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The high price of idealism

October 21, 2008, 8:56 pm

On this day in 2008, Jim Beaver—a.k.a. Ellsworth—commented on my post about the language of Deadwood. I know that’s not really historical, but damn it, it’s cool. Now for something completely historical:

On this day in 1929, Ursula K. Le Guin was born to Alfred and Theodora Kroeber—though you wouldn’t know it from this article, in which no mention of him having fathered one of the 20th Century’s most influential science fiction writers appears. Her Wikipedia entry was adapted from a bad student essay, as is evidenced by how thoroughly the narrative of how-I-came-to-learn-this pervades it.

Her mother’s biography of Alfred Kroeber, Alfred Kroeber: A Personal Configuration, is a good source for Le Guin’s early years and for the biographical elements in her late works, especially her interest in social anthropology.

Bully on you, anonymous person, for evaluating your sources. That said, the aforelinked review ain’t much better. We’re told:

Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960) is amply known through his works—more than five hundred publications of which eight are books—and he was familiar in varying degrees to students, because he taught at [universities].

I’ve edited out the list of illustrious institutions, but really, I wish I’d been an academic in an earlier era, when such sentences could be published. (Not too early, though—say, Post-Trilling-as-Columbia’s-sole-Jew or thereabouts.) But I digress. Alfred Kroeber, known through his 500 publications and by students, was a proponent of “salvage ethnography. Here’s a picture of him with Ishi, who claimed to be the last of the California Yahi:

Cultural preservation takes a place of pride in Le Guin’s work, albeit backwardly, via her frequent evocation of cultural obliteration. In her anti-reform novel extraordinaire The Lathe of Heaven, she skewers the idea that society can be changed for the better. All progress, she argues, entails the destruction of a society whose current form is the by-product of an evolutionary process. It may not be a just society, but it’s not an invented one, and thus is far more stable than the proto-totalitarian imaginings of well-intentioned liberals. As Sean McCann and my adviser, Michael Szalay, argue, the novel

offers an all but direct allegory in which a passive aesthetic sensibility comes to replace an illegitimate effort to transform the world through instrumental means. Le Guin’s George Orr discovers that his dreams change the world; almost nightly he has what he calls “effective dreams” that reshape existence. Upon waking, Orr is the only one who recalls what the world used to be like, the only one who realizes that each night his mind refashions the lives of the planet’s billions. Orr turns to government therapists to find assistance in ending his dreams, but is understood instead to be delusional and irrationally afraid of his unconscious. He is thus committed to the care of one William Haber, a state-employed psychiatrist who quickly discovers that Orr does indeed dream effectively, and who then tries to use Orr’s dreams to rid the world of misery. Orr objects, and Le Guin organizes this novel around the ensuing debate between the two men over whether it’s right to change the world . . . .

[But] this kind of idealism comes at a high price. Every time Haber induces Orr to dream a better world, something in Orr resists; when told to solve the color problem, Orr dreams a world in which all are a dull and listless battleship gray; when told to end all human conflict, Orr invents an alien invasion that threatens earth from the sky. Awake, he tells Haber, “it’s not right to play God with masses of people. . . . just believing you are right and your motives are good isn’t enough.” Le Guin’s sympathies are unambiguously with her dreamer, whose resistance to Haber’s megalomania resembles both the New Left’s resistance to traditional politics and the Women’s Movement resistance to the New Left itself. Haber does eliminate the many ills on which he set his sights: he brags to Orr that they have “Eliminated overpopulation; restored the quality of urban life and the ecological balance of the planet. Eliminated cancer as a major killer. . . . Eliminated the color problem, racial hatred. Eliminated war. . . . Eliminated—no, say in the process of eliminating—poverty, economic inequality, the class war, all over the world.” But Orr refuses to grant the importance of these accomplishments because, regardless of the outcome, he doesn’t “want to change things.” These were views consistent with the widely shared sense that technocratic solutions to social problems were invariably misguided. But, like Mailer and many of her contemporaries, Le Guin does not merely worry about the unintended consequences or heedless arrogance of technocratic power; she counters it to what by contrast appears a more fundamental spiritual and political accomplishment—a therapeutic acceptance of reality itself. “We’re in the world, not against it,” Orr responds, “you have to let it be.”

Their treatment of Le Guin (tackled previously) is particularly compelling given what we all hope is the imminent rise of a new technocracy made of Hope and Change and Yes We Cans. I mean, can you believe that? Academic work that’s immediately relevant coming from an English department? What’s the world coming to? (And why can’t it arrive sooner?)

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