The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

Book Cover for The Dispossesed Books where authors work through big moral and political ideas are my favorite. Ever.

I think back to when I first stumbled upon Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain trilogy, where she worked through her issues with Ayn Rand and our obligations to each other. Or Brave New World and the idea of whether happiness (be it drug-induced) is really enough. Or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and questions of humanity. These are truly some of the best books I’ve ever been lucky enough to read, and they’ve had a huge impact on my thinking. The Dispossessed is up there. In fact, it might just be one of my new favorites.

After finishing the book last week, I knew I needed to read more about it. That’s when I found The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, a collection of essays on it. Here’s one review of the collection from Kenneth M. Roemer, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington:

“For three decades Le Guin’s The Dispossessed has inspired debates about competing ideologies, about notions of gender, about space-time continuums, about forms of utopian expression-indeed about topics as broad as human communication and as intensely personal as the emotional epiphanies of the novel’s hero Shevek. So, to say that this lively first collection of essays about the book is welcome and long overdue is to make a grand understatement. Like Le Guin’s novel the collection is wide-ranging, open-ended, and provocative. It offers analyses of expected topics and images—anarchism, ecology, and walls, for instance— from multiple viewpoints, as well as discussions of important less-expected issues, notably consumerism. Contributors examine rich networks of connections and parallels between Le Guin’s thought and art and the works of Lao Tzu, Kropotkin, Paul Goodman, Marcuse, Hegel, Hannah Arendt, and French and Italian architects and designers. Le Guin’s essay, which concludes the collection, is a frank and feisty response to critics who reduce her novel to treatise status, and a complex advocacy of art that teaches. This fine collection will invigorate discussion of The Dispossessed and of Le Guin’s other works, especially Always Coming Home, and engage any serious reader of utopian and science fiction and political and social theory.”

I’ve read one essay so far and most certainly agree.


The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

book coverIt was more than a few years ago when I first heard of Ursula K. Le Guin. I got The Left Hand of Darkness, which was supposedly her very best book, and tried jumping right in. But for some reason it just didn’t work for me. I’ve probably read the first ten? twenty? pages of that book a half dozen times. But each time I couldn’t get myself to go on.

Anyway, fast forward more than a few years and I somehow stumbled upon Ursula Le Guin’s website. How, I have no idea. Well, the internet, that’s how. But nonetheless I ended up reading about how to contact her and she made some joke about not asking her to explain “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” So, naturally, I immediately had to read “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and see what it is people would be asking about.

Link to the short story here.

I now can share in the suffering of those who want to know more about Omelas but have been told not to ask.

While some have written that the story is about “waking up” and seeing the suffering of others that underlies (I’d say faux) utopia, I’m not so sure that’s what it means. After all, she says the people of Omelas know full well that their happiness depends fully on the absolutely de-humanizing treatment of one unwilling child. And yet, they are blissfully happy. Indeed, they are better to each other because they know what their utopia depends on.

If anything, doesn’t that mean that (and this seems true of the world) some people can, in fact, accept the misery of others as “payment” for their happiness? That we are quite capable, and frequently do, rationalize the sacrifice of others for own betterment. And is she not suggesting in the story that that acceptance and rationalization is what is actually so horrifying?

But then think of those who walk away. What are we to make of them? At first you might think there’s something heroic about it. Noble. These individuals have seen what is being done, find it wrong, and refuse to take part. But isn’t it interesting that what they do is just walk away? They still know the child is suffering in a most horrific way. Their walking away didn’t change that. They didn’t try to actually help the child or even help their fellow Omelans realize that they had no right to sacrifice the child. So, how much better are these people who walk away? In some ways, it feels worse. And then, given our own reality, what are we to make of our feeling such righteousness about any of the Omelans?

Old Books, Rare Friends (warms the cockles of my heart)

book coverThis book was magic. Pure, wonderful, warm and fuzzy, delightful magic.

Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were together (both have sadly passed away), I believe, the very first women rare book dealer partnership in the United States. They were also the closest and best friends imaginable over the course of their about 70 years together.

The book is their joint memoir, with some chapters written by each separately and some together. In it, they discuss their early life and education, how they got into rare book dealing, their scholarly pursuits (together they were the first to uncover Louisa Alcott’s pseudonym, and the many scandalous and feminist novels that went with it), a sampling of their book-hunting adventures, and their most wonderful friendship.

The book is wonderful and I look forward to reading their other works in the near-future.

Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness

AGoing to Pieces book coverfter reading about Mark Epstein in 10% Happier, I watched a few videos of him talking about his work, thought he was wonderful, and proceeded to buy three of his books. I finished this one yesterday and cannot recommend it highly enough (though I think I might like the one I’m currently reading, Open to Desire, even more).

A few of my favorite passages:

* “When the relationship with a parent is too fragile, a child naturally tries to compensate. This leads to the development of a precocious ‘caretaker self’ that is tinged with a feeling of falsity Besides feeling empty, a person in this predicament also fears emptiness. The fear of emptiness is really a sign of the fragility of the bond with the parent. We are afraid to venture into the unknown because to do so would remind us of how unsafe we once felt … Psychotherapy tends to focus on the personal melodrama … Buddhism seeks, instead, to purify the insight of emptiness. Emptiness is vast and astonishing … it does not have to be toxic. When we grasp the emptiness of our false selves, we are touching a little bit of truth … We must learn how to be with our feelings of emptiness without rushing to change them. Only then can we have access to the still, silent center of our own awareness that has been hiding, unbeknownst to our caretaker selves, behind our own embarrassment and shame.”

* “I had permitted myself to simply be, without worrying about keeping myself together.”

* From Freud (who I know near-nothing about): “The proneness to decay of all that is beautiful and perfect can, as we know, give rise to two different impulses in the mind … The one leads to the aching despondency felt by the young poet, with the other leads to rebellion against the fact asserted.” As Mark paraphrases, “Either we get depressed when confronted with impermanence (clinging attachment) … or we devalue what we see and push it away (aversion).” “[T]he heard of the Buddha’s teaching: [] it is possible to cultivate a mind that neither clings nor rejects ….”

* “The solution is not to deny attachment but to become less controlling in how we love. From a Buddhist perspective, it is the very tendency to protect ourselves against mourning that is the cause of the greatest dissatisfaction [because we either cling or avert].”

* “Most of us exist in a state similar to that of Freud’s friends. Our minds are running on without us, keeping us at a distance from that which we love, or from love itself. We justifiably complain of feeling unreal because we are busy keeping ourselves at arm’s length from the biggest reality of all – the transience of which we are a part. Rather than permitting a flow, we impose an interruption that interferes with satisfaction or fulfillment.” [This reminds of My Struggle: Volume One where he discusses how it is that when we see something like a car accident or endure some sort of huge event we often say it was “surreal” or “unreal,” which is odd because it’s really the opposite — such events are so real.

10% Happier (aka the voice in my head is an asshole)

Cover of 10% Happier book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.

Right at the start the author, ABC anchor Dan Harris, tells us he originally wanted to name the book “The Voice in My Head is an Asshole.” It was thus right at the start that I knew I would like the book.

Dan best sums up the impetus for the book in a NYT interview, “The preamble is I had a panic attack on national television in front of five million people. I learned that the reason for the panic attack was because I was self-medicating [NB: with cocaine and ecstasy] due to so much stress, which was raising the level of adrenaline in my brain. At around the same time, I was assigned to do a series on religion for ABC that sent me into a journey of self-help. This eventually led to Buddhism and meditation and a series of brain exercises that changed my life, and, as the title of the book says, made me 10 percent happier.”

Alright, skeptical reader. You might already be zoning out, convinced this is just a bunch of hippie-dippy BS. But truly, it’s not. Dan wasn’t interested in meditation to become closer to nature, or the infinite oneness, or anything like that (quite the opposite, actually – he was totally turned off by that talk [I’m not, but he is]) — he was interested in figuring out a way to remain on his A-game in a super competitive industry while actually being a happier, less freaked-out, stressed-out person, and not-always-so compassionate person.

I tried out the meditation exercise he puts in there (sit with your back straight, focus on your breathing and where you feel it [nose, chest, stomach, etc.], and every time you start thinking about something other than your breathing [which will happen, oh, a million times] recognize that you’re drifting and just gently bring yourself back to focusing on your breath) and it not easy. Not easy but a totally interesting exercise. Right away I saw how insane my mental churning is. It’s constant! Thinking about the future, remembering something that happened, wondering if I should have done it differently, thinking about what will happen next week, whether I’ll survive spin class, projecting some fantasy-future scenario in my head and living in that scenario instead of being present, anticipating, etc. It’s amazing. And stopping to realize that churning was useful. The next step is to note/name each thought for what it is. A Fantasy. A Worry. Hoping. Stressing. Somehow by stepping back and seeing the thoughts for what they are defangs them. It creates space between you (whatever that is) and this incessant thinking and gives you a chance to reflect before reacting.

Anyway, the book was well written, a quick read, super funny, honest, and useful. I recommend giving it a chance.

A Room of One’s Own (and how there are connections between all books)

a room of one's own book coverI have finally read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Sort of embarrassed it’s taken this long, but what can I do.

There are a couple of things that jumped out at me while reading:

  • Reading about how Virginia thought about other authors (she praises and criticizes a fair number here) was fascinating.
  • Relatedly, after expounding on her theory of the mind (basically, that is produces the highest art when it is balanced between its male and female sides), she lists a variety of authors and explains whether they were “too” masculine or “too” feminine and thus won’t stand the test of time. When she got to Proust she said, “Proust was wholly androgynous, if not perhaps a little too much of a woman.” This reminded me of a Slate article by Katie Roiphe that asks: would Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (the first volume of which I just finished this past week) be the same huge success if it was written by a woman? Katie concludes the woman’s version of My Struggle would fail because we are “intoleran[t] toward women writers who closely read[] domestic life [and that is] simply plain old-fashioned, deeply entangled sexism, of the variety Virginia Woolf took on in A Room of One’s Own.” Now, what I find funny about this is if we accept that Karl Ove is a direct descendant of Proust (literarily speaking), it seems to me Virgina Woolf might actually disagree with the Slate author. That is, if Proust was “perhaps a little too much of a woman” my guess is if a woman-Proust (or a woman-Karl Ove) came along, then Virginia might think the woman failed to engage enough of the male side of her brain.
  • A few of my very favorite quotes from the book
    • “[B]ooks continue each other in spite of our habit of judging them separately.”
    • “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison.”  [to be so brave and to know so clearly what is good!]
    • One of her big takeaways is that for people (really, men or women I think) to be truly great writers they need a room of their own with a lock and enough money to live a decent life (so, can’t be paycheck-to-paycheck). Anticipating critics she says “you may object that in all this I have made too much of the importance of material things … you may say that the mind should rise above such things; and that great poets have often been poor men. Let me then quote to you the words of your own Professor of Literature … ‘What are the great poetical names of the last hundred years or so? Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Landor, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Morris, Rossetti, Swinburne – we may stop there. Of these, all but [three] were University men … which means that somehow or other they procured the means to get the best education England can give … These are dreadful facts but let us face them. It is – however dishonouring to us as a nation – certain that, by some fault in our common wealth, the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance … we may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.'”
    • “Intellectual freedom depends on material things.” [reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of the polis in Ancient Greece. The citizens (all men landowners) were basically free to be full citizens because they had material things that allowed them to go beyond mere survival.]

I doubt many people read this book and wholly agree with her theory of mind and the relation between the sexes, but it’s a wonderful read. The last third or so was just brilliant.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book One

cover of Karl Ove book My Struggle Book OneFinished the first volume of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle over the weekend. If you like Proust, you’ll like this. If you think Proust was a neurotic whiner who needed a stiff drink and some lessons in being human (and you don’t like endlessly reading about such a person’s existence), then I recommend you steer clear.

I found the book strikingly honest and intimate. And not in a beautiful way. It’s an experience you virtually never have when reading — of seeing someone laid so bare that it’s hard to even know how to paint a picture of the person in your head. To feel like you know someone like that is rare.