Ursula K. Le Guin’s Blog
81. Annals of Pard, IX
Cats are pure predators: they hunt live prey. Carrion and other stuff dogs like is of no interest to them. They abhor sweets, and despise most vegetables, though many make an exception for asparagus, or corn, and my big Leonard liked a taste of salad greens and had a passion for raw spinach. We’re told that feral cats get the greens they need from what the prey they eat ate.
Pard is about as unferal as a cat can be. He stays indoors by choice and can’t be persuaded to vary his austere, self-chosen diet of dry kibbles and tap water. But we live in an old house with a lot of holes in it. The outdoors gets in. Live prey occurs fairly often. . . And he’s a very good predator, at least up to a point. He’ll spend whole days or nights in the attic, listening, expecting. He knocks over the trash basket under the kitchen sink every morning to examine it for live content. He knows where the mice were and will be. He knows where the mouse is, and waits for it. And he gets it.
It’s at this point that his predatory purity gets muddled and his skill as a hunter ends. As well as I can figure it out, his Food Perception Zone is so extremely limited that the mouse doesn’t enter into it at all. To him the mouse is a toy, a really good toy — the best imaginable — a toy that will play with him. Oh joy! And he brings it to me.
At this point most people say instructively, “He’s teaching you to hunt.” The idea is that mama cats bring live mice to their kittens and release them in order to teach the kittens hunting skills. This may well be so, but I have trouble extrapolating it to a young neutered male. Pard knows the difference between a woman and a kitten. And anyhow I don’t think he wants to teach me hunting skills. I bring him toys and play with some of them with him. He connects toy-playing with me, so he brings his grand new toy to me to play with.
His first couple of catches were dispatched pretty quickly, I think by accident, through clumsiness. He hadn’t yet learned how not to damage the toy. Alas, he has perfected this skill.
The worst time was a month or so ago when he brought a rather large, extremely vigorous mouse to my room at about two a.m. and released it on my bed. I woke up in time to fling it wildly off in a spontaneous convulsion, which sent it running about on the floor again so Pard could chase it again. Clearly I was behaving just as I should, keeping the toy in motion — so when he found it he brought it right back onto the bed. This time I was wide awake, and made noise and light as well as wild physical upheavals. Pard was delighted.
The mouse remained in good running order for a long time. There was no way I could catch it, but there were dozens of ways Pard could, and did — and then let it go again. It went on and on. It was awful. Even when they both got out into the hall, I couldn’t shut them out of the room, because the room door is about half an inch off the floor and the mouse would have got into the room leaving the cat outside hurling himself against the door. I fled to another room with a mouseproof door and shut it and hid.
That may have impaired Pard’s motivation, because the mouse got away, and he didn’t catch it for two days, though he was on the hunt most of the time. I lay each night in dread of the midnight mouse.
He caught it, and another since then, both in the trash can under the sink (which has steep sides a mouse can’t climb, so it’s like shooting fish in a barrel). He brings his mouse to my room in the dead of night, carrying it carefully, as a mother cat carries a kitten, and with the same alert, head-up, trotting gait. He puts it gently down on the floor — he hasn’t put one in bed with me again, for which I am grateful. The chase then circles round under furniture, into the doorless closet, behind the drum, through the vacuum-cleaner-parts boxes, etc. Rattle rattle, pause — BANG! — long tense pause — skitter, skitter, rustle, thump — long, long pause . . . Rattle . . . rattle. . . Then at last, blessedly, silence. The final silence. Exhaustion or an over-hasty pounce has released the mouse at last.
Pard carries it up and leaves it on the floor of Charles’s study in the attic. That done, he has absolutely no further interest in it. Why Charles gets the body, only Pard knows. We’d like to see it as a thoughtful attention, but it seems rather more like the child who generously gives his friend the toy he broke — “Here! This is a present! For you!”
Knowing that there is no way he can learn Compassion any more than he can learn Cruelty, the skill I wish I could teach Pard is Quick Murder. But whatever it is — the predatory instinct inseparably interacting with the play instinct, I suppose — all he wants of a mouse is for it to go on. And the mouse resourcefully, silently, gallantly dances out its role in the fatal tango.
82. Belief in Belief
You can buy rocks in which are carved words intended to be inspiring — LOVE, HOPE, DREAM, etc. Some have the word BELIEVE. They puzzle me. Is belief a virtue? Is it desirable in itself? Does it not matter what you believe so long as you believe something? If I believed that horses turned into artichokes on Tuesdays, would that be better than doubting it?
Charles Blow had a fine editorial in the NYT on January 3, 2014, “Indoctrinating Religious Warriors,” indicting the radical Republicans’ use of religion to confuse opinion on matters of fact, and their success in doing so. He used a Pew report, “Public’s Views on Human Evolution,” to provide this disheartening statistic:
Last year . . . the percentage of Democrats who believed in evolution inched up to 67 percent, the percentage of Republicans believing so plummeted to 43 percent. Now, more Republicans believe that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” than believe in evolution.
Now, greatly as I respect Charles Blow’s keen intelligence and reliable compassion, his choice of words here worries me. Four times in this paragraph he uses the verb “believe” in a way that implies that the credibility of a scientific theory and the credibility of a religious scripture are comparable.
I don’t think they are. And I want to write about it because I agree with him that issues of factual plausibility and spiritual belief or faith are being — cynically or innocently — confused, and need to be disentangled.
I wasn’t able to find the exact wording of the questions asked in the Pew survey. Their report uses the word “think” more often than “believe” — people “think” that human and other beings have evolved over time, or “reject the idea.”
This language reassures me somewhat. For if a poll-taker asked me, “Do you believe in evolution?” — my answer would have to be “No.”
I ought to refuse to answer at all, of course, because a meaningless question has only meaningless answers. Asking me if I believe in evolution, in change, makes about as much sense as asking if I believe in Tuesdays, or artichokes. The word evolution means change, something turning into something else. It happens all the time.
The problem here is our use of the word evolution to signify the theory of evolution. This shorthand causes a mental shortcircuit: it sets up a false parallel between a hypothesis (concerning observed fact) and a revelation (from God, as recorded in the Hebrew bible) — which is then reinforced by our loose use of the word “believe.”
I don’t believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution. I accept it. It isn’t a matter of faith, but of evidence.
The whole undertaking of science is to deal, as well as it can, with reality. The reality of actual things and events in time is subject to doubt, to hypothesis, to proof and disproof, to acceptance and rejection — not to belief or disbelief.
Belief has its proper and powerful existence in the domains of magic, religion, fear, and hope.
I see no opposition between accepting the theory of evolution and believing in God. The intellectual acceptance of a scientific theory and the belief in a transcendent deity have little or no overlap: neither can support or contradict the other. They rise from profoundly different ways of looking at the same world — different ways of coming at reality: the material and the spiritual. They can and often do co-exist in perfect harmony.
Extreme literalism in reading religious texts makes any kind of thinking hard. Still, even if one believes that God created the universe in six days a few thousand years ago, one can take that as a spiritual truth unaffected by the material evidence that the universe is billions of years old. And vice versa: as Galileo knew, though the Inquisitors didn’t, whether the earth goes round the sun or the sun goes round the earth doesn’t affect one way or the other the belief that God is the spiritual center of all.
The idea that only belief sees the world as wonderful, and the “cold hard facts” of science take all the color and wonder out of it, the idea that scientific understanding automatically threatens and weakens religious or spiritual insight, is just hokum.
Some of the hokum arises from professional jealousy, rivalry, and fear — priest and scientist competing for power and control of human minds. Atheist rant and fundamentalist rant ring alike: passionate, partial, false. My impression is that most working scientists, whether they practice a religion or not, accept the coexistence of religion, its primacy in its own sphere, and go on with what they’re doing. But some scientists hate religion, fear it, and rail against it. And some priests and preachers, wanting their sphere of influence to include everything and everyone, claim the absolute primacy of biblical revelation over material fact.
Thus they both set a fatal trap for the believer: If you believe in God you can’t believe in Evolution, and vice versa.
But this is rather like saying if you believe in Tuesday you can’t believe in artichokes.
Maybe the problem is that believers can’t believe that science doesn’t involve belief. And so, confusing knowledge with hypothesis, they fatally misunderstand what scientific knowledge is and isn’t.
A scientific hypothesis is a tentative assertion of knowledge based on the observation of reality and the collection of factual evidence supporting it. Assertions without factual content (beliefs) are simply irrelevant to it. But it’s always subject to refutation. The only way to refute it is to come up with observed facts that disprove it.
So far, evidence fully supports the hypothesis that Creation has been changing since its origin, that on Earth living creatures, adapting to change, have evolved from single-cell organisms through a vast profusion of species, and that they’re still adapting and evolving right now (as can be seen in the evolution of finch species in the Galapagos, or moth coloration, or barred/spotted owl interbreeding, or a hundred other examples).
Yet, to the strict scientific mind, the theory of evolution is not absolute knowledge. Exhaustively tested and supported by evidence as it is, it’s a theory: further observation can always alter, improve, refine, or enlarge it. It’s not dogma, it’s not an article of faith, but a tool. Scientists use it, act on it, even defend it as if they believed in it, but they’re not doing so because they take it on faith. They accept it and use it and defend it against irrelevant attack because it has so far withstood massive attempts at disproof, and because it works. It does a necessary job. It explains things that needed explaining. It leads the mind on into new realms of factual discovery and theoretical imagination.
Darwin’s theory vastly enlarges our perception of reality — our always tentative knowledge. As far as we have tested it and can test it, and always subject to modification as we learn more, we can accept it as true knowledge — a great, rich, beautiful insight. Not a revealed truth, but an earned one.
In the realm of the spirit, it appears that we can’t earn knowledge. We can only accept it as a gift: the gift of belief. Belief is a great word, and a believed truth too can be great and beautiful. It matters very greatly what one believes in.
I wish we could stop using the word belief in matters of fact, leaving it where it belongs, in matters of religious faith and secular hope. I believe we’d avoid a lot of unnecessary pain if we did so.
— Ursula K. Le guin
83. Cats, Claws, Panic
(Annals of Pard, X)
Do cats bite their nails? I mean, do cats other than Pard bite their nails?
After breakfast, Pard washes his face. Sometimes the soft swipe across the jowl with the spit-dampened front paw turns into something else: he holds that paw pad-first to to his mouth, gets a claw between his teeth, and tugs it. He tugs repeatedly, and hard enough to make a not wholly agreeable tooth-on-claw noise.
In the afternoon, when he is doing All-over Spitbath and Yoga Grooming, he lies comfortably on the lower end of his backbone, seizes one hind leg with one front paw, gets a hind claw between his teeth, and tugs it at the same way. He must be using his felines (surely they aren’t called canines in a cat?) because his other teeth don’t look capable of a grip like that.
I never had a cat before that did this. Sometimes I think he’s cleaning his claws, as we clean our fingernails. Sometimes I think he’s getting off the little shells that claws discard as they grow out. Sometimes I wonder if he’s so bored he bites his nails.
Does anybody know?
Do cats have panic attacks?
One night last month Pard stayed up in the uninhabited part of the attic all night long. In the morning he didn’t come and walk around on me and purr till I got up. He didn’t come and walk all over everything in the bathroom purring with his tail in the air while I got dressed. He didn’t gallop down the stairs ahead of me and stand around purring extremely loudly with the tip of his tail between his ears while I put his kibbles in his bowl.
He didn’t come down at all till I called him with his food call, prrrt-ticky-ticky! and rattled the kibble-can. And I had to come clear upstairs with it. Then he ventured down the attic stairs — stair by stair, paw by paw — eyes like searchlights, ears back, mouth tense, tail low: textbook illustration of Very Anxious Cat. It took him forever to get all the way down to the kitchen, and then he was too anxious to eat — the first time ever that he didn’t clean his bowl industriously and immediately. He’d nibble, and then freak out again and crouch, or run back upstairs. He never did finish that breakfast.
He was that way all day. He wanted to be with me, but was not sociable and couldn’t relax. He led me once up to the attic, and we walked all around in it. I wondered if maybe something like a raccoon or big rat had got in there and given him a scare. But there was no sign of that, and no particular place that spooked him, there or elsewhere. He was just totally, globally spooked. It was very spooky.
It really is not the kind of attic that has ghosts.
I did think of Strange Animal Behavior Before Earthquakes that I used to read about in newspaper supplements in 1938.
The only thing besides earthquakes I could think of that seemed a possible cause for such a panic was my overnight bag, which I’d set out the day before. He’d sniffed it then, with no alarm whatever, and got into it, because it is his privilege and duty to enter all enterable spaces and explore them. He has explored that bag twenty times. He got out again, and thereafter ignored the bag. I wasn’t going to travel till the next day, and anyhow wasn’t in the state I’m sometimes in before a trip; though he’s definitely sensitive to stress and high tension, I don’t think he was picking up my travel nerves. Anyhow, his way of acting out my tensions is to do The Forbidden Things — leap up to the mantelpiece, attack the embroidery on the Morris chair, disintegrate the sofa leg, etc. — and then go hide in plain sight in my armchair, exactly like a wicked three-year-old.
He remained unhappy all day, licking his lips often, tail held low, unable to settle down and sleep — barely distracted from his anxiety for a moment by crunchy Greenies, usually the delight of life.
I wasn’t happy about leaving him, wondering if some physical ailment was making him act this way, though he didn’t move or act as if in pain. He hid out somewhere again all night, but he did come in and walk around on me at six-thirty. He was still tail-down and purrless, but behaving more normally. So I went on my trip.
When I called home, Charles reported that Pard was doing better. Next day when I got home he was pretty well back to normal and the day after that he was fine.
He’s not what I’d call a spooky cat. He’s shy with people, mostly because he sees so few. Sudden noises can scare him (though sometimes he obviously just wants an excuse to race upstairs with a lot of hysterical scrabbling and a huge black bottlebrush tail. After which he saunters back down. Noise? What noise?) And he still generally prefers looking out the window to going out the door. When he does go out onto our second-story verandah, he’d rather one of us was with him; he’s tense and cautious, tail down, the whole time he’s out. Often he doesn’t even go all the way down the stairs to the garden. But mostly, usually, basically, he is a cheerful little body, tail high, purring me awake in the morning, devouring his breakfast and dinner, racing joyously after Greenies, in full control of his household and its routine.
What was that awful night and day of fear? Do cats have panic attacks out of the blue? Does anybody know?
If you know about Nail Biting Cats or Cat Panics, you can tell me by clicking on the Book View Café link to this blog. I will read all reports with interest and gratitude. (You might want to take a look at BVC’s bookstore while you’re there, they publish good stuff.)
— Ursula K. Le guin
84. The Circling Stars, the Sea Surrounding:
Philip Glass and John Luther Adams
Every year one of the Portland Opera Company’s productions is sung by the singers in the company’s outstanding training program. In 2012 it was Philip Glass’s short opera, Galileo Galilei. There is a splendor to young voices different from the patina of the experienced singer; and these performances always have an extra charge of tension and excitement.
The bold, beautiful, intricately simple set, all circles and arcs and moving lights on different planes, was, I believe, from the Chicago premiere in 2002; the conductor was Anne Manson.
The first scene shows us Galileo old, blind, and alone. From there the story follows a reverse spiral through time, revolving back lightly and ceaselessly through his trial, his triumphs, his discoveries, to the last scene where a little boy named Galileo sits hearing an opera about Orion and the Dawn and the circling planets written by his father Vincenzo Galilei. It is all borne along and buoyed up by the ceaselessly repetitive and ever-changing music, always spiralling, never resting, and yet moving with the slow majesty of the great orbits, without reference to any beginning or ending, in a vast, joyous continuity. It moves, it moves, it moves.... E pur si muove!
Portland Opera’s Galileo Galilei — Scene 2 — Recantation
I was rapt from the first moments, and by the last scene I could scarcely see the stage for tears of delight.
We came back the next night and had the same radiant experience. There’s now a recording of the Portland Opera performance (Orange Mountain Music, OMM 10091 [iTunes][amazon.com]). I have listened to this with deep pleasure and will listen to it again. But I am still certain that the true power of opera, and certainly this opera, is in the actual production, the immediate, live presence of the singers and the interaction of their voices and the music with the sets, lighting, action, movements, costumes, and audience to create a global, irreproducible experience. This is how all the great opera composers have understood their undertaking. Recording, film, all our wonderful instruments of virtuality, catch only the shadow, recall only a memory of that lived experience, that moment of real time.
An opera is a preposterous proposition. It’s almost incredible that any production of any opera ever comes off. To a lot of people, of course, it doesn’t — Tolstoy was one. Philip Glass’s music is also somewhat preposterous. To a lot of people it isn’t music at all. Some of his pieces sound mechanical, even perfunctory to me; but having been deeply moved years ago by the film Koyaanisqatsi, and by his Gandhi opera Satyagraha on stage in Seattle, I’m always ready to hear what Glass is up to now. For Galileo he had a brilliant librettist, Mary Zimmerman, and rose to the challenge. The words and action of the piece are luminously intelligent: they go to the heart of what Galileo’s life and thought mean to us in terms of knowledge, courage, and integrity both scientific and religious, yet they linger also on the humanity of the man who rejoiced in his daughter, rejoiced in thought and argument, rejoiced in his work and his great discoveries, and for his public reward got shame, silence, and exile. It is a grand story, and a dark one: quite right for opera.
I found Galileo completely beautiful. I think it as beautiful in its way as Gluck’s Orfeo is in its. Neither is so dramatically and emotionally huge as much 19th century opera, but both are complete, whole, every element in them entering into a ravishing totality. Galileo has an intellectual grandeur rare in opera, but even that is in the service of making pleasure, true pleasure — the pleasure given by something noble, thoughtful, deeply moving, and delightful.
And this was my first 21st-century opera. What a marvelous start!
Just two years later, this March, the Seattle Symphony brought a concert to Portland that included a piece, Become Ocean, they commissioned (and bravo for doing so!) from the composer John Luther Adams.
There are too many composers named John Adams. The one from San Francisco is better known at present, but I’ve found his music increasingly disappointing ever since the curiously brainless and vapid opera Nixon in China. From Alaska, John Luther Adams is still marginal not only to mainland America but to mainstream fame. But I believe that will change as his music is heard.
For Become Ocean, the orchestra is divided on stage into three groups with differing instrumentations. All three play continuously, each following its own pattern of tempo, volume, and tonality. Now one group and now another dominates, the ebb and flow of each interpenetrating with the others like currents in the sea. Sometimes they all are on the ebb; again their crescendoes overlap until a vast, deep tsunami of music swells over the hearers, overwhelming . . . and then subsides again. The harmonies are complex, there are no tunes as such, but there is no moment in the work that is anything less than beautiful. The hearer can surrender to the surrounding sound as a ship surrenders itself to the waves, as the great kelp forests surrender to the movement of the currents and the tides, as the sea itself surrenders to the gravity of the moon. When the deep music ebbed away at last, I felt that I’d come as near as ever I will to indeed becoming ocean.
We stood up to applaud, but not many people did. Portland audiences tend to leap to their feet automatically for a soloist, but rise more selectively for mere orchestra. I think the response was to some extent puzzled, maybe bored. Become Ocean is 45 minutes long. A man near us was growling about it never ending, while I was wishing it never had.
Edgard Varèse’s Deserts came next in the program, a piece that skilfully and faithfully obeys the modernist mandates of discord. Maybe we have at last worked through the period when serious music had to seek anti-harmony and strive to shock the ear. Neither Glass nor Adams appears to be following a program dictated by theory; like Gluck or Beethoven, they’re innovative because they have something new to say and know how to say it. They are obedient only to their own certainties.
I came away from both these concerts marveling that, while our republic tears itself apart and our species frantically hurries to destroy its own household, yet we go on building with vibrations in the air, in the spirit — making this music, this intangible, beautiful, generous thing.
85. Annals of Pard XI: Pard and the Time Machine
People who think of me as a Sci Fi Writer will not be surprised to hear that there is a time machine in my study. So far it hasn’t transported me among the Eloi and the Morlocks or back among the dinosaurs. Fine with me. I’ll take the time I got, thanks. All my Time Machine does is save stuff from my computer and provide interest and occupation to my cat.
In Pard’s first year with us he spent a lot of time on beetles, because we had a lot of them. The box elder beetle is now endemic in Portland, having shifted its allegiance from box elders, which we don’t have, to big-leaf maples, which we have lots of. And so we have beetles, who live under the siding-boards of the house and breed, and swarm, and creep and seep impossibly through non-existent crevices of the window frames into the house, where they mass on sunlit windows and blunder about infuriatingly, getting under pillows and papers and feet, and into everything, including cups of tea and Charles’s ears. Mostly they crawl, but fly when alarmed. They are rather pretty little beetles, and harmless, but intolerable, because (like us) there are too many of them for their own good.
Pard used to see them as animated kibbles and enjoyed the chase, the pounce, the crunch. But evidently they weren’t as tasty as Meow Mix or Dental Greenies, and anyhow, enough beetles is enough. He now ignores them as steadfastly as we do, or try to.
But back then, when the Time Machine made its little clicky-whirry-insectlike internal noises he was sure that it contained or concealed beetles, and spent a good deal of time trying to get inside it. It is 7.5 inches square and 1.5 inches high, white plastic, fortunately very tough white plastic, well and tightly sealed all round, and quite heavy for its size. All his efforts barely scratched the surface. As it continued to resist him, and his interest in beetles cooled, he stopped trying to open the Time Machine. He discovered that it offered other possibilities.
Its normal temperature is high, quite warm to the hand (and I think it gets hotter when performing its secret and mysterious connective operations in putative virtuality or the clouds of Unknowing or wherever it is it saves stuff).
My study, being half windows, is drafty and sometimes pretty cold in winter. As he came out of airborne youth and began to spend more time lying around near me in the study, Pard, being a cat, found the Warm Place.
He’s there right now, although today, the last of April, my thermometer says it’s 77º and rising. He is sound asleep. About one fifth of him is right on top of the Time Machine. The rest of him, paws and so on, spills over to the desk top, partly onto a lovely soft alpaca Moebius scarf a kind reader sent me with a prescient note that said “if you don’t need this I hope your cat will like it,” and partly on a little wool fetish-bear mat from the Southwest that a friend gave me. I never had a chance at the scarf. I opened the package at my desk. Pard came over and appropriated the scarf without a word. He dragged it a few inches away from me, lay down on it, and began to knead it, looking dreamy and purring softly, till he went to sleep. It was his scarf. The mat arrived later, and was adopted as promptly: he sat on it. The cat sat on the mat. His mat. No argument. So the mat and scarf lie on the desk right by the warm Time Machine, and the cat distributes himself daily among the three of them, and purrs, and sleeps.
The other use he may have found for the Time Machine is purely, to me, speculative. It involves dematerialization.
Pard doesn’t go outside often or stay long unless one of us is with him. He can’t sleep outside, can barely lie down and half-relax; he remains stimulated, watchful, jumpy. He has Indoors and those who share it with him pretty well under his paw, but he knows that Outdoors is way beyond his knowledge or control. He’s not at home there. Wise little cat. So, when now and then he vanishes, I don’t much worry about his having somehow got out the back door and then found his catflap locked; he’s somewhere about the house.
But sometimes the disappearance goes on, and there is no Pard anywhere, outside or in. He is not in the basement, or the dark attic, or in a closet or a cupboard, or under a bedspread. He is not. He has dematerialized.
I get anxious and call his food call, ticky-ticky-ticky! and rattle the can of Greenies in an alluring fashion that would ordinarily bring him straight up or down the stairs without touching paw to stair.
Silence. Absence. No cat.
I tell myself to stop fretting, and Charles tells me to stop fretting, and I attempt or pretend to stop fretting, and go on with whatever I’m doing, fretting.
The sense of mystery is constant and oppressive.
And then, there he is. He has rematerialized before my eyes. There he is, with his tail curved over his back, and a bland, friendly expression suggesting permanent readiness for Food.
Pard, where were you?
Silence. Affable presence. Mystery.
I think he uses the Time Machine. I think it takes him elsewhere. Not cyberspace, that’s no place for cats. Maybe he uses it to open temporal interstices, like the impossible window-frame non-spaces by which box elder beetles enter the house. By such secret ways, known to Bastet and Li Shou, lit by the stars of Leo, he visits that mysterious realm, that greater outdoors, where he is safe and perfectly at home.
86. The Internet as Heaven
Time and space are the basic parameters of being in the world. Plants and animals fill their time and their space without question: the tree or the cow occupies its place in the world and its life-span completely and comfortably, seeking only to continue in them. Human beings as babies and children do much the same.
But the developing human brain loses or abandons this seamless occupancy of the world. People begin to question the size and shape of the space they occupy and the length of time they occupy it. They become restless and uncomfortable, they feel incomplete. Dissatisfied with the parameters of their being, they seek to change or escape them. This dissatisfaction has been called divine discontent. In Buddhism recognition of it is dukkha, the First Noble Truth.
Travel was for a long time one way to augment our limited experience of space. Unfortunately it augmented the experience of time only through discomfort. (Are we there yet?) But high-speed travel, eagerly pursued as a goal for the last couple of centuries and made more comfortable, shrinks time-between-places. At 50 miles an hour or so, motion begins to erase the experience of space, to diminish the awareness of traversal. Awareness of location begins to be limited to the vehicle, with little perception of the world outside it. At supersonic speeds the body has no experience at all of the distance traversed, only of the relatively brief time spent traversing it. At the speed of light the body would probably have no experience at all of either space or time.
However, since travel as we know it involves actually transporting the body, it provides no real escape from space and time. The body, however fast and far it goes, has to end up somewhere sometime.
Human beings discovered long ago that escape from limitations of time and space is possible through altering perception — by imagination, dream, stargazing, getting drunk, getting high, intellectual concentration, contemplation, art, mystical practice. Again, the escapade doesn’t last, since when it ends you’re right back in your own body, but it is a well-tested and popular tactic.
Symbolic language provides one of these means of altering perception. Writing and reading can occupy the mind with a symbolic experience completely excluding local awareness. Of course, eventually the book ends and you’re back where you started from. Although “you” may not be entirely the same person that started out to read the book.
The absorption of consciousness by symbol is heightened tremendously on the Internet. Virtual communication (all of which involves and much of which consists of reading or writing) is a mental or symbolic act that involves the body only in mental attention and some minimal physical motions. By almost disembodying consciousness, it erases awareness of location and lapse of time. On the Internet, corporeal consciousness is replaced with a tremendously versatile, almost purely mental existence consisting of immediate symbolic communication with other people, individually or in great although not clearly realized numbers, and access to symbolic reproductions of reality in the form of information, literature, images, music, games, catalogues of consumer items, etc. This wealth of symbolic reproduction is so extendable and can lead to so many connected and related reproductions that people can wander in it endlessly. Absorbed in virtual communication on the Internet, they successfully escape from consciousness of actuality, including mortality. Symbolic communications, active and passive, fill awareness to the point that the communicator is not aware of time, space, and the body that exists in such a limited region of them.
The Internet’s supply of channels of communication and of symbolic reproductions is already inexhaustible and still increasing.
To be free of the body, tied to no place in time and no time in place, yet having effortless, limitless access to everyone one knows, to all knowledge, and to immediate or securely promised satisfaction of desires would appear to be the condition of a blessed immortality.
What could possibly be wrong with it?
THE MYTH OF THE VENEER
“The secret world of the Mafia is a concave mirror that reflects and magnifies our world. If looked at properly, it can illuminate aspects of society that are normally out of focus and taken for granted. When we peel away the veneer of law and moral convention, we enter a world where social relations are in their raw state, the use of violence is pervasive, information uncertain and betrayal a common currency, and where the natural bonds of family love are defiled. By looking at the Mafia microcosm, we can understand better who we are.”
This paragraph, from the Times Literary Supplement of September 18, 2009, opened a review by Federico Varese of The First Family, by Mike Dash, a book about the Mafia. I found it such an exemplary mishmash of half-baked statements and half-thought-out notions that I kept it around until I could take it on, mixed metaphor by mixed metaphor, cliché by cliché. I think it was worth doing, because the basic fallacy it expresses is repeated so tirelessly and accepted so widely as the tough-minded, ugly truth. I’m calling it after its favorite metaphor: The Myth of the Veneer.
So, to begin with: What aspects of society are normally out of focus? What aspects of society are normally in focus? When, to whom? Whose eyes are supposed to be looking, focused or unfocused?
How does peeling away a veneer allow us to enter a world?
If you peel away a veneer, you reveal a solid substance of a different nature from the veneer. If law and moral convention are a veneer, the implication is that they are a thin, artificial disguise or prettification of something substantial but less pretty.
What is this substance?
Are we to assume the substance revealed is that of social relations in their raw state?
Does a raw state postulate some “natural” or prehistoric phase of human existence, a pre-social state in which there was no social code, and each individual invented behavior and relationship from scratch?
Social animals such as man all live within a system of rules of behavior and relationship, some innate and some learned, which limit violence within the group, facilitate communication, and make repeated betrayal of trust unprofitable. Almost all human beings, even infants, are continuously engaged in intensely complex mutual human relationships taking place within a society and culture consisting of rules, laws, traditions, institutions, etc. that specify and regulate the nature and manner of those relationships.
There is no evidence that human beings ever lived in asocial anarchy, and much evidence that, like other social animals, they have always lived within a social system. The rules differ greatly, but there are never no rules.
In other words, law and moral convention — social control of behavior and relationship — is not an artificial, enforced constraint, but a substantial element of our existence as members of our species. Non-violent, informative, trustworthy behavior is fully as natural to us as violence, lying, and betrayal.
This confusion about what “natural” means is exposed in the surprising statement that the natural bonds of family are defiled in the world revealed by the Mafia-mirror — a world previously posited as the “raw,” natural one that was concealed by “unnatural” social hypocrisy.
Why would we understand better who we are by looking in the Mafia-mirror? Its selective reflection and magnification appear to “illuminate” only degradation of the substantial and defilement of the natural. We certainly will come to understand better who the Mafiosi are by studying their world. But wouldn’t we better understand who we are by looking at the place of such an institution as the Mafia within the rich, complex world of (more or less) functional human relationships, law, and moral convention in which most of us who read books and blogs are fortunate enough to live?
But Mr Varese, dismissing all that as mere veneer, privileges criminality as reality.
Rip off the disguise and we are all revealed — traitorous, savage, ruthless brutes. It’s a fantasy cherished by many. Particularly, perhaps, by quite honest, decent, literary men.
88. Annals of Pard, XII: An Unfinished Education
Last Thursday night, Pard woke me up about 3 a.m. by bringing his real, live mouse toy onto the bed so I could play with it too.
This was the third time he’s done it, always about 3 in the morning. For the third time (having had some practice) I flung both cat and mouse off the bed with a giant convulsion of bedclothes. Both cat and mouse went right on running briskly about the room, scrabble scrabble silence scutter scamper silence scrabble. . . . This time, I didn’t stick it out at all. I fled down the hall to another bedroom and shut the door.
In the morning Pard was walking up and down the hall all bright and innocent and wondering why I was in that bedroom?
No sign of mouse.
Last time, there never was any sign of what became of mouse. I assumed it escaped, that time, and this time.
But Friday night Pard woke me about 3 a.m. by rummaging persistently at the base of the standing lamp in my bedroom, making annoying noises, and worrying me that he’d knock the lamp over, even though the base is a big, heavy brass disk. No way to go back to sleep with that going on. I picked him up and shut him out of the room.
There’s no use trying to shut out both Pard and a mouse, because the door is so high off the floor that the mouse can run back in, leaving Pard out, and then Pard will rattle the door persistently and cry.
But this time, when I shut him out, Pard just went down the hall to sleep in the other bedroom. This told me, indirectly, something about the mouse.
Pard is an excellent hunter, but as I said in an earlier blog, he doesn’t know that he should kill the prey, nor, evidently, does he know how to. His instincts and skills are impeccably feline, but his education was incomplete.
Saturday morning, once I was up, dressed, and more or less competent, I lifted the heavy lamp base and looked under it. Sure enough, the poor little dead mouse was there. In its last refuge.
Injury, terror, exhaustion. All can be mortal.
I wrote a poem for the mouse. I am not sure it’s finished yet, I keep moving lines and changing bits of it; but here it is in its current form.
Words for the dead
Mouse my cat killed
To your soul I say:
With none to hide from
And to your body:
Inside the body
89a. About Anger
Part i. Saeva indignatio
In the consciousness-raising days of the second wave of feminism, we made a big deal out of anger, the anger of women. We praised it and cultivated it as a virtue. We learned to boast of being angry, to swagger our rage, to play the Fury.
We were right to do so. We were telling women who believed they should patiently endure insults, injuries, and abuse that they had every reason to be angry. We were rousing people to feel and see injustice, the methodical mistreatment to which women were subjected, the almost universal disrespect of the human rights of women, and to resent and refuse it for themselves and for others. Indignation, forcibly expressed, is an appropriate response to injustice. Indignation draws strength from outrage, and outrage draws strength from rage. There is a time for anger, and that was such a time.
Anger is a useful, perhaps indispensable, tool in motivating resistance to injustice. But I think it is a weapon — a tool useful only in combat and self-defense.
People to whom male dominance is important or essential fear women’s resistance, therefore women’s anger — they know a weapon when they see one. The backlash from them was immediate and predictable. Those who see human rights as consisting of men’s rights labeled every woman who spoke up for justice as a man-hating, bra-burning, intolerant shrew. With much of the media supporting their view, they successfully degraded the meaning of the words feminism and feminist, identifying them with intolerance to the point of making them almost useless, even now.
The far right likes to see everything in terms of warfare. If you look at the feminism of 1960-90 that way, you might say it worked out rather like the Second World War: the people who lost it gained a good deal, in the end. These days, overt male dominance is less taken for granted; the gender gap in take-home pay is somewhat narrower; there are more women in certain kinds of high positions, particularly in higher education; within certain limits and in certain circumstances, girls can act uppity and women can assume equality with men without risk. As the old ad with the cocky bimbo smoking a cigarette said, You’ve come a long way, baby.
Oh gee, thanks, boss. Thanks for the lung cancer, too.
Perhaps — to follow the nursery metaphor instead of the battlefield one — if feminism was the baby, she’s now grown past the stage where her only way to get attention to her needs and wrongs was anger, tantrums, acting out, kicking ass. In the cause of gender rights, mere anger now seldom proves a useful tool. Indignation is still the right response to indignity, to disrespect, but in the present moral climate it seems to be most effective expressed through steady, resolute, morally committed behavior and action.
This is clearly visible in the issue of abortion rights, where the steadfast nonviolence of rights defenders faces the rants, threats, and violence of rights opponents. The opponents would welcome nothing so much as violence in return. If NARAL vented rage as Tea Party spokesmen do, if the clinics brandished guns to defend themselves from the armed demonstrators, the opponents of abortion rights on the Supreme Court would hardly have to bother dismantling Roe vs Wade by degrees, as they’re doing. The cause would be already lost.
As it is, it may suffer a defeat, but if we who support it hold firm it will never be lost.
Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger. It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice.
If women who value freedom are dragged back into open conflict with oppression, forced to defend ourselves against the re-imposition of unjust laws, we will have to call on anger as a weapon again: but we’re not at that point yet, and I hope nothing we do now brings us closer to it.
Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous. Nursed for its own sake, valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal. It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness. Corrosive, it feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process. The racism, misogyny, and counter-rationality of the reactionary right in American politics for the last several years is a frightening exhibition of the destructive force of anger deliberately nourished by hate, encouraged to rule thought, invited to control behavior. I hope our republic survives this orgy of self-indulgent rage.
89b. About Anger
Part ii. Private Anger
I’ve been talking about what might be called public anger, political anger. But I went on thinking about the subject as a personal experience: Getting mad. Being angry. And I find the subject very troubling because, though I want to see myself as a woman of strong feeling but peaceable instincts, I have to realise how often anger fuels my acts and thoughts, how very often I indulge in anger.
I know that anger can’t be suppressed indefinitely without crippling or corroding the soul. But I don’t know how useful anger is in the long run. Is private anger to be encouraged?
Considered a virtue, given free expression at all times, as we wanted women’s anger against injustice to be, what would it do?
Certainly an outburst of anger can cleanse the soul and clear the air. But anger nursed and nourished begins to act like anger suppressed: it begins to poison the air with vengefulness, spitefulness, distrust, breeding grudge and resentment, brooding endlessly over the causes of the grudge, the righteousness of the resentment. A brief, open expression of anger in the right moment, aimed at its true target, is effective — anger is a good weapon. But a weapon is appropriate to, justified only by, a situation of danger. Nothing justifies cowing the family every night with rage at the dinnertable, or using a tantrum to settle the argument about what TV channel to watch, or expressing frustration by tailgating and then passing on the right at 80 mph yelling FUCK YOU!
Perhaps the problem is this: when threatened, we pull out our weapon, anger. Then the threat passes or evaporates. Bu the weapon is still in our hand. And weapons are seductive, even addictive; they promise to give us strength, security, dominance. . . .
Looking for positive sources or aspects of my own anger, I recognised one: self-respect. When slighted or patronised, I flare up in fury and attack, right then right there. I have no guilt about that.
But then, so often it turns out to have been a misunderstanding, the disrespect was not intended, or was mere clumsiness perceived as a slight. And even if it was intended, so what?
As my great-aunt Betsy said of a woman who snubbed her, “I pity her poor taste.”
Mostly my anger is connected less with self-respect than with negatives: jealousy, hatred, fear.
Fear, in a person of my temperament, is endemic and inevitable, and I can’t do much about it except recognise it for what it is and try not to let it rule me entirely. If I’m in an angry mood and aware of it, I can ask myself: so, what is it you’re afraid of? That gives me a place to look at my anger from. Sometimes it helps get me into clearer air.
Jealousy sticks its nasty yellowgreen snout mostly into my life as a writer. I’m jealous of other writers who soar to success on wings of praise, I’m contemptuously angry at them, at the people who praise them — if I don’t like their writing. I’d like to kick Ernest Hemingway for faking and posturing when he had the talent to succeed without faking. I snarl at what I see as the unending overestimation of James Joyce. The enshrinement of Philip Roth infuriates me. But all this jealous anger happens only if I don’t like what they write. If I like a writer’s writing, praise of that writer makes me happy. I can read endless appreciations of Virginia Woolf. A good article about José Saramago makes my day. So evidently the cause of my anger isn’t so much jealousy or envy as, once again, fear. Fear that if Hemingway, Joyce, or Roth really are The Greatest, there’s no way I can ever be very good or very highly considered as a writer — because there’s no way I am ever going to write anything like what they write or please the readers and critics they please.
The circular silliness of this is self-evident; but my insecurity is incurable. Fortunately it operates only when I read about writers I dislike, never when I’m actually writing. When I’m at work on a story, nothing could be farther from my mind than anybody else’s stories, or status, or success.
Anger’s connection with hatred is surely very complicated, and I don’t understand it at all, but again fear seems to be involved. If you aren’t afraid of someone or something threatening or unpleasant, you can as a rule despise it, igore it, or even forget it. If you fear it, you have to hate it. I guess hatred uses anger as fuel. I don’t know. I don’t really like going to this place.
What I am coming away from it with, though, seems to be a pervasive idea that anger is connected with fear.
My fears come down to fear of not being safe (as if anyone is ever safe) and of not being in control (as if I ever was in control). Does the fear of being unsafe and not in control express itself as anger, or does it use anger as a kind of denial of the fear?
One view of clinical depression explains it as sourced in suppressed anger. Anger turned, perhaps, against the self, because fear — fear of being harmed, and fear of doing harm — prevents the anger from turning against the people or circumstances causing it.
If so, no wonder a lot of people are depressed, and no wonder so many of them are women. They are living with an unexploded bomb.
So, how do you defuse the bomb, or when and how can you explode it safely, even usefully?
A psychologist once informed my mother that a child should not be punished in anger. To be useful, he said, punishment must be administered calmly, with a clear and rational explanation to the child of the cause of punishment. Never strike a child in anger, he said.
“It sounded so right,” my mother said to me. “But then I thought — was he telling me to hit a kid when I’m not angry?”
This was shortly after my daughter Caroline, a sweet-natured, affectionate two-year-old, came up to me while the family were sitting around on the terrace outside my parents’ house; she smiled up at me rather uncertainly and bit me hard on the leg.
My left arm swung out in full backhand and knocked her away like a fly. She was unhurt, but enormously surprised.
There were then, of course, many tears, many hugs, many consolations. There were no apologies on either side. I only got guilty about hitting her later. “That was terrible,” I said to my mother. “I didn’t think! I just whacked her!”
My mother then told me about what the psychologist had told her. And she said, “When your brother Clifton was two, he bit me. And he kept doing it. I didn’t know what to do, I thought I shouldn’t punish him. Finally I just blew up, I slapped him. He was so surprised, like Caroline. I don’t think he even cried. And he stopped biting.”
If there is a moral to this tale, I don’t know what it is.
I see in the lives of people I know how crippling a deep and deeply suppressed anger is. It comes from pain, and it causes pain.
Maybe the prolonged “festival of cruelty” going on in our literature and movies is an attempt to get rid of repressed anger by expressing it, acting it out symbolically. Kick everybody’s ass all the time! Torture the torturer! Describe every agony! Blow up everything over and over!
Does this orgy of simulated or “virtual” violence relieve anger, or increase the leaden inward load of fear and pain that causes it? For me, the latter; it makes me sick and scares me. Anger that targets everything and everybody indiscriminately is the futile, infantile, psychotic rage of the man with an automatic rifle shooting pre-schoolers. I can’t see it as a way of life, even pretended life.
You hear the anger in my tone? Anger indulged rouses anger.
Yet anger suppressed breeds anger.
What is the way to use anger to fuel something other than hurt, to direct it away from hatred, vengefulness, self-righteousness, and make it serve creation and compassion?
90. Catching Up, Ha Ha
It’s been two months since I blogged. Considering i’ the eve of my 85th birthday, and that anyone over 75 who isn’t continuously and conspicuously active is liable to be considered dead, I thought I should make some signs of life. Wave from the grave, as it were. Hello, out there! How are things in the Land of Youth? Here in the Land of Age they are rather weird.
The weirdness includes being called a liar by Hugh Woolly, the famous self-publisher of How, because I was rude to amazondotcom, the famous philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting publishers, encouraging writers, and greasing the skids of the American Dream. Various other weirdnesses have arisen in my life as a writer, some quite enjoyable. But the important and dominant weirdness of life this autumn consists of not having a car — a condition that to a lot of people is the American Nightmare.
We do have our nice Subaru, but we can’t drive it. I never could. I learned to drive in 1947 but didn’t get a license, for which I and all who know me are grateful. I’m one of those pedestrians who start to cross the street, scuttle back to the curb for no reason, then suddenly leap out in front of your car just as you get into the intersection. I am the cause of several near accidents and a great deal of terrible swearing. It’s awful to think what I might have done armed with an automobile. In any case, I don’t drive. And since August, sciatic pain from stenosis keeps Charles from driving, and from walking much at all. I can walk (I have the same thing he has, fortunately much less severely), but after a few blocks I go lame on the left hind. We’re ten steep blocks from our Co-Op market. So we’ve lost the liberty our legs or the car gave us to pop out and get what we needed when we needed it.
It’s a wonderful freedom, much missed. I’ve had to go back to the routine of my childhood, when we did the shopping once a week. No running down to see what looks fresh and good for dinner or to pick up a quart of milk — everything has to be planned ahead and written down. If you don’t get the cat litter on Tuesday, well, you don’t have any cat litter till next Tuesday, and the cat may have some questions for you.
There’s no hardship about shopping this way, in fact I look forward to it, since my friend Moe takes me, and is a really good, intense shopper who notices bargains and things. But still it’s tiresome always having to think about it, instead of just doing it.
Just do it! — the motto for those who run twenty miles every morning in swoosh-covered shoes, the mantra of undelayed gratification. Yeah, well. Charles and I do better with Sí, se puede. Or, with Gallic philosophy, On y arrive.
As for doctors’ appointments, one of the finest paradoxes of senility is that the oftener you have to go to the doctor the harder it is to get there. And haircuts! Now I know how the world looks to those little dogs with the bangs all over their eyes. It looks hairy.
All in all, the main effect of being inordinately old and carless is that there’s even less time to do things other than what has to be done than there was before. Keeping up with answering letters, and writing blog posts, and getting the books in the basement organized, and a whole slew of things like that all get put on the back burner — which may or may not be functioning, as we have had the stove since 1960.
But you know, they don’t make stoves like that any more.
91. The Inner Child and the Nude Politician
Last summer a company that makes literary T-shirts asked me for permission to use a quote:
“The creative adult is the child who survived.”
I looked at the sentence and thought, Did I write that sentence? I think I wrote something like it. But I hope not that sentence. “Creative” is not a word I use much since it was taken over by corporationthink. And isn’t any adult a child who survived?
So I googled the sentence. I got lots of hits, and boy were some of them weird. In many of them the sentence is ascribed to me, but no reference to a source is ever given.
The weirdest one is at a site called quotes-clothing dot com:
The creative adult is the child who survived.
The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them “grown up”. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of schooling, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world.
The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child.
Falsely yours, Ursula LeGuin”
The oddest part of this little orgy of self-pity is “Falsely yours,” which I take to be a coy semi-confession of forgery by whoever actually wrote the rant.
I’ve looked through my own essays for the sentence that could have been used or misused for the quote, because I still have a feeling there is one. So far I haven’t found it. I asked my friends in a sf chat group if it rang any bell with them — some of them being scholars, with a keen nose for provenience — but none of them could help. If anybody reading this has a theory about the origin of the pseudo-quote, or better yet a Eureka! with volume and page citation — would you please post it as a response at BVC? Because it’s been bothering me ever since June.
The sentence itself, its use and popularity, bothers me even more. Indifference to what words actually say; willingness to accept a vapid truism as a useful, even revelatory concept; carelessness about where a supposed quotation comes from — that’s all part of what I like least about the Internet. A “blah blah blah, who cares, information is what I want it to be” attitude — a lazy-mindedness that degrades both language and thought.
But deeper than that lies my aversion to what the sentence says to me: that only the child is alive and creative — so that to grow up is to die.
To respect and cherish the freshness of perception and the vast, polymorphous potentialities of childhood is one thing. But to say that we experience true being only in childhood and that creativity is an infantile function — that’s something else.
I keep meeting this devaluation of growing up in fiction, and also in the cult of the Inner Child.
There’s no end of books for children whose hero is a rebellious misfit — the boy or girl (usually described as plain, and almost predictably redhaired) who gets into trouble by questioning or resisting or ignoring The Rules. Every young reader identifies with this kid, and rightly. In some respects, to some extent, all children are victims of society: they have little or no power; they aren’t given the chance to show what’s in them.
And they know it. They love reading about taking power, getting back at bullies, showing their stuff, getting justice. They want to do so so that they can grow up, claim independence in order to take responsibility.
But there’s a literature written for both kids and adults in which human society is reduced to the opposition Kids Good/Creative, Adults Bad/Dead Inside. Here the child hero is not only rebellious, but is in all ways superior to their hidebound, coercive society and the stupid, insensitive, mean-minded adults that surround them. They may find friendship with other children, and understanding from a wise, grandparently type of another skin color or from people marginal to or outside their society. But they have nothing to learn from adults of their own people, and those elders have nothing to teach them. Such a child is always right, and wiser than the adults who repress and misunderstand him. Yet the super-perceptive, wise child is helpless to escape. He is a victim. Holden Caulfield is a model of this child. Peter Pan is his direct ancestor.
Tom Sawyer has something in common with this kid, and so does Huck Finn, but Tom and Huck are not sentimentalized or morally over-simplified, nor do they consent to be victims. They are described with, and have, a powerful sense of ironic humor, which affects the crucial issue of self-pity. The coddled Tom loves to see himself as cruelly oppressed by meaningless laws and obligations, but Huck, a real victim of personal and social abuse, has no self-pity at all. Both of them, however, fully intend to grow up, to take charge of their own life. And they will — Tom no doubt as a successful pillar of his society, Huck a freer man, out there in the Territories.
It seems to me the Super-Perceptive Child Victim of Self-Pity has something in common with the Inner Child: They’re lazy. It’s so much easier to blame the grownups than to be one.
The idea that we all contain an Inner Child who has been suppressed by our society, the belief that we should cultivate this Inner Child as our true self and that we can depend upon it to release our creativity, seems an over-reductive statement of an insight expressed by many wise and thoughtful people — among them Jesus: “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Some mystics and many great artists, aware of drawing on their childhood as a deep source of inspiration, have spoken of the need to maintain an unbroken inner connection between the child and the adult in one’s own inward life.
But to reduce this to the idea that we can open a mental door from which our imprisoned Inner Child will pop out and teach us how to sing, dance, paint, think, pray, cook, love, etc . . . ?
A very wonderful statement of the necessity, and the difficulty, of maintaining a connection to one’s own child-self is Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality. The poem offers a profoundly felt, profoundly thoughtful, radical argument:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.
Instead of seeing birth as an awakening from blank nonbeing into the child’s fullness of being, and maturity as a narrowing, impoverishing journey towards blank death, the Ode proposes that a soul enters life forgetting its eternal being, can remember it throughout life only in intimations and moments of revelation, and will recall and rejoin it fully only in death.
Nature, says Wordsworth, offers us endless reminders of the eternal, and we are most open to them in our childhood. Though we lose that openness in adult life, when “Custom” lies upon us “with a weight, Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life,” still we can keep faith with
I cherish this testimony particularly because it need not be seen as rising from the belief system of any religion. Believer and freethinker can share this vision of human existence passing from light through darkness into light, from mystery to endless mystery.
In this sense, the innocence, the unjudging, unqualified openness to experience of the young child, can be seen as a spiritual quality attainable or re-attainable by the adult. And I think this is what the idea of the Inner Child originally, or optimally, is all about.
But Wordsworth makes no sentimental plea to us to nourish the child we were by denying the value of maturity or by trying to be a child again. However conscious we are of the freedom and awareness and joyfulness we lose as we age, we live a full human life not by stopping at any stage, but by becoming all that is in us to become.
(If, like me, you look at that word, soothing, in surprise, wondering how thoughts of human suffering can be soothing, perhaps you will feel as I do that such wonder is a key — a sign that the poet’s direct language contains immensely more than its apparent clarity reveals at first, that nothing he says in this poem is simple, and that though it’s easily understood, any understanding of it may lead on, if followed, to further understanding.)
The cult of the Inner Child tends to oversimplify what Wordsworth leaves complex, close off what he leaves open, and make oppositions where there are none. The child is good — therefore the adult is bad. Being a kid is great — so growing up is the pits.
Sure enough, growing up isn’t easy. As soon as they can toddle, babies are bound to toddle into trouble. Wordsworth had no illusions about that: “Shades of the prison house Close on the growing boy. . .” The transition to adulthood, adolescence, is difficult and dangerous, recognised as such by many cultures — all too often in punitive ways such as cruel male initiation rites, or the brutal eradication of adolescence in girls by marrying them off as soon as they menstruate.
I see children as unfinished beings who have been given a very large job to do. Their job is to become complete, to fulfil their potential: to grow up. Most of them want to do this job and try their level best to do it. All of them need adult help in doing it. This help is called “teaching.”
Teaching can of course go wrong, be restrictive not educative, be stultifying, cruel. Everything we do can be done wrong. But to dismiss all teaching as a mere repression of childish spontaneity is a monstrous injustice to every patient parent and teacher in the world since the Old Stone Age, and denies both children’s right to grow up and their elders’ responsibility to help them do so.
Children are by nature, by necessity, irresponsible, and irresponsibility in them, as in puppies or kittens, is part of their charm. Carried into adulthood it becomes a dire practical and ethical failing. Uncontrolled spontaneity wastes itself. Ignorance isn’t wisdom. Innocence is wisdom only of the spirit. We can and do all learn from children, all through our life; but “become as little children” is a spiritual counsel, not an intellectual, practical, or ethical one.
In order to see that our emperors have no clothes on, do we really have to wait for a child to say so? Or even worse, wait for somebody’s Inner Brat to pipe up? If so, we’re in for a lot of nude politicians.
92. Knowing a Book by its Cover
I looked, I liked, and (since I couldn’t read the title) I wondered: Which book is it? What language? I must have forgotten that I had something coming out in Africa? or maybe India?
I looked inside, and saw it was Four Ways to Forgiveness, published in Finland.
The publisher is Vaskikirjat. I’d like to credit the translator and the cover artist, but since Finnish is a language of which I don’t know and can’t even guess at a single word, I don’t know who is which: (Käännös) Jyrki Iivonen, (Kansi) Jani Laatikainen, or (Taitto) Erkka Leppänen. In any case, my thanks to all.
Now I wish I knew if you, Reader, were as surprised as I was to find this is the cover of a book printed in Finland. And if you, like me, are a little horrified by your own surprise — but not surprised at it.
Finland is a nation of about 5 million people. As well as I can figure from the statistics, about 99% of this population is white.
The US is a nation of about 316 million people, of whom around 77% are or consider themselves white.
I believe everybody in Four Ways to Forgiveness is some shade of brown except for those described as black, and the slave population of Yeowe, contemptuously called “dusties,” who are a sort of pale greige. In most of my books, a minority of the characters, or none, are specified as white, while major characters or whole populations are described as dark-skinned.
With very rare exceptions, the cover art of my books in both America and England has utterly ignored specific descriptions in the text and portrayed the characters as white. Often strikingly white — pallid North European types — Finnish, maybe . . .
Many readers believe that writers get to choose the covers of their books. In traditional publishing, it’s a lucky author who even gets a look at the cover before the book comes out. Some of us who have gained a little clout get a clause in the contract that gives us cover approval, but our approval is ”not to be unreasonably withheld.”
Guess who gets to define “unreasonable”?
I’ve fought the blonde bimbos and the hairy-chested, blue-eyed Aryan heroes tooth and nail for forty years. Over and over I have been utterly defeated. Publisher’s cover departments are patronizing and impenetrable. We know what sells, they say. Covers with people of color on them don’t sell.
Cover departments are always absolutely certain that they know what sells. Blind certainty is a hard thing to overcome, particularly when it’s silently supported by a comfortably unquestioning acceptance of racial prejudice.
And so in a way it’s self-fulfilling, for if no one in America ever sees a book with a person of color on the cover, a book with a person of color on it may look quite strange, unfriendly, to something like 77% of possible American readers . . . Oh it’s something about Them, it isn’t about Us, I only want to read about Us.
Dear Finnish publisher and artist, I praise your spirit and thank you for giving my book this joyous and appropriate presentation.
May the publishers presenting my books in my own country look at it and take thought, and take courage from it too. It’s true, what this painting shows: if we bring the good spirit to the dance, we can dance together. There might even be a Forgiveness Day.
Website Copyright © 2016 Ursula K. Le Guin