No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, August 14, 2014

on Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness

This essay originally appeared in Pete Young's Big Sky fanzine, August 2014.

The Left Hand of Darkness reveals something new on each reread. The first time I read it, I was fascinated by Gethenian androgyny: the second time, the narrative of the journey across the glacier drew me in. (Years later, I'd wonder why I felt such a sense of familiarity on first reading Shackleton's South and Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World, both accounts of Antarctic expeditions.) On subsequent readings, I became engrossed in the politics of Karhide, and the concept of shifgrethor (face, pride, prestige); in the parallels between Orgoreyn and the USSR; on religion and the nature of Foretelling, the 'tamed hunch' which produces accurate prophecy; on Genly Ai, the primary narrator, and his innate prejudices.

But again and again I return to Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, whose fall from King's Ear to political exile forms one arc of the novel. Genly Ai's mission, to persuade Gethen to join the interplanetary coalition of the Ekumen, succeeds because of Estraven: I think it's significant that the novel begins not with the beginning of Ai's mission, but with the initial rumours of Estraven's fall from grace.

Estraven's background is lightly sketched. His brother Arek, whom he loved dearly, has been dead for fourteen years; Estraven left home because of him. He has three sons: two by Ashe Foreth, and one, Sorve, who still lives in Estraven's ancestral home with Estraven's parent, Esvans.

To complicate matters, there's a 'hearth tale' which recounts the story of another Arek and another Therem, mortal foes who vowed kemmering (as close as Gethenians get to marriage). The first Therem bore a child; the first Arek was slain by Therem's kinsfolk. Unsettlingly, the name of the first Therem's father was Sorve. One can't help but wonder what Esvans was thinking when he named them. That story is hardly auspicious.

The concept of 'parent-in-the-flesh' is a necessary consequence of Gethenian physiology. All Gethenians are androgyne, neuter, except for the few days per month when they're in kemmer. Hormonal secretions determine whether an individual adopts the male or female role during kemmer. ('No physiological habit is established, and the mother of several children may be the father of several more'.) If conception occurs, the person in the female role will bear the child, and will be the 'parent-in-the-flesh'.

The two children Estraven and Ashe had together were 'born of [Ashe's] flesh': I don't believe they're ever named, and Estraven's contact with them is minimal. In contrast, he writes long letters to his other son Sorve (whose name, of course, reflects the parent in the old hearth-tale). Why the inconsistency? We learn in the final pages of the novel that Sorve is the child conceived by Estraven and his brother Arek. Incest isn't prohibited, but full siblings can't vow kemmer: which is probably the cause of Estraven's first exile, from his homeland. Is Estraven's attachment to Sorve simply an attachment to the child of his dead brother, or is there something more? If Estraven is Sorve's 'parent-in-the-flesh', perhaps Le Guin is using their relationship to demonstrate the aspect of Estraven that Genly Ai struggles to see: his femininity.

"Impossible to think of him as a woman," muses Genly in the first chapter of the novel, yet Estraven -- like all Gethenians -- is both man and woman. Only when Genly accepts his friend's nature does he realise how little he understands women, half of humanity. (One hopes that the views he expresses in his journal are more indicative of the novel's publication date than future in which it's set.) It's Estraven's profound humanism that drives him to support Genly Ai's attempt to integrate Gethen with the rest of the human species: and it's a tragedy on the grandest scale that Estraven doesn't live to see his hopes fulfilled, to learn about 'the other worlds out among the stars, the other kinds of men, the other lives'.