As she comes to Santa Cruz to speak at this week’s Anthropocene Conference, science fiction legend Ursula K. Le Guin tells GT how her life and work have been affected by Taoism and anarchism.
To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness
– The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Many readers know Ursula K. Le Guin for her science-fiction stories that explore culture, feminism and power dynamics. Others discovered this prolific storyteller when they were young readers through magical fantasy fiction like “The Tombs of Atuan” and “Powers.” Then there’s her poems, and her exquisite rendition of the ancient Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching.
Indeed, there are myriad doorways into the worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. On May 8, Santa Cruz fans will have another, when Le Guin comes to the Rio Theatre, as part of a three-day Anthropocene Conference titled “The Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet,” organized by Anna Tsing and presented by AARHUS University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) and UC Santa Cruz Emerging Worlds. The conference, May 8-10, will explore the question of how humans and other species can co-exist on the planet. Le Guin’s reading is the opening event Thursday night, and panels on such topics as damaged landscapes and “rewilding” continue through Friday and Saturday.
The 84-year-old Le Guin has published 21 novels, including science fiction classics such as “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Dispossessed,” two books, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards (in 1970 and 1974). It was the first time two books by the same author had received both honors. She has also written eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, thirteen books of imagined lands and peoples for children including “Tales From Earthsea,” six volumes of poetry and four works of translation.
One early influence on Le Guin’s thinking was her father, the influential anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, who in 1911 brought the last surviving member of California’s indigenous Yahi people from Oroville to Le Guin’s birth place of Berkeley and gave him the name Ishi, meaning “man” in the Yana language. Though Le Guin hasn’t written directly about Ishi, as a child her family’s Napa Valley home was often visited by indigenous people, and young Ursula was exposed to native languages and ideas, which later found voice in her writings.
Her father also introduced Le Guin to the Tao Te Ching, the Chinese spiritual-philosophical prose written by Lao Tzu some twenty-five hundred years ago. The book has had a major influence on her life and in 1997 Le Guin wrote a rendition of the Tao Te Ching: “A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way.” The influence of Taoism on Le Guin’s work was recently highlighted in Sandra J. Lindow’s 2012 book “Dancing The Tao: Le Guin and Moral Development.”
“Ursula integrates enormous amounts of stuff in a very deft and often implicit way,” says UCSC History of Consciousness Emeritus Professor James Clifford, who will be part of the discussion with Le Guin on Thursday. “She has three main components in her thinking: Taoism, second-wave feminism and California Indians. There may be Anarchistic elements in all of these.”
“Her stories are about ongoingness,” says Donna Haraway, another UCSC History of Consciousness emeritus professor who will also be part of the discussion. “She is again and again telling stories that don’t end in apocalypse.”
Le Guin’s novel “The Dispossessed” is about a group of people called Odonians who thrive within an anarchist social structure. Her 1975 story “The Day Before The Revolution” followed up on “The Dispossessed,” and was dedicated to anarchist Paul Goodman.
“The target of anarchism is the end of the authoritarian state, and the methods used are cooperation, mutual aid and solidarity,” Le Guin told GT.
“The Day Before the Revolution” received both the Nebula and Jupiter awards, and Le Guin also won the 1973 Hugo Award for “The Word for World is Forest” and the 1972 National Book Award for “Children’s Books for The Farthest Shore.” Her novel “The Lathe of Heaven” was made into a film in 1979, the very first movie produced by PBS, with such a small budget that Le Guin has noted that frisbees were used for alien spaceships. Her most recent books are “Finding My Elegy (New and Selected Poems, 1960-2010)” and “The Unreal and The Real (Selected Short Stories), 2012.”
Le Guin, who supported the Occupy movement, has also been active in the Free Internet movement, and in 2009 she resigned from the Authors Guild because of copyright agreements that gave Google control of out-of–print books, “You decided to deal with the devil, as it were, and have presented your arguments for doing so. I wish I could accept them. I can’t,” wrote Le Guin in a letter to the Guild. “There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.”
Le Guin spoke to GT about this week’s conference, writing, Taoism and technology.
GOOD TIMES: Your translation of the Tao Te Ching is infused with anarchist ideas, and your notes in that book include the comment, “Anarchists and Taoists make good friends.” How have you combined anarchism with spirituality in your life?
URSULA K. LE GUIN: Within the frameworks of our established religions, spiritual movements tend to be kind of subversive. They rock the apple cart a bit. That has a temperamental kinship with anarchism. A spiritual movement tends to be radical, as it wants to get down to the root. That’s the same with anarchism as a political movement, in my experience. I discovered the Tao Te Ching as a teenager, and it was just sort of ‘bingo!,’ you know? I thought, ‘OK, this makes sense.’ I’ve been reading Lao Tzu all my life. And then I made this translation, which is essentially a comparison of other translations. The Tao Te Ching has been a ground-base to me for most of my life. What I readily discovered about anarchism is that temperamentally there is a fit with Taoism. One of the things Lao Tzu said, which is pretty much the same thing pacifist anarchists have said is, ‘Don’t try to control everything.’
Perhaps a concise way to talk about the root of suffering that humans are causing is that we’re trying to control each other, the environment and everything else.
My brother the psychologist calls it, ‘The big C.’ That sort of became a total slogan in my mind. Yeah, look out for that stuff. At this conference at UCSC, I imagine that control will be one of the subjects we’ll discuss.
What do you envision speaking about at the conference, with its theme “The arts of living on a damaged planet?”
Right. So, it sounds a little post-apocalyptic. Or it could refer to the possibility that we are quietly living through an apocalypse right now. Maybe we’ll be taking that into study. I don’t know what kind of quicksand they’re going to set me in. One thing I know is that they’ve asked me to read some of my poetry, which sort of fits with some of the things that James Clifford and Donna Haraway are thinking about. Goodness knows what will actually happen.
Do you think we are indeed quietly living through an apocalypse right now?
Well, we’re at a point where how many species go extinct everyday due to human interference? How many oil spills are we going to have? How many people are running around shooting school children with repeater guns? Things are not going well. You could say that people have always said this, and that old people like me tend to say it more loudly and often, but I would say that things are not on a really hopeful footing just at the moment. We continue doing all of the things that we know are destroying the world the way we need it to be. We have, as they say, already passed peak oil. I think we have passed quite a few peaks. We certainly passed a comfortable population peak quite a while ago.
Nine months ago Edward Snowden began releasing some of the 1.5 million files he took from the National Security Agency, revealing a mass surveillance program of practically everyone on the planet. How do you think this use of technology is affecting people?
This is part of the whole reaction to what the Internet has done to privacy and to human relations; there’s now a desperate scramble to keep control over what seems to be essentially an uncontrollable technology—the Internet. I know the government spying is different than that, but isn’t that related to the whole thing? There’s this movement on the Internet that says, “Information wants to be free.” Therefore there should be no copyright, there should be no secrecy; everybody shares everything. This is supposed to be the wave of the future. Maybe it is. And it is against the way that governments run themselves, which is through secrecy.”
Digital technologies seem to be changing our ideas about what communication and connection mean. Has this influenced your writing?
I have to remind you that you’re speaking with someone who is 84 years old and grew up before television. So that all of this technology, which is second nature to people under 30 or 40, is something I had to learn as an adult. It’s never going to seem natural to me. Living virtually is always going to seem grotesque to me. OK, if it’s really satisfying to you to have a thousand friends on Facebook, that’s great. But I just don’t get it
You wrote, “No anarchist can be a pessimist.” Are you an optimist?
I’m not a pessimist. I can’t imagine how people stay alive who are pessimists. But I’m also not an optimist in the sense that I believe anymore, as I believed when I was quite young, that we really can make things better. Really better. At this point, I’m just hoping that we can stay afloat. Though I’m not an optimist, I do live on hope. I think that most of us do.
What is your concern about Google and online books?
Google is violating copyright—massively and continually—in the digitalization project, in which it persuaded many great academic libraries to let Google copy everything they own, without distinction of material in the public domain from material under copyright. The libraries had no authority to do this. They apparently swallowed Google's assertions of acting in the public interest. Google's denials of responsibility, claims of seeking no profit from this hugely costly project, and obfuscatory claims such as that they copy only "orphan works" or release only "snippets" of copied material, have confused not only librarians, but [also] judges unfamiliar with the concept and purpose of copyright. With Vonda McIntyre, I organized a petition submitted to Judge Denny Chin's judgment on the Authors Guild case a couple of years ago. I am now a signer of an amicus curiae brief in a renewed attempt to get Google under the control of law. Wish us luck. If the current Supreme Court gets in on this one, guess whose side five of them will be on?
Looking into the future, how do you think humans will be different due to digital technology?
I never look into the future! (Laughs) Just because I write science fiction, I don’t know what the future is going to be!”
Are you writing anything new?
I’ve written a couple of stories, but I don’t have the energy for writing novels and big stuff anymore. It’s a physical thing, getting old. Mostly I’m writing poems. That’s how I started in my writing, so I’m happy to be doing that. I know some of my readers would rather that I write them a new novel. I would if I could. But I don’t think I can.
What is different and important to you about writing for young readers?
Well, like, you know, they're young? They're curious, they're bright, they're learning. And they're going to, you know, be around when we're not.
What is the Anthropocene Conference?
The Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is the title of the conference Thursday, May 8 through Saturday, May 10 at UC Santa Cruz, including a special reading by Ursula K. Le Guin on May 8 at the Rio Theatre. The conference will grapple with ideas such as whether humans and other species can continue to inhabit the earth together. A multitude of presentations are scheduled including “Gardens and Graves” with Lesley Stern and “Caring For Country/Rewilding” with Jens-Christian Svenning and Jessica Weir. Donna Haraway, author of the provocative 1985 “Cyborg Manifesto,” will offer a “speculative fabulation” entitled “Inhabiting Multispecies Bodies.”
“‘Anthropocene’ is a new term,” says James Clifford, a conference presenter and UCSC History of Consciousness emeritus professor. “I see it as some recognition of the powerful effect of human intervention in the physical, ecological and natural history of the planet. I see this conference recognizing those effects and their damage—global warming the most obvious—but a whole range of poisonings and alterations of the environment that one needs to recognize and try to combat, on the one hand. And, on the other, to grapple with the dark vision of a damaged planet. We will be living in damaged environments, so how will we do that?
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