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Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man

A journey to where the semicolon meets the soul.

Who are we when we, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s enduring words, “are together with no one but ourselves”? However much we might exert ourselves on learning to stop letting others define us, the definitions continue to be hurled at us — definitions predicated on who we should be in relation to some concrete or abstract other, some ideal, some benchmark beyond the boundaries of who we already are.

One of the most important authors of our time, Ursula K. Le Guin has influenced such celebrated literary icons as Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie. At her best — and to seek the “best” in an altogether spectacular body of work seems almost antithetical — she blends anthropology, social psychology, and sheer literary artistry to explore complex, often difficult subjects with remarkable grace. Subjects, for instance, like who we are and what gender really means as we — men, women, ungendered souls — try to inhabit our constant tussle between inner and outer, individual and social, private and performative. This is what Le Guin examines in an extraordinary essay titled “Introducing Myself,” which Le Guin first wrote as a performance piece in the 1980s and later updated for the beautifully titled, beautifully written, beautifully wide-ranging 2004 collection The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library). To speak of a subject so common by birth and so minced by public discourse in a way that is completely original and completely compelling is no small feat — in fact, it is the kind of feat of writing Jack Kerouac must have had in mind when he contemplated the crucial difference between genius and talent.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Laura Anglin

Le Guin writes:

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter… I predate the invention of women by decades. Well, if you insist on pedantic accuracy, women have been invented several times in widely varying localities, but the inventors just didn’t know how to sell the product. Their distribution techniques were rudimentary and their market research was nil, and so of course the concept just didn’t get off the ground. Even with a genius behind it an invention has to find its market, and it seemed like for a long time the idea of women just didn’t make it to the bottom line. Models like the Austen and the Brontë were too complicated, and people just laughed at the Suffragette, and the Woolf was way too far ahead of its time.

Illustration from ‘The Human Body,’ 1959. Click image for details.

Noting that when she was born (1929), “there actually were only men” — lest we forget, even the twentieth century’s greatest public intellectuals of the female gender used the pronoun “he” to refer to the whole lot of human beings — Le Guin plays with this notion of the universal pronoun:

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.

Le Guin turns to the problem of the body, which is indeed problematic in the context of this Generic He:

I admit it, I am actually a very poor imitation or substitute man, and you could see it when I tried to wear those army surplus clothes with ammunition pockets that were trendy and I looked like a hen in a pillowcase. I am shaped wrong. People are supposed to be lean. You can’t be too thin, everybody says so, especially anorexics. People are supposed to be lean and taut, because that’s how men generally are, lean and taut, or anyhow that’s how a lot of men start out and some of them even stay that way. And men are people, people are men, that has been well established, and so people, real people, the right kind of people, are lean. But I’m really lousy at being people, because I’m not lean at all but sort of podgy, with actual fat places. I am untaut.

Illustration by Yang Liu from ‘Man Meets Woman,’ a pictogram critique of gender stereotypes. Click image for details.

For an example of someone who did Man right, Le Guin points to Hemingway, He with “the beard and the guns and the wives and the little short sentences,” and returns to her own insufficient Manness with a special wink at semicolons and a serious gleam at the significance of how we die:

I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.”

And another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old. And that brings up the real proof of what a mess I have made of being a man: I am not even young. Just about the time they finally started inventing women, I started getting old. And I went right on doing it. Shamelessly. I have allowed myself to get old and haven’t done one single thing about it, with a gun or anything.

But between the half-assed semicolons and the guns lies the crux of the gender-imitation problem — the tyranny of how we think and talk about sex:

Sex is even more boring as a spectator sport than all the other spectator sports, even baseball. If I am required to watch a sport instead of doing it, I’ll take show jumping. The horses are really good-looking. The people who ride them are mostly these sort of nazis, but like all nazis they are only as powerful and successful as the horse they are riding, and it is after all the horse who decides whether to jump that five-barred gate or stop short and let the nazi fall off over its neck. Only usually the horse doesn’t remember it has the option. Horses aren’t awfully bright. But in any case, show jumping and sex have a good deal in common, though you usually can only get show jumping on American TV if you can pick up a Canadian channel, which is not true of sex. Given the option, though I often forget that I have an option, I certainly would watch show jumping and do sex. Never the other way round. But I’m too old now for show jumping, and as for sex, who knows? I do; you don’t.

Le Guin parlays this subtle humor into her most serious and piercing point, partway between the tragic and the hopeful — the issue of aging:

Here I am, old, when I wrote this I was sixty years old, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” as Yeats said, but then, he was a man. And now I am over seventy. And it’s all my own fault. I get born before they invent women, and I live all these decades trying so hard to be a good man that I forget all about staying young, and so I didn’t. And my tenses get all mixed up. I just am young and then all of a sudden I was sixty and maybe eighty, and what next?

Not a whole lot.

I keep thinking there must have been something that a real man could have done about it. Something short of guns, but more effective than Oil of Olay. But I failed. I did nothing. I absolutely failed to stay young. And then I look back on all my strenuous efforts, because I really did try, I tried hard to be a man, to be a good man, and I see how I failed at that. I am at best a bad man. An imitation phony second-rate him with a ten-hair beard and semicolons. And I wonder what was the use. Sometimes I think I might just as well give the whole thing up. Sometimes I think I might just as well exercise my option, stop short in front of the five-barred gate, and let the nazi fall off onto his head. If I’m no good at pretending to be a man and no good at being young, I might just as well start pretending that I am an old woman. I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.

The Wave in the Mind, like Le Guin’s mind, is joltingly original in its totality, Chinook salmon in the wild. Complement this particular bit with Anna Deavere Smith on how to stop letting others define us.

BP

All Human Beings: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Reimagined as a Soulful Serenade to Diversity and Dignity by Composer Max Richter

A celebration “of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Leo Tolstoy wrote to Mahatma Gandhi in the stirring correspondence that would unspool over four decades until Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. By then, Gandhi had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times, including days before his death. That year, the Nobel Committee awarded all other disciplines except the Peace Prize, for which they found “no suitable living candidate.”

On December 10, 1948 — the day of the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm — the United Nations General Assembly gathered in Paris to adopt the most visionary, idealistic, and poetic document ever composed: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A pioneering effort to standardize the raising of conscience, kindness, and reason above self-interest and the hunger for power, it was the culmination of two years of systematic refinement by a global drafting committee of eight men from five continents, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 7, 1962), with her floral dresses and her “spine as stiff as the steel girder of a skyscraper.”

eleanorroosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt (Library of Congress)

Roosevelt’s nomination as a U.N. delegate had had to pass through the United States Senate for approval, where she suspected certain conservative Senators would disapprove — “because of my attitude toward social problems,” she later reflected, “and especially youth problems.” But her nomination was heartily approved — only one Senator voted against her, citing her troublesome devotion to racial equality.

Eleanor Roosevelt arriving at the opening of the Washington labor canteen. (Library of Congress)

Shortly before her U.N. nomination and shortly after the end of WWII, Roosevelt — another indefensible blind spot in the Nobel Commission’s dispensation of the Peace Prize — had lost her husband. In the thick of her bereavement, she wrote in her daybook:

When you have lived for a long time in close contact with the loss and grief which today pervades the world, any personal sorrow seems to be lost in the general sadness of humanity.

She coped by pouring her indefatigable energy into drafting this buoyant document aimed at protecting human beings from the sorrows they inflict upon one another. Later, she would look back on her life with the unwavering conviction that “in the long run there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly.” Now, she was tasked with creating the blueprint for bold action toward justice, contoured with bravely stated words.

She insisted that the document be adopted as a declaration rather than as a treaty, hoping this would confer upon it the inspiriting power to do for the world what the Declaration of Independence had done for her homeland. And so it did: Despite the abiding challenge of our species — the unhandsome fact that there is no universal utopia and that all utopias are built on someone’s subjugation-bent back — the document that emerged became a beacon of justice for generations to come, founded upon the conviction that a “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” radiating Maya Angelou’s stunning lyric insistence that “we are the possible, we are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world.”

Eleanor Roosevelt with the English text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1949. (FDR Presidential Library & Museum)

Translated into more than 500 languages, making it the world’s most translated document, the UDHR went on to shape myriad national and international laws, inspire the constitutions of various newborn countries, and furnish the legal definitions of “fundamental freedoms” and “human rights.” Buried into the language of the document is also a landmark unsexing of man as the universal pronoun (though it would take many more decades to seep into culture) — the trailblazing Indian activist, writer, and feminist Hansa Jivraj Mehta suggested replacing “all men are equal” with “all are equal.”

Today, as we come to see ourselves as Angelou saw us — creatures “whose hands can strike with such abandon that in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness” — some of the articles in the declaration read both as chilling indictments of where we have fallen short and as a defiantly aspirational blueprint for where we can and must go as we rise to our highest human potential.

Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Two generations after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, composer Max Richter honors its legacy and reimagines its spirit for a world more diverse and equitable than even the document’s idealistic creators imagined. (I have noted elsewhere that even the farthest seers can’t bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizon of possibility; but the horizon shifts with each incremental revolution as the human mind peers outward to take in nature, then turns inward to question its own givens.)

In a stunning piece titled “All Human Beings,” part of his record Voices — a soulful sonic landscape of thought and feeling, powerfully transportive yet grounding, a decade in the making — Richter builds a sonic bower of piano, violin, soprano, and choir around a 1949 recording of Eleanor Roosevelt reading the UDHR. It begins with Roosevelt’s voice, then passes the generational and cultural baton to Kiki Layne, who continues reading in English before morphing into a crowdsourced choral reading in multiple languages by human beings all over the world.

Max Richter (Photograph: Mike Terry)

Richter reflects on the project:

I like the idea of a piece of music as a place to think, and it is clear we all have some thinking to do at the moment. We live in a hugely challenging time and, looking around at the world we have made, it’s easy to feel hopeless or angry. But, just as the problems we face are of our own making, so their solutions are within our reach, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is something that offers us a way forward. Although it isn’t a perfect document, the declaration does represent an inspiring vision for the possibility of better and kinder world.

Breathing another layer of life into Richter’s masterpiece is this cinematic adaptation by artist Yulia Mahr:

Complement with a timeless, increasingly timely vision for how to heal an ailing and divided world from the Russell-Einstein Manifesto — another visionary document composed seven years after the UDHR — then revisit Richter’s previous masterpiece, Three Worlds, bringing Virginia Woolf’s most beloved works to sonic life.

BP

The Value of Being Uncomfortable: Herman Melville on Privation as a Portal to Appreciation and Aliveness

“To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”

The Value of Being Uncomfortable: Herman Melville on Privation as a Portal to Appreciation and Aliveness

“Anyone with any degree of mental toughness ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least,” Georgia O’Keeffe, impoverished and solitary in the desert, wrote in considering limitation, creativity, and setting priorities as she was about to revolutionize art while the world was crumbling into its first global war.

There are echoes of Stoicism, of Buddhism, of every monastic tradition in O’Keeffe’s core insight — that only in the absence of our habitual comforts, without all the ways in which we ordinarily cushion against the hard facts of our own nature and our mortality, do we befriend ourselves and discover what is most alive in us. The contrast, uncomfortable at first, even painful, becomes a clarifying force. Without the superfluous, the essential is revealed.

A century before O’Keeffe’s artistic heyday, Herman Melville (August 1, 1819–September 28, 1891) took up these questions of discomfort as a tool of discipline and contrast as a clarifying force in a passage from Moby-Dick (free ebook | public library) — the 1851 classic he composed as he was falling in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Herman Melville. (Frontispiece for the 1921 book Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic; wood engraving by L.F. Grant from a photograph.)

In the chapter titled “Nightgown,” following one of the most sensual scenes in the novel — Queequeg “affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs” over Ishmael’s as the two lay in bed, “so entirely sociable and free and easy,” before rising naked into the unheated room — Melville writes:

To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.

Queequeg’s favorite dish, cooked and photographed by artist Dinah Fried for her project Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals.

With the austerity that inspired Patti Smith’s imaginative remedy for insomnia, he adds:

For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.

Complement with Rilke on how great privations bring us closer to ourselves and Oliver Jeffers’s wonderful illustrated fable about the difficult art of cultivating a sense of enoughness, then revisit Melville’s passionate, beautiful, heartbreaking love letters to Hawthorne and Maurice Sendak’s rare illustrations for Melville’s most creatively daring and commercially dismal book.

BP

Eating the Sun: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Wonder, the Science of How the Universe Works, and the Existential Mystery of Being Human

“When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.”

Eating the Sun: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Wonder, the Science of How the Universe Works, and the Existential Mystery of Being Human

“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her Cosmic Pastoral, which so enchanted Carl Sagan — her doctoral advisor — that he sent a copy of the book to Timothy Leary in prison. “Wonder,” Ackerman observed nearly half a century later in her succulent performance at The Universe in Verse, “is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.”

That ricochet wonder, in its myriad kaleidoscopic manifestations diffracted by various scientific phenomena, reflected by various facets of this splendidly interconnected universe, and hungrily absorbed by the human heart, is at the center of Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe (public library) by Ella Frances Sanders — the boundlessly curious writer and artist who gave us Lost in Translation, that lovely illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders writes in the preface to this lyrical and luminous celebration of science and our consanguinity with the universe:

A sense of wonder can find you in many forms, sometimes loudly, sometimes as a whispering, sometimes even hiding inside other feelings — being in love, or unbalanced, or blue.

For me, it is looking at the night for so long that my eyes ache and I’m stuck seeing stars for hours afterwards, watching the way the ocean sways itself to sleep, or as the sky washes itself in colors for which I know I will never have the words — a world made from layers of rock and fossil and glittered imaginings that keeps tripping me up, demanding I pay attention to one leaf at a time, ensuring I can never pick up quite where I left off.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

With an eye to the miraculous absurdity of our existence — we only exist by chance, after all, in a universe governed by chaos and predicated on impermanence — Sanders writes:

When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.

Cry because we cannot even begin to understand how beautiful it is, cry because we are terribly flawed as a species, cry because it all seems so shockingly improbable that maybe our existence could be nothing but a dreamscape — celestial elephants in rooms without walls. But then? Surely, we can laugh.

Laugh because being riddled head-to-toe with human emotions while trying to come to terms with just how indisputably tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, makes absolutely everything and everyone seem quite ridiculous, entirely farcical. We have heads? Ridiculous! There are arguments about who is in charge here? Ridiculous! The universe is expanding? Ridiculous! We feel it necessary to keep secrets? Ridiculous.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

In fifty-one miniature essays, each accompanied by one of her playful and poignant ink-and-watercolor drawings, Sanders goes on to explore a pleasingly wide array of scientific mysteries and facts — evolution, chaos theory, clouds, the color blue, the nature of light, the wondrousness of octopuses, the measurement of time, Richard Feynman’s famous cataclysm sentence, the clockwork mesmerism of planetary motion, our microbiome, the puzzlement of why we dream. What emerges is something sweetly consonant with Nabokov’s exultation at our “capacity to wonder at trifles” — except, of course, even the smallest and most invisible of these processes, phenomena, and laws are not trifles but condensed miracles that make the everythingness of everything we know.

It is tempting, then — and Sanders succumbs to the temptation in a most delicious way — to seek the existential in the scientific, even if the thread between the two is slender and human-made, rather than woven by this vast unfeeling universe in which we warm ourselves with wonder. In a chapter on our organic composition, so memorably captured in Carl Sagan’s assertion that “we too are made of starstuff,” Sanders shines a sidewise gleam on the illusion of the solid and separate self:

Depending on where you look, what you touch, you are changing all the time. The carbon inside you, accounting for about 18 percent of your being, could have existed in any number of creatures or natural disasters before finding you. That particular atom residing somewhere above your left eyebrow? It could well have been a smooth, riverbed pebble before deciding to call you home.

You see, you are not so soft after all; you are rock and wave and the peeling bark of trees, you are ladybirds and the smell of a garden after the rain. When you put your best foot forward, you are taking the north side of a mountain with you.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders revisits the subject through the lens of the physics beneath the chemistry in a chapter on the structure and discovery of the atom. In a passage evocative of physicist Alan Lightman’s wonderful explanation of why we are mostly restlessness and empty space, she writes:

Such a beautiful (and until recently invisible) idea, the importance and unavoidable nature of atoms, one that seems to put everyone and everything on a satisfyingly level playing field. Your good and bad decisions, your wingspan, your wholeness as a person — these are all possible because of your own 7 billion billion billion atoms, each one made up of (roughly speaking) a positive nucleus in the middle, and the negative electron cloud surrounding it — a cloud that sort of dances from side to side, alternately enchanting other atoms and pushing them away (the really complicated magic can be left to quantum mechanics). Without atoms, nothing would be here; not the book in your hands, not the pen that leaked into your pocket this morning, not those buildings that are enough to make you scared of heights, nothing. If it weren’t for atoms, there wouldn’t be mass, or molecules, or matter, or me, or you.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

The irrepressible human inquiry that magnetizes our imagination and draws us to the inner workings of the universe is the same inquiry Tolstoy scrawled into the diaries of his youth: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” Sanders weaves these elemental questions — what are we made of and what does that make us? — into nearly every scientific curiosity she picks up, but she addresses them directly in a chapter devoted to our strangely continuous sense of self, devoid of a physical basis of continuity. She writes:

The idea of an unchanging “you” or “self” is inherently fraught with confusion and conflict, and if you consider the topic for too long it can begin to feel clammy, almost suspect. An apparent string running through all the previous versions of you — the one five minutes ago, a few hours ago, several years — the idea of “self” inevitably gets tangled up in things like the physical body and appearance, like memory. It’s clear that you cannot pin yourself down as any one particular “thing” but rather that you resemble a story line, an endless progression, variations on a theme, something that enables you to relate your present “self” to the past and future ones.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Echoing the great neurologist Oliver Sacks’s recognition of narrative as the cognitive pillar of personhood, she adds:

We do seem to make sense of ourselves and the world as a part of a narrative — we think in terms of main characters, those we speak and interact with, and where the beginnings, the middles, and the endings are.

Radiating from the book is lucid, lyrical consolation for the elemental disquietude of existence — the fact that haunting the fundamental laws of the universe and the sturdy certitude of their mathematics is the daily chaos of uncertainty with which we must somehow live, keeping one eye on our greatest loves and greatest losses, on the trifling urgencies of the mundane, and the other, wincing, on the only certainty there is: that one day we shall cease to exist. Sanders writes:

A lot of our time is spent trying to tie up loose ends, trying to shape disorder into something recognizably smooth, trying to escape the very limits that hold us close, happily ignoring rough edges and the inevitable. We separate ourselves out into past, present, and future, if only to show that we have changed, that we know better, that we have understood something inherent; if only to draw neat lines from start to finish without looking back.

The problem is that chaos is always only ever sitting just across the table, frequently glancing up from its newspaper, from its coffee cup filled with discolored and imploding stars. Because chaos too waits. Waits for you to notice it, for you to realize it’s the most dazzling thing you’ve ever seen, for all of your atoms to collectively shriek in belated recognition and stare, mouth open, at how exquisitely embedded it is in everything. Because we are not designed to be more orderly than anything else; seams have a tendency to come apart with time — you and the universe are the same in this way, which makes for a delicately overwhelming struggle.

So, then, if you can’t ever end things neatly, can’t ever put them back quite the way you found them, surely the alternative is to remain stubbornly carbonated with possibility, to never rest from your rotation. To keep assembling stories between us, stories about how everything was everything, about how much we loved.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Complement Eating the Sun with The Edge of the Sky — a poetic, unusual primer on the universe, written with the 1,000 most common words in the English language — and Carl Sagan on how to live with mystery, then revisit the great nineteenth-century naturalist John Muir on the universe as an infinite storm of beauty.

BP

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