Saturday, May 26, 2012

Annals of the Western Shore

"Le Guin writing for children is more thought provoking than most people writing for adults," declared Publishing News reviewing 'Gifts', the first volume in her trilogy, 'Annals of the Western Shore'.

It is statement of simple truth. Reading the last in the trilogy, 'Powers', I am struck again at how quietly brilliant she is. The simplicity of her short sentences that cumulatively build an envisioned, believable world populated by real people living contexts that invite you to think and feel through urgent questions.

In each of three volumes here, the central question revolves around how do we manage our unique vocations is such a way that honours the truth of each particular difference we carry and contributes to the flawed social worlds we inhabit? What is the art of wise compromise between the two and what are its edges? When does wise compromise become folly to surrender and conformity?

It is a question that we all must ask: how to honour our gifts, that call within towards, to use Jung's phrase, an individuated life and the hard realities of the world?

You can always 'hear' in Le Guin's work her deep reading in philosophical Taoism - she is a translator of the Tao Te Ching - in each of us is the urgency of a call to be a unique embodiment of Tao and the deeper our response the more likely that we are to contribute to a right, natural ordering of society. If Confucius worked from the 'outside in', Lao Tzu worked from the 'inside out'. Genuine harmony is born of selves that honour their unique vocation.

There is too a deep emphasis placed on the importance of story - not story as a binding scriptural narrative but as a weaving of texts that offer abiding insights on how we might fashion meaningful lives. Here too perhaps is a 'Chinese' element - the notion of multiple traditions that offer a storehouse of shared possibilities, enterprises after knowing, rather than a conforming binding knowledge.

'Powers' traces the coming of age of Gavir, who has secretly held precognitions of the future, and is a slave. It tells of the slow dawning consciousness of the possibility of freedom over his inheritance of a life in spite, initially, its apparent caring comfort. It traces the trajectory of every one: how do we discover our own lived life, our own version of freedom? And how do we utilise our particular gift in both securing that freedom and contributing to the meaningful life of others.

Le Guin's body of work is an extended, highly variegated, exploration of what a genuinely free society might look like. It would be shaped by appropriate scale - the autonomy of discrete communities - that acknowledge the limits of inhabiting a natural world that is honoured for its beauty as well as its use. It would be a world that is anchored in a recognition of our diverse gifts and each person's ability to cultivate their unique offering and contribute it. It would live in a complex of story that embodies and memorises wisdom but does not seek to control our understanding of truth. Truth would be always a living aspiration, more revealed in our treatment of one another than in 'what we know'. It could always be added to - both by its re-telling, our telling one another its stories, and by our adding to it. It is a 'classical' ideal (both Chinese and Greek) and one that is deeply attractive.

Together with Wendell Berry, with whom, whilst occupying very different spaces, she shares much in common, I can think of no other living writer whom I more deeply admire.


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