Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle: Paralleling Contemporary Theory with an Eye to the Past - Part I

In the introduction to his translation of the Daoist classic Dao De Jing, Lin Yutang writes “It is my conviction that the progress of contemporary science is forcing modern thought to develop in the direction of depth, and of a new synthesis of the mechanical and the spiritual, of matter and spirit.” (Wisdom of Laotze xiv).  Intimating a fusion of seemingly incompatible opposites, of foremost interest in this quote is Lin’s timing.  Written in 1948, the comment squarely addresses the point to which the academic mindset of the time had come: the wave of scientific rationality that began with Descartes and crested with modernism was washing out in the wake of another world war.  Lin, along with others, believed the beginnings of a reversion were occurring—a time for the wisdom and ideologies discredited by conventional science to once again occupy a functioning position in the building stratosphere of speculation and research. 
In the more than half-decade that has passed since Lin wrote these words, his predilection has come to ring true.  The variety of theories and practices that combine sources having less tangible proofs with more modern, verifiable knowledge are coming to fruition in a quantity unlike humanity has ever witnessed.  Syntheses of perennial philosophies, cultural wisdom, and traditional beliefs with the discoveries of modern science appear regularly, all in an attempt to answer the questions or solve the problems modernist science continues to research, albeit from a purely rational standpoint.  Granted, a great deal of this combinative theorizing leans hard in the direction of pure speculation and has warranted fair criticism.  However, as the promise of an initial idea slowly manifests itself into practical form, a number of these synthesized concepts have attracted academics from a variety of research communities and developed accordingly.  Though not exclusive, these modern theories have innately strong ties to the historical matters of the “spiritual” and “spirit” raised by Lin, and are the reason for the delivery of today’s paper. 
One such example of a concept which utilizes ideas both modern and historical is David Bohm’s theory of Implicate Order.  A physicist, writer and philosopher, Bohm attempts to define the causal structure of reality by combining ideas taken from Greek philosophy with the results of scientific discovery, the results of the most recent century’s research into physics, especially.  In particular, foundational elements of Implicate Order parallel Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave, which, as is known, avers that the world we see is but an illusory reality, true reality existing in a World of Forms.  Bohm’s theory posits much the same: the world we interact with externally is like unto Socrates’ illusory world inside the cave.  Though Bohm terms it the “explicate order,” the idea remains the same; it is the facet of reality whose aspects can be measured, exacted, tested, proved and disproved.  Within what he terms the “implicate order,” “space and time are no longer the dominant factors determining the relationships of dependence or independence of different elements.”  Thus, deeper than the microscopic level, “a more basic connection of elements is possible.”  It is this underlying fundamentalism—its primary causative nature—which defines the implicate order as “a harmoniously organized totality of order and measures” (Wholeness xviii).  Such a definition of implicate reality directly parallels Socrates’s World of Forms, which is defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “eternal, changeless, and… paradigmatic for the structure and character of our world.”  By relating the intangible aspects of the physical world to the tangible formulations of modern research, Bohm has conceived of a new view of reality that has one foot in the past with the other in the present. 
Drawing instead upon animism and the relevant aspects thereof, James Lovelock is another modern academic using traditional ideas in support of scientific explanation to define a particularly important aspect of life.  Purporting that the earth itself is in fact a living organism, Lovelock names his theory Gaia Theory after Gaia, the primal earth goddess from Greek mythology.  Employing a “top-down” instead of a “bottom-up” perspective of life on earth, Lovelock’s Gaia Theory, rather than seeing earth as a collection of parts functioning independently, proposes that the whole of earth, its biosphere, and the systems therein are in fact a large “meta-organism,” (Gaia x).  Lovelock defines Gaia Theory as “a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet” (Gaia 10).  Such a perspective naturally carries direct parallels to animist beliefs regarding the spirituality and life-possessing qualities of non-sentient entities, up to and including the heavens and the earth.  Numerous belief systems—Native American to Australian Aboriginal, Amazonian Natives to the early Greeks—likewise purport such ideologies.  Having the more technical view, Lovelock nonetheless proposes that the interaction of systems we see on earth mimics the behavior of life to the point the earth itself can be deemed alive, thus connecting a modern explanation of the earth and its systems to a principle that has existed since the dawn of humanity.
Fully aware of the subtle nature of consciousness and mentality, Ken Wilber, a modern American psychologist and philosopher seeks to transcend both the ancient and modern perceptions of psyche and forge a new path towards understanding of the mind in all of its quantifiable and unquantifiable aspects.  In his 2007 The Integral Vision, Wilber surmises “for the first time, the sum total of human knowledge is available to us—the knowledge, experience, wisdom, and reflection of all major human civilizations—premodern, modern, postmodern—are open to study by anyone” (16).  From this standpoint, Wilber intertwines the knowledge made available by conventional science, recurrent teachings, the results of psychoanalytics, and the individual’s intuitive experience into one, all-encompassing theory of mind, a theory he calls Integral Psychology.  By blurring the lines of time with regards to the advent of psychological and philosophical theories, none seem to encapsulate Lin’s idea of synthesizing the past with the present as distinctly as Wilber has.
While this paper does not present scope for a more detailed examination of these theories and others averring similar notions, it can be established from the expanse of fields represented—physics, biology, chemistry and psychology—that a movement is afoot in the world of contemporary theory.  Fusing profound notions from history with knowledge continually unveiling itself to modern research, a new paradigm is being created which render Lin’s words prophetic. 
But it is not only in the world of science that such a model is taking shape.  Literature has likewise seen an infiltration of concepts and ideas—beyond contemporary culture—into its texts.  Mythology, perennial philosophy, traditional beliefs, as well as a variety of aspects regarding culture and history from seemingly all corners over the globe have begun making appearances in Western literature. One author employing philosophical concepts taken from non-Western historical sources as well as modern developments in the fields of sociology and psychology is Ursula Le Guin, her Earthsea Cycle a particularly pertinent example.  Firmly rooted in Daoist teachings (if Le Guin’s own translation of Dao De Jing is any indication), Earthsea parallels the Chinese philosophy’s regard for nature, inaction, and the acceptance of mortality.  Thus, today I would like to treat Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle as a literary example embodying Lin’s idea of synthesizing the historical with the modern.  However, prior to delving into Earthsea and unearthing in greater detail the specific manner in which Daoism manifests itself in the texts, it is important to outlay the basics of the Chinese philosophy such that the parallels might be seen with more clarity.  I emphasize basics because there is not enough time to define the philosophy in detail.
Due to its unique position in the precocity of China’s recorded word, the principles of Daoism seem simple on the surface yet remain ambiguous at depth—a paradox seeming to define the mystical nature of the philosophy.  Addressing this elusiveness, Lin, in the introduction to his aforementioned translation, defines the philosophy of Daoism as:

the rhythm of life, the unity of all word and human phenomena, the importance of keeping the original simplicity of human nature, the danger of over-government and interference with the simple life of the people, the doctrine of ‘wu-wei’ or ‘inaction,’… the pervading influence of the spirit, the lessons of humility, quietude and calm, and the folly of force, of pride, and of self-assertion (4)

Additional concepts Lin identifies as tantamount to the philosophy are: reversion (the futility of escaping the cycle of time), polarization (the relativity of point of view), and monism (the essential unity of all things).  Summing these building blocks into a whole, it can be seen that Daosim is universal, profound, and deeply rooted in observations of nature and life itself.  Though needing further exposition, this simple clarification of Daoism’s basic principles will be used for the analytical portion to follow (Wisdom of Laotze 6).
            (For the purposes of this paper, I will assume the reader’s familiarity with Earthsea and not summarize the various storylines, characters, or setting of the Cycle.  Instead I will move directly into the analysis, beginning with Earthsea and the manner in which Le Guin has woven the threads of Daoism into the fabric of the Cycle. 
I will start with a discussion of Earthsea’s connection to the Daoist conception of nature, particularly the idea that humanity is but one operative part of a larger whole, that is, rather than an isolated element functioning independent.  As such, one of the most prominent presences of nature in the Cycle is the Immanent Grove and the role it plays not only in individual narratives but in the overall story arc.  Mysteriously sentient yet silent, the supernatural forest finds itself mentioned in every book of the Cycle and playing a vital part in most.  Ged seeks the wisdom of the trees before setting out on his journey of Farthest; the name of the new Archmage is sought there in Tehanu; and it is the final, most sacred place Roke initiates are brought as part of their education in Wizard.  The voice of nature, the Master Patterner calls the Grove “the central and sacred place, the heart of peace” (Other 186), a place whose “roots are the roots of being” (Farthest 11), and “Where things are what they are” (“Dragonfly” 243).  Not a rational entity that is capable of expressing wisdom directly, the Grove works patterns in its interplay of shadow, leaf, and branch that must be interpreted.  When describing how to learn from the Immanent Grove, the Patterner states that: “My words are nothing.  Hear the leaves” (224).  It can thus be concluded that the Grove acts as a spokesperson for the will of nature in Earthsea. 
Events of the second trilogy, especially “Dragonfly” and The Other Wind, are more deeply informed by the Grove.  That these events are transformative for the archipelago as a whole speaks to the Grove’s innate importance to the lives of the people.  When asked: “Your leaves and shadows tell you nothing?”, the Master Patterner in “Dragonfly”—the story which immediately precedes Other—replies: “Change, change… Transformation” (241).  So when the Dragon Council learns from the dragon-woman Orm Irian that it is humanity who has upset the balance of the world, they immediately discuss returning to the Immanent Grove to seek its wisdom, hoping greater truths will be revealed that resolve the issues at hand.  “[We] need to go there [the Immanent Grove],” Tehanu suggests, “to the center of all things” (131).  That the entirety of the council is in agreement with this suggestion lends stresses the degree of trust the wise of Earthsea place in nature.  Justifying this trust is the outcome to which the Immanent Grove leads them, particularly the bringing together of two previously hostile cultures: the Hardic and the Kargish, the release of the souls haunting the dreams of those yet alive, as well as the opening of the doors of the school on Roke for all to learn the ways of magic, men and women alike.  Therefore, that the archipelago’s most wise defer to the Immanent Grove in making decisions of such portent, it is fair to say trusting to nature’s voice rather than man’s is an important theme of Earthsea. 
Another aspect of nature as manifested in Earthsea is the pastoral life—goats, trees, and herbs forever background motifs in the Cycle.  That the conclusions of what were and are the “last books of Earthsea,” Tehanu, and The Other Wind respectively, are identical would seem Le Guin is hinting at something.  At the end of both books, Ged and Tenar are found resting at their countryside home on Gont, preparing for a bucolic life involving farming, homesteading, and walks in the woods—the same life their mentor, Ogion, led.  And if any character in Western literature can be said to exemplify the characteristics of the proverbial Daoist Chinese hermit at one with nature, it is Ogion.  Living in seclusion, daily communing with woods and waters, and gleaning wisdom from the pastoral, likewise are the characteristics of famous Chinese Daoists Tao Yuanming, Li Bai, and Du Fu.  The only aspect Ogion lacks is that of being a master poet, but one can always read into the metaphorical usage of magic spells as such.  By leading such a life, Ogion embodies the Daoist principle of trying to live within the rhythm and flow of all of nature as much as is humanly possible.  By disconnecting himself from quests for social and political power—Roke and Havnor—Ogion is able to get at the marrow of life and its meaning, nature his guide.  That the heroes of the story, Ged and Tenar, step into his shoes at both “ends” of the Cycle indicates the importance Le Guin places on a lifestyle so firmly rooted in rather than apart from nature. 
            The second aspect of Daoist teaching Le Guin employs in Earthsea is the idea of inaction: the non-use of power.  She does this at several levels, one of which I will discuss today: magical power.  From the first novel onwards, the manner in which characters do or do not take action plays a strong role in the thematic development of the Cycle.  In Wizard, Ged, through youthful hubris, thoughtlessly makes uses his wizardry to the detriment of others.  Uncaring as to the corollary of his action, the shadow he releases sets itself upon Earthsea and disturbs the overall balance of the archipelago in the process.  Ged did not heed the warning of the school’s Master Hand when he spoke of the wizard’s ability to alter reality:

you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand until you know what good and evil will follow on that act.  The world is in balance, in Equilibrium.  A wizard’s power of  Changing and Summoning can shake the balance of the world.  It is dangerous, that power.  It is most perilous.  It must follow knowledge, and serve need.  To light a candle is to cast a shadow… (48)

However, it takes painful trial and error for Ged to come to the same conclusion: for every action there is a consequence—the responsibility of using power.  Ogion, who had tried to teach him the same lesson, is then seen in a new light by Ged, and the mentor’s habit of acting only when necessary becomes something Ged emulates throughout the remainder of the Cycle.  The analogy from the novels is as follows: In Wizard, Ged, throughout the trip to Ogion’s home to begin his apprenticeship, complains about the rain, knowing it is within the wizard’s power to divert it.  However, Ogion chooses not to, much to Ged’s chagrin.  Later in the novel, upon learning the lessons of power and responsibility, Ged sees the wisdom in Ogion’s inaction.  Thus, history repeats itself in Farthest when Ged, on a sailing quest to discover the reason the magic of Earthsea was disappearing, refrains from using his wizard’s wind to power the sailboat, choosing instead to use the world’s wind.  Like Ged when he was young, Lebannen questions Ged regarding this but receives the same lesson Ogion once gave to Ged.  Even when freeing Lebannen from the slave ship Ged does not take vengeance on the slave masters, freeing all to decide their own fate, slave alongside slavers.  When Lebannen questions why Ged has not punished the slavers, Ged underlines his subjective position within the equilibrium, replying rhetorically: “Who am I—though I have the power to do it—to punish and reward, playing with men’s destinies?” (87). Continuing the discussion, Ged completes the thought in “butterfly-effect” fashion by adding:

Don’t you see [Lebannen] how an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that’s the end of it.  When the rock is lifted the earth is lighter; the hand that bears it heavier.  When it is thrown the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or falls the universe is changed.  On every act the balance of the whole depends…  From the hurricane and the great whale’s sounding to the fall of a dry leaf and the gnat’s flight, all they do is done within the balance of the whole. (87)

By not using the magical power that is at their command at all opportunites, Ged Ogion, and the other wizards become a channel through which the Daoist notion of inaction manifests itself.

End of Part I

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