Anarchy in a Walled Society

[(Essay date 10 June 2010) In this literary criticism M.M. will discuss the reoccurring symbol of a wall, as used in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed”, to represent the limitations placed on individuals by government and society, and the suffering caused by these walls.]

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. And adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.(1)

From the opening paragraph of LeGuin’s classic novel “The Dispossessed”, the importance a “wall” has in this society could not be placed higher. This wall, this deterrent to freedom, as well as other limitations, are debated openly on the planet of Anarres, a world where no government exists, and the people live in anarchy. The wall introduced on the first page is the circular wall surrounding a large field. However this field is also a space port, their only connection to Urras, their neighboring, Capitalistic planet which they consider their Moon. About 160 years ago, the followers of a movement known as Odonianism(the anarchists) were offered the moon (of Urras) to settle on, instead of violence resulting. By now, a basic rule has been established on Anarres that all ships and anyone on them from Urras or anywhere else were not permitted outside that field.
It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.(2)
However, this view point can easily be switched:
Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarrres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp cut off form the other worlds and other men, in quarantine.(2)
Even though it becomes known that this is the only wall on the entire planet, this conundrum of freedom is the first indication in the novel that this society of anarchists might not be as free as it first appears. Even where a wall does not physically exist, the boundary created is just as powerful. This same idea can be seen in today’s society, this same visual easily made with the popular term of a “glass ceiling” that keeps women from advancing in terms career and politics. The notion of an invisible boundary is a very vague one, as in this novel, it represents all of the boundaries that do exist, but aren’t known, in this world of “anarchy”

The symbol of a wall is used in a psychological manner as well as a sociological one. The main character Shevek (no title, no other name, just Shevek) finds himself constantly coming up against walls, be they in his own mind, his work, and even the in personalities of others. Aboard the ship taking him to Urras (the first visitor since the rebellion almost 200 years prior) Shevek finds himself in communication with a Dr. Kimoe. In these discussions, Shevek ascertains that for the doctor “There were walls around all his thoughts, and he seemed utterly unaware of them, though he was perpetually hiding behind them.(16)” This comes as a general surprise to Shevek, as such walls in thought aren’t as common on Anarres. In the capitalistic society of Urras, which is clearly modeled after modern Western culture, the words of every individual are carefully crafted before they are said. This social commentary criticizes modern society in its rejection of allowing people to openly state what they feel, what they want. Whether the doctor doesn’t want to offend, or doesn’t want to be judged, he is being silenced by the expectations set about by society. However, this issue is also present on Anarres, which will be discussed later, suggesting that this criticism is not pointed merely at Western culture, but the mass of human culture as we know it.

Throughout the course of the novel, beginning with a late night discussion as a teenager, Shevek comes to realize the truth about suffering and pain. Early on, he realizes that the only thing everyone has in common is that we all share pain and suffering. It can’t be escaped. As Shevek is forced to spend more time, years at a time, away from his partner Takver, he has an epiphany when he is finally reunited:
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. (334)
Anarres has a very sexually open society, where you are basically encouraged to “copulate” with anyone who would want to with you. It is not taboo in anyway. The pleasures Shevek are referring to are those basic sexual pleasure that the people of Anarres have become experts at acquiring. However, when he and Takver fall in love, they realize that a special bond, a lifelong commitment, loyalty, are all more desirable than those pleasures. In general, so many people are looking for a “quick fix”. Something that makes them happy right now, that they don’t have to think about. But as Shevek realizes, these pleasures are not true fulfillment. Only with suffering can true happiness exist. You can’t have light without darkness. Another basic social criticism on humanities constant fear and hatred of pain. Without pain, one cannot know what happiness really is. One can have an idea of comfort, but this comfort can never be truly appreciated until it is given up for an amount of time. This idea is cemented into the image of “coming home”, a phrase repeated throughout the novel. This cyclic flux of pain and joy, like all things, can be halted by a wall. Shevek, wishing to someday return home to his planet, has doubts that he will be able to. The laws of his planet wouldn’t allow someone off of a ship to pass the wall. The rules working through the wall are preventing Shevek from completing the cycle, the only thing capable of making him happy.

The true happiness of a return homes is focused entirely on family, the people you love. However, a family without loyally, is separated by a wall, is not a family. As a child, contemplating the fact that his mother had left him and his father, Shevek dreams of a wall. His father, and supposed image of his mother, point out a rock, with a number that he recognizes-
the primal number, that was both unity and plurality. “That is the cornerstone,” said a voice of dear familiarity, and Shevek was pierced through with joy. There was no wall in the shadows, and he knew that he had come back, that he was home.(33-34)
This number of “unity and plurality” becomes the cornerstone for Shevek feeling at home again. This unity of the family can be torn apart by disloyalty. The disloyalty is present with the presence of the mother’s image and the basic assumption that the voice of “dear familiarity” belonged to his mother. The wall is created by the disloyalty, and only with the return of the disloyal, the presence of his mother, was the wall destroyed, and was Shevek home again. Only in a society where loyalty is the cornerstone of family life can these walls be eliminated for good.

When Shevek reunites with his friend Bedap after some years, Shevek confides that the past years have been meaningless, that he has not accomplished anything. Bedap goes on to tell him that he has hit “the wall”. Even in this “anarchist” society, Bedap notices the growing sense of bureaucracy in the specific fields of study and production. While any group of people on Anarres can choose to get together and research, study, produce, or broadcast anything they desire as their own ruling body, Bedap points out that there is still a wall created. Anarres has not real government, no police, no laws. But the system created to “administer” and “distribute” like all centers of power, grow more and more bureaucratic. On Anarres, the central group responsible for organizing all jobs on the planet, the PDC has become such a huge and powerful group, that Bedap can’t help but theorize that an older, senior member, who has worked in the PDC for a while, would have much more control over the goings on of this group. Over time, the best way to do certain things are realized, so going at it any other way would be pointless. Thus, this person would have power, something taboo and unacceptable in Odonianism.
Public opinion! That’s the power structure he’s part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind. (165)
The experience of the more senior member, however, is mostly important in how they can handle and manage the public opinion of the group and its members. Thus, the bureaucracy, mainly via public opinion, becomes a powerful wall between an Odonian and true freedom. The bureaucratic way of sticking to the tried and true methods, by following the customs of Anarres undermine the very nature of the anarchy it is suppose to practice. As custom becomes a basic law, so does public opinion. It is the only thing that matters. An Odonian can choose to do nothing all day long, never work a day in his life. However, the public would look down on this, he would be outcast, and there is no greater shame than that. People care about what their neighbor thinks of him, and as shown in this novel, only when the opinion of our neighbor doesn’t matter, can we truly be free. The wall of law and rights is replaced with the wall of custom and public opinion. Opposing custom, Shevek and his friends create a group who’s goal is to contact the Urras. They lose most of their outside friends and are shamed by the general public. They have broken custom and lost the favor of other people. However, in doing so, they are being the true anarchist, the true Odonians
We are not subjects of a State founded upon law, but members of a society formed upon revolution. Revolution is our obligation : our hope of evolution.

In this novel, Shevek realizes that to live life freely is to unbuild walls, to live life as a revolution. The walls of government, be they official, or merely present in the attitude of the people, the walls of self-consciousness, the walls of self-doubt, and the walls constructed by others to halt an individual are all there to be torn down. To be free is to live the cycle of pain and joy, and to be restrained by no obstacle.
Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I'm going to go fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I'm going to go and unbuild walls. (332)




Possibilities for a World Without Gender

[(Essay dated 10 June 2010) In the following literary criticism, M.M. discusses the abnormal sexuality and lack of gender of the people of the planet Geth (aka Winter) in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel “The Left Hand of Darkness”, and how it has affected their society in comparison to ours.]

Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own.(12)

“What would civilization be like if we didn’t have sexual desires? If there wasn’t a distinction between genders?” Le Guin’s classic novel “The Left Hand of Darkness” brings to light the peculiar characteristics of the inhabitants of Geth. In an attempt to join the planet into the Ekumenical intergalactic union of human civilizations, Genly Ai has arrived on Geth as First Mobile, to be the first overt operative and begin the fostering of relations with the various nations present on the planet. As the first Investigators reported, however, the humans of Geth possess certain qualities that separate them from the rest of humanity. Gethenians are ambisexual. For eighty percent of the year, they are neither male nor female and experience no sexual urges of any kind. However, around twice a year, they go into a phase known as Kemmer. For around twenty six days, they will become sexually active. If they pair up with another “Kemmering”, each of them will develop sexual organs, which are always present, however become prominent in Kemmering. For two to five days, the couple will be able to copulate, however, after those days, the two will return to their normal, genderless selves (somer). So this novel is able to ask the aforementioned questions, and answer them.

As the previous passage brings to the forefront, human society as we know it is based on gender. It is based on the distinction between the male sex and female sex. Throughout our history, the relationship between man and woman has played the utmost important in the decisions and outcomes of the past. It is interesting that Le Guin writes of how society could be like without gender. Le Guin, a feminist, writes largely about women, and the duality of humanity resulting from two genders. Man is meant to hunt, woman is meant to protect the home and children. Women even have better eyesight, resulting theoretically from watching the cave at night to make sure nothing intruded. The genders have grown apart physiologically as well as psychologically. Different hormones have made us more adept at our respective roles. As man and woman become closer and closer in our own society however, one can’t help but wonder what it would be like if that distinction never existed. Ai, as seen in the passage, has a hard time getting used to this. With each character he encounters, he observes them as both sexes separately, unable to get over our innate and social need to see two sexes among humans. News reports that “The king was pregnant“(99) don’t help to ease Ai’s transition into such an odd situation either.
Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. (94)
This concept holds true, in terms of gender. However, in the novel, there are those who rule and those that don’t. While there is no male to oppress female, there will always be the want of power and control over others. Ai finds the interactions between politicians particularly stressful, full of effeminate intrigue(8). The competitiveness and slyness usually partitioned to male and female (respectively) combine in these people, leaving Ai with an awkward annoyance in trying to determine their alternative motives.
Even in a bisexual society the politician is very often something less than an integral man.(14)
It is interesting to note that Ai’s initial view of most of the characters is that of a man. First viewing them as a man, the female characteristics eventually reveal themselves. Perhaps this is implying the more oppressive nature of male behavior, or simply the male bias of modern society to assume someone powerful is a man. Ai tries, in vain, to sort out the different characteristics, find a which gender is which, however he cannot. The expected patterns of behavior cannot be found, they have merged into one completely exotic kind of person. Perhaps this is the authors way of implying that, while male hormonal behavior may be more aggressive, the difference between the sexes is really irrelevant to society.

In the novel, this has resulted in a completely different layout of family life. The two person household with children cannot exist. Instead, the people live in “Hearths”, small communities of a few hundred. With so many people, there is always a good chance that each Kemmering will have a partner. However, as in “The Dispossessed”, the people of this planet also have the option of a more intimate, “kemmering-vow” with one person only. Clearly Le Guin believed that love should be a guiding force in once life, even in the face of so much sexual freedom. The sexual freedom of incest is also available to the people of Winter. However, once a child is born between siblings, they can no longer share in kemmering. The breaking of this rule plays as the backdrop to the story, the tale of two brothers, who’s love could not continue, so one took his life. Le Guin, it is clear, believes that any person can love any other person. However, as kemmering is a mainly sexual act, perhaps she is just commenting even more on our absolute obsession with sex and sex as a sign of love.

The current state of the Gethennians is considered most likely to be an experiment. The Investigators have many theories as to why these ancient sociologists removed, for most part, the sexual urges of man.
…the limitation of the sexual drive to a discontinuous time-segment, and the “equalizing” of it in androgyny, must prevent, to a large extent, both the exploitation and frustration of the drive.(95)
This statement, the removal of sexual frustrations, seems to be one of the most useful reasons for such an experiment. Our society is obsessed with sex. It is in every movie, TV show, video game, book, and every other aspect of human creation. However, it is not wrong, it is simply physical nature. This physical nature, though, can be seen as quite debilitating. Would everyone think more clearly, be more focused, if we didn’t have sexual desires? In terms of teenagers especially, so much of what they do in their social lives is guided by their hormonal search to fulfill those urges. This tends to result in falling to peer pressure, which could lead to any manner of “bad behavior”, not to mention teen pregnancy. Our sexual urges aren’t really necessary anymore, as we know what is required to reproduce. Le Guin probably believes the same thing, but since we cannot get rid of them, we might as well do whatever we want with them. However, if once wishes to truly be happy, as the characters Estraven and Ashe seemed to be when they were kemmering, a true vow, a promise of loyalty must be made.

Did the Ancient Hainish postulate that continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression, neither of which are attributes of any mammal but man, are cause and effect? (96)
The most importantly seeming outcome to this experiment, however, seems to be that not once on the planet has there ever been a war. Masculinity, male hormonal aggressiveness, left unchecked, is said to be the reason why war has existed in our society. If the two sexes were to meet in a balance however, like they do on Winter, perhaps war would not exist. Geth gives Le Guin a platform to view how life might be if man and woman were equal. Like on Geth, politics and violence still exist. People kill each other all the time. But the “foray guns” used in war have never been used.

Le Guin, the daughter of an anthropologist, writes a lot on social progress, evolution, and different types of humans. This novel is able to look at some of the most taboo issues today through the expansion and exaggeration only available in science fiction. Le Guin has consistently expressed a belief in sexual freedom, and this novel represents what could be the greatest form of freedom in terms of sexuality: no sexuality at all.

The Symbols of Earthsea
(Essay dated 12 June 2014) In the following literary criticism, WT analyzes the recurring symbols in the bildungsroman A wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin; as it contributes to the theme of Equilibrium within the world and the main character’s coming of age.

“Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one” (194).

In Le Guin’s fictional world of Earthsea, wizards of Roke are taught at an early age of the balance of the world. Having not only the power of illusion and trickery, true sorcerers may change one thing into another by learning its true name. However, changing an object's form can upset the balance of the world. “The unbalanced sea would overwhelm the islands”, “and in the old silence all voices and all names would be lost” (52). As is true of most coming of age novels, Ged, only a boy at the beginning of the novel is young and naive. Choosing to go against the wisdom of his master’s he uses a spell that he has no knowledge of, and splits himself and his shadow in two. Wanting to take over Ged’s body, the shadow hunts him across the whole land of earthsea. In this constant battle between Ged and his darkness, the symbols of shadow and light, and hunter and hunted; contribute to the theme of Equilibrium and highlight Ged’s coming of age.
Examining first the symbols of shadow and light, it is important to realize that at no point in the novel does one exists without the other’s presence.“To light a candle is to cast a shadow…” (48). This supports the idea of equilibrium and that one cannot exist without the other. Although he has been told so, Ged does not truly understand this at first. This lack of knowledge and experience due his young age causes him to endanger himself and those around him. To write his wrong, Ged leaves the school to go out into the world in an attempt to learn more about the darkness he has released. The shadow throughout the novel takes many shapes and forms. Although not human, it can mimic the appearance of those Ged is around. The shadow takes the shape of a fisherman, a looming darkness, a ghost-like creature, and a resemblance of Ged. While giving the shadow a paranormal element, it is also given human qualities. The humanizing of this darkness bridges the gap between the light and shadow symbols. While Ged (the light) lives on, his shadow lives in some sense as well; again referring back to the theme of balance in the world.

In addition to the symbols of light and shadow, the symbols of a hunter and hunted are also used throughout the novel. After the shadow is released into the living world, it attacks Ged, almost killing him. In a later encounter with the shadow, it attempts to grab hold of him, but Ged escapes. Until this point, the shadow has been the hunter, and Ged, the prey. However in chapter 8, there is a change when Ged and the shadow meet. When the shadow appears, rather than try to get away, Ged steers his boat straight at the darkness. In this moment, “the shadow turned, making a half-circle, and appearing all at once more loose and dim, less like a man, more like a mere smoke blowing on the wind, it doubled back and ran downwind with the gale, as if it made for Gont (an isle in Earthsea)” (146-147). This is a crucial point in the story. The roles of hunter and prey have reversed; and Ged is now chasing his own shadow. Not only is it symbolically significant, but it shows Ged’s maturing, and new found bravery to face his fear; perpetuating his coming of age.

The novel comes full circle in the final chapter, when Ged confronts his shadow face to face in a land of pure illusion. “Aloud and clearly, breaking that old silence, Ged spoke the shadow’s name and in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying the same word: “Ged”. And the two voices were one voice” (194). In this moment, that which is nameless, is named aloud by both Ged and the shadow. Symbolically, this is important as the shadow and light, hunter and prey have now become one, showing again the importance of balance in Earthsea. In addition, Ged’s coming of age is complete, having corrected his mistake and returned the world to equilibrium. These four symbols contribute to the theme of balance within the world and highlight the character change of Ged within the novel.

(WT 2014)