Margaret Atwood wrote in her tribute to the author of The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin: I am very sad that Ursula K Le Guin has died. Not only was she one of the literary greats of the 20th century – her books are many and widely read and beloved, her awards are many and deserved – but her sane, committed, annoyed, humorous, wise and always intelligent voice is much needed now.
Right before she died, I was reading her new book, No Time to Spare, a collection of trenchant, funny, lyrical essays about everything from cats to the nature of belief, to the overuse of the word “fuck”, to the fact that old age is indeed for sissies – and talking to her in my head. What if, I was saying – what if I write a piece about The Left Hand of Darkness, published by you in 1969? What if I say it’s a book to which time has now caught up?
Consider: the planet of Gethen is divided. In one of its societies, the king is crazy. Cabals and personal feuds abound. You’re in the powerful inner circle one day, an outcast the next. In the other society, an oppressive bureaucracy prevails and a secret committee knows what’s best. If judged a danger to the general good you’re deemed persona non grata and exiled to a prison enclave, with no trial or right of reply.
Much has been written about the passing of Ursula K Le Guin. Here, for instance, is a link, for instance a piece from The Guardian on her essential novels.
But perhaps one of the best tributes we can pay is a collection of quotes, compiled by Maria Popova, the always superb compiler of Brain Pickings.
One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience. There are always areas of vast silence in any culture, and part of an artist’s job is to go into those areas and come back from the silence with something to say. It’s one reason why we read poetry, because poets can give us the words we need. When we read good poetry, we often say, ‘Yeah, that’s it. That’s how I feel.’
The ruling class is always small, the lower orders large, even in a caste society. The poor always vastly outnumber the rich. The powerful are fewer than those they hold power over. Adult men hold superior status in almost all societies, though they are always outnumbered by women and children. Governments and religions sanction and uphold inequality, social rank, gender rank, and privilege, wholly or selectively.
Most people, in most places, in most times, are of inferior status.
And most people, even now, even in “the free world,” even in “the home of the free,” consider this state of affairs, or certain elements of it, as natural, necessary, and unchangeable. They hold it to be the way it has always been and therefore the way it must be. This may be conviction or it may be ignorance; often it is both. Over the centuries, most people of inferior status have had no way of knowing that any other way of ordering society has existed or could exist — that change is possible. Only those of superior status have ever known enough to know that; and it is their power and privilege that would be at stake if the order of things were changed.
My job is to keep the meaning completely embodied in the work itself, and therefore alive and capable of change. I think that’s how an artist can best speak as a member of a moral community: clearly, yet leaving around her words that area of silence, that empty space, in which other and further truths and perceptions can form in other minds.