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Ursula Le Guin’s Eternal Search for Freedom

“We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality”

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Before Ursula K. Le Guin, who died last week at age 88, goes to dwell among the stars — maybe near the constellation that bears her name — it’s worth remembering how provocative she could be. The outpouring of tributes to her generosity, inventiveness, and wisdom has been so profoundly personal because she spoke to people so directly: a book or story by Le Guin could go so deep that it felt like yours alone. As her biographer, I can attest to her warmth, and elsewhere I’ve written about the love of home and humor that was one aspect of her many-sided being.

But I also want to talk about how good her aim was with a verbal thunderbolt. When Le Guin accepted a lifetime achievement award at the 2014 National Book Awards, an audience of New York editors and publishers witnessed her in her full angry glory, just before they were sizzled into a smoldering ash heap by her speech. Apologetically at first, then with growing authority, she castigated them for philistinism and for selling out. “Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words,” she told them. “We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.”

In the past week I’ve found myself rereading her 1974 short story “The Day Before the Revolution. It describes the last day in the life of Laia Odo, the theorist of the Odonian anarchist society Le Guin imagined in her novel The Dispossessed. A group of young people visit Odo, wanting to see the Great Woman up close. She likes them — they’re young and full of ideas — but doesn’t want their adoration.

She snarled at them: Think your own thoughts!… They accepted their tongue-lashing meekly as children, gratefully, as if she were some kind of All-Mother.… She! She who had…kicked policemen, and spat at priests, and pissed in public on the big brass plaque in Capitol Square.… And now she was everybody’s grandmama, the dear old lady, the sweet old monument, come worship at the womb. The fire’s out, boys, it’s safe to come up close. 

Le Guin wasn’t anyone’s dear old lady either, and she too had revolutionary sympathies. In recent years she cheered on the fall of the Wall, Occupy, the Arab Spring. Discussing her dislike of orthodox religion, she sent Voltaire’s “Ecrasez l’infâme!” blazing past my head. Violent overthrow wasn’t what she was after: For one thing, she had too much talent for enjoying the bourgeois here and now (good food, travel, season tickets to the Portland Symphony). But in our conversations about her life, I kept seeing her openness to reimagining the established order.

Born on October 21, 1929, she grew up in Berkeley, California, the youngest of four gifted, competitive, argumentative professor’s children. She was an intellectual in a conformist high school and a provincial at snobbish, insular Radcliffe, where women were viewed as second-class citizens to the Harvard men. The words insider and outsider annoyed her; she thought of her younger self, she said, as one of “the unnoticed.” She encouraged other unnoticed people. She often wrote from unnoticed points of view, including the perspectives of animals, rocks, and, once, a tree.

If there’s a pattern that recurs in Le Guin’s life as well as her work, it may be the search for freedom, a word that meant many things to her, including freedom of imagination and permission to follow one’s muse. She came of age in the late 1940s, when the Iron Curtain was falling across Europe and American politics were becoming more repressive. In her twenties she lived for two years in Georgia, her husband’s home state, and the experience of segregation left a mark. The American literary mainstream seemed to her competitive and narrow. When she began writing, she said, “I was looking for something I needed in my own life. It had to do with just thinking and being, in a society that really did seem to be shutting the doors and windows and becoming more stifling.”

Her husband, Charles, was writing his thesis on the French Revolution when they met in 1953, as graduate students and Fulbright scholars sailing to France. Plus he coincidentally shared a name — as Le Guin proudly pointed out — with Guy Le Guen de Kerangal, a Breton revolutionary who in 1789 passionately denounced the feudal system. During Ursula’s writing apprenticeship, in the 1950s, she drafted and redrafted a novel about revolution, set in 1830 in an imaginary European country she called Orsinia after herself.  

Freedom also meant to her something male writers of her generation took for granted and women prized: the space to do one’s work within a loving partnership, what in The Dispossessed she called “that recognition of each person’s solitude which alone transcends it.” She worked with focus and intensity from the beginning, with Charles’s support, though she once said the most important “room of one’s own” is in the writer’s mind: “What you need is the conviction that what you are doing is of real importance, and really worth doing, and you have to do it; and that conviction creates the sacred space around you.”

She fell into writing science fiction without planning to, in the early 1960s, and found she had a talent for world-building, which is the art of thinking about difference. Her writing flourished with the decade’s youthful ferment. She came to feminism only after initial resistance, but she had a brave willingness to admit in public that she’d been wrong. She reprinted one essay, “Is Gender Necessary?,” with annotations to show all the points where she had changed her mind. She was aware that human inflexibility and error are the Achilles’ heel of revolution.

She always had a special love and fellow feeling for liminal figures, people who travel between worlds or are simply ahead of their time. “Transitional characters are always interesting,” she said. “They can’t see where they’re going…but that’s kind of a human condition.” The hero of The Dispossessed discovers a theory of instantaneous interplanetary communication, changing the universe in the name of truths he can’t envision. Laia Odo dies on the first day of a revolution she made but won’t live to see.

Like Odo, Le Guin has helped shape our thinking. She’s made us “realists of a larger reality.” Our job now, it seems to me, is to make this the day before her revolution.

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