Reading notes from The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic

I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth. The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor.

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor

It starts on the 44th diurnal of the Year 1491, which on the planet Winter in the nation Karhide was Odhar-hahad Tuwa or the twenty-second day of the third month of spring in the Year One. It is always the Year One here. Only the dating of every past and future year changes each New Year’s Day, as one counts backwards or forwards from the unitary Now. So it was spring of the Year One in Erhenrang, capital city of Karhide

In Estraven, for instance, one feels the man’s power as an augmentation of his character; he cannot make an empty gesture or say a word that is not listened to. He knows it, and the knowledge gives him more reality than most people own: a solidness of being, a substantiality, a human grandeur. Nothing succeeds like success. I don’t trust Estraven, whose motives are forever obscure

“But the Ekumen doesn’t rule, it co-ordinates. Its power is precisely the power of its member states and worlds. In alliance with the Ekumen, Karhide will become infinitely less threatened and more important than it’s ever been.”

“No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year. We’ve followed our road too far. And you, who come from a world that outgrew nations centuries ago, who hardly know what I’m talking about, who show us the new road—” He broke off. After a while he went on, in control again, cool and polite: “It’s because of fear that I refuse to urge your cause with the king, now. But not fear for myself, Mr. Ai. I’m not acting patriotically. There are, after all, other nations on Gethen.”

I’m not anyone’s servant. A man must cast his own shadow…

In those days, as now, full brothers were permitted to keep kemmer until one of them should bear a child, but after that they must separate; so it was never permitted them to vow kemmering for life. Yet this they had done.

Keep clear of factions. Tell your own lies, do your own deeds. And trust no one. D’you know that? Trust no one.

“Material profit. Increase of knowledge. The augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life. The enrichment of harmony and the greater glory of God. Curiosity. Adventure. Delight.”

The Ekumen is not a kingdom, but a co-ordinator, a clearinghouse for trade and knowledge; without it communication between the worlds of men would be haphazard, and trade very risky, as you can see. Men’s lives are too short to cope with the time-jumps

“The Ekumen will wait till you open it, sir. It will force nothing on you. I was sent alone, and remain here alone, in order to make it impossible for you to fear me.”

As they say in Ekumenical School, when action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep

“That we shall die.”

But on Gethen nothing led to war. Quarrels, murders, feuds, forays, vendettas, assassinations, tortures and abominations, all these were in their repertory of human accomplishments; but they did not go to war. They lacked, it seemed, the capacity to mobilize. They behaved like animals, in that respect; or like women. They did not behave like men, or ants. At any rate they never yet had done so

a nation instead of a family quarrel

Gethenians could make their vehicles go faster, but they do not. If asked why not, they answer “Why?” Like asking Terrans why all our vehicles must go so fast; we answer “Why not?” No disputing tastes. Terrans tend to feel they’ve got to get ahead, make progress. The people of Winter, who always live in the Year One, feel that progress is less important than presence.

the empty heart of the city, indestructible.

The Handdara is a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed; I am still unable to say whether it has a God or not. It is elusive. It is always somewhere else. Its only fixed manifestation is in the Fastnesses, retreats to which people may retire and spend the night or a lifetime.

Legends of prediction are common throughout the whole Household of Man. Gods speak, spirits speak, computers speak. Oracular ambiguity or statistical probability provides loopholes, and discrepancies are expunged by Faith.

“I am honored!” he said. “I’ve lived here three years, but haven’t yet acquired enough ignorance to be worth mentioning.”

They were practicing the Handdara discipline of Presence, which is a kind of trance&mdashthe Handdarata, given to negatives, call it an untrance— involving self-loss (self-augmentation?) through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness. Though the technique is the exact opposite of most techniques of mysticism it probably is a mystical discipline, tending towards the experience of Immanence; but I can’t categorize any practice of the Handdarata with certainty

It was an introverted life, self-sufficient, stagnant, steeped in that singular “ignorance” prized by the Handdarata and obedient to their rule of inactivity or noninterference. That rule (expressed in the word nusuth, which I have to translate as “no matter”) is the heart of the cult, and I don’t pretend to understand it.

Under that nation’s politics and parades and passions runs an old darkness, passive, anarchic, silent, the fecund darkness of the Handdara.

“The more qualified and limited the question, the more exact the answer,” he said. “Vagueness breeds vagueness. And some questions of course are not answerable.”

Two of the Foretellers remained withdrawn, unspeaking. One of them lifted his left hand from time to time and patted the floor lightly and swiftly ten or twenty times, then sat motionless again. I had seen neither of them before; they were the Zanies, Goss said. They were insane. Goss called them “time-dividers,” which may mean schizophrenics. Karhidish psychologists, though lacking mindspeech and thus like blind surgeons, were ingenious with drugs, hypnosis, spotshock, cryonic touch, and various mental therapies; I asked if these two psychopaths could not be cured. “Cured?” Goss said. “Would you cure a singer of his voice?”

Excessive prolongation of the kemmer period, with permanent hormonal imbalance toward the male or the female, causes what they call perversion; it is not rare; three or four percent of adults may be physiological perverts or abnormals-normals, by our standard. They are not excluded from society, but they are tolerated with some disdain, as homosexuals are in many bisexual societies. The Karhidish slang for them is halfdeads. They are sterile.

The empathic and paraverbal forces at work, immensely powerful and confused, rising out of the perversion and frustration of sex, out of an insanity that distorts time, and out of an appalling discipline of total concentration and apprehension of immediate reality, were far beyond my restraint or control. And yet they were controlled

“That’s a discipline that must arouse the interest of kings, politicians, men of business.”

“Men of business fought against the use of mindspeech when it first was found to be a teachable skill; they outlawed it for decades.”

“We have no more kings.”

“Well, we come here to the Fastnesses mostly to learn what questions not to ask.”

“To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”

“The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion… Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable—the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”

“Yes. There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer. … The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

It is hard, I found, to be called traitor. Strange how hard it is, for it’s an easy name to call another man; a name that sticks, that fits, that convinces. I was half convinced myself.

Nusuth. “The admirable is inexplicable.”

waiting in the anterooms of infinite Inspectors

It seems likely that they were an experiment. The thought is unpleasant. But now that there is evidence to indicate that the Terran Colony was an experiment, the planting of one Hainish Normal group on a world with its own proto-hominid autochthones, the possibility cannot be ignored. Human genetic manipulation was certainly practiced by the Colonizers; nothing else explains the hilfs of S or the degenerate winged hominids of Rokanan; will anything else explain Gethenian sexual physiology? Accident, possibly; natural selection, hardly. Their ambisexuality has little or no adaptive value.

somer-kemmer cycle

When you meet a Gethenian you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectations of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or the opposite sex. Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept.

The fact is that Gethenians, though highly competitive (as proved by the elaborate social channels provided for competition for prestige, etc.) seem not to be very aggressive; at least they apparently have never yet had what one could call a war. They kill one another readily by ones and twos; seldom by tens or twenties; never by hundreds or thousands. Why?e

Compare the torrent and the glacier. Both get where they are going

He talked much about pride of country and love of the parentland, but little about shifgrethor, personal pride or prestige

It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer (or paint, or pliofilm, or whatever) hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness… Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both

The clothes showed me what it was that this impressive, massive city lacked: elegance. Elegance is a small price to pay for enlightenment

There are more servants, more services in Orgoreyn than in Karhide. This is because all Orgota are employees of the state; the state must find employment for all citizens, and does so. This, at least, is the accepted explanation, though like most economic explanations it seems, under certain lights, to omit the main point.

The unexpected is what makes life possible

Since my examination by the physicians and scientists of Erhenrang I had not been faced with a group of people who wanted me to answer their questions. Few Karhiders, even the fishermen and farmers with whom I had spent my first months, had been willing to satisfy their curiosity—which was often intense—by simply asking. They were involute, introvert, indirect; they did not like questions and answers. I though of Otherherd Fastness, of what Faxe the Weaver had said concerning answers… Even the experts had limited their questions to strictly physiological subjects, such as the glandular and circulatory functions in which I differed most notably from the Gethenian norm. They had never gone on to ask, for example, how the continuous sexuality of my race influenced its social institutions, how we handled our ‘permanent kemmer’. They listened, when I told them; the psychologists listened when I told them about mindspeech; but not one of them had brought himself to ask enough general questions to form any adequate picture of Terran or Ekumenical society—except, perhaps, Estraven

I could show them the ansible, but it didn’t make a very convincing Alien Artifact, being so incomprehensible as to fit in with hoax as well as with reality. The old Law of Cultural Embargo stood against the importation of analyzable, imitable artifacts at this stage, and so I had nothing with me except the ship and ansible, my box of pictures, the indubitable peculiarity of my body, and the unprovable singularity of my mind.

But the Ekumen is not essentially a government at all. It is an attempt to reunify the mystical with the political, and as such is of course mostly a failure; but its failure has done more good for humanity so far than the successes of its predecessors. It is a society and it has, at least potentially, a culture. It is a form of education; in one aspect it’s a sort of very large school—very large indeed. The motives of communication and cooperation are of its essence, and therefore in another aspect it’s a league or union of worlds, possessing some degree of centralized conventional organization

The Ekumen as a political entity functions through coordination, not by rule. It does not enforce

laws; decisions are reached by council and consent, not by consensus or command.

It is not altogether a bad thing to have criminal ancestors. An arsonist grandfather may bequeath one a nose for smelling smoke.

It was, I thought, as if they did not cast shadows.


To oppose something is to maintain it.

To be an atheist is to maintain God. His existence or his nonexistence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof. Thus proof is a word not often used among the Handdarata, who have chosen not to treat God as a fact, subject either to proof or to belief: and they have broken the circle, and go free.

To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.

And in the Center there is no time past and no time to come. In all time past it is. In all time to come it is. It has not been nor yet will it be. It is. It is all.

The rate of expansion (Hubble’s constant; Rerherek’s constant) can in fact be estimated from the observed amount of light in the night sky; the point here involved is that, if the universe were not expanding, the night sky would not appear to be dark.

One’s magnetic and directional subsenses are all wrong on other planets; when the intellect won’t or can’t compensate for that wrongness, the result is a profound bewilderment, a feeling that everything, literally, has come loose.

Falling snow; new-fallen snow; long-fallen snow; snow after rain has fallen on it; refrozen snow… Orgota and Karhidish have a word for each of these. In Karhidish (which I know better than Orgota) they have by my count sixty-two words for the various kinds, states, ages, and qualities of snow; fallen snow, that is. There is another set of words for the varieties of snowfall; another for ice; a set of twenty or more that define what the temperature range is, how strong a wind blows, and what kind of precipitation is occurring, all together.

They were without shame and without desire, like the angels. But it is not human to be without shame and without desire.

Being so strictly denned and limited by nature, the sexual urge of Gethenians is really not much interfered with by society: there is less coding, channeling, and repressing of sex there than in any bisexual society I know of. Abstinence is entirely voluntary; indulgence is entirely acceptable. Sexual fear and sexual frustration are both extremely rare. This was the first case I had seen of the social purpose running counter to the sexual drive. Being a suppression, not merely a repression, it produced not frustration, but something more ominous, perhaps, in the long run: passivity..

My greatest error was, as you say, in not making myself clear to you. I am not used to doing so. I am not used to giving, or accepting, either advice or blame.

He knew, as do many Gethenians, the caloric and nutritive value of each food; he knew his own requirements under various conditions, and how to estimate mine pretty closely. Such knowledge has high survival-value, on Winter.

“Curiosity, adventure.” He hesitated and smiled slightly. “The augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life,” he said, quoting one of my Ekumenical quotations

“Very few Orgota know how to cook. Hate Orgoreyn? No, how should I? How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession… Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.”

Ignorant, in the Handdara sense: to ignore the abstraction, to hold fast to the thing. There was in this attitude something feminine, a refusal of the abstract, the ideal, a submissiveness to the given, which rather displeased me.

“A man who doesn’t detest a bad government is a fool. And if there were such a thing as a good government on earth, it would be a great joy to serve it.”

It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end

“The Yomeshta would say that man’s singularity is his divinity.” “Lords of the Earth, yes. Other cults on other worlds have come to the same conclusion. They tend to be the cults of dynamic, aggressive, ecology-breaking cultures.

Well, in the Handdara … you know, there’s no theory, no dogma… Maybe they are less aware of the gap between men and beasts, being more occupied with the likenesses, the links, the whole of which living things are a part

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

Equality is not the general rule, then?

Praise then darkness and Creation unfinished,”

Young children, and defectives, and members of un-evolved or regressed societies, can’t mindspeak. The mind must exist on a certain plane of complexity first. You can’t build up amino acids out of hydrogen atoms; a good deal of complexifying has to take place first: the same situation. Abstract thought, varied social interaction, intricate cultural adjustments, esthetic and ethical perception, all of it has to reach a certain level before the connections can be made—before the potentiality can be touched at all.”

So that intimacy of mind established between us was a bond, indeed, but an obscure and austere one, not so much admitting further light (as I had expected it to) as showing the extent of the darkness.

“It’s the Ekumen’s custom, and there are reasons for it. Though in fact I begin to wonder if I’ve ever understood the reasons. I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou. Not political, not pragmatic, but mystical. In a certain sense the Ekumen is not a body politic, but a body mystic. It considers beginnings to be extremely important. Beginnings, and means. Its doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means. It proceeds, therefore, by subtle ways, and slow ones, and queer, risky ones; rather as evolution does, which is in certain senses its model[…]

He glanced back at the sledge, a bit of refuse in the vast torment of ice and reddish rock. “It did well,” he said. His loyalty extended without disproportion to things, the patient, obstinate, reliable things that we use and get used to, the things we live by. He missed the sledge.

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  • Last modified: 2019-01-18 16:19
  • by nik