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.”
By Maria Popova
“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.
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.
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.