In the preface to the 2019 edition of the novel, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, the second book on my list of Covid-19 reading, David Mitchell, calls Le Guin a “thought experimenter.” One of the thought experiments considered in this novel is, “What if gender was not fixed but serially mutable?”(LHD X).
The inhabitants of the planet Gethen, called “Winter” by other planets because of its extreme and constant cold, experience a 26 day cycle where they are androgynous and celibate followed by a 2-3 day cycle of “kemmer” “where they become sexually active as either male or female, with no control over which”(LHD X).
Le Guin allows us to experience Gethenians through the lens of a young male from future Earth, Genly Ai, with all the baggage that comes with that particular male and often toxic perspective. In the hands of a masterful novelist, this reveals more to us about the narrator and his world than that of the Gethenians.
“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. Thus as I sipped my smoking sour beer I thought that at table Estraven’s performance had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit. Was it in fact perhaps this soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted in him? For it was impossible to think of him as a woman, that dark, ironic, powerful presence near me in the firelit darkness, and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, or imposture: in him, or in my own attitude towards him?” (LHD 11-12).
Ultimately this is a book about friendship. Friendship between Genly Ai and Estraven, a name which spell check constantly changes to estrogen-(!)(full name Therem Harth rem ir Estraven)—a friendship borne only when the two are stripped of defenses and laid bare to their own raw and true selves and can finally see each other at their deepest and core essences. A friendship only allowed to flourish on miles and miles of barren ice and snow after Estraven rescues Genly Ai from a remote prison and their only way out is on skis.
Genly Ai is an envoy from the association of planets called the “Ekumen.” He has been sent to Gethen to make them an offer to join their alliance and gain access to free trade of information between the many planets of the Ekumen. He is sent alone and lands in Karhide, one of the nations on Gethen in which Estraven is Prime Minister to the King.
Le Guin defers to the masculine pronoun for Gethenians for various reasons: For one, there is no pronoun in the language of the people telling the story to suit the inhabitants of Gethen/Winter. And two, the book, remember, was written in 1969. The language of non-binary gender fluidity making its way into mainstream culture in 2020 was not available to her.
Genly Ai, a sexist, recoils when he sees the feminine in the inhabitants he would normally want to interact with as “male.” His response and reactivity to them is inappropriate and yet, being an alien, of a binary gendered belief system, he is unable to get out of his own way until he spends months on the ice with Estraven and even then, holds himself back from expressing his true feelings and emotions because of what also seems to be homophobia. Genly Ai is so infected with machismo that he cannot realize he has loved Estraven until Estraven is killed.
In an intriguing and illuminating way, Le Guin reveals the interplay and interconnection of sexism and homophobia in this novel. So many of Genly Ai’s thoughts around the Gethenians are both, as illustrated in the following sections:
“Damning his effeminate deviousness…”(LHD 14).
“There was in this attitude something feminine, a refusal of the abstract, the ideal, a submissiveness to the given, which rather displeased me”(LHD 213).
“A friend. What is a friend, in a world where any friend may be a lover at a new phase of the moon? Not I, locked in my virility: no friend to Therem Harth, or any other of his race. Neither man nor woman, neither and both, cyclic, lunar, metamorphosing under the hand’s touch, changelings in the human cradle, they were no flesh of mine, no friends; no love between us” (LHD 213-214).
When asked by Estraven to describe the women on his planet of origin, Genly Ai cannot do it. He can only say, “Women tend to eat less”(LHD 234). He realizes he does not know women or how to define them as different than he. He also does not view them as equal, which Estraven points out when reflecting his answers back to him.
“I suppose,” Genly Ai says, “the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female. In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners— almost everything. Vocabulary. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food”(LHD 234).
Estaven’s own observations of Genly Ai, reveal how Genly Ai’s relationship to his masculine identity creates a guise similar to what on Gethen is called “shifgrethor:”a shadowy way of interacting in which you cannot really tell one’s true intention. Shifgrethor is utilized on Gethen to not offend and save face in self and other, but it turns out that for Genly Ai, the male ego serves the same purpose among men on his planet — a posturing and acting tough to hide emotional vulnerability and sensitivity, often viewed as female in the binary construct. Though Estraven does not have the language of “male ego” or “toxic masculinity,” for he does not know anyone who is solely male save for Genly Ai, he describes it well in his observations of him.
In a moment of self-reflection, Genly Ai thinks: If Estraven “could lower all his standards of shifgrethor, as I realized he had done with me, perhaps I could dispense with the more competitive elements of my masculine self-respect, which he certainly understood as little as I understood shifgrethor…”(LHD 219).
Field notes left behind for Genly Ai by previous visitors from his planet to Gethen state:
“Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. That is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?
“Yet you cannot think of a Gethenain as “it.” They are not neuters. They are potentials, integrals…
‘The First Mobile, if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience”(LHD 95).
What an amazing line. Let’s repeat it:
“One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”
In a heartbreaking chapter titled, On the Ice, toward the end of the book, Genly Ai expresses his grief over what he has lost and let slip through his fingers because of his own biases:
“And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the source of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality….I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man”(LHD 248-249).
Foretelling on Gethen
“Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way”(LHD 233).
In the East of Karhide is the land of the Fastnesses. The land of the Foretellers and the tradition of the Handdarata. Genly Ai observes:
“The Handdara is a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed: I am still unable to say whether it has a God or not. It is elusive. It is always somewhere else. Its only fixed manifestation is in the Fastnesses, retreats to which people may retire and spend the night or a lifetime”(LHD 54-55).
Estraven is of this Handdarata tradition. The truth is that, as readers, we are all in love with the character of Estraven. Le Guin allows us to struggle with Genly Ai as he refuses to trust him and thinks harsh and ignorant thoughts about him. This upstanding Gethenian embodies characteristics cherished and honored by humans of planet earth through all times and epochs. Estraven is a person of deep loyalty and vision. His moral and ethical character allow him to see Genly Ai for who he is, an alien who has come with an offer of generosity from the Ekumen. A brave person who has allowed himself to be planted or dropped onto an alien planet with an ideal that serves only the greater good of the cosmos. A person who has surrendered his personal life on Earth to fulfill this mission. Estraven, risking his position and esteem, believes in him and his mission and wishes to help him achieve its goal, in the end even sacrificing his life for it.
It is Estraven who pens the following philosophical musings into his journal:
“To oppose something is to maintain it.” And, “To be an atheist is to maintain God”(LHD 151).
Estraven’s moral and ethical uprightness are, in part, due to his upbringing. Le Guin infuses the novel with her own Taoist beliefs. I confess I know very little about this tradition. I only recently discovered that Le Guin completed a version (not a translation) of the text by Lao Tzu,Tao Te Ching.: a book about the way and the power of the way, in 1997.
But I am a diviner and I found her depictions of the divination sessions and the philosophy that flowed out of and through this part of the novel to be illuminating and important. In the novel, these sessions are called “Foretelling.”
In rituals of intensely heightened sexual energy the Foretellers collectively listen for answers to the questions they have been presented. It is an enormously expensive undertaking for both parties. Those who ask must pay a lot because those who are the Foretellers expend large amounts of their life force in the process. The main recipient in the group listening ritual is called the “weaver.” Genly Ai befriends a weaver named Faxe who tries his best to explain to the alien the process and beliefs of the Foretellers. In an astoundingly profound passage, Faxe explains to Genly Ai that for Foretellers, the nature of the question is extremely important. “The more qualified and limited the question, the more exact the answer,” he said. “Vagueness breeds vagueness. And some questions of course are not answerable”(LHD 60).
Witness this dialogue between Genly Ai and Faxe: (note: Karhiders are unable to say the letter l and so change it to r)
“..we in the Handdara don’t want answers. It’s hard to avoid them, but we try to,” Faxe says to Genly Ai.
“Faxe, I don’t think I understand.”
“Well, we come here to the Fastnesses mostly to learn what questions not to ask.”
“But you’re the Answerers!”
“You don’t see yet, Genry, why we perfected and practice Foretelling?”
“To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question”(69-70).
It is important to note that this idea of asking the wrong question and that some questions are unanswerable is in the context of divination or spiritual seeking, not in mundane conversation. Through time humans have always found ways to ask questions about the mysteries of life and devised ways to “look into the future” or “peer beyond the veils.” It is so much a part of our history as human beings that one could consider it part of being human: to question our existence, and to ask the big questions. Le Guin is not saying to not ask questions here as a rule. She is exploring the tradition of asking through divination and other ritualistic traditions from the point of view of the anthropologist and coming to a conclusion of astounding acuity: It is important for those in the role of Foretellers to spend years learning how to not ask the wrong question.
Why do I think this is important, especially now? Because we are at a time of wild potentiality and it is good to be able to recognize these times and adjust our inquiries accordingly.
This moment, the moment we are in now with the crisis Covid-19 has delivered us to, is one of pure potentiality—it is wild. From this wild potentiality, something new is attempting to emerge. Projecting our beliefs around what that is, based on what we know or want and what has gone before, can interfere with or interrupt such an emergence. Perhaps something is trying to emerge which has not come before. If so, asking the wrong questions or attempting to answer unanswerable questions could thwart or impinge on this new world becoming.
It is time to be still and listen rather than talk and tell.
The Taoist philosophy of Le Guin woven through this novel and in her version of the Tao Te Ching is instructive.
“Do without doing.
Act without action”(TTC 75).
It also leads to Estraven’s delivery of the best line in the book:
“To learn which questions are unanswerable and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness”(151).
Ah yes, wisdom for us at this time.
Ursula K Le Guin is a #NastyWomanWriter.
©Theresa C. Dintino April, 2020
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books, 1969, 2019.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: a book about the way and the power of the way/ a new English version. Boston: Shambhala, 1997