their own time. The pressure to view all literature as that of the homophobic canon denies the humanity of those with same sex attraction and limits our own access to the robust and colorful culture around us. Denying these roots becomes a form of censorship. 

“The most openly repressive projects of censorship, such as William Bennett’s literally murderous opposition to serious AIDS education in schools on the grounds that it would communicate a tolerance for the lives of homosexuals, are, through this mobilization of the powerful mechanism of the open secret, made perfectly congruent with the sooth, dismissive knowingness of the urbane and the pseudo-urbane,” (pp 187). 

The current cultural norms are shifting. However, not even long-ago heterosexuality was doggedly supported as the only mode of normal human sexuality, with all other forms being viewed as toxic, deviant, even dangerous. The shifting mindset toward understanding brings greater enlightenment to everyone and shows that the canon as it is recognized can be more diverse than cis elitism in academia tends to allow. Homosexuality in literature is not only normal but has been for centuries; we’ve only forgotten in the face of cis dominance in existing media. 

Works Cited 

Irving, Michael. “Just add seawater: Ancient Roman concrete gets stronger over time.” 2017. 

Sedgwick, Eve. “Epistemology of the Closet.” Taken from a Falling in Theory. 1996. Pp 186-189. Bedford/St. Martin’s Publishing. 

Issues with Barthes & Deconstructionism

In The Death of the Author, Barthes describes that, “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.” This puzzled me. How is it that one could view writing in such a way? In poetic forms, voice holds different meanings than it may for Barthes, yet his statement is made in such a way as to pertain to all writing, in any form, throughout all literary formats. That includes poetry, yet there, voice is not only essential, but paramount to the function of the writing. How the, can voice exist in and be destroyed by the writing of something such as a sonnet by Shakespeare, for instance? This comes into focus as Barthes further explains, “As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.” 

Writing therefore becomes an act of destruction not in that it destroys what is said, but in how it disconnects itself from the writer of it once it has left them. The focal point of understanding and interacting with a written work is in the reader, not the author. It is in this way that Barthes considers that the removal of the author makes deciphering their intention with the text unnecessary, futile, an act in foolishness even.  

This relates to the views of other structuralists, in that the important thing for understanding the relationship of a written work to the society that produced it is not the event of writing, but the system itself. Understanding the rules of linguistics in a structure matter more than the application of those rules in the function of creating a written work. It removes the need to know why a person did what they did in their writings. It is irrelevant in most respects to the structuralist point of view.  

Instead, with the focus being on what is written on the page, as Barthes writes, “the removal of the author… is not merely an historical fact or an act of writing, it utterly transforms the modern text (or—which is the same thing—the text is henceforth made and read in such a way that at all its levels the author is absent).” Barthes describes it as pathetic that others in the past would view the author as important to the written work. Barthes explains: 

Having buried the author, the modern scriptor can no longer believe, as according to the pathetic view of his predecessors, that this hand is too slow for his thought or passion and that consequently, making a law of necessity, he must emphasize this delay and indefinitely ‘polish’ his form. For him, on the contrary, the hand, cut off from any voice, borne by pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression) traces a field without origin—or which at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins.  

Barthes, R. 1977.

While these points are written in what could be called an eloquent tone of voice, ultimately the ideas behind them feel hollow for me. A nihilistic approach to living, where the individual is of little to no worth because they are no more than cogs in the mechanism (Mambrol, N. 2016). The structure created them, and therefore gets credit and value for what they produce. This system of thinking could be easily screwed, and allow for all forms of rhetoric to influence the societies which employ them. The writings of marginalized citizens are not their own anymore, they belong to society, and as such, they are not proffered the value of their work. It could be used to erase the struggles of the less fortunate, to steal the value which would otherwise belong to the creators of content in the name of viewing the structure as greater than its parts.  

This slippery slope is one that could easily be coopted by groups who would prefer not to see the harm being inflicted on the outgroups. White, cis male authorities can use this to continue the status quo, keeping women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ communities from having their works recognized as part of their experiences; they simply exist as part of the language, something that anyone could have produced. There is also another way to interpret this, by dividing social structures among those distinct groups. This, however, also acts as a division. Those who produce are still otherized by this act, leaving me feeling less than hopeful in the structuralist ideals and their applications. Our societies deserve better. 

Works Cited 

Barthes, Roland. The Death of the Author. 1977. Taken from Falling into Theory. 2000. Bedford/St. Martins Publishing. 

Mambrol, Nasrullah. 2016. Structuralism—Literary Theory and Criticism. 

The Left Hand of Darkness: A Story of Gender Identity

Since its publication in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness has received both acclaim and criticism. This makes sense, considering that the controversies in the book center around the nature of gender and sex, told from an ardent male viewpoint, hanging heavy with use of masculine pronouns. Despite any monumental achievement in The Left Hand of Darkness, these perceived shortcomings could easily add sour taste in the mouth of any who seek greater female representation, or a viewpoint which eschews gender and sexuality as a means of othering members of a society. No matter how close to the heart of The Left Hand of Darkness these issues may appear, this does not change the incredible impact the story has had on the literary community, readers of SF, and society at large.  

To boil down The Left Hand of Darkness into only the issues around the use of pronouns and perceptions of masculinity misses the point of the tale; the book is not meant to critique masculinity or femininity. Le Guin shows the difficult bridge between understanding gender as a member of a gendered species and culture, revealing the human conditions faced within social classes and constructs both in her time and today.  

Le Guin also drew great inspiration from one text which explored the transition between male and female, pulling in those elements to her creation of The Left Hand of Darkness. At one point in her life, Le Guin, along with a number of other authors, were asked which novels were of greatest inspiration to their work as SF authors. While many of the authors answers fell into what I expected to see of such a question, Le Guin took a different approach: 

[She], however, interpreted the question rather broadly and selected twentieth-century modernist Virginia Woolf and her novel, Orlando, a satirical history of English literature which traces the life and loves of an Elizabethan poet who lives for centuries and changes sex. Le Guin wrote-  ‘I learned a lot from reading the ever-subversive Virginia Woolf. I was seventeen when I read Orlando. It was half revelation, half confusion to me at that age, but one thing was clear: that she imagined a society vastly different from our own, an exotic world, and brought it dramatically alive. I’m thinking of the Elizabethan scenes, the winter when the Thames froze over. Reading, I was there, saw the bonfires blazing in the ice, felt the marvelous strangeness of that moment five hundred years ago -the authentic thrill of being taken absolutely elsewhere.’

(Swank K. 2021, pp. 139)

Another clear sign of Le Guin’s feminism in The Left Hand of Darkness comes in the keeping of lineage by the citizens of Gethen. It is as we would describe ‘matriarchal,’ although such a term would have no meaning on Gethen. “Descent of course is reckoned, all over Gethen, from the mother, the ‘parent of the flesh,’” (Le Guin U. 98). This pattern of putting greater value on the bearer of children appears as a trope in other SF novels where topics of gender and sexuality are points of interest much as they are in The Left Hand of Darkness. This trope is used to show the disparity apparent in our own world:  

Far from providing greater claims to the resultant offspring, in other words, the additional risks and burdens of gestation and childbirth are often considered legally and socially inferior to the male’s genetic contribution. Furthermore, the unequal division of reproductive labor across the sexes often extends beyond the physiological requirements of gestation and lactation, leading to unfair distribution of the burdens of childrearing and restricting women’s full participation in public life. As such, I argue that pregnancy and childbirth may be seen as a potential threat to gender equality, one that is both socially constructed and entrenched in Nature.

(Kendal E. 2018, pp. 67)

Le Guin uses these focal points in The Left Hand of Darkness to imagine a world where the burden of childbearing is shared by all members of society equally. While such lines as “The King was pregnant,” may garner a laugh from readers, the deeper message is that the weight of childbearing and rearing is not placed solely on the shoulders of one social group or another. For real world societies, “Pregnancy is a condition that causes pain and suffering, and that only affects women. The fact that men do not have to go through pregnancy to have a genetically related child, whereas women do, is a natural inequality,” (Smajdor, A 2012, pp 90). For the people in The Left Hand of Darkness, it is a shared responsibility, with the humans of Gethen being as likely to be a mother as a father when kemmering. In Utopian Literature and Bioethics: Exploring Reproductive Difference and Gender Equality, author E. Kendal also said of The Left Hand of Darkness:  

In ethical terms, this novel essentially employs a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” method toward the burdens of pregnancy. According to John Rawls, when people are required to choose a social model dictating the distribution of resources, rights, and positions in a society, but they do not know which position they will personally occupy in the resultant society, they will tend toward a model that promotes equality and guarantees protection for the least advantaged members. Since citizens of Winter cannot know in advance whether they will be personally affected by the conditions created for physical gestation, they are thus motivated to promote the social model most favorable to the disadvantaged. 

(Kendal E. 2018, pp. 71)

The effects of this on the lifestyles of the people of Gethen are clear in many places within The Left Hand of Darkness. The people of Gethen do not have the same views as people of Earth regarding paternity and maternity, with “the distinction between a maternal and a paternal instinct… scarcely worth making; the parental instinct, the wish to protect, to further… not [being] a sex-linked characteristic,” (Le Guin K. pp. 106). They have never known life within the confines of split genders. The presence of the word, “he,” within the novel is not the result of Gethenians preferring male pronouns. Indeed, Gethenians, when not in kemmer, do not have male or female pronouns. The format of the novel is indicative of the narrator, Genly Ai, translating the texts of Estraven and Gethenian lore into English, his own native tongue, and his struggles with identifying those he interacts with without a gendered pronoun.  

It is this struggle, this intentional struggle, that I believe drove Le Guin’s intentions behind not creating new language to define the genderless humans of Gethen. The purpose is not to fill in that gap, but to call attention to the unease created by its existence. “In other words, the novel forces readers to become androgynous readers: readers are asked to resist reading from any gendered perspective. The result of such a request is to keep the reader continuously off guard and unsettled, mirroring Genly Ai’s predicament in the novel.”

(Pennington J. 2000, pp. 99) 

Le Guin has long incorporated a variety of themes into her work regarding social gender stereotypes, crossing cultural boundaries of the western world. In A Wizard of Earthsea, she depicts male characters as deeply emotional, experiencing sadness and loss with a free expression of tears, and relationships with other men that, while platonic, show deep connection and love. The machismo present in the works of other SF authors of her time may be present in some forms, such as Genly Ai’s views on women, yet they are not depicted in such a way as to label them as objective truth. Where Phillip K Dick’s depictions of women in The Man in the High Castle and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch focus mostly on their physical appearance, and how they can be used as sexual set pieces for his male characters, Le Guin creates characters that are fully human, thought out beyond their sexuality, or gender. 

The Left Hand of Darkness has almost no female characters in it, instead having the bulk of the cast of  “Karhiders [the reader is] with as not a man, but a manwoman,” (Le Guin, U. 1969, pp. 101). Genly is the only being through most of the book who reflects the familiar of Earth, a being who does not enter the kemmer state of sexuality and gendering. This move by Le Guin is intentional, to show the issues in our own society in recognizing and understanding a system without constant gender. “Male and female readers cannot escape their own gendered perspectives conditioned by society,” (Pennington J. 2000, pp 98) making it hard for readers to identify with the text without bringing their own gendering terms with them to Gethen.  

It is important to note, though, that when Genly calls down his ship near the end of the novel, “the first off was Lang Heo Hew, unchanged, of course, precisely as I [Genly] had last seen her,” (pp. 318). The presence of Lang Heo Hew shows that in the Ekumen, men and women can and do occupy the same fields of study and employment. Women in The Left Hand of Darkness, and the Hainish novels and the Ekumen in general, are not depicted as less than men. This information reveals that the issues in the text with how women are described by Genly, and the prevalent use of male pronouns, are issues with Genly himself, and not Le Guin, in his record keeping. Indeed, the readers are caught in much the same web as Genly, because they, too, must attempt to separate themselves from the foundations of identity instilled from their earliest infancy: 

The Left Hand of Darkness evokes a powerful individual reader response because each reader must define his or her inner space where gender finds its own ideological space; the novel requires readers to resist a gendered reading of the narrative. A productive approach to embrace when analyzing The Left Hand of Darkness is to examine how Le Guin defines that inner space between male and female textually in her outer space novel, and to examine how the text “activates” readers to enter those alien gender spaces.

(Pennington, J. 2000, pp. 99)

The readers position of viewing all they know about Gethen from the perspective of Genly Ai is central to the message of The Left Hand of Darkness. This confusion, of knowing how to gender humans, but not Gethen humans, is best shown in “The Question of Sex,” where Ong Tot Oppong writes:  

The following must go into my finished Directives: when you meet a Gethenian you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectations of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or opposite sex. Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interactions is nonexistent [on Gethen]. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?

(Le Guin, U. pp. 101)

For readers today, this concept may not be as hard to imagine. Transgender rights are growing around the globe, and along with it a greater understanding of what it means to be a person irrespective of the sex one is assigned at birth. There are still confusions in this regard, however, especially for the English language, which remains without a singular, non-gendered pronoun. The word ‘they’ is being used more often in the singular, but as yet official keepers of the English language such as Oxford Dictionary have not added the changing colloquial usage to the overall lexicon. For the English language, and many others, the concept of identity is indelibly connected to gender, with many children being engendered to their social standing as soon as they leave the womb, with pink and blue smocks assigned upon the clipping of the umbilical.  

This issue of gendering perhaps does not exist in Gethenian language, however. It is made clear in “The Domestication of Hunch,” where Genly speaks with Goss, a member of the Handdarata religion about a person who was always “in kemmer.” These individuals in The Left Hand of Darkness are referred to as Perverts, a possible sign that assigning gender for Gethenians is the greater offense, in stark contrast to our own perceptions. At one point while talking about the Pervert, “Goss used the pronoun that designates a male animal, not the pronoun for a human being in the masculine role of kemmer. He looked at little embarrassed,” (Le Guin U. pp. 67). This shows the existence of multiple pronouns in Gethenian language; those for animals, which on Gethen are sexed male, female always (separating them biologically from Gethenian humans), those for individuals in kemmer as male or female, and then by implication, a pronoun for Gethenians during their androgynous phase between kemmering.  

This shows that there are pronouns in Gethenian languages which the narrator Genly Ai could have used in place of the English pronoun, “he.” Yet the use of an alien word was not the desire of Le Guin in this manuscript. As shown earlier, she sought to sow the seeds of confusion and unease in readers as they came upon the pronoun usage of Genly. This confusion is experienced by Genly also, as he navigates the world of Gethen, and the alien culture where he is immersed. The reader travels the world with him, and learns, just as Genly does, to see things outside of their world view, growing and gaining a newfound appreciation for people, very real people, who fall outside the gender duality our societies have for so long required of our species.  

As Genly and Estraven travel along the Gobrin Ice, their bond is forged in love. Genly’s love for Estraven acts as a symbol for his understanding of the humans of Gethen; it acts as a symbol for the readers emergence upon this understanding also, the understanding of loving those who are different, who society tells us to view as an other. Just as Genly and Estraven know that only through joining through the Ekumen can a society finally become one with itself, the reader can find a path to oneness with the human race, even those who differ from themselves. These differences are not limited to male female, either. The symbolism of The Left Hand of Darkness incorporates religious difference, socio-economic, and racial differences. Truly, it is as Genly said: 

For it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from that sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood, but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of friendship between us rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile, and already so well proved in the days and nights of our bitter journey, that it might as well be called, now as later, love. But it was from the differences between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the differences, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us.

(Le Guin, K. pp. 267)

Le Guin set out to create a thought experiment. One looking at a world where gender was not the norm. She created a story of betrayal and trust, of traveling across the cold, unrelenting fields of what is considered immutable in our world—the constructs of gender and the ways it defines our identity. The Left Hand of Darkness brings the reader through the other side of that frightening chasm of facing our gender identity and grants us a serenity only possible through the journey. While critics of her work lose sight of these victories, choosing to focus on the problematic gender pronouns employed by Genly, the truth inherent in her work still shines through, a light in the darkness, there on its left hand. 

Works Cited 

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. Pinguin Random House LLC. 1969 

Kendal E. Utopian Literature and Bioethics: Exploring Reproductive Difference and Gender Equality. Lit Med. 2018;36(1):56-84. doi: 10.1353/lm.2018.0002. 

Pennington J. Exorcising Gender: Resisting Readers in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Extrapolation. 2000;41(4):351-358. doi: 10.3828/extr.2000.41.4.351. 

Smajdor, Anna. In Defense of Ectogenesis. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 21, no. 1 (2012): 90–103. 

Swank K. Ursula’s Bookshelf. Mythlore. 2021;39(138):137-155. 

“A Social Kind of Privacy”

Office work weren’t always in cubes.
Got Rob Propst to thank for that.
1968, and he built walls for workers,
Walls for focus, walls for barriers.

No Friends beyond a wall. Walls make
Enemies of outsiders. The 60’s was filled with walls,
An Iron Curtain, still not enough to keep the fallout,
‘Cause Vlad Putin thinks we need another war.

People started taken down walls, but desk walls,
Cube walls are still there. The world burns,
And I can’t see my fellow man past the spreadsheets,
The boss on bedsheets with someone not their spouse.

Propst thought walls would help. Now we’re blinded
By corkboard, waiting for wars behind walls to fill our
Lungs with people ash, like it’s the 60’s, Duck & Cover
Playing on PBS as my nephew asks when the wars end.

Le Guin, Dear Mother

It was Spring, 2001, when I first truly met you.
Your maps, rich with names I couldn’t read,
A magic that spoke to me, your words so true
That I could not help but know the power of a name.

When I was gifted the magic of words, they were yours.
I saw your wizard, his journey and tears, and they were mine,
Became even more dear to me than family, who never did
Show the love even Ged knew from his first teacher.

You were my true mother, and all I learned of life is you.
When Winter’s chill reached me, I walked with Genly
Through endless sorrow, and came through, stronger,
Because you wrote him into being, and me with him.

It was Spring, 2018, when the world lost you.
I never beheld your face. Never showed you
The tear-stained manuscripts I wrote for you.
But I love you, even now, and wish you knew

Dear Mother,
That one boy, so small and broken, was made your son by your words.

Photo credit Copyright © by Marian Wood Kolisch

Elegy of the Midwest

He who do, does.
He who don’t, don’t.
Really, simple as that.
He who is, was,
he who ain’t, ain’t.
Why argue ’bout it?
Take time with it,
the meaning a does.
When the doing ain’t
done, it becomes don’t.
No matter what it was
whatcha meant by that.
Y’all walk along that
divide, of what it
meant, or why it was
meant for them who does.
Life grows old with taint
on the vine. Don’t
Regret it. Life that’s
Lived gotta end, ain’t
no man go forever, it
grows and wanes, does
the doing, then buzz
goes the fly. Was
goes to is; don’t
say y’ain’t seen compost. Does
grass grow on that?
Like John in 1637, it
ends on water, faint
against the mornin’, paint
on a cross, saying who was.
Me and you, ends it
the same. Hearts don’t
pump forever. Simple as that:
He who do, does.

Don’t that matter? Was it
a forever “does,” then forever’d be
was. And that ain’t right.