Saturday, March 5, 2011

Body Language and Body Knowledge

In the interview with Octavia Butler, Mehaffy mentions that for Butler, “the body is the central communicator. Spoken or written language is frequently insufficient for communication,” (p. 59) reflecting the importance of the body as a “discursive entity” in Butler’s works. “Speech Sounds” takes this idea one step further, as Butler imagines a society in which people lose the ability to speak, read and write, and spoken and written language becomes entirely ineffective as means of connecting. Yet communication happens nevertheless: intimidation attempts, accusations of promiscuity and sexual propositions all happen through gestures and body language. This is certainly in line with Butler’s view that even when the spoken and written word are inadequate, “the flesh knows” (p. 59) how to get the message across. Similarly, because Gan and T’Gatoi never verbally discuss their relationship until near the end of the story, our understanding of the relationship between Gan and T’Gatoi comes primarily through their physical interactions, as evidenced by Gan’s willingness to lie against T’Gatoi’s “long, velvet underside” (p. 3), and how he finds it comfortable being caged by T’Gatoi’s limbs, whereas the rest of his family dislikes it. Again, this reflects the importance of the body as a central communicator in Butler’s works.

Closely related to this last idea is the point raised in the interview regarding sociobiology. Specifically, Butler suggests that “body-knowledge could possibly de-hierarchize, or maybe re-hierarchize, social and political relations” (p. 59), and that if correctly applied, sociobiology might potentially decrease gender inequality. This idea is present in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” as well, where the DGD carriers form an ostracized population, and are treated as mental patients in government-run wards, with no attempt made to find a way to control their self-mutilating impulses. By contrast, DGD patients in Dilg, the retreat run by Beatrice, are able to “channel their energies… to create” (p. 51), due to Beatrice’s understanding of how to use the pheromones she secretes to subdue her charges’ violent tendencies. Thus her scientific understanding of the Duryea-Gode disease enables Beatrices to help her patients become more productive members of society, reflecting Butler’s point that correctly applied, sociobiology can be used to address social inequalities and differences.

Interestingly enough, by depicting Lynn and Beatrice as the pheromone-secreting “queen-bees”, Butler appears to be engaging in a mild form of countercolonial feminist utopia, in that the strong female protagonist Lynn is depicted as having the ability to influence the thoughts of Alan, her male partner, and Beatrice is able to do the same to those under her charge at the DGD home. While Lynn’s influence certainly extends to females as well, it is telling that we see the effects manifested on Alan alone, as none of Lynn’s other housemates are mentioned in the story, and that Alan’s response to finding out that he is being influenced by the pheromone is that of outrage (“I won’t be a puppet. I won’t be controlled… by a goddamn smell!”). Supposedly, Alan is angry because he does not want to be influenced to stay and work at Dilg for the rest of his life, but could the real reason for his anger be something baser than that, such as his humiliation at finding out that Lynn was the dominant partner in their relationship all along, instead of him?

Self, gender, and society: LeGuin through the lens of cultural psychology

Though I very much respect and admire Ursula LeGuin's discussions of gender and the other in The Left Hand of Darkness, I couldn't help but view her notions of interdependency on a cultural spectrum. In fact, my thesis research is heavily rooted in the psychological theory that two major pathways of cultural development exist: individualism and collectivism. The former is exemplified by independence and the assertion of self, while the latter emphasizes interdependence and connectivity. This is reflected by LeGuin's comparison of society on Winter with society in China, as it is generally accepted that Oriental cultures tend to exhibit a preference for collectivism.

Our understanding of a work of human intellect (e.g. literature) is integrally tied to our understanding of the human psyche. Sigmund Freud opened up many discussions of the subconscious, driving the appearance of the id/ego/superego terminology in literary critique. Already in this course, we've experienced two works (written about 70 years apart) that explicitly mention psychologists: Well's Time Machine and LhoD (a psychologist is present during the storytelling in the former, while Genly mentions how mindspeak has refined psychology as a practice in the latter). This emphasizes the importance of the discipline to the genre of science fiction, which cannot be understated; as LeGuin might put it, the goal of such “thought-experiments” is more “descriptive” of the current human condition than “predictive” of how it will be in the future. How, then, can we understand LeGuin's notions of gender and society in light of recent developments in cultural psychology?

LeGuin draws some clear divisions in LhoD, a necessity in any discussion of dualism. The line between male and female is explicitly acted out and also explicitly mused upon. The human narrators in the story are quite preoccupied with characterizing a particular Gethenian's action by gender; one moment Estraven displays masculine resolve, while the next, his mannerisms appear motherly. In addition, certain qualities are associated with traditional notions of gender. Marcellino invokes Russ' idea that the countries in LhoD represent gendered forms of government: Karhide as the communal and female, while Orgoreyn represents the oppressive and masculine. Both, however, operate on somewhat Marxist principles, reflecting the collectivism inherent in interdependency. Are we, then, to interpret the female as collectivistic, or the ambisexual (with all its Taoist, yin-yang undertones) as collectivistic?

At the time that LhoD was written, LeGuin was likely unversed in the collectivistic versus individualistic dichotomy. Her gender associations are certainly supported by empirical research: studies have shown that male children tend to be competition or game-oriented during socialization, while female children are more relationally competitive. This seems to reflect the different styles (genders) of government proposed by Russ, but LeGuin complicates it with notions of ambisexuality. For example, the lack of persistent sexual energy in everyday life is thought to push society towards personal vendetta and intrigue instead of war and domination. One might view this as a result of feminine government, but LeGuin seems to suggest that Winter is simply more feminine (without being exclusively so) than our traditional notions of dominion. In addition, collectivism does not necessarily remove the desire for war, nor does it associate with a particular gender (in fact, one might conceptualize both individualism and collectivism as the products of largely patriarchal societies).

The underlying, anthropological foundations of the individualistic versus collectivistic dichotomy looks at the relationship between the self and society. In the Left Hand of Darkenss, Ursula LeGuin attempts to break down this relationship by exploring many dichotomies, including the pervasive and complicated dualism of gender. Though I cannot deny its identity or importance as a work of feminist science fiction, I am impressed and intrigued by how LeGuin's discussions of gender forces one to look at the self and soceity as well.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Dualism and Humanity

Ursula LeGuin's motivation for writing The Left Hand of Darkness is in keeping with this course's theme of science fiction being a literature of "cognitive estrangement." By eliminating the concept of a strict gender divide for one of fluidity determined by whether the individual is in a state of kemmer or not LeGuin sought to eliminate the issues of gender association and view the individuals for their underlying humanity. This is in no way following the strain of science fiction being a literature of probable or advanced future technologies. As she states in the Introduction, "science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive." In her view the business of science fiction is to take a topic in the present and stretch it to far beyond its reasonable reach. In this sense the role of the science fiction author is to challenge the reader's set way of thinking about a topic through a metaphor that focuses on issues of the present without taking on a role reliant on predicting possible future crises.

LeGuin initially moved away from accepting the claim that she set out to challenge the reader's settled way of viewing the world by taking on gender as her central topic. She denied being a feminist writer. In her own words The Left Hand of Darkness is "a book about betrayal and fidelity" rather than issues of gender specifically. However, this topic is unavoidable as by removing gender she calls all the more attention to its presence in our daily lives. In her revision of "Is Gender Necessary Redux" she says,  ["The fact," is however, that there are other aspects to the book, which are involved with its sex/gender aspects quite inextricably] (LeGuin, 8). Thus she acknowledges the unavoidability of facing the issues of sexuality and gender which she initially downplayed for fear of being considered a feminist author.

Indeed, she claims that, "[At the very inception of the whole book, I was interested in writing a novel about people in a society that had never had a war. That came first. The androgyny came second. (Cause and effect? Effect and cause?)]" (LeGuin, 10). For LeGuin diffusion of gender followed from the conception of a world without conflict on the scale of war. This lack of gender duality, one of several lacks including a continuity in seasons, causes a sort of fluidity in form among the Gethens not found in the people of Earth and the larger Ekumen empire.

Genly finds his hosts on Gethen to be androgynous and not clearly indicative of either gender. This is apparent in his encounter with Estraven early on, "yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture" (LHoD, page 12). This mirrors LeGuin's later lamenting of her own inability to separate her view of a gender neutral people by insisting upon using a masculine pronoun.

LeGuin's inability at the time of writing the novel to divest herself of this preoccupation with the gendered, male-dominated pronoun shows how she is bound in to the system of expression. That is to say, that her not recognizing the issue with the use of the word "he" indicates how she viewed the words that make up our world in a way that was not tied to gender inequalities, which appears naive. Her opinion on the use of a male instead of a neuter pronoun changes from believing that they don't matter to, [If I had realized how the pronouns I used shaped, directed, controlled my own thinking, I might have been "cleverer"] (LeGuin, page 15).  Through the use of gendered pronouns LeGuin appealed to the mainly male science fiction audience.

Her choice of a firmly male character also establishes the concept that the world is viewed through a male lense. As demonstrated by her choice of pronouns this extends as far as to the author's choice of how to identify the characters. This raises the question of how far our societal reliance on masculinity extends– considering that LeGuin is a woman.

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011

    Imagining Difference

    I found reading Marcellino and LeGuin’s revised essays on the nature sexuality after our class discussion on Butler quite depressing. Marcellino’s essay “Shadow to Walk: Ursula Le Guin’s Transgressions in Utopia” had a narrow view of sexuality and was violently opposed to new sexual paradigms. In his difficult to parse final paragraph Marcellino writes:

    We live in a world where it is not possible to remove difference without genocide, and we cannot overcome oppression by flipping the binary between the oppressed and the oppressors.(212)

    This view of gender difference only makes sense if one reads the works of Russ and Gilman literally: to reimagine gendered power-relations we must murder the other. A more interpretive reading might view the texts as erasing the male species through war as a plot device to do away with the category of “maleness.” Instead, Marcellino assumes gendered difference as a fundamental constitution of the human condition. We are told that we cannot “remove difference without genocide.” Perhaps Marcellino’s military background has provoked such dramatic historical example but the civil rights movements have suggested that it is possible to expand our sense of shared humanity beyond a narrow group without genocidal war.

    I also take note with Marcellino’s characterization of “separatists” and “countercolonist” approaches. He imagines these texts as primarily about violence against men. But these texts seem most obviously about an ironic inversion meant to point out the types of violence men perpetrate against women such as “raping, conquering and enslaving.” Marcellino describes this texts as oppressive towards men with little commentary on the ways in which novels and histories regularly and unproblematically valorize the conquest of distant others. If Marcellino feels threatened by the works, then they have succeeded in highlighted the persistent state of violence which threatens women under patriarchy.

    As noted by Jasmine and Arlyn, Le Guin reifies the very gendered differences she attempts to deconstruct. By attributing aggression to the masculine and collective caring to the feminine Le Guin ends up constructing a world populated by a new species who have independently come to the conclusion that feminine and masculine are not just biological descriptors but moral modalities. This inability to reimagine gendered relations, even in another realm, suggests the very power of our social conditioning. I was particularly struck by Le Guin’s discussion of finding out the essential differences of men and women:

    It is hard for us to see clearly what, besides purely physiological form and function, truly differentiates men and women. Are there real differences in temperament, capacity, talent, psychic processes, etc.? If so, what are they? Only comparative ethnology offers, so far, any solid evidence on the matter, and the evidence is incomplete and often contradictory. (10)

    Le Guin’s question itself is conditioned by our social realties –why must we suppose there is any difference at all? If I asked someone to compare a quadrilateral with equal sides to a square, I’m sure mathematicians could locate difference. But an objective observer would point out that they are, in fact, exactly the same. Ethnographies might provide conflicting or contradictory evidence because there aren’t any differences. Instead of accepting the possibility of commonalities Le Guin assumes that difference will be confirmed at some as of yet unknown future date.

    By Any Other Name...


    I’m interested in the influence of gendered language, and the difficulty of conveying an idea when you don’t have to words for it. I was surprised that Bill Marcellino, as a student of rhetoric, didn’t focus more on the basics of gender as it is connected to language in his article. I read Le Guin’s article before I read the book, and even though she talked about her use of masculine words and pronouns, I was still surprised by how much they impacted my vision of Gethenians as I was reading. Of course, it is important to consider that the use of terms like “man” and “mankind” may have seemed at least slightly less gendered when the book was originally written. While I’m no expert on the linguistic history of “mankind," I know from changed song lyrics and the like that over time "man" has been replaced with words like "person." Regardless, words like “man” or “him" don't automatically call up images of someone with feminine qualities.

    I was particularly struck by the fact that Estraven used words like “mankind” until I realized that it was an issue of translation. Estraven wasn’t saying “mankind.” Genly was, in retelling his story for us. The novel abounds with translation and communication problems, between narrator and reader, author and reader, and characters. In dealing with gendered words especially, I was reminded of the Whorfian hypothesis that I learned about in Psychology 101, the idea that language can constrain or influence our way of thinking. For example, when bilingual people who spoke English and Spanish were asked to describe a key, they used traditionally feminine adjectives. When English speakers who also spoke German instead of Spanish described a key, they used masculine adjectives. The word for key is feminine in Spanish and masculine in German. At first glance it might seem that, aside from the pronoun problems, English is better suited for a story about genderless people because we have mostly genderless words.

    But that’s not entirely true. Though the Whorfian hypothesis is controversial, I think it’s interesting to wonder about how the words we use influence how we think when it comes to matters of communicating with others. Perhaps because I was primed to think in terms of gender while reading, I was struck by the use of the word patriotism, and the way Gethenians, or at least Estraven, connected it to fear. I would never have thought of patriotism in terms of fear of the other, but do think of it in terms of gender. The word it comes from in Latin, patria, is feminine, something I only remembered because it struck me as bizarre when I learned it – why would a “fatherland” be feminine? Of course other words with the same root have even stronger masculine connotations – think patriarch.

    What’s interesting for me, then, is that Le Guin uses this word’s definition within the world of the Gethenians to describe some communication problems in general. This idea of fear of the other comes into play in the inability to conceptualize the world as “others” do – certain words of the Gethenians, particularly "shifgrethor," are untranslatable. And they avoid our system of gendered language because it isn’t a concept they understand. But because there are no words for it, it’s hard to imagine what is really meant. Even in the most intimate act of conversation, mindspeech, Genly has to speak Estraven’s language, explaining, “you don't know mine” (253). I think this provides a key example of the limitations of Le Guin’s own storytelling capability. She could only conceptualize so far within the bounds of the English language. So even though reading is a form of mindspeech, sending words from her heads to ours, they have to be words in our language, and so it is difficult to get past some of our preconceived notions of gender.

    Where is Winter?

    The Left Hand of Darkness seems to me to be particularly interested in the act of naming. In the first few pages of the novel I noticed LeGuin’s adoption of the sci-fi trope of giving seemingly everything a strange, unpronounceable name. The talk of Gossiwors and kyorremmy reminds me of a particular criticism of Atwood’s The Blind Assassin: the book was replete with silly “sci-fi” names that were meant to make the world seem alien, but they only really served to distract the reader, rather than immerse him. While this is a stylistic tic that I do personally find somewhat frustrating in sci-fi, its use does not seem too egregious to me in The Left Hand of Darkness.

    It is less the strange, invented alien words that struck me, but the ambiguities that were given to names. At the end of his conversation with Estrevan, they come to the name of the planet. Estrevan asks Ai “what do you call it, this world, in your language?” At first, Ai answers with Gethen, the technical name of the planet. Then, upon further provocation, he reveals what he has called it several times in his interior monologue: Winter. Up until that point, I was not even sure whether Gethen and Winter were interchangeable, and not in fact different places. This seems to be a simple analogue for the ambiguous sexuality of the Gethens, where their gender truly is only what an outsider decides to call it, which they inevitably only do so based on their outside appearance, but it seems to me that the naming of Winter resonates more on its proof that this dilemma of the naming of things occurs on every scale in the story. Not only does the gender of a man/woman rely on semantics, but an entire planet can chameleonically change aspects with a single turn of phrase.

    To return to the alien words, in terms of ambiguity they do serve an important purpose in science fiction in general. One could argue that these ambiguities are a literalization of the primary appeal of sci fi . A common tactic of immersion is to throw the reader into the setting, to make them experience a narrative without understanding it. Nonsense words are an instantaneous way to achieve the confusion and intrigue required for this form of immersion. Then, the revelation of their meaning parallels an equal understanding of the narrative, characters and background for the story. The appearance of this trope, an apparent sci-fi “shortcut,” makes me wonder what other people think about the phenomena. Do you find the fanciful, invented terminology to be successful immersively, or just annoying, or both? For me, I feel that it can’t help but succeed in immersion, with the unbeatable “throw the baby in the pool” approach, but I also find it to be a consistently annoying tic that, if not erased completely, I wish would be toned down in some cases.

    Why the Stuff?

    As much as I appreciated the glimpse into Gethenian life with the archival chapters, I found these chapters to be somewhat puzzling. Why were they there in the first place? Part of the work these chapters do within the text is to pull back from Ai's perspective, which is, after all, just another archival document (Ansible Document 01-01101-934-2, if you want to be specific). The narrative that dominates the text (in terms of page numbers), Ai's extended struggle both to survive and to incorporate Gethen into the Ekumen worlds, is but one primary source document. Ai's story can never dominate the reader (in terms of being the only perspective).

    I am somewhat reminded of Atwood's essay, "My Life in Science Fiction", where she discusses the importance of the perspective shift that moves the narrative into the past. She poses the essay on Newspeak at the end of 1984 and the epilogue of her own Handmaid's Tale as historically distancing elements that turn these dystopic worlds into "merely a subject for academic analysis" (Paragraph 35, here). Similarly, the narrative form of the (if not really epistolary then somewhat epistolary) Left Hand of Darkness, made up of various archival documents, troubles the dominance of Ai's personal narrative. There is another narrative that can only appear when all of the chapters are read in concert. Sure, it would be easy for Le Guin to publish an edition of this text where the only chapters are Ai's journal, where the text is another first-person narrative of betrayal, redemption, and loss and success--but it isn't. Why isn't it?

    Perhaps the biggest change that happens with the introduction of these other materials is, rather than a perspective shift, a perspective loss. Instead of Ai being the avatar of the reader (author!) in the text, guiding our reading and providing the necessary information, he is one of the voices competing shrilly for our attention. We read this not as friends, but as historians, sifting through primary source documents and piecing together the narrative of a conflict that is bigger than Ai and Estraven and the Ekumen worlds. (Okay, sure, you could read it as a friend... *waves hand dismissively*) Though two of the myths and legends are recorded by Ai ( judging by the "G.A" in the subheadings of chapters 4 and 9), they are not integrated into his own journal, but set aside from it. He does not introduce these chapters, and his narrative breaks off cleanly at the end of the previous chapter.

    So who has compiled this book, if not Ai? The narrative suggests a historian in the future, perhaps working with a mass of primary source documents, picking out the ones that deal with Gethen and with the question of gender duality-gender binary. The narrative suggests a historian from one of the Ekumen worlds, writing at a time when Gethen seemed to always have been part of the Ekumen, but curious about when it wasn't. Why these documents in particular? Why documents at all? And why not a map? (At least not in my edition; Seth's link to Le Guin's site suggests the same lack.)

    I think Ai comes close to answering these questions when he opens the narrative:
    "The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact that you like best; yet none of them is false, and it is all one story." (1)
    When he says, "you can judge better", he is asking the reader (of his journal) to provide the totalizing narrative gaze that he cannot provide. He is asking the reader to distill from the various elements of the tale a vision of the world in which this tale took place, and what that world means now for the reader.

    Trapped in Kemmer


    Alien; gender; androgynous; war; normalcy

    There were several things that struck me as amazing about The Left Hand of Darkness. The most memorable one after finishing the book was the way that my own sense of normalcy as a reader shifted with Genly Ai. Throughout the first chunk of the book when he is still marveling at the androgynous nature of their society, even though they call him a pervert he and we feel more like the Gethens are the strange ones. However, by the very end when Genly’s starship lands and he touches a female again, distinct genders seem strange; not androgyny.

    In fact, his reaction (which forces him to seek asylum in his room and be stabilizes) implies that as opposed to his earlier analysis of kemmering—assuming that Gethens were at a heightened state of passion during that stage as opposed to the human norm—may have been wrong. Perhaps the Gethen analysis of him as ‘always beings in a state of kemmer is the more accurate view and this realization, although intentionally left for us to ponder as readers changes quite a lot. LeGuin is quite detailed in her description of the kemmer state as one in which base passions rule everything the Gethens do; and since it is such a stark contrast they as a society of set up release valves and learned to manage it. However, in our society if we are constantly being ruled by our baser passions, is it no wonder that we have war and the Gethen people do not.

    This concept of the existence of permanent male/female gender roles being one of the possible causes of war is extremely interesting to ponder—as is the much slower pace of technological progress. While both of these things can also be rationalized by Winter’s remarkably cold climate; it is more interesting to consider the necessity of irrational actions to both war and inspiration. On Winter, technology that is necessary, like the remarkably efficient space heater carried during their trek across the ice, is fully realized and better than many things we have in reality. However, much other technology seems stalled, primarily because they see no need to make technological improvements just to make things easier or because “they can” instead they only waste the resources to modernize if it is necessary to overcome a problem.

    Similarly, although killing exists in their society, large scale war and the inherent waste that comes as part of it (lost labor, scorched earth type tactics) are so irrational that although the concept exists in Gethen society; it has never been acted on. Their humanity, despite their dramatic difference from us, defines them perhaps more than it does us. As Genly says, when his young physician comes to sedate him after he reunites with his crew, “his face, a young, serious face, not a man’s face and not woman’s, a human face, these were a relief to me, familiar, right.”

    Le Guin's Questions and Answers


    Thought-experiment, utopia, dystopia, questions and answers

    Marcellino’s Shadow’s to Walk brings an interesting slip to last week’s discussion on utopia’s revolving around Tiptree’s stories. As we discussed, for Tiptree, the challenge was often finding out whose utopia she had created. Is the space more beneficial for men or women? Le Guin brings a middle of the road answer in balance between genders and sexes. Even though this balance would ideally become the best possible society for both males and females, in reality isn’t balance a utopia for women and a dystopia for men? Living in a male dominated society in the our present time, any change to balance would require men to lose their current power and women to gain power. Therefore it seems that there is no possible way to reach a balance in our own society as a pure utopia.

    I was most intrigued by Le Guin’s statement in “Is gender Necessary? Redux” that classified The Left hand of darkness as questions, not answers. She states this asking of questions as one of the “essential functions of science fiction” (9). As answers, the Gethenian society becomes restricted and limited to what is possible, practical and reasonable as a society. Readers then judge whether or not this utopia is even a utopia and even a plausible one at that. But focusing on questions as a starting point, allows the characters, author and reader to have limitless thinking in any direction. Similarly, Ellen Peel offers the suggestions that criticism Is “meant to be thought-provoking rather than prescriptive” ( Marcellino 204).

    This misconception or misunderstanding reflects Le Guin’s introductory remarks to The Left Hand of Darkness. For her, Science fiction should not be seen as a prediction of the future. Instead, science fiction is a “thought- experiment” to describe rather than predict. She also describes fiction as using facts to support lies, which reflects back to our first discussion around the contradictions of science and fiction as independent fields.

    Even though Le Guin believes that The Left Hand of Darkness is in fact not a utopia all, this is just one of the questions the book raises, and doesn’t necessarily give an answer. It seems that making her characters socially ambisexual was one of the few ways she could create an “equal” society that the 20th century reader would believe. This places the change as biological, not purely social and therefore possibly easier to accept because there is less choice involved. It seems to me to be Le Guin playing it safe by calling her work only questions not answers. Within her text, she seems to be offering answers, even if she is unwilling to call them “good” answers to our current problems.

    Gethen & Gloria: Differences in Single Sex Societies

    Tags: Single-sex vs. third sex, fantasies/sexual desire, gender, sexuality

     “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 expectation of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or the opposite sex.” (Le Guin 94)


    Last week in class, we discussed Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and the concept of “being female” in a world where there was once, but is no longer, a male gender. Lorimer thinks the inhabitants of the future he encounters might call themselves “Women’s World”, “Liberation”, or “Amazonia” – names that are based around the absence of men, or emphasize women’s “freedom” from them. But in fact, the women call themselves they call themselves “human beings… humanity, mankind…the human race” (Tiptree 216). 

    In light of this, we discussed in class the question of what it means to be female in the absence of the male, and how the concept may have changed – one example given as a sign of a fundamental difference between the women of the future and the women of today was the attitude toward fantasies. In response to Lorimer’s comment that “everybody” has aggressive fantasies, Connie replies, “’But nobody does… I mean, [have]the fantasies’” (Tiptree 215). These women are thus somehow very different from the women of today, who do have such fantasies as well – there is a fundamental difference, then, between the women of the future and those of today.

    It is to this difference that Ursula LeGuin seems to speak when the Investigator of her novel writes, “What is very hard for us to understand is that four-fifths of the time, these people are not sexually motivated at all…The society of Gethen, in its daily functioning and its continuity, is without sex” (Le Guin 93). Although written by a woman of Chiffewar (and therefore still marked as being potentially very different from the words of a woman of Earth today), these words are still framed as thoughts  about Gethen from the point of view of a person whom the reader can find more relatable than the people of Gethen themselves – if only because she shares the characteristic of coming from a bisexual society. Such a woman finds the very concept of a world without the constant potential presence of sexual desire or the fantasies of sex to be difficult to understand, suggesting that both Tiptree and LeGuin seem to share a belief that in a society where only one sex is present, a constant desire for sex, or fantasies of sex,* disappear.

    Of course, there appears to be a biologically inherent reason for this in Gethen that does not seem to be present on Gloria – in somer they simply have no sex drive, unlike the women of Gloria, who undergo no such biological change. The question that arises from this is – what are the differences that arise in these two types of single-sex societies: (1) a society where everyone is a gender that has historically been defined in relation to another gender that is no longer in existence, and has not been for so long that the people no longer really remember it, but still use the language that was defined by this difference in genders; and (2) A society where everyone is a single sex** that is not neutral, as Ong Tot Oppong comments (Le Guin 94), but has in it the potential of two other sexes that seem to exist to complement and be opposite to each other  (from a traditional point of view), and where the language itself reflects these differences.  Why might the concept of fantasy disappear from both such societies? Is there a difference? I’d imagine there is, yes, but more importantly, what is the nature of that difference?

    After all, the advice that Ong Tot Oppong gives to her reader (at the beginning of this post) seems like it might have stood the crew of the Sunbird very well (you know, if they hadn’t been…well, drugged…)

    My notes are after the jump -

    LeGuin's debts

    As Jasmine and Arlyn have already perceptively fleshed out LeGuin’s reliance on, or reversion to, essentialist gender divisions, I’d like to try to advance the argument one more step, for it seems to me that LeGuin’s gender essentialism is largely a consequence of her decision to hue rather closely to the paradigm of existing human society in other respects. I’d hardly hold this against her—it’s a common feature of utopian fiction, and says more about the difficulty (and perhaps even ultimate inutility) of utopian fantasy than her skills as an author. Besides, for the most part this objection is somewhat necessarily exaggerated in conversation about the novel’s premise and style (both of which strike me as quite fantastic, after Kai), fading upon further exposure.

    First, though, I’d like to hesitate on this idea—on the observation that a society perennially at peace lurching towards war sounds less like the fictional utopian product of cognitive estrangement than that process’ abandonment halfway. What particularly interests me is the possibility that one might follow this only half-estranged mode of authorship (“this estrangement which is not one”?) into the world of Gethen. Hints are available on the very first page, where the inventiveness of (science) fiction seems to unify more than it divides: “if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them is false, and it is all one story” (Left Hand of Darkness 1).

    The real discovery, however, comes with a lavish description of a spiritual sect in kemmer. I, at least, expected to find a kind of depersonalizing, anarchist transcendence; perhaps I was projecting too forcefully the American versions of “Eastern” spirituality popularized in LeGuin’s 60s and 70s, although the elucidation of “the Handdarata discipline of Presence, which is a kind of trance . . . involving self-loss (self-augmentation?) through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness”—especially in light of LeGuin’s explicit admission that she was “thinking of a Taoist ideal”—is relatively unambiguous in its debts (LHOD 57, Dancing at the Edge of the World 12). (The derivation of “Handdarata” from “Handdara” would even allow us to specify our subject as Indian orientalism.) Instead, however, the psycho-sexual episode proves to be mastered by “the Weaver”: “the center was still Faxe.” (65) The content and context of the fiction is fantastic, in other words (in every sense of the word), but its structure is as familiar to the modern human reader as mind control. That one of the most transcendent forms of interpersonal communication on Gethen should retain such a stark degree of individual authority says, I think, quite a bit about LeGuin’s idea of authority in general.

    Kemmering and Heterosexuality

    When reading The Left Hand of Darkness I was very interested by kemmering, and it led me to some questions about how sexuality and sexual desire are represented in Gethen. I was actual very relieved when LeGuin addressed (in a bracketed addition to her original article) the fact that the world she draws is entirely heteronormative. She says, "I quite unnecessarily locked the Gethenians into heterosexuality. It is a naively pragmatic view of sex that insists that sexual partners must be of the opposite sex! In any kemmering house homosexual practice would, of course, be possible and acceptable and welcomed -- but I never thought to explore this option; and the omission, alas, implies that sexuality is heterosexuality. I regret this very much." Indeed, the way that she constructs the kemmering process in the novel explicitly denies the existence of any kind of sexuality other than heterosexuality on a physiological level which was a bit upsetting for me. Though we are obviously not supposed to identify the Gethenians as 'human' it seemed to me that their sexual process was far too similar to the human sexual process to deny the parallels -- calling on descriptive phrases such as 'hormonal secretion' 'genitals engorge' immediately draws on human biology. Obviously, a major human debate about sexuality and gender deals with whether sexual orientation is a genetic fact or if it is a lifestyle choice. She describes the kemmering or sexing process: "hormonal secretion is further stimulated...until in one partner either a male or female hormonal dominance is established. The genitals engorge or shrink accordingly...they do not know whether they will be male or female, and have no choice in the matter." First, with LeGuin's explicit description of the biological process of 'sexing' the Gethenians, it seems that she is saying that yes, sexuality is genetic and further, the only result of the genetic process is heterosexuality, and anything outside of that is a lifestyle choice. This is only reinforced by the weighty 'either or' statement in this excerpt -- either male or female, and nothing in between. Sexual orientation aside, in constructing this 'either or' scenario, LeGuin denies the existence of transgendered individuals, hermaphrodites, etc.
    I don't want to be too negative here, because she of course did say that the heteronormativity was a mistake, and that she regrets that her words locked the Gethenians into an unequivocally heterosexual lifestyle. So, I will end with a few possible questions that might be worth discussing in class tomorrow if anyone has an interest. First, what did anyone else make of the absence of sexuality outside heterosexuality? How do you think an inclusion of more sexual categories would impact the overall narrative?

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011

    Ai and Estraven

    The relationship between Ai and Estraven takes long to develop because of Ai’s distrust and Estraven’s failure to communicate. But the biological division is still greater than the social ones, and the journey across the ice parallels the slow process of empathy. Genly Ai describes Estraven in physical, somer-kemmer or woman-man dualized terms, especially by sight: “I saw [Estraven] now defenseless and half-naked in a colder light … and saw him as he was” (201), “I saw then again … what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in [Estraven]: that he was a woman as well as a man” (248). For Ai, their defining moment of friendship came from accepting the difference between the two, and yet the power in the scene (248–249) derives from the great potential of their mutual love during Estraven’s kemmer.

    Ai’s valuation of physical sexuality and love contrast Estraven’s use of intuition and psychological understanding, as mysterious as the nature through which they travel: “There is a frailty about [Ai] … he has a spirit easy to despair and quick to defiance: a fierce impatient courage” (227), “[Ai’s] name is a cry of pain” (229), “I am infected by Ai’s pure pleasure” (230). Even Estraven’s curiosity of Ai’s kemmer-perversion is framed in terms of what Estraven believes is Ai’s “low-grade sort of desire” (232) and not primarily a physical description.

    Ai and Estraven also differ in their narrative styles. Whereas Ai frequently writes as “I” and recalls dialogue, Estraven instead observes, describes, and conjectures. Again one sees the dualism between seeing, through one’s own eye, and intuiting as facets of getting to the truth, which for each is appreciation for the other. The physical love, seeing-is-believing methodology of Ai then is a rather Western perspective next to the Estraven’s Eastern intuition: emotional, patient, trust-valuing, believing-is-seeing. But their apparent equality in the fairness of a harsh environment covers, with a layer of snow, the dominance each school exerts on either Ai or Estraven, who only when stripped bare of the social and normative values of Karhide or Terra—shifgrethor and masculinity—contemplate a substantial friendship aided by the tension of kemmer between aliens. The periodic changes in narrative voice provides a better “blending process” than, say, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” which as Rhiannon pointed out is characterized by a marked imbalance.

    On the other hand, such an imbalance is present but not at the detailed, personal level which suggests a gradual acceptance of otherness. Instead, the ultimate arrival of Ai’s ship, the prophecy of Gethen’s alliance, and Estraven’s death are each conquests, however empathetic or nonviolent, which in this case are of the Western ideas over the Eastern. More important than the exactly posed conflict is Ai’s final isolation following his transformation across the ice. In a position to understand and appreciate both worlds, Ai instead sees in his own kind as “great apes with intelligent eyes” while finding “familiar” the ungendered face of a Gethenian (296). Had Estraven survived, they may have experienced a similar alienation among his Karhidians, who in fact betrayed him to punish his own attempt for understanding. Is this the cost of acknowledging the other? The story ends before we see the Ekumen and Gethen’s progress, so Ai and Estraven are tragic characters. Or, perhaps the way to reaching out to the other may be attained, as Ai did, at the level of personal touch, and its prevalence increased by diffusion rather than swept away by some clash of cultures.

    The Gender of War

    As someone who approached The Left Hand of Darkness expecting it to be, fundamentally, a gender-focused text, I was surprised at how much of the novel seemed either a) totally unrelated to the issue of gender or b) applicable only by forced contortions of analysis that I’m not entirely confident making. While the Gethenians’ ambisexuality is arguably their most famous trait, it was their total lack of war that inspired their creation. In a telephone interview I found online, LeGuin is quoted as claiming the following concerning her writing process:

    It all started when I began to imagine a society without war, a people that does not think in terms of war. They have murders and forays but never wars. What kind of people would they be? I thought. Obviously, they'd be different from us. But in what way? That's how I came to the idea of an androgynous society. As one character says in the book, war is a displaced male-generalized activity, something that men do and women don't.

    The mental leap from (relative) pacifism to androgyny is not one that strikes me as particularly natural. While the traditional stereotypes are there (men as aggressive and independent, women as passive and communal), I don’t think the lack of a wholly male presence is enough to explain this implied link between bisexuality and war. After all, despite its uniformity of gender, Gethen is a world rife with tension and dualism, the most dramatic being the competitive political divide between Karhide and Orgoreyn.

    A more likely explanation (although one that, too me, seems even less understandable) is the connection that LeGuin draws between women and anarchy. In her essay, “Is Gender Necessary? (Redux)”, she claims that:

    The ‘female principle’ has historically been anarchic; that is, anarchy has historically been identified as female. The domain allotted to women—‘the family’, for example—is the area of order without coercion, rule by custom not force. Men have reserved the structures of social power to themselves… (11-12).

    According to this analysis, the “feminine” Karhide exists under a system of authority “without appeal to patriarchal ideals of divine right, patriotic duty, etc.” In this way, Tibe’s attempt to draw Karhide into a war as a quick and dirty way of mobilizing the land into a true “nation” by unifying the disparate “hearths” represents a shift from the feminine (or at least, balance) to the masculine.

    Similarly, the concept of patriotism is a puzzle that haunts Ai and Estraven (and, by extension, the reader) throughout the text. Although Ai initially views it as a positive attribute (which seems fitting, as it is “male” according to LeGuin’s classifications, and Ai is the only truly male character), he comes to understand Estraven’s definition of patriotism as “the fear of the other” (19) and potentially “hate of one’s uncountry” (212). Taking the novel’s apparent endorsement of cooperation and interdependency into account, this seems to be a condemnation. By the end, Ai acknowledges, not precisely the evils of patriotism, but rather its potential for corruption. He notes: “And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend's voice arises: and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?” (280)

    To sum up, LeGuin seems to imply that patriotism, as a divisive force, is both “masculine” and tied to war in such a way that, without men, there is no patriotism, and without patriotism, there is no war. While I still don’t entirely agree with this (I don’t think that concepts like “patriotism” can be assigned a gender), it’s a philosophy that seems consistent throughout the novel.

    Interview source:

    War, Technology, and their Reasons

    While I'm sure that many of my classmates will write on gender dualities in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, I thought I might approach the topic on a different trajectory. Two facets of Gethenian society fascinate me: their apparent lack of war (until the time of Genly Ai's arrival) and lack of significant technology despite it being far enough into the future that our people (Terrans) have developed Nearly as Fast as Light (NAFAL) ships. Gethen is defined by it's expansive Arctic and Antarctic tundras and a generally cooler-than-Terra climate. However, despite this environment, the native Gethenians seem at best hesitant to adopt technology that would improve their quality of life.

    "Gethen is defined by it's expansive Arctic and Antarctic tundras and a generally cooler-than-Terra climate"

    While they have heating technology, advanced fabrics, and "excellent and economical" stove/heater/lamp units, ground vehicles are few (and usually reserved for snails-pace winter travel while air vehicles are nonexistent. Similarly, radio is widespread yet television is unknown. Thus it begs the question of why Gethenians, who are clearly technologically advanced in mechanics, chemistry, and fabrics, have failed to develop something such as the airplane. However, in their own words, why would Gethenians develop a flying machine if there was nothing on Gethen that would suggest that they could leave the ground (as there are no birds, etc...)? Similarly (but undiscussed in the book), why would they develop television if radio works just fine?

    "I am skeptical that there was never a Gethenian who dreamed of flying"

    The first point that these questions raise is "what is nature of human curiosity?" Throughout history, human curiosity has spawned the various branches of science, mathematics, art, literature, and engineering. Solitary inventors/artists/scholars work to understand or express our world and universe, and subsequently generate either physical products or knowledge which advance humanity. Using the aforementioned case of the Airplane, humans observed creatures flying and sought to emulate them. On Gethen though, there are no birds and thus this inspiration is lacking. Nonetheless, I am skeptical that there was never a Gethenian who dreamed of flying. More broadly, there is definitely not a lack of art, mythos, religion, or scientific understanding on Gethen. What then, has caused the technological rift between Terrans and Gethenians?

    There is something to be said about technological advancement though, and that is that it is inexorably tied to military conquest and conflict. On Gethen, wars are nonexistent and the only conflicts (at least until Tibe becomes Prime Minister of Karhide) are between individuals and clans. On our Earth, pieces of technology have advanced beyond the prototype stage because we have sought newer and more efficient ways to either kill each other or to communicate our success and/or propaganda. Continuing our example, the airplane was not perfected until it was tested in the fires of two World Wars. On Gethen, the lack of conflict is hypothesized by Ai to be a byproduct of natives' androgyny, preventing a saturation of male-related aggressiveness, territoriality, and sex drive. In an androgynous society, there is not impetus for global conflict and thus no pressing need to further develop technology that lacks a clear survival purpose.

    "They are vastly outclassed technologically by the Ekumen"

    In this respect, I believe Le Guin sought to praise Gethenian society for its "Nobel Savage" like purity because its society is not dominated by the agressive male stereotype that has seemingly built humanity a dangerous and divisive world. However, there is a certain irony to this claim. While indeed Gethenians live in a simple, noble, and peaceful world, they are vastly outclassed technologically by the Ekumen who have presumably developed along lines derived from our (Terrans') present course. Fortunately for the Gethenians, the Ekuman simply prioritize the exchange of culture and information, something which the former, like all forms of humanity, possess to an inordinate degree.

    Fundamental Truth

    "His name is a cry of pain," Estraven says of Ai, as they cross the Ice together (229). Yet "Ai" also means "love," in both Chinese and Japanese, and Le Guin's description of the Gethenians as "yellow-brown" (35) and the similarity between the religions of Winter and some East Asian traditions suggest that this double meaning is not accidental. Le Guin's protagonist, in these two letters, captures one of the key ideas of The Left Hand of Darkness: opposites must exist together. Love cannot exist without pain. They are, in fact, the same: the same word, the same sound. How one interprets it depends on one's own perspective: Estraven, when he first hears Ai's name, "heard a cry of pain from a human throat" (299), but eventually grows to see him as a figure of love and support instead. As the two figures will learn in Estraven's final moments, the two perspectives must coexist: "he answered my love for him, crying out through the silent wreck and tumult of his mind" (284).

    By mispronouncing Genly Ai's name as "Genry," the Karhiders also unwittingly make a statement about Ai's mission, his very nature. "Genri" (the closest approximation of Ai's name in the Japanese sound system) is a Japanese word meaning "basic principle" or "fundamental truth." But "Genry" is really "Genly"; the "fundamental truth" in his name is a misconstruction, a misunderstanding, grown from the restrictions inherent in the Karhiders' language.

    "Truth is a matter of imagination" (1), Ai comments, in the novel's opening , but perhaps it would be better to say that truth in this novel is a matter of perception. On the world of Winter, where it is always Year One, people focus on the present moment, moving and reforming both the past and the future in relation to themselves. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin explores not only the problems of duality and wholeness, but also the problem of the self versus the world, of our inability to experience the world objectively, to know any "fundamental truths," because we are trapped within our own present, our own perspective.

    In his role as envoy, Ai attempts to bring Winter into interplanetary cooperation, developing a "fundamental truth" of humanity through communication and exchange. Part of the Ekumen's mission appears to be to lead each planet to achieve the highest standards of humanity, to fill in the gaps in each one's development and knowledge, to create an assimilated form of "humanity" across every planet. However, the Gethenians, by their very being, contradict this mission, being the only branch of humanity thus-far discovered that is not divided into two separate genders. When confronted with these people, Ai must slowly learn that he is trapped in his own perspective, in the norms and fundamental truths that he expects from the world around him. He enforces his own experience of gender on the Gethenians, calling them "he," "men" (at least, until they display negative traits, which he often attributes to their femininity), partly because he knows no other way to think of a person. Just as he wonders, "How could I explain the Age of the Enemy, and its aftereffects, to a people who had no word for war?" (136), he himself is unable to understand the Gethenians in their entirety because his language (and the language with which Le Guin writes the novel) is unable to capture something that is simultaneously male and female: it must always choose one or the other.

    If there is one "fundamental truth" of humanity to be learned from Ai, it is that one cannot escape from one's own perspective. One's impressions of the world and its truths must always be subjective, bound by one's own language, experiences and expectations. Ai's story may at first appear to be movement towards greater objectivity, to an understanding outside of himself, as he grows first to talk of himself and Estraven as "the alien" and "the other alien" (213), and eventually to accept Estraven "as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refuse him his own reality" (248). However, when his fellow envoys arrive at the end of the novel, he now considers them strange and inhuman: "great, strange animals, of two different species" (296). After three years on Winter, his perspective has simply shifted. The only fundamental truth, perhaps, is therefore that there is no fundamental truth. We cannot completely escape from our present perspective.

    Compulsory Heterosexuality Reinforces Gender Dualism

    Ursula K. Le Guin begins The Left Hand of Darkness with a defensive introduction: “I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing” (xv). She labels the novel as a “thought experiment.” At certain moments, Le Guin asserts, we can see that people are already androgynous. But (and I think that Jasmine’s post on this is completely on point) Le Guin's thought problem does not present true “androgyny” or create a full spectrum of gender expression; in creating a balance of “yin and yang,” “masculine and feminine,” Le Guin only reinforces and exaggerates gender duality without questioning it.

    Genly Ai identifies the difference in biological sex and the dualism it creates as “the heaviest single factor in one’s life” (234). And when that “divisive” factor is removed, Le Guin still only writes about Gethenians’ heterosexual kemmer encounters. When she wrote The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969, Le Guin was certainly “aware” of same sex encounters; Genly claims that “perverts” in Gethenian society (people who have hormonal imblances that make them more “male” or more “female”) “are not excluded from society, but they are tolerated with some disdain, as homosexuals are in many bisexual societies. The Karhidish slang for them is halfdeads” (63). “Bisexual,” in this context, means “heterosexual” rather than what we think of as “bisexual” today. It fascinates me that Le Guin would explore a world of “ambisexual” beings as necessarily heterosexual, even as she explores polyamorous (“promiscuous”) kemmerhouses. That, to me, emphasizes one of the main ways in which Le Guin does not make it beyond the gender binary or the concept that biological sex dictates gender expression.

    Le Guin notices this in her 1987 of “Is Gender Necessary?” (I’m also quite surprised that this didn’t occur to her in the 1976 edition.) Not only does she finally figure out how to refer to the Gethenians without gendered pronouns (there are some “they” revisions), she also chides herself for “unnecessarily lock[ing] the Gethenians into heterosexuality…. In any kemmer-house homosexual practice would, of course, be possible and acceptable and welcomed - but I never thought to explore this option; and the omission, alas, implies that sexuality is heterosexuality” (14). STILL, even decades later, Le Guin assumes that homosexuality only occurs in kemmerhouses- the sites of indiscriminate, “promiscuous” sexual encounters. Did it occur to her that when Gethenians vowed kemmering, at some point in their many kemmering cycles together, both of them might develop the same sexual organs?

    I tried to make sense of this compulsory heterosexuality by placing it within Le Guin’s thought problem - if the only point of kemmer is to reproduce, then perhaps there is no evolutionary “need” for same sex encounters. This doesn’t work, though, because Le Guin describes kemmer as a sexual compulsion - the Gethenians feel the need to have sexual encounters even if they use contraceptives. It could be argued that any given Gethenian can develop either male or female sex organs during kemmer, so they all have bisexual or “ambisexual” sexual experiences - but I’m interested in the fact that Le Guin writes that someone who becomes “male” after kemmer must find “female” sexual partners, or that she labels them as "male" and "female" after these sexual organs develop (was that necessary?). Because she is locked into these concepts of sexual interdependence, balance, dualism, she falls into traps of sexual essentialism - “male” means “masculine” means “seeks female”; “female” means “feminine” means “seeks male” - which, in turn, produces some disturbing false dichotomies* throughout the novel, which Le Guin seems to unquestioningly support in “Is Gender Necessary?” I love that the novel aims to praise gender interdependence and equality of the sexes (especially during a time where an increasingly radical feminist movement often advocated for sexual difference and separatism), but she unnecessarily approaches that goal by assuming that there are only two biological sexes, only two genders to blend equally rather than a spectrum of gender expression, and that only heterosexual encounters are key to this interdependency.

    *(example of a false gender dichotomy: Woman who investigated Gethenian sexual practices - “did [the Hainish who she believes genetically engineered the ambisexual Gethenians] consider war to be a purely masculine displacement-activity, a vast Rape, and therefore in their experiment eliminate the masculinity that rapes and the femininity that is raped?” (96) - in a 100% heterosexual society, perhaps it would be true that masculinity/male rapes and femininity/female is raped)

    Reading and Misreading: Author as Guide


    My discussion in last week’s blog post about Tiptree and Klimt might have been a bit of a stretch, but this week’s connection between Le Guin and Tolstoy may actually be justified! In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin refers a few times to the battle of Borodino (xiii), which to me, brings only one thing to mind: WAR AND PEACE. Besides the problematic issue of truth and lies in fiction, an issue Tolstoy dealt with quite a bit and that appears in both Le Guin’s introduction and the book itself, there are certain parts of The Left Hand of Darkness that seem to echo Tolstoy. For example, here is a bit of conversation between Genly Ai and the Weaver, Faxe:

    “Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable—the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?

    “That we shall die.”

    “Yes. There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer…The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” (70)

    And here are a few lines from Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace:

    What is bad? What is good? What should we love and what hate? What do we live for? And what am I? What is life, and what is death? What Power governs it all?

    There was no answer to any of these questions, except one, and that not a logical answer and not at all a reply to them. The answer was: ‘You’ll die and all will end. You’ll die and know all, or cease asking.’

    …All we can know is that we know nothing. And that’s the height of human wisdom. (372)

    Perhaps I imposed this connection on the two texts merely because I happened to be reading this very part of War and Peace (SLA 415 is awesome) and The Left Hand of Darkness at the same time. But, like Tolstoy in his defense of his work in “Some Words About War and Peace,” Le Guin feels the need to defend her novel in “Is Gender Necessary?” As stated in one of the bracketed sections added in 1987, Le Guin felt “resentful” of critics who looked at The Left Hand of Darkness as an essay on “gender problems” and not as a novel (8). Le Guin emphatically states that the book is in fact a novel, “the record of my consciousness, the process of my thinking” (8). This also prompts the question of just what a novel is. Tolstoy famously argues that War and Peace is not a novel at all, but that is a whole other issue.

    Le Guin and Tolstoy both felt the need to explain their works more fully to readers—books on their own might be misunderstood and misread, as essays or epics or philosophical tracts instead of novels. What does it mean when an author feels the need to step forward and explain their work? Should a novel be understandable on its own, and readers free to interpret it however they wish, or should the writer exert control not only on what is read but how it is read as well?

    *Side note that does not relate to the rest of my post but that might be of interest: In Plato’s Symposium, which includes a variety of short discourses on the nature of love, Aristophanes proposes that in the past, the “sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word ‘Androgynous’ is only preserved as a term of reproach.” According to Aristophanes' account, primeval man consisted of what we would think of as two different people (of the same sex or different) merged together: everyone had four hands, four feet, two faces, and two “privy members.” Zeus then split everyone in half so that “Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half.”

    Obviously, the androgyny of the Gethenians is quite different from this account, but it might be interesting to compare the two.

    If anyone would like to take a look at Plato’s Symposium: