Iona Italia pays homage to the remarkable novelist Ursula Le Guin’s life and work in this moving tribute to her seminal work “The Left Hand Of Darkness.”
I have just heard that Ursula Le Guin has died. People are looking at me oddly as I write this because I am crying over my chai in this hipster South Bombay café. But her compassionate, humane, insightful voice has had a tremendous impact on my feelings about both writing and life.
The Left Hand Of Darkness
In particular, Le Guin’s little novel, “The Left Hand of Darkness”, has haunted me continuously since I read it. It’s an exquisitely crafted gem in which setting, characters and plot serve each other perfectly. The story could take place in no other landscape than amid the looming blood-tinged pink towers and icy wastes of the planet Gethen; it could take place among no other people than the estrus-bound hermaphrodites who inhabit it.
And yet, there is nothing nerdy or obscure about it. It is the most human and humane of stories. Le Guin herself described it as a “thought experiment”, designed not to predict the future (Star Trek-like), but to “describe the present world”. The hermaphrodite theme is not a gimmick: nothing in that novel is extraneous or gratuitous. By changing one crucial aspect of humanity – our two-sexed nature – Le Guin sheds light on everything else of importance about us.
It is an extraordinarily compact book, especially considering the ambitious scope of its subject matter. The background to the tale deals with politics, demonstrating the flaws of two different systems of government – monarchy and communism – vividly and clearly. It tackles themes of nationality and patriotism.
The remote, somewhat backward planet of Gethen (“Winter”) is a richly imagined world, from the horrific concentration camps of Orgota to the tiny metal implements the Gethenians use to crack the splintery ice that forms over their water glasses as they eat, in their dining halls purposely kept at bracing temperatures, so they don’t lose the hardiness that keeps them alive on their icebound planet.
The vividness of the Gethen world is achieved by a double focus: through the twin vantage points of a stranger from a distant solar system and a native ready to give his life for the birthplace he loves. The relationship between the alien ambassador Genli and the Gethenian Estraven is an exploration of exile and belonging, the strange and the familiar, and sets the vastness of an unknown universe against that concentrated geographical locus of emotion and identity, that tiny pinprick on the map we call home.
At the book’s heart is a love story told with extraordinary subtlety, Hardyesque in its series of misunderstandings, seemingly insignificant and unimportant in isolation, but leading, inexorably, to tragedy. There is a heartbreaking inevitability to the protagonist Estraven’s story. Everything he needs is granted him: always, tragically, too late. “Why,” he exclaims bitterly, in perhaps the novel’s most memorable words, “why can I never set my heart on a possible thing?”
The sexual cycle of the Gethenians alternates between ordinary life, led in a state of asexual calm, dedicated to business and politics (somer) and brief, intense periods of arousal, desire, longing and fecundity (kemmer). I was reminded immediately of the emotional patterning of my life as a dancer: the banality everyday life can have, compared with the peak experiences of connection and flow on the floor in the embrace of the right partner, where, through tango, we turn love into art. And vice versa.
Tribute to Ursula Le Guin
I feel warm and sheltered here at last. Here, in your embrace. Beyond our little circle of comfort, the world is a colourless, featureless white-on-white, a snow globe, its silent, birdless sky veiled with falling flakes. A winter wilderness, a world of biting cold. But here, in the magic circle formed by our arms and bodies, I am snug, at last, cocooned, like a baby swaddled in furs. We’re two weary sledgers, protected from the elements by tent walls as taut as an eardrum, as thin as skin.
We have no need for vocal speech to make ourselves understood. Your body transmits its messages, and I respond. It must seem magical to those alien to this art, the way the tiniest, most imperceptible beginning of a motion in your body elicits a response in mine. It’s a communication clearer and more truthful than normal speech because each gesture is meant not to deceive, but to be understood and each response is an honest answer, an unmediated expression of how my body wants to move, how the music makes me feel. Lying is impossible here.
And, with the touch of each other’s embrace, we are transformed, we turn from neutral humans – no longer walking, sitting, lying, performing the mundane day to day actions both sexes have in common. We become me follower and you leader, me woman and you man. For this brief time, we are transformed. My movements don’t echo or mirror yours; they complement them. You twist and pivot an elegant central column, left hand raised, free foot tracing an arc on the ground, as if clearing a circle through a dusting of snow, and it makes me walk around you, like an adept circumambulating a mountain temple.
Your leaderliness makes me want to follow; my responsive following makes you a leader. We’ve entered together into a heightened state, into a world of dichotomies, rich, fertile with possibilities. Our twenty-six-day-old moon is high in the sky. We’re exiles from the ordinary world. You for my sake and I for yours. This is the brief thaw that allows us to unfold, unfurl.
This is our kemmer.
A former academic, Iona now works as a freelance writer, editor, translator and general wordsmith.