some downsides of the imagination

In “A Response, by Ansible, from Tau Ceti,” Le Guin writes about her distaste of critical approaches to The Dispossessed that reduce “fiction to ideas,” ideas that the reader is guided to understand as the “methodical,” “didactic intention” of fiction.  Le Guin defies the critical tendency to treat her novel as programmatic, as her  “treatise” and not fiction, an exaggeration of the political and philosophical bend to her writing that, she admits, causes her to overcorrect and “speak[] of composition as a pure trance state.” Although Le Guin rejects the binary of aesthetics vs. political/social theory, I’m curious how she exactly views the relationship between her work and the political. Her writing is like an “imaginary house” that is “fundamentally aesthetic and which, in being so, fulfills an intellectual or rational design,” suggesting that any political or social program her writing depicts is secondary to the architecture of the aesthetic house. In other words, her novels are didactic, though she’s not the one doing the teaching; that role is left to aesthetic form, which is significant insofar as it eschews the solidity of dictates and leaves open the doors of the “imaginary house.” 

These emergent lessons of aesthetic form help us make sense of the freedom Le Guin finds in “nameless things” and “writ[ing] of the imagination”: they represent change without the directedness of “the idea of progress,” pointing to “other ways of being…of a larger reality.” Reality itself, then–the reality of social and political worlds, and the reality of realism and literary prestige–is not sufficient for freedom. Freedom is found outside of (cultural) capital and market commodity, i.e., the world as it exists. While this perspective is one that animates my own love for and belief in SF, I wonder if the rules of the game have changed.

To illustrate this, I compare what Le Guin writes in “A Response” to what she says in her 2017 interview. In 2014, Le Guin states, “I still read everything as novels, including history, memoir, and the newspaper”; in 2017, she modifies her view of nonfiction when she writes, “there’s an indifference toward factuality that is encouraged in a lot of nonfiction. It worries me…” (“Writing Nameless”).  In the former example, Le Guin suggests that she reads nonfiction with an awareness of a “novelistic ‘thickness of description’ that prevents simplistic, single-theme interpretation,” however, three years later, she appears to critique just such an “indifference toward factuality.” Now, I acknowledge the fundamental difference between writing with this “indifference” as opposed to reading with it, but if freedom is an aesthetic act of distantiation that engages the “symbolic elements that are not fully accessible to rational thought,” then freedom, on either end, is a subversion of factuality (“A Response”).  What would lead Le Guin to such a revision? What does it mean when politics begin from a location “not fully accessible to rational thought”?

2 thoughts on “some downsides of the imagination”

  1. “Free your mind from the idea of deserving, of earning, and you will begin to be able to think,” writes Le Guin, through a visiting miner, quoting Odo (358). This enforced-through-layering mantra seems to confirm Diana’s contestation that for Le Guin, “the reality of social and political worlds, and the reality of realism and literary prestige–is not sufficient for freedom.” As an unapologetic Le Guin fan, I’m tempted to read this (and her treatment of Shevek’s own Ioti award) as a kind of preemptive self-defense against the consumption-driven elements of the prestige prizes awarded book and author.

  2. Perhaps Le Guin’s self-characterization as a fact-lover and “scientist’s daughter” suggests that her investment in science—or an idea of science—also involves an investment in factuality. For her, the correspondence of these two identities appears to be self-evident. So I wonder if freedom might actually entail a subversion of (an idea of) science? Thinking about Catskills’s post, I wonder if Le Guin actually performs this kind of subversion in The Dispossessed by “express[ing] interest in the obfuscation of certain, solid understanding”?

Leave a Reply