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Re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness

Re-reading great books is one of my favourite escapes. There are many that I’ve kept in my small library that I revisit. My re-reading record is for The Lord of the Rings; 13th re-read coming up.

The one I’ve just re-read is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin. This remarkable book was published in 1969, has won major awards for science fiction, and is regarded as a masterpiece. Oddly, it’s the only one of le Guin’s I’ve read, and I’m not strongly motivated to read others of hers, as I fear I would be disappointed.

I first read it when I was in labour with my son, in 1980. It was a protracted, painful labour, and the story allowed me to stay sane and to escape to another world, although it was a dark winter world, which reflected my difficult labour. So it has always kept a special magic around it for me. Another magic thing about it is its title. It comes from the symbol for yin and yang. The words come from a Lay that is part of the mystical  culture of the planet called Gethen (aka Winter), where all living things are part of a whole:

Light is the left hand of darkness

And darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

Together like lovers in kemmer, 

Like hands joined together,

like the end and the way.

This Lay is spoken by Estraven, the noble politician of Gethen who believes in the mission of the alien, Genly Ai, who comes from a distant planet that is part of a confederation of 83 planets, and hopes to persuade the governments of this winter world to join the union.  When Estraven and Genly discuss wholeness and dualism, and the difficult subject of sex, they are sharing a tiny tent in the middle of the ice, in their flight from imprisonment and to fulfil the purpose of Genly’s mission. Estraven is the only Gethenian who believes in and is loyal to Genly, and it is not till  Estraven rescues him from a winter gulag and they flee together for nearly three months in almost impossible conditions, that Genly comes to trust Estraven.

I mentioned the difficult subject of sex. Apart from it always being difficult (but that’s another story) it is extremely so in this world, for both Estraven and Genly. The Gethenians are androgynous, and for a few days every few weeks they go into kemmer, or active sexuality, and take either male or female form. Whereas, as they perceive it, Genly (and by implication all the people of the worlds he comes from) are in permanent rut. So when Estraven goes into kemmer while they share their impossible journey, they confront their differences and their desires, and choose not to enact them. This is how Genly sees it:

I expect it will turn out that sexual intercourse is possible between Gethenian double-sexed and Hainishnorm one-sexed human beings, though such intercourse will inevitably be sterile. Estraven and I proved nothing except perhaps a rather subtler point.

[He feels Estraven’s moodiness, and asks him what he has done wrong. Estraven explains that he is in kemmer and is trying to avoid him. Genly agrees.]

For it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from that sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood, but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of our friendship rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile, and already so well proved in the days and nights of our bitter journey, that it might as well be called, now as later, love. … it was from the difference that that love came; and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch.

This reminds me of the shocking moment in the iconic 70s movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, when the alien, stunningly played by David Bowie, makes love with his Earth woman, and in the heat of passion, inadvertently reverts to his alien form. Difference is attractive, but when differences are extreme, intimacy may vanish and be overwhelmed by fear.

The bond that slowly forms between Estraven and Genly is one of the most memorable things in this novel. And it ends tragically, although Genly’s mission is fulfilled, thanks to Estraven’s devotion. Another memorable thing is the winter landscape, which is described in all its permutations, a pervasive, relentless, almost unbearably bleak and icy world, with a fierce, alien beauty. Another thing that fascinates me is the philosophy. I’ve already mentioned the whole that is composed of light and darkness. A fascinating episode, before Genly’s enforced exile, is his visit to the Foretellers. They have a religion called Handdara, “without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without creed…”. What they do have is a practice of Foretelling, where they go into a trance, which they call untrance, involving self-loss through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness. Genly asks a question: “Will this world Gethen be a member of the Ekumen of Known Worlds, five years from now?” After a long, terrifying time/space, the answer comes: “Yes, yes, yes!”. Later, when Genly has recovered, he questions the chief seer about the practice. Faxe explains that the Handdara don’t want answers, and that  the reason they have practiced and perfected Foretelling is “To exhibit the perfect uselessness  of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”  He goes on to explain that ignorance is the ground of thought, unproof the ground of action, and that there is really one question that can be answered — that we shall die.

The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.

I find this profound, unanswerable. It is not knowing that keeps us alive, that makes living worthwhile.

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