Le Guin and forgiveness

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote very few bad stories, but among those few is, surely, The Word for World is Forest. And though she never called it a bad story, she knew that in it something had gone awry. In an introduction to the novella that she wrote some years after its first publication, she explains that she wrote it in a period in which she was much occupied with organizing and participating in demonstrations “first against atomic bomb testing, then against the pursuance of the war in Vietnam.” And these were not pleasant times for her, because the protests against atomic bomb testing proved futile, and the situation in Vietnam was only getting worse, and the deterioration of that situation was accompanied by an increase in and intensification of lies from the government. She writes,

It was from such pressures, internalized, that this story resulted: forced out, in a sense, against my conscious resistance. I have said elsewhere that I never wrote a story more easily, fluently, surely – and with less pleasure.

I knew, because of the compulsive quality of the composition, that it was likely to become a preachment, and I struggled against this.

In parts of the story, and some of the characters, she feels that she succeeded in her struggle. But not in the case of the villain of the piece, a man named Davidson, a pretty transparent representative of the American military in Vietnam, just moved to a different planet. “Davidson is, though not uncomplex, pure; he is purely evil – and I don’t, consciously, believe purely evil people exist. But my unconscious has other opinions. It looked into itself and produced, from itself, Captain Davidson. I do not disclaim him.”

Her refusal to “disclaim” – it’s an interesting word – a character whose over-simplicity she acknowledges is an important thing. It’s like Prospero on Caliban: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” But it’s also a way of accepting the consequences of what, elsewhere in this same introduction, she designates as the strongest imperative of the artist: freedom.

She had sought and claimed for herself artistic freedom, the liberty to raise up characters from her own mind, and having exercised that liberty, she now sees that the results are not always what she would want, are not always admirable. Well. Such is freedom’s price. In the last paragraph of her introduction, she writes:

American involvement in Vietnam is now past; the immediately intolerable pressures have shifted to other areas; and so the moralizing aspects of the story are now plainly visible. These I regret, but I do not disclaim them either. The work must stand or fall on whatever elements it preserved of the yearning that underlies all specific outrage and protest, whatever tentative outreaching it made, amidst anger and despair, toward justice, or wit, or grace, or liberty.

That’s an extraordinarily complex statement, and, moreover, one that I think is relevant to our own moment. Because what Le Guin understood, especially later in her career, looking back on her story in retrospect, is that “of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing is ever made,” and therefore one’s own work will inevitably contain the residue of one’s own unresolved internal conflicts. And she forgives herself for any impurities in the story. (It’s noteworthy that she titled a later story-suite Five Ways to Forgiveness – I should do a post on those stories at some point.)

I have said before that our society is so miserable right now because it combines judgementalism with an inability to offer or receive forgiveness, which essentially means that every error is infinitely punishable. And it also means that in such an environment there can be no artistic freedom. Le Guin believed that a society in which artistic freedom is impossible is necessarily a sick society. And she was correct. 

It’s common these days to believe that strict scrutiny — to borrow a legal term — must be applied to imaginative works to be sure that no wrongthink is published. But what if that scrutiny also impedes works of major creativity, works that enable new worlds of thought and sympathy? Unlike people on Twitter, Le Guin was an adult, and understood that every decision involves trade-offs: freedom to imagine and write and publish means that some of what is imagined and published is regrettable — even one’s own imaginings. She counted and cost, made her decision, and lived with the consequences. Like an adult.