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Freedom and Creative Vitality in a Market Society: Ursula K. Le Guin on Saving Books from Profiteering and Commodification

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”

Freedom and Creative Vitality in a Market Society: Ursula K. Le Guin on Saving Books from Profiteering and Commodification

“To get fame and money, for the sake of which I wrote, it was necessary to hide the good and to display the evil,” Leo Tolstoy confessed with uncompromising self-awareness in reflecting on his youthful vice of writing for the wrong reasons — as a young man, he had treated the making of literature as a means to a material end, a bargaining chip traded for admiration and profit with other literary profiteers who were just as “self-confident and self-satisfied as only those can be who are quite holy or who do not know what holiness is.” Around the same time, across the Atlantic, the young William James made the difficult decision of choosing purpose over profit — a decision that would eventually establish him as the founding father of American psychology — and observed the crux of the tradeoff: “After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together.” Of course, artists must eat — but at what cost does their livelihood come, weighed on whose scale?

Nearly a century and half after James and Tolstoy’s moral struggle with the competing forces of culture and commerce — a struggle that has intensified infinitely with the rise of the modern market system — another titan of literature and seer of truth addressed these elemental questions of creative culture with uncommon lucidity and luminosity of sentiment.

On November 19, 2014, Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) took the podium to receive her second National Book Award with a short, stunning acceptance speech, later included in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week (public library) — the splendid collection that gave us Le Guin on the artist’s task in meaning-making and her operating instructions for life.

Ursula K. Le Guin (Photograph: Euan Monaghan)

Le Guin writes:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.

Le Guin was a seer in the largest sense — her gaze bent past our culture’s horizons of peril and possibility visible to most, and she saw the early warning sings of a darkening reality. A decade after she first began admonishing against the commodification of art, she points to the creation of cultural artifacts motivated not by artistic merit but by marketability as one of the most perilous traps of our times:

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this — letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Le Guin ends her admonition on a hopeful and empowering note — a clarion call for resistance, reminding us that any broken system is fixable, and that the fixing falls on our own participatory hands. More than half a century after Eleanor Roosevelt insisted in her dying hour that “we do make our history [and] we are making it now — today — by the choices that shape our course,” Le Guin exhorts:

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.

Art by Violeta Lópiz for a letter by Lucianne Walkowicz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Le Guin’s unassailable belief in literature as a force of freedom and her fierce advocacy for public libraries were a large part of our inspiration for donating all proceeds from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader — which contains her last published piece — to the public library system. Seeing her deliver the speech live, with quietly impassioned conviction and incandescent dignity, only amplifies the urgency and bittersweet hopefulness of her message, which stands as a pillar of her legacy:

Complement the thoroughly scrumptious Words Are My Matter with Le Guin on poetry and science, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, getting to the other side of suffering, the power of art to transform and redeem, the art of growing older, and her classic unsexing of gender.

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin on Suffering and Getting to the Other Side of Pain

“All you have is what you are, and what you give.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Suffering and Getting to the Other Side of Pain

Simone Weil considered it the highest existential discipline to “make use of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us.” George Bernard Shaw saw suffering as our supreme conduit to empathy. “We suffer more in imagination than in reality,” Seneca observed before offering his millennia-old, timeless antidote to anxiety. And yet we do suffer and the pain incurred, whatever the suffering is grounded in, is real. How we orient ourselves to our suffering — or to the suffering, as Buddhist might correct the ego-illusion and reaffirm our shared reality — may be the single most significant predictor of our happiness, wellbeing, and capacity for joy. “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve,” C.S. Lewis wrote in contemplating how suffering confers agency upon life, “and you find that you have excluded life itself.”

That indelible relationship between suffering and life is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores throughout The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (public library) — the superb 1974 novel, part science fiction and part philosophy, that gave us Le Guin’s insight into time, loyalty, and the root of human responsibility.

Ursula K. Le Guin (Based on photograph by Benjamin Reed)

The novel’s protagonist — the idealistic prodigy physicist Shevek, visiting a beautiful earth-like world from a society inhabiting the world’s barren moon, where a colony had seceded long ago, disenchanted with the profiteering and “propertarian” values of an increasingly materialistic and selfish human society — channels Le Guin’s philosophical insight into the paradoxes of existence and the pitfalls of human society:

Suffering is a misunderstanding.

[…]

It exists… It’s real. I can call it a misunderstanding, but I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, or will ever cease to exist. Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality. All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we’ll have known pain for fifty years… And yet, I wonder if it isn’t all a misunderstanding — this grasping after happiness, this fear of pain… If instead of fearing it and running from it, one could… get through it, go beyond it. There is something beyond it. It’s the self that suffers, and there’s a place where the self—ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality — the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness — that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.

Defining freedom as “that recognition of each person’s solitude which alone transcends it,” Le Guin pits her idealistic protagonist against an imperfect society, which he addresses in a public speech at the climax of the novel — a speech he delivers before an enormous crowd of his fellow antiauthoritarian socialists, who have taken to the streets in furious desperation in the face of growing privation and inequity on the beautiful but corrupt Earth-like world:

It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

In the privacy of his mind, spawned of Le Guin’s own mind, Shevek reflects on the central paradox of suffering:

If you evade suffering you also evade the chance of joy. Pleasure you may get, or pleasures, but you will not be fulfilled. You will not know what it is to come home… Fulfillment… is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal… It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell… The thing about working with time, instead of against it, …is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.

The Dispossessed is a thoroughly magnificent read, exploring themes of staggeringly timely resonance to our socially confused and politically troubled world. Complement this particular fragment with the brilliant and underappreciated Rebecca West on survival and the redemption of suffering, then revisit Le Guin on poetry and science, the power of art to transform and redeem, the art of growing older, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, and her classic unsexing of gender.

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin on Time, the Meaning of Loyalty, and Why Honoring the Continuity of Past and Future Is the Root of Acting Responsibly

“If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Time, the Meaning of Loyalty, and Why Honoring the Continuity of Past and Future Is the Root of Acting Responsibly

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her superb antidote to our ahistorical worldview. So much of our suffering, both personal and political, stems from our inability — or, rather, unwillingness — to take a telescopic perspective of time; to look past the immediacy of symptoms and instead trace the long arc between cause and effect. Only along such an arc can we propel our moral development — again, both personal and political — toward its highest potentiality: justice, dignity, existential fulfillment.

That is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores throughout her 1974 science fiction novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (public library) — an extension of her classic short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, published a year earlier, which remains one of the most powerful and pause-giving thought experiments in literature.

Ursula K. Le Guin (Based on photograph by Benjamin Reed)

Speaking through her protagonist — the mathematician Shevek, modeled on the Nobel-winning physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, a friend of her parents’ — Le Guin writes:

Our sense of time involves our ability to separate cause and effect, means and end. The baby, again, the animal, they don’t see the difference between what they do now and what will happen because of it. They can’t make a pulley, or a promise. We can. Seeing the difference between now and not now, we can make the connection. And there morality enters in. Responsibility. To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is just like saying that if I pull a rope on this pulley it will lift the weight on that one. To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.

Le Guin’s protagonist revisits the subject of time in a passage that stands as the prose counterpart to her splendid “Hymn to Time”:

Fulfillment… is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.

Outside the locked room is the landscape of time, in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings.

It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act. Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

In a sentiment which Sarah Manguso would echo in her poignant assertion that “perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing,” Le Guin adds:

The thing about working with time, instead of against it, …is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.

This tenet applies not only to the sequential record of life we call history, but to life itself, even — or perhaps especially — in its most immediate manifestations. Just as we lose perspective when we fragment history into isolated moments, we lose sight of the whole — of its beauty and of its inherent truth — whenever we fragment any element of life into its constituent parts. Elsewhere in the novel, Le Guin shines a sidewise gleam on this equivalence:

If you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives. . . . But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly magnificent The Dispossessed with the psychology of temporality and Jorge Luis Borges’s landmark meditation on time, then revisit Le Guin on poetry and science, the power of art to transform and redeem, the art of growing older, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, and her classic unsexing of gender.

BP

Subjectifying the Universe: Ursula K. Le Guin on Science and Poetry as Complementary Modes of Comprehending and Tending to the Natural World

“Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe.”

Subjectifying the Universe: Ursula K. Le Guin on Science and Poetry as Complementary Modes of Comprehending and Tending to the Natural World

“What men are poets,” the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman asked in what may be the world’s most poetic footnote, “who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?” Two centuries before him, the poet William Wordsworth had insisted that “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge… the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.”

I too have long cherished this unheralded common ground between poetry and science as complementary worldviews of contemplation and observation — a cherishment of which The Universe in Verse was born — and have encountered no more beautiful an articulation of it than the one Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) offered in the preface to her final poetry collection, Late in the Day (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Marine biologist Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the modern environmental movement and pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic writing about science, once asserted that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.” More than half a century after Carson, Le Guin considers how poetry and science both humble us to that elemental aspect of our humanity and train us to be better stewards of the natural world to which we belong:

To use the world well, to be able to stop wasting it and our time in it, we need to relearn our being in it.

Skill in living, awareness of belonging to the world, delight in being part of the world, always tends to involve knowing our kinship as animals with animals. Darwin first gave that knowledge a scientific basis. And now, both poets and scientists are extending the rational aspect of our sense of relationship to creatures without nervous systems and to non-living beings — our fellowship as creatures with other creatures, things with other things.

Decades after the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd contemplated the “intricate interplay” of the natural world in the living mountain, Le Guin adds:

Relationship among all things appears to be complex and reciprocal — always at least two-way, back-and-forth. It seems that nothing is single in this universe, and nothing goes one way.

In this view, we humans appear as particularly lively, intense, aware nodes of relation in an infinite network of connections, simple or complicated, direct or hidden, strong or delicate, temporary or very long-lasting. A web of connections, infinite but locally fragile, with and among everything — all beings — including what we generally class as things, objects.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

In consonance with the recently uncovered astonishing science of what trees feel and how they communicate, Le Guin adds:

Descartes and the behaviorists willfully saw dogs as machines, without feeling. Is seeing plants as without feeling a similar arrogance? One way to stop seeing trees, or rivers, or hills, only as “natural resources,” is to class them as fellow beings — kinfolk.

In a sentiment that calls to mind quantum theory founding father Niels Bohr’s arresting meditation on subjective vs. objective reality, Le Guin reflects on the larger point:

I guess I’m trying to subjectify the universe, because look where objectifying it has gotten us. To subjectify is not necessarily to co-opt, colonize, exploit. Rather it may involve a great reach outward of the mind and imagination.

PSR 1919 (after Jocelyn Bell Burnell)
Art by Lia Halloran from Your Body is a Space That Sees

Le Guin considers the shared impulse beneath poetry and science, flowing across the valve between self and world from opposite directions:

Poetry is the human language that can try to say what a tree or a rock or a river is, that is, to speak humanly for it, in both senses of the word “for.” A poem can do so by relating the quality of an individual human relationship to a thing, a rock or river or tree, or simply by describing the thing as truthfully as possible.

Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe. We need the languages of both science and poetry to save us from merely stockpiling endless “information” that fails to inform our ignorance or our irresponsibility.

Each, Le Guin argues, is a mode of tending to the world — the outer world, the inner world — and, as such, trains us to be better participants in and protectors of the vibrant, vigorous interconnectedness of which we are but a tiny part:

By replacing unfounded, willful opinion, science can increase moral sensitivity; by demonstrating and performing aesthetic order or beauty, poetry can move minds to the sense of fellowship that prevents careless usage and exploitation of our fellow beings, waste and cruelty.

[…]

The seventeenth-century Christian mystic Henry Vaughan wrote:

     So hills and valleys into singing break,
     And though poor stones have neither speech nor tongue,
     While active winds and streams both run and speak,
     Yet stones are deep in admiration.

By admiration, Vaughan meant reverence for God’s sacred order of things, and joy in it, delight. By admiration, I understand reverence for the infinite connectedness, the naturally sacred order of things, and joy in it, delight. So we admit stones to our holy communion; so the stones may admit us to theirs.

Complement Late in the Day with an embodiment of that admiring delight in some beautiful poems celebrating science, then revisit Le Guin on growing older, the power of language to transform and redeem, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, her feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching, and her classic unsexing of gender.

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