My initial intentions for Coyote's Song (which I will usually shorten to just Coyote) were to do a close reading of most of Ursula K. Le Guin's science fiction, fantasy, and other writing outside of the "realistic main stream" and within the teaching tradition; to put those works into the context of Le Guin's canon; and to put Le Guin's canon into its literary and historical contexts. I intended a book that could be used for reference and either read through although that is not a strategy I recommend or sampled chapter by chapter, perhaps starting with my central chapter, on perhaps Le Guin's central work: ch. 10 on Always Coming Home. Coyote was written for readers with backgrounds ranging from undergraduate students in introductory courses to scholars of science fiction and fantasy specializing in the works of Ursula K. Le Guin.1
I have done the close readings, including showing inter-relationships between any text at hand and other works by Le Guin; that is, I have contextualized the works within Le Guin's canon. As I explain later, I have done additional contextualizing, but most of the rest of the literary and historical context I intended to supply I have not supplied, and I have concluded that such detailed contextualizing would best be done by future scholars. Everything is connected to everything else, as mystics and ecologists remind us, and it is always more or less arbitrary what we set off to study. What I think I can usefully do, and have tried to do, is to suggest how Le Guin's works might appear to a fair number of contemporary readers embedded in those social, political, and historical contexts: basically (and egocentrically) readers like me.
I have tried to make Coyote useful as a reference text and to have my chapters and sections of chapters mostly independent so that someone looking for an introduction to one of Le Guin's works can find such an introduction in one place. Again though, I have also tried to get into the works and trace the web of the inter-relations of the works, and these goals working together means that there is intentionally a fair amount of redundancy in Coyote plus whatever inadvertent repetitions got past me and my editor. I have tried to give warnings when I am taking a second pass at a work (e.g., with "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow") and when I am reviewing basic philosophy. When I am repeating a point, as with Existentialism, I have tried to vary my examples; and I have tried to vary my approach to different works, following similar patterns in discussing them but trying to avoid mechanical repetition of some transcendent formula of interpretation and presentation. Still, I advise against trying to read through Coyote. Going chapter by chapter, taking long breaks, generous readers might find Coyote monumental; try to get through large hunks of it in a few sittings, and Coyote will just seem interminable.
I hope I have written seriously, insightfully, and irreverently enough to hold the interests of professionals. I am sure that I have occasionally argued with Le Guin and with some high-power critics I respect (Rosemary Jackson, Sarah Lefanu, Gregory Benford, Marleen Barr), so there may be enough implicit conflict to hold the interest of professionals who like a little drama if, I am very sure, not enough conflict for those who like their literary criticism as a blood sport. More fervently, I hope I have written simply enough to be accessible to undergraduates willing to skip over or look up words they don't know. Please note, however, that there are a handful of technical terms that appear fairly often and which cannot be just read over. I will discuss them as I go along, but for people unfamiliar with the terms and who will be reading selectively, I provide the following rough and ready definitions.
Ontology/Metaphysics: The study of Being, the science of the essence of things (if one thinks things have an essence). Trying to figure out what is and where the Basis or Goal of things might be located.2
Epistemology: The study of knowledge. If ontology, or metaphysics, determines what, if anything, is out there to be known, epistemology asks if we can know what is out there, and, if we can know, how we might know it. Last, for my purposes: if we can know about the things in the world (or in our minds), epistemology asks whether or not we can communicate such knowledge to other people. In Le Guin's terms, if there are facts out there, how might they look to a dragon? And if a dragon wanted to tell me about those facts, could I understand?
Immanence: In Coyote, the idea that What IS, ultimately, doesn't transcend the universe or go outside the universe, but is in the universe. In one translation of a saying of Koheleth, the Preacher in the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, "That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep" (7.24, RSV). So to get to that which is, one goes down, not up, possibly taking this figurative journey by means of a mystic discipline, or, if one is in the Romantic tradition, getting in true touch with Nature.
Transcendence: The opposite of immanence. That which is, is beyond and above the universe. In the tradition of Western monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) that which IS, ultimately, is God. In the tradition of Western rationalism, that which is, is eternal forms, categories, universal principles. If reaching the immanent may be pictured as a descent, transcendence is an ascent: the Ascension of Christ, the Assumption of the Virgin, the upward movements of rockets leaving Mother Earth for the conquest of spaceor Stanley Kubrick's great image of Star-Child above the Earth at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Mâshâl: A Hebrew word for a linguistic construct like a parable, satire or prophecy, but in the ancient sense of language in which words act in the world; so mâshâlim that epitomize past situations educate their hearers in significant ways and satires and prophecies may will future outcomes.
Existentialism (atheistic, Sartrean variety): A very popular theory in the late 1940s through the 1960s Christian/Common Era (CE). In Western religious views for some two thousand years, human beings live in a kind of Middle Earth between Heaven above and Hell beneath, connected with Nature and with each other if at all through God and/or God's love. Atheistic Existentialism gets rid of God, heaven, and hell, leaving Man (it is a macho theory) on a great plane surface, with no God to define "human nature" for humans to fulfill or to specify what is allowed and what forbidden, what is good and what is bad and reward good actions or punish evil. Man is alone, outside of Nature, abandoned, cut off from his fellows, alienated, forlorn, in pain, despairing, and free, including free to define himself and will himself to be what he and (therefore) all people should be.
Daoism (older spelling, "Taoism"): Always in Coyote, and in Le Guin, the philosophy deriving from Lao Tzu (6th c. Before the Christian/Common Era [BCE]), Chuang Tzu (4th-3rd c. BCE), and their philosophical and mystic followers, not the organized Daoist religion. Basically totally basically that which is is the Dao: the Way, the nonBeing underlying all Being, the womb from which ultimately all things are born and to which all return. To live well, humans should go with the Dao, which usually means the stillness of a sage or mystic, inaction (wu wei), avoiding doing anything against nature, against the Way; when one must act, one should act spontaneously, following one's "knacks," one's luck, and the Way of things. The Dao is immanent and may be touched momentarily, at which time one might feel how the world goes and be certain of what to do. There is, though, no transcendence (in Le Guin's version), and no God or transcendent gods, so one cannot receive a Revelation and thereby see a straight path to the Good, and one cannot, in Daoism, possess certainty. Hence there are no universal rules at all, and hence no universal rules for government: no doctrine or secret knowledge that would justify forcing the world to one's will or pushing around other people. In such a view, the safest social arrangement would be very old-fashioned communist anarchy. Daoism is one basic formulation of a perennial philosophy of human embeddedness in the world, a feeling for the ultimate unity of things common in mystic practices, the spirituality of traditional Native Americans, the real old-time religion preceding the worship of highly individualized man-like, transcendent sky-gods. If you can accept the idea of a godless galaxy where the highest power is The Force while watching a Star Wars movie, you are at least willing to accept tentatively a "Way of Power" related to the Dao.3
Kulturkampf: My encyclopedia defines the term as a German word for the 1872-87 "struggle to subject the Roman Catholic Church to state controls in the newly founded German Empire."4 I first heard Kulturkampf used in a contemporary sense in 1990, by William Rusher, publisher of the right-wing magazine National Review.5 Patrick Buchanan introduced the term into mainstream political usage during his campaigns for President of the United States. In a typical Kulturkampf move, I wish to appropriate the term as Rusher, Buchanan, et al. have done co-opt it, and, redefine it. In current, melodramatic usage, the Kulturkampf is the struggle for the hearts and minds of the American people (and Terrans generally the humans of our Earth). The concept participates in the great myth or metanarrative of the struggle of Good against Evil, Ormazd vs. Ahriman, God against Satan, or Us vs. Them. I use Kulturkampf as an alternative metaphor for "The market-place of ideas." Ideas are not simply laid out by equal and rational salesfolk for rational purchase by rational Economic Man and rational Economic Woman; a more useful figure of speech is the evolution of ideas, but with evolution seen in literal biological terms of differential reproduction and survival to reproduce, not some social-Darwinist jungle. There is an evolutionary Kampf or contest over culture: for the highest of stakes among humans but pursued quietly, on the whole a very serious game with unspectacular victories and silent defeats as, say, one system of images for talking about evolution is replaced by another, or if readers of Coyote catch themselves using my idea of Kulturkampf rather than that of Pat Buchanan.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a player in a number of contests for hearts and minds.
For there to be change, people must believe change is possible. For people to believe change is possible, they must be able to imagine realities different from their own. Like history and anthropology, then, fables, fantasy, and science fiction the genres I mostly deal with here are potentially subversive by providing alternative visions of the way things can be: providing alternative legends, alternative myths. Since the late 1960s, Le Guin has consciously written highly political poems and narratives: presenting new myths, especially myths of origins, and getting us to think about our current myths, presenting a "Perennial Philosophy" offering forms of spiritual life relation to the universe radically different from those of the dominant religions and philosophies of the West, making visible and problematic our ideas of such key terms as progress, patriotism, manhood, womanhood, Hero. "Revolution begins in the thinking mind," one of Le Guin's early heroes will tell us (TD : 267; ch. 10); and when asked by his boss, "Is this a revolution, Havzhiva?" one of Le Guin's most recent heroes will respond, "It is education, ma'am" ("A Man of the People" : FIS 130). So, CAUTION: You are about to enter a Kampf zone.
* * * *
First acknowledgment goes to Ursula K. Le Guin, without whom nothing. In addition to the obvious, supplying the texts I wrote about, Le Guin has been very generous in her time and effort helping with my manuscript. Second, I wish to thank Kathleen Spencer for introducing me to Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, and to Spencer and Carol Stevens for sending on to me materials I have found crucial to my work. My debt to a number of critics will be obvious from my citations, but I wish to acknowledge literally up-front, the work of Douglas Barbour on Daoism in Le Guin, Elizabeth Cummins for her Ursula K. Le Guin: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography and Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin, Charlotte Spivack, and James Bittner for their studies of Le Guin, and Sam Siciliano, for his 1975 dissertation work on The Word for World Is Forest. I am also grateful to Robert Galbreath for his work on Daoism and magic and other topics, and to Tom Remington for his work on touch as a motif in Le Guin's canon generally, and on Earthsea as Terran. More recently, I have been aided by Linda Nicholson, who has done great service in making philosophical poststructuralism intelligible to those of us who have not had formal training in recent philosophy; and I have been aided on philosophical issues by discussions with Dennis McGucken, who also offered helpful commentary on my discussion of postmodernism. And, finally, for help with my text, my thanks to my colleague Anita C. Wilson for her suggestions on the chapter on picture books, from the point of view of a professional critic, scholar, and teacher of literature for children and young adults.
I am deeply indebted to Roger Schlobin of Starmont Press for his initial confidence in me, and to Mary A. Burgess and Robert Reginald for their patience and aid for the production of this book by Borgo Press. Last, my thanks to C. Barry Chabot, Chair of the Department of English at Miami University, for his encouragement, advice, and aid.
About this Book: End Notes
1Below in this preface I define some key terms I use. However, I ordinarily try to clarify terms as I go along; readers concerned with a usage may wish to consult the Index and look back at earlier appearances of a problematic word. My attempting to write for a fairly broad audience also explains in part my favoring for allusions, comparisons, and contrasts of the plays of William Shakespeare and other relatively well-known and accessible works of popular, mass, or undergraduate academic culture; it also helps justify my favoring the hard and soft sciences over technical philosophy when I try to make plausible the idea of the social construction of reality.
2 I have consulted for terms in philosophy, Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Dagobert D. Runes. For my brief statement on Daoism here, I have consulted Strickmann, "Taoism" and Seidel, "Taoism, History of" articles in Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia (1974); my discussion is mostly, though, from my teaching Le Guin's Daoist works (see also Bittner's appendix on Daoism in "Approaches").
3 The title of Lao Tzu's book, the Tao te Ching may be translated, "Classic of the Way of Power" (e.g., "Taoism, History of" 1045). In the new Pinyin transliteration that would be "theDao De Jing of Lao Zi."
4 Encyclopaedia Britannica: Micropaedia (1974)
5 "First Amendment Debate," Nat Hentoff vs. William Rusher, Miami University at Oxford (Ohio), 3 Oct. 1990. The idea of a struggle over key terms is quite old. I've been concerned with it since 1960, when I was called a fool for declining to falsify a US Federal income tax filing for a pittance—passionately concerned with contested terms since I was accused of lack of patriotism by talkative members of "the great silent majority" during the Viet Nam War and of drug abuse for occasional and moderate use of cannabis—by heavy (ab)users of nicotine and alcohol. See my diss., "Wise Men and Fools . . ." (1971) or, for a far more convenient example, St. Paul on wisdom and folly in his First Letter to the Corinthians, chs. 1-3 (and Paul wrote nearly half a millennium after Greek playwrights used tragedies to debate in art key contested terms in Greek culture [William Arrowsmith's theory]).
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