In discussing the inception of her iconic 1979 novel Malafrena, Le Guin — one of only two living novelist included in the Library of Congress series, alongside Philip Roth — quotes a passage from her daybook, penned in November of 1978, when the novel still had the befitting working title The Necessary Passion:
“Being in love — falling in love” — now I understand it — now I know what it means — what happens to me when I am writing: I am in love with the work, the subject, the characters, and while it goes on & a while after, the opus itself. — I function only by falling in love: with French and France; with the 15th Century; with microbiology, cosmology, sleep research, etc. at various times — I could not have written A Week in the Country without having fallen in love with current DNA research! … What it is I suppose is the creative condition as expressed in human emotion and mood — So it comes out curiously the same whether sexual or spiritual or aesthetic or intellectual.
And yet, perhaps because Le Guin is capable of synthesizing such intimate emotional satisfaction from the external world, she has never inverted the relationship and externalized her interiority in a literal way, through confessional writing. Instead, her work, as she puts it, “contains elements of direct personal experience so transformed as to be entirely fictional rather than confessional.” She captures this creative orientation with her characteristic splendor of expression:
Some writers can handle lava with bare hands, but I’m not so tough, my skin is not asbestos. And in fact I have no interest in confession. My games are transformation and invention.
Among the timeless text’s most ardent admirers is Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018), who first became besotted with it as a little girl, watching her father leaf through and lovingly annotate a scrumptious cloth-bound copy of Paul Carus’s 1898 translation. Le Guin soon came to discover that this “venerable object of mystery” held enchantments deeper than the beguiling blue-and-red Chinese designs gracing its cover — upon asking her father why he was taking notes, she was told that he was marking the chapters he wanted read at his funeral. (They were read.)
“I was lucky to discover him so young, so that I could live with his book my whole life long,” Le Guin recalls. By the time she was in her twenties, having lived with the book and having seen the book live through her, she set out to give voice to that silent mutuality. Although she spoke no Chinese, Le Guin decided to create her own translation — or, rather, lyrical interpretation — using Carus’s 1898 translation, which included a transliteration of each Chinese character, as a sort of Rosetta Stone to decipher the poetic grammar of the ancient text against the scholarly English translations.
In her twenties, Le Guin completed several chapters, then went on adding slowly each decade. Nearly half a century later, as she was inching toward seventy, she gave this private passion public form in Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching (public library) — a book Le Guin describes as “a rendition, not a translation.” Similar in nature to Proust’s far-more-than-translation of Ruskin, it is indeed the type of work which the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska meant when she spoke of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original.”
Le Guin writes of the ethos animating her version:
The Tao Te Ching was probably written about twenty-five hundred years ago, perhaps by a man called Lao Tzu, who may have lived at about the same time as Confucius. Nothing about it is certain except that it’s Chinese, and very old, and speaks to people everywhere as if it had been written yesterday.
The Tao Te Ching is partly in prose, partly in verse; but as we define poetry now, not by rhyme and meter but as a patterned intensity of language, the whole thing is poetry. I wanted to catch that poetry, its terse, strange beauty. Most translations have caught meanings in their net, but prosily, letting the beauty slip through. And in poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth.
Le Guin being Le Guin — a writer whose incisive intellect continually slices through our limiting societal structures and whose essay on being “a man” remains the finest, sharpest thing ever written about gender in language — she notes the deliberate countercultural undertone of her rendition:
Scholarly translations of the Tao Te Ching as a manual for rulers use a vocabulary that emphasizes the uniqueness of the Taoist “sage,” his masculinity, his authority. This language is perpetuated, and degraded, in most popular versions. I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul. I would like that reader to see why people have loved the book for twenty-five hundred years.
It is the most lovable of all the great religious texts, funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing. Of all the deep springs, this is the purest water. To me, it is also the deepest spring.
And so, with equal parts reverence and imaginative rigor, Le Guin plunges into the spring. Most of the chapters, each sculpted into poetic profundity that enlarges the beauty and truth of Lao Tzu’s wisdom, are footnoted with Le Guin’s illuminations, which reveal, and often add to, the original depth. Of the first, she notes:
A satisfactory translation of this chapter is, I believe, perfectly impossible. It contains the book. I think of it as the Aleph, in Borges’s story: if you see it rightly, it contains everything.
And so she presents the first chapter-poem, which she titles “Taoing”:
The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.
Heaven and earth
begin in the unnamed:
name’s the mother
of the ten thousand things.
So the unwanting soul
sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants.
Two things, one origin,
but different in name,
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries!
The door to the hidden.
Everything Lao Tzu says is elusive. The temptation is to grasp at something tangible in the endlessly deceptive simplicity of the words… It is the profound modesty of the language that offers what so many people for so many centuries have found in this book: a pure apprehension of the mystery of which we are part.
Among Lao Tzu’s elusive truths are counterintuitive notions like “useful emptiness,” “dim brightness,” and the Chinese concept of wu wei, trying not to try, many of which revolve around the question of what power really means. The tenth chapter, which Le Guin titles “Techniques,” explores the path to attaining these paradoxical powers:
Can you keep your soul in its body,
hold fast to the one,
and so learn to be whole?
Can you center your energy,
be soft, tender,
and so learn to be a baby?
Can you keep the deep water still and clear,
so it reflects without blurring?
Can you love people and run things,
and do so by not doing?
Opening, closing the Gate of Heaven,
can you be like a bird with her nestlings?
Piercing bright through the cosmos,
can you know by not knowing?
To give birth, to nourish,
to bear and not to own,
to act and not lay claim,
to lead and not to rule:
this is mysterious power.
Le Guin considers this central teaching of the Tao Te Ching:
Taoists gain their ends without the use of means. That is indeed a light that does not shine—an idea that must be pondered and brooded over. A small dark light.
One of Lao Tzu’s most timeless teachings is also, today, one of the timeliest — his ideas about the true source of political power. Le Guin explains:
Lao Tzu, a mystic, demystifies political power.
Autocracy and oligarchy foster the beliefs that power is gained magically and retained by sacrifice, and that powerful people are genuinely superior to the powerless.
Lao Tzu does not see political power as magic. He sees rightful power as earned and wrongful power as usurped. He does not see power as virtue, but as the result of virtue. The democracies are founded on that view.
He sees sacrifice of self or others as a corruption of power, and power as available to anybody who follows the Way. This is a radically subversive attitude. No wonder anarchists and Taoists make good friends.
Such radical subversiveness concludes the thirteenth chapter, which Le Guin aptly titles “Shameless”:
People who treated the body politic
as gently as their own body
would be worthy to govern the commonwealth.
Tucked into Lao Tzu’s millennia-old verses are observations that apply with remarkable precision to certain public figures and political actors of our own time, nowhere more acutely than in the civilizational embarrassment who signs himself Donald Trump. In the twenty-fourth chapter, for instance, Lao Tzu writes:
Self-satisfied people do no good,
self-promoters never grow up.
The fifty-sixth, in which Le Guin deliberately drops “he” from the grammatically familiar “he who,” contains one of his most famous tenets:
In the thirty-third, which Le Guin titles “Kinds of Power,” Lao Tzu writes:
Knowing other people is intelligence,
knowing yourself is wisdom.
Overcoming others takes strength,
overcoming yourself takes greatness.
The thirty-eighth chapter deals directly with the subject of true power and its simulacra:
TALKING ABOUT POWER
Great power, not clinging to power,
has true power.
Lesser power, clinging to power,
lacks true power.
Great power, doing nothing,
has nothing to do.
Lesser power, doing nothing,
has an end in view.
The good the truly good do
has no end in view.
The right the very righteous do
has an end in view.
And those who act in true obedience to law
roll up their sleeves
and make the disobedient obey.
So: when we lose the Way we find power;
losing power we find goodness;
losing goodness we find righteousness;
losing righteousness we’re left with obedience.
Obedience to law is the dry husk
of loyalty and good faith.
Opinion is the barren flower of the Way,
the beginning of ignorance.
So great-minded people
abide in the kernel not the husk,
in the fruit not the flower,
letting the one go, keeping the other.
Le Guin distills the meaning:
A vast, dense argument in a minimum of words, this poem lays out the Taoist values in steeply descending order: the Way and its power; goodness (humane feeling); righteousness (morality); and — a very distant last — obedience (law and order). The word I render as “opinion” can be read as “knowing too soon”: the mind obeying orders, judging before the evidence is in, closed to fruitful perception and learning.
“We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”
By Maria Popova
“We must always take sides,” Elie Wiesel urged in his spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” And yet part of the human tragedy is that despite our best intentions and our most ardent ideals, we often lull ourselves into neutrality in the face of injustice — be it out of fear for our own stability, or lack of confidence in our ability to make a difference, or that most poisonous foible of the soul, the two-headed snake of cynicism and apathy. How, then, do we unmoor ourselves from a passivity we so masterfully rationalize, remember that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and rise to that awareness with moral courage and imagination?
In an ennobling and pleasurably unnerving essay titled “A War Without End,” which Le Guin describes as “some thoughts, written down at intervals, about oppression, revolution, and imagination,” she writes:
My country came together in one revolution and was nearly broken by another.
The first revolution was a protest against galling, stupid, but relatively mild social and economic exploitation. It was almost uniquely successful.
Many of those who made the first revolution practiced the most extreme form of economic exploitation and social oppression: they were slave owners.
The second American revolution, the Civil War, was an attempt to preserve slavery. It was partially successful. The institution was abolished, but the mind of the master and the mind of the slave still think a good many of the thoughts of America.
When these dominant narratives become so deeply embedded in a society, Le Guin suggests, even those whom they oppress end up internalizing them. (I think of James Baldwin, who observed in his terrific conversation with Nikki Giovanni: “What the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself. You become a collaborator, an accomplice of your own murderers, because you believe the same things they do.”)
In turning to the subject of resistance to oppression, Le Guin invokes the memorable words of the poet and onetime slave Phillis Wheatley, who wrote in 1774: “In every human Breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.” Le Guin considers the discomfiting paradox at the heart of this abiding truth:
All that is good in the institutions and politics of my country rests on it.
And yet I see that though we love freedom we are mostly patient of oppression, and even refuse deliverance.
I see a danger in insisting that our love of freedom always outweighs whatever force or inertia keeps us from resisting oppression and seeking deliverance.
If I deny that strong, intelligent, capable people will and do accept oppression, I’m identifying the oppressed as weak, stupid, and inept.
If it were true that superior people refuse to be treated as inferiors, it would follow that those low in the social order are truly inferior, since, if they were superior, they’d protest; since they accept an inferior position, they are inferior. This is the comfortably tautological argument of the slave owner, the social reactionary, the racist, and the misogynist.
In a counterpoint to Kierkegaard’s ideas about the power of the minority, Le Guin reality-checks the distribution of power throughout human history:
The ruling class is always small, the lower orders large, even in a caste society. The poor always vastly outnumber the rich. The powerful are fewer than those they hold power over. Adult men hold superior status in almost all societies, though they are always outnumbered by women and children. Governments and religions sanction and uphold inequality, social rank, gender rank, and privilege, wholly or selectively.
Most people, in most places, in most times, are of inferior status.
And most people, even now, even in “the free world,” even in “the home of the free,” consider this state of affairs, or certain elements of it, as natural, necessary, and unchangeable. They hold it to be the way it has always been and therefore the way it must be. This may be conviction or it may be ignorance; often it is both. Over the centuries, most people of inferior status have had no way of knowing that any other way of ordering society has existed or could exist — that change is possible. Only those of superior status have ever known enough to know that; and it is their power and privilege that would be at stake if the order of things were changed.
But beyond the truism that those in power are better equipped to stay in power, Le Guin argues that there is a larger failure of moral imagination keeping oppressive power structures in place. She writes:
We have good reason to be cautious, to be quiet, not to rock the boat. A lot of peace and comfort is at stake. The mental and moral shift from denial of injustice to consciousness of injustice is often made at very high cost.
The last words of the Mahabharata are, “By no means can I attain a goal beyond my reach.” It is likely that justice, a human idea, is a goal beyond human reach. We’re good at inventing things that can’t exist.
Maybe freedom cannot be attained through human institutions but must remain a quality of the mind or spirit not dependent on circumstances, a gift of grace… My problem with it is that its devaluation of work and circumstance encourages institutional injustices which make the gift of grace inaccessible. A two-year-old child who dies of starvation or a beating or a firebombing has not been granted access to freedom, nor any gift of grace, in any sense in which I can understand the words. We can attain by our own efforts only an imperfect justice, a limited freedom. Better than none. Let us hold fast to that principle, the love of Freedom, of which the freed slave, the poet, spoke.
Echoing Susan Sontag’s assertion that “courage is as contagious as fear,” Le Guin considers the irreversible Rube Goldberg machine of awareness and action through which injustice is confronted and countered:
The shift from denial of injustice to recognition of injustice can’t be unmade. What your eyes have seen they have seen. Once you see the injustice, you can never again in good faith deny the oppression and defend the oppressor. What was loyalty is now betrayal. From now on, if you don’t resist, you collude. But there is a middle ground between defense and attack, a ground of flexible resistance, a space opened for change. It is not an easy place to find or live in.
Reflecting on Audre Lord’s assertion that one can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, which Le Guin considers a “rich and dangerous” metaphor, she writes:
Power not only corrupts, it addicts. Work becomes destruction. Nothing is built. Societies change with and without violence. Reinvention is possible. Building is possible. What tools have we to build with except hammers, nails, saws — education, learning to think, learning skills?
Are there indeed tools that have not been invented, which we must invent in order to build the house we want our children to live in? Can we go on from what we know now, or does what we know now keep us from learning what we need to know? To learn what people of color, the women, the poor, have to teach, to learn the knowledge we need, must we unlearn all the knowledge of the whites, the men, the powerful?
The most powerful such tool, Le Guin argues, is the imagination — the ability and willingness to imagine alternatives to reality as we know it, which is always the first step toward making different and better realities possible. She points to storytelling as the most powerful use of the imagination in expanding our scope of the possible:
Utopia, and Dystopia, are intellectual places. I write from passion and playfulness. My stories are neither dire warnings nor blueprints for what we ought to do. Most of them, I think, are comedies of human manners, reminders of the infinite variety of ways in which we always come back to pretty much the same place, and celebrations of that infinite variety by the invention of still more alternatives and possibilities.
To me the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.
Fantasy and science fiction in their very conception offer alternatives to the reader’s present, actual world. Young people in general welcome this kind of story because in their vigor and eagerness for experience they welcome alternatives, possibilities, change. Having come to fear even the imagination of true change, many adults refuse all imaginative literature, priding themselves on seeing nothing beyond what they already know, or think they know.
The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.
We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.
“Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!”
Her insight into the writing process, always delivered with her signature blend of hard wisdom and warm wit, makes for a spectacular addition to the most abiding advice on the craft — nowhere more so in her layered answer to what is perhaps the most elemental question in creative work: How do you make something good?
Although Le Guin’s advice addresses writing in particular, it applies to just about every field of creative endeavor:
The way to make something good is to make it well.
If the ingredients are extra good (truffles, vivid prose, fascinating characters) that’s a help. But it’s what you do with them that counts. With the most ordinary ingredients (potatoes, everyday language, commonplace characters) — and care and skill in using them — you can make something extremely good.
In a sentiment of far-reaching resonance amid our culture of rampant reductionism, awash in listicles and other sexified pseudo-shortcuts, she echoes Werner Herzog’s advice to aspiring filmmakers and cautions:
Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!
Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.
There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.
This testing, Le Guin counsels, could benefit from feedback — but only by “readers qualified to judge.” In a sentiment that calls to mind Steinbeck’s prophetic dream about how commercialism is killing creative culture, she cautions — in a perfect LeGuinism — against listening to editors, publishers, agents, and other merchants of culture who give you rules for what will sell:
Most such rules are hogwash, and even sound ones may not apply to your story. What’s the use of a great recipe for soufflé if you’re making blintzes?
We make something good, a blintz, a story, by having worked at blintzmaking or storywriting till we’ve learned how to do it.
With a blintz, the process is fairly routine. With stories, the process is never twice the same. Even a story written to the most prescriptive formula, like some westerns or romances, can be made poorly, or made well.
Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it.