Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Kiss to Wake Them

If this remarkable book , The Dispossessed, has a center—which is highly unlikely—it is the love story.  Shevek's dedication to Takver (both its discovery and constant re-enactment) drives most of the significant character developments in the novel.  It gives us, finally, a utopic wakes up.

In Huxley's Brave New World, Lenina, like Takver and Shevak, runs counter to the romantic drives of her culture.  She has a itch for monogamy.  In Le Guin, who offers her characters much more compassion and complexity than Huxley, the itch becomes almost an integral compulsion, a sense of inner truth that must be avowed and protected.  Shevek and Takver will remain possessed of one another: it is nothing less than rebellion.  They have promoted their needs above those of the larger community.  They will suffer inconvenience, they will suffer exclusion, so they can have one another.

The decision, of course, snowballs, opening up a space in which both Takver and Shevek may more critically engage their own culture and politics.  Because of the shuffling of linear time in the book, the space seems to be created and maintained by Shevak's travel.  His awakening is literally juxtaposed with his travels.  We are tempted to interpret him as the glorified study abroad student who reassesses from afar, wondering, for the first time, why those refrigerators back home are so little, or why there's not better plumbing.  But it is Takver with Shevek, not Annares vs. Urras, that structure this tension.  Their love allows them a way through.

By a way through, again, I mean a questioning of the ground, the first principles, on which a society (one's own) is built.  After the first decision to break with a core tenet (un-exclusive romance), the second break becomes much easier.  Le Guin is careful to construct a scene in which both Takver and Shevek are present for this re-assessment of grounding:

"We always think it, and say it, but we don't do it.  We keep our initiative tucked away safe in our mind, like a room where we can come and say, "I don't have to do anything, I make my own choices, I'm free.'  And then we leave the little room in our mind, and go where PDC posts us and stay till we're reposted." (329)

This is the sentiment (sediment) for Shevek's radical departure, his decision to leave Annares.  And it doesn't come from simple, mutual agreement (Takver in the scene mentioned above begins more as a counterpoint to Shevek's ideas); rather it is through their contact, through the dynamic of an insurgent love affair, the seditiousness of commitment's kiss, that sets Shevek free.

This reminded me of my first reading of Le Guin in an annual of fantasy and horror writing.  Her contribution was "The Poacher," a short story about a rugged peasant boy who cuts through a thicket and finds himself in none other than sleeping beauty's somnolent castle. The boy falls under an enchantment as well; but it is beauty, not sleep, that entices him:

I knew, I knew as soon as I entered her room, that first time, that one time, as soon as I saw her I knew that she, she alone in all the castle, might wake at any moment....I knew that if I spoke in that tower room she would hear me: maybe not waken, but hear me in her sleep, and her dreams would change.
This kiss never comes.  The boy grows old in that castle lawn, knowing that it is not his place to place that kiss.  He knows one day a prince will come, stride through the thicket that the boy spends the better part of the story clawing himself through, stoop down to the lovely girl and kiss her tenderly.

With this, Le Guin demonstrates that she is deserving of the praise Jameson reserves for her and few other fantasy writers.  He comments that she is savy in the complication of magic, widening it beyond the "ethical binary of good and evil" (58).  Moreover she proves that she can evade Tolkein's nostalgia for a righteous aristocracy and a frolicking peasantry (60).  Le Guin's peasant is beaten and unrewarded; her aristocrat privileged and undeserving.

Love is complicated too.  Like her novel, the story still turns on a seditious commitment.  Yes, there is not kiss, but there is the hope that the poacher's years of haunting the princess's charmed rest, his vigil at her court, will inscribe him in her memory.  When she opens her eyes and finds her prince, perhaps "she will think, 'Is that the face I dreamed of seeing?'"

The Dispossessed would not work without a similar desire.  Shevek must wonder if the apparition of his face still haunts his family.  The return would not compel him—there would be no consuming drive—if there was not an absence.  Only if he leaves the tranquility of bed, the warmth of Takver, the draw of sleep, might he then imagine himself reconfigured there, changed, transformed by his journey, but all the more hers.

1 comment:

  1. "sentiment (sediment)" - so vvonderfully vvictoresque!(we should make a vvikipedia of vvictorisms.)