When Ursula Le Guin died in January last year, it felt like we’d lost a true storyteller-dreamer, someone who’d given us worlds and transformative ideas and situations, who’d contextualised and touched upon forms of the unknown through the building of stories only even one of which was the spell-blinding 1976 book ‘The Word for World is Forest.’
A science fiction story that submerges us in the worlds of reality of its three main protagonists and between them places us across a span of perspectives-as-cognition that range from the crippling and deranged logic of parochial human power-consumption to a ‘native’ life of connectedness with the natural world which is simple, resonant and expansively deep as a form of existence.
As a feat of writing, it addresses without judgement the narrative of logic from the human Davidson (as a mode of the mind’s internal dialogue), driven by a response to his identification of the harsh realities of life (which he himself propagates) and for whom violence is a kind of necessity. While also taking us through to the cognitive of the Athsheans – apparently simple ape-like humanoids of the forest world at the heart of this story whose attunement and intensity we encounter through the journey of Selver – now existentially threatened and requiring to find new modes of action and thought as a result.
It this context, it is the human and its mentality (both Davidson’s grim horror-of-appropriation masquerading as necessity and the more enlightened gentleness of space-anthropologist Lyubov) which is the invasive and voracious alien mode that has arrived (James Cameron is clearly a lover of this story).
While bearing this imposed classification and understanding from the humans and their allies as simplistic and undeveloped, Le Guin shows us that actually the Athsheans and their way of life have a transformative intensity in contact with forces fundamentally beyond the arrogance-masked ‘understanding’ (a term shown here in an utterly contingent way) and its dominant place among the human invaders. One element of this is an explicit dreaming faculty and its social inclusivity, which gives the Athshean cognition a second ontological world of reality alongside their everyday world. An explicitly real and integrated explorationism that dreamers, dreaming and their consequent, corresponding forms of being are a fundamental, vital part of existence and that dreamers are bringers of (new) truth and understanding. The consistency and depth of this element of the life of the Athsheans (in the writing of Le Guin) also has thresholds that can upon reaching specific and impactful levels of power – bring from dreaming – new realities which have species-altering consequences and possibilities.
It’s a short book and I recently re-read it on two long train journeys, rewarding in so many ways to encounter.
I started writing something (below) after Le Guin had died, but it was never finished, although I had read and loved the above book and others just as fantastic like The Lathe of Heaven, the Left Hand of darkness, The Dispossessed, The City of Illusion (I haven’t yet got around to Earthsea).
Its only recently I started reading a book which was a gift from a friend; The Wind’s Twelve Quarters & The Compass Rose, a 2015 printing that merges two previous collections of a significant number of the author’s short stories, and it’s wonderously impactful. Having finished it, I immediately went back to the beginning and started again.
In the collection are works of such vibrant thinking that to read them can be a dazzling experience. In stories like The Masters she charts spaces of abandoned or taboo knowledge, regulated by power, themes which resonate with her early book The City of Illusion, in which part of a human defeat to an alien race has involved a change to our knowledge and memory; a fragmenting of stories as to what has actually occured. There is as such, an insistent nagging away that occurs in some of her writing, a nagging away at the feeling of becoming thin membranes, walls of temporality and its faded lettering.
When seers go, when prognosticators leave, when storyteller-dreamers are not around any more, then it is left to all of us to dig into the essence and reality of their profound and poweful moments. To follow our love through the passages of their intensities and the uncoiling worlds of their dreams.
It occured to me that fictions as well as being facets of intensity, become facts in intensity.
When Ursual Le Guin and Mark E. Smith go in the same 24 hour period, there is a compounding of the normal feeling of something having been lost from the widest depth, richness and capacity of the group (the species-wide group). That they were very different and yet very united in presenting worlds of wild storytelling, full of uncanny, eerie and transformational thinking. …Observations in story become the creativities of life.
To understand that we are perpetually at the dawn of waking up, but this time in a world of waking up to its own abstract reality. Ursula Le Guin said (video-top) ‘We need realists of a larger reality’ – she knew. She precisely knew that human beings are predominantly acting out of a trapped, crippling set of prescriptions, formularised to shut down contact with the wider scapes of their own being, perpetually cutting ourselves off at the collective and individual level in a cosmic plane of relation that mysteriously reinforces its own ordinariness to a pathologically controlling degree.
Le Guin continually seems to break out and get past this tendency of the pathologically aligned bleakness of human abstract contact, returning to us vistas and perspectives that renew a feeling of contact with vital ontological forces (like the Athshean’s capacities as dreamers). There is also a kind of simultaneity involved as many of these stories glide by, this being that we get glimpses of the eerily precise formations – which while transformative in aspect are also the ramparts to our multiplicitously recomposing structures of behavioural dead-referentiality. The structuring of the human problematic; those worlds of our operation which are coming from and composed of seemingly endless dead-ends (like the title of Burroughs; The Place of Dead Roads).
Le Guin’s story-maps take us very deliberately and consistently through and outside this place, an act that preceptually requires having access beyond it in the first place, while being open to an ongoing mode-as-transformation that means it cannot knowlingly be prescribed or pre-fabricated in advance of its expressing.
As prominent anthropologists, its possible to conceive that her parents inscribed within the environment of her growth, spaces and possibilities which avoided the grim, gravity-laden pre-suppositions of modern ordinary-reality. Either way, it seems to me a perspective was at work which was always partly outside the strictures of western consumption-as-outsiderism and its phalanxed partners in the toxic point-game of subjectification.
Its one thing to be someone (a writer in this case) who can see the forest fire but another thing altogether is to glimspe at or grasp understanding the forest for the forest and what this might bring to human beings, now that human beings have been weaned to concrete borders and minimal depth perception.
In the Lathe of Heaven book (from 1971), she leaves the merest hint of a suggestion that its central conceit; “effective dreaming” is something that might actually be going on for each of us all the time – as with the character George Orr who each day upon waking from an effective dream, finds that the world has become transformed into the dream he has just had.
My initial experience on reading this, was that there was a sliver within it, that we are in some way constantly dreaming up our perception of reality (as a world), but in an apparently and repetitively fixed and unyielding manner. It so often appears as though in fact, we are secretly involved in an ongoing contest of deciding beyond reality, both as the definition to the extent of what we experience and conversely -as-grasped- in fragmented moments of changed consciousness, sometimes in memory, or particles of dream, at the transformative edge of the dominant consciousness and its modality. This was the feeling of one of the things resonating with Ursula Le Guin’s work, as well as her clear, generous, unaffected prose – speaking from a heart of seeing and a seer’s lucid poise, a dreamer’s arrow fine and curved.
One story which I found myself coming back to and which in her own short pre-amble in this collection describes having its name changed by the original publishing editor to ‘The End’, now reverted by Le Guin to its name upon writing; ‘Things’. In Things a story of a local social area, apparently representative of the whole, a small coastal community is nearing some apocalyptic end, which has incorporated a violent abandonment of the ‘Things’ of materiality. As people wait for the end to come, this abandonment is partly being enforced by gangs of roving enforcers (‘Ragers’), who ensure people are not making things again by smashing them up and even killing their makers. The response to people who possess or seek to possess those things and knowledges outside the culture’s permission is often an unfortunate and grizzly conclusion.
However, one man, a brickmaker named Lif and a local widow with a child have come together and are attempting still to live as a family. The brickmaker though experiences a dream, of an island somewhere where people are living in some way outside the broken capitulation or self-annihilatory abandonment of things. The sense is of a community, communicated to him through a dream, that are there across the water.
In a way which puts his life at risk, he begins trying to build a vessel which can float and avoiding detection from the Ragers, but it sinks immediately. He has returned to his workshop and finds all the bricks, which no one has thought to smash.
He begins taking them down to the coast and throwing them into the sea. At one point he is approached by a Rager, who suggests he was following him at the prospect that he was building something, but instead applauds Lif for throwing them into the sea as yet another act of degeneration, he is glowing at this late continuation of the spirit which has apparently driven humans to this point.
Of course the brickmaker has realised that his ability was not to make things that would float, but things to be themselves built, solid and as invisible as brick itself. So he finds himself making a road beneath the waves, a causeway, supported by the Widow of Weaver’s lane (the only name given for the woman and her child with whom he has attached).
The story ends with a connection being made with the group or colony who have somehow escaped the carnage and are living a life on ‘The Island’ and have apparently escaped the self-annihilation (and the annihilation of dissenters) of the story. The community Lif has set out toward based only on his experiences in a dream…
Lif and the Widow’s community has arrived at an abandonment of things, but the form of the abandonment is being bound up with reactive-control, as if the realisation has dawned that things control people rather than the reverse, so human beings abandon this grouping of objects and their understanding with such a militant zeal and with such a specifically tight knit understanding being involved – that they cannot conceive of life beyond it for themselves. The abandonment of things (that we make, that we fashion and produce- and then possess) has no visible or understandable (realisable or available) image beyond a kind of apocalypse. It is the maximally prescriptive statement – all things are bad, destroy them and those who make them – and then give up – because there is nothing outside this world and its things and its stories of what things are. Le Guin is simultaneously reaching past this and positing in this story – groups or communities already in such forms of existence, who can make a journey back, or be available in some way for those seeking escape.
The dynamic of the story as such, while desperate and apocalyptic contains a space of hidden poise and opportunity; what’s happening among humans, in the act of realising a break from a form of slavery to the relationship of the inanimate – they have become poisoned by the same power (in a different form) that they had detected to make the break in the first place. It is from here that we get both the necessity to make a road, or a path for oneself (and those one is with) and also to make it invisible or imperceptible in some way to those who would destroy you over it (in this case, the path is submerged and heads off into the ocean).
It’s also that in these few short but utterly succinct pages, is also given the idea that Lif must subvert his own expectations or thinking. Initially, he believes he must make something that floats, but finds his attempts at this, with the only skill he has – brickmaking – to be a disaster, before the idea of the bricks themselves and what they lend themselves to – takes form. That it needn’t be either what one expects as the answer and also that the ‘answer’ in this respect can be as basic and prosaic as that with which one is routinely and completely familiar. The bricks of our everyday productions, become the submerged and invisible road of our escapes.
And yet (and specifically) beyond even that; is that LeGuin’s story ‘Things’ has at its ending, that this escape may be met, an unknown response may occur, from outside the social-disaster self-annhiliation zone of human beings… what that response might be would itself seem as open as the gesture which begins one’s path of flight and its corresponding intent that seems to eluct upon a different flow. A counter-veiling path, the idea of the dreamer as tune-smith of a different approach to the conceits of reality, in its bent edges and corners, forming unknown paths to nowhere, that leak in from dreamed edges, a fugitive bedrock of the unseen, in the vast mysterious ocean. We need dreamers of a larger reality.