Monday, March 4, 2013

Ursula Le Guin visits UC Berkeley

Ursula K. Le Guin, the prolific and much-admired author of ethnographically rich speculative fiction, visited her hometown last week for an interview with UC Berkeley French and Comparative Literature Professor Michael Lucey.

Sibley Auditorium, posted capacity 240, was packed to the gills. The fire marshal would have been shocked -- shocked! -- to find dozens sitting in the aisles and in the space in front of the stage, while perhaps a hundred more watched via closed-circuit TV from the auditorium's lobby. Many more, disappointed they couldn't squeeze into the free event to see the author live, simply drifted away.

The interview, titled What Can Novels Do?, was sponsored by the campus's Townsend Center, through which Le Guin holds the 2012-2013 Avenali Chair in the Humanities.

Le Guin, 83, was a towering figure in my high school reading life. The Left Hand of Darkness explored social relations in a world on which gender is ambiguous; in The Dispossessed Le Guin imagined her way into a society in which anarchism had blossomed -- and then ossified -- over the course of a couple of hundred years. The five novels of Earthsea conjure a magical world of wizards and dragons. All told, Le Guin has published twenty-one novels and half-again as many volumes of short stories, not to mention her poetry and children's books.

Outside Sibley Auditorium last Tuesday evening, before the doors were opened, the crowd buzzed as if we were about to see the Rolling Stones. For free, mind you. In addition to Berkeley's and the Bay Area's general affinities for ambiguous gender, anarchism, and Wiccan-leaning wizardry, the author's middle initial stands for Kroeber, giving away her deep and longstanding kinship to the campus. From Thursday's Daily Cal:
Le Guin's father, Alfred Kroeber, for whom Kroeber Hall bears its name, established the campus's department of anthropology in 1901. Le Guin said that her father had an incredible influence on her and that, whether by "osmosis or similarity of nature," they were both interested in ethnography and learning behaviors in a social context.

"(Anthropology) hints interests in concrete details, which is very important equipment for fantasists, because fantasy can so easily drift into the gaga," Le Guin said at the event. "But if you tie it down to things, you make it real."
Le Guin spoke of the Napa Valley as overrun with the wine industry's monoculture (the author spent summers there as a child, and still owns the Kroeber family summer home). Of the vineyard sprawl that has smothered the Napa Valley's tule marshes, sloughs, and oak savannas she said, "We're not using this beautiful place quite right." Referring to our current century's deep crises of ecology, explicitly and by implication, Le Guin observed that "we live in a time of great loss"; and, taking note of the "many young faces in the room," that "this is a tough time to be young."

As a writer and (in my day-job guise) an information technology dude, the most striking note Le Guin sounded had to do with books. "Literature is not information," Le Guin insisted. To claim as much "is a sentiment I deplore."

O, yes indeed. I thought immediately of the postcard tacked above my desk at work these last fifteen years or so. It's actually an ad for Fortune magazine that I picked up once upon a time in a laundromat, and reads simply: Information isn't knowledge. Lest I forget. I'm right there with Le Guin in the deploring department when it comes to treating literature as 'information' or 'content.' I wonder if she caught that Betsy Morais piece on Digital Book World that I riffed on last month, in Should Technology Shape Art?

When she drew the line between information and literature, Le Guin was speaking of her belief that books are mortal, that they exist in time, that they have lifespans, that they form a relationship between an author and her readers ... a relationship that may well reach beyond the lifespan of the author herself: "This is Tolstoy offering me a book ... wow ... I better take that," she remarked at one point.

Le Guin's ideas reminded me of a fine article Daniel Mendelsohn published in The New Yorker earlier this year: "The American Boy,"  in which he recounts an epistolary relationship with author Mary Renault. In the mid-1970s, Mendelsohn corresponded with Renault as a teenage reader of her novels of classical Greece. Renault led her response to Mendelsohn's first letter, in which he confessed his then-secret longings for other boys because he found his desire portrayed in Renault's Greeks and Persians, with this: "I wonder whoever told you I'd send you a 'form letter' if you wrote to me. Are there really writers who do that?"

Relationship, relationship, relationship.

The two continued to correspond, and Mendelsohn learned years after Renault's death that she spoke of him to her friends in South Africa, where she lived, as her "American boy." Hence the title of the article in The New Yorker.

It turned out Le Guin provided another link between herself and Mendelsohn, at least in my mental map. I'll explain:

Mendelsohn lectured for some years in Princeton's Classics department and now teaches at Bard College. He first came to my attention when I chanced upon a celebratory reading at Cooper Union of his freshly- and simultaneously-published editions The Collected Poems and The Unfinished Poems by C.P. Cavafy, in English translation (I happened to be visiting New York the month these editions were published ... the actress Olympia Dukakis was among the luminaries who read at the event).

I've admired Cavafy's work since a friend shared a book of translations in the early 1980s. His poem Ithaka stands in my literary experience as the best travel / how-to-live advice anyone ever gave; I've passed it along more than a few times. Matter of fact, I'll include it below ... but first here's a poem that Le Guin read last week at Sibley Auditorium, Initiation Song from the Finders Lodge, one of many poems found in the author's novel Always Coming Home:
Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.
Let desert sands harden your feet.
Let the arch of your feet be the mountains.
Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps
and the ways you go be the lines on your palms.
Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing
and your outbreath be the shining of ice.
May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words.
May you smell food-cooking you have not eaten.
May the spring of a foreign river be your navel.
May your soul be at home where there are no houses.
Walk carefully, well loved one,
walk mindfully, well loved one,
walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home.

- Ursula Le Guin (1985)
I had never come across this poem before I heard Le Guin read it aloud last week. Yet stories (and poems) tend to echo their archetypes -- and stories of journey and return are by leagues and leagues the most compelling archetype to me. So I was deeply moved, but not surprised, to recognize an echo of Homer's Odysseus in Le Guin's speculatively-drawn Napa Valley of a very distant future, by way of Cavafy's explicitly-intended echo in melancholy and evocative verse of the early-twentieth century.

Here is Ithaka in the Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard 1975 translation through which I first came to know the poem:
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon - you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind -
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

- C.P. Cavafy (1910)

Still gives me shivers ... and I don't think I need to belabor the threads common to Le Guin's and Cavafy's counsel.

Another of Le Guin's revelations (to me, at least; more devoted fans have probably heard or read this before) came in answer to the last question from the audience, at the end of the program:

A young woman asked about the Earthsea series, wondering what Le Guin might say about the significant change in the novel's voice and focus between the third and fourth books. The first three books of the series orbit the (male) protagonist, Ged; while the fourth and fifth novels feature female characters Tenar and Therru as focal points.

Le Guin noted that there were seventeen years separating The Farthest Shore (1972) from Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990). What happened in-between, she explained, was feminism. Feminism, Le Guin said, taught her "to write like a women instead of a pretend-man."

And there it is again: books-in-time. Books as a venue for relationship between an author being shaped by feminism in the 1970s, and a university student standing on the shoulders of her foremothers in the 21st century.

Thank you, Ms. Le Guin, for your work, and for spending the evening with several hundred of your admiring readers.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Should Technology Shape Art?
A speculative-fiction spectrum: Clifford D. Simak to David Mitchell
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Time, History, and Human Forgetting

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image of Ursula K. Le Guin, photographed by Hajor; of Vineyards in Napa Valley, photographed by Brocken Inaglory; and of the entrance to the harbor of Vathy, Ithaca, photographed by KMan.


  1. I love the statement "Information is not knowledge"!

  2. To me the most significant event in the EarthSea cycle was the change LeGuin made to the afterlife. I prefer her more recent version.

    But it also struck me that the female protagonist of "Tombs of Atuan" was a mess. The more recent female protagonists had it together.

    I'm glad you didn't get turned away!

  3. Love Ursula Le Guin, would love to have heard her speak. her Earthsea books have followed me through my life. Thanks for both the poems too.