Posts Tagged ‘Tao Te Ching’

Ursula Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

February 6, 2022

     I’m always glad to re-read anything by Ursula Le Guin. This time, it’s for my book group, and it’s also only a couple of years since I last read this one. Since then, I’ve learnt rather more about her background in anthropology, which casts an interesting light on her ‘thought experiments’ as she calls them, in the range of Hainish novels and stories. It’s the way she can make the reader think about our own particular species of humanity, its greatnesses and limitations, by imagining variations on the template, particularly in this novel in terms of gender and sexuality, that is the great success of her oeuvre.

The Left Hand of Darkness was written over half a century ago now, in the early days of the second feminist wave, and Le Guin’s later reflections on what and how she wrote back then are also interesting: she acknowledges that she comes across as having made the reader picture the androgynous Estraven as basically male, and being focused only on heterosexuality in her imagined society… However, what struck me most in reading around the novel this time was that she apparently started off with the premise of a planet which did nthought experiments,ot know war, and the androgyny of the inhabitants only came along after that.

We see the Envoy’s awkwardness – he is apparently a Terran, as we are – faced with the Gethenians; he cannot grasp the implications of their sexuality and often seems to put them down or demean them for not being clearly one gender or the other; this is significant, as clearly we are invited to remove our own blinkers when he is narrating the story.

So this novel is an anthropological experiment as much as a political story, with obvious undertones of the Cold War era whence it originates. The science fiction elements include faster-than-light travel and the ansible, an instant communication device which keeps the many planets of the Ekumen in contact with each other. Parts of the anthropological experiment are the skill of ‘foretelling’, and also ‘mind speech’, both of which are self-explanatory. The two nations of the planet which concern us are very different, one clearly a Soviet-style state and the other almost mediaeval; the well-intentioned Estraven, who can see what becoming part of the Ekumen will mean for his fellow-humans, attempts well-intentioned manipulations and duplicity, which inevitably lead to personal and political misunderstandings and disaster.

The title of the novel comes from the Tao Te Ching, and Le Guin produced what she called a ‘version’ of it in English; I have to say that when I read it, I felt that for the first time I was attaining some understanding of its wisdom. I came across a reference to someone writing a biography of Le Guin; I’m not normally one for reading biography but I shall be keeping an eye open for that, most certainly.

Finally I have to mention how well Le Guin writes; this is no run-of-the-mill, plot driven science fiction with wooden characters and stilted writing. This is literature that deserves to last, and, at the moment, I think it will.

2021: My year of reading

December 27, 2021

2021 has been a very conservative reading year. I’ve apparently only bought 20 books (I received another 3 for Christmas), but I have read over 90, so there’s been a lot of re-reading going on, and this has mainly been comfort reading to help me through the strange times we are living in. And the big clear-out also continues, as I get rid of books I know I’m not going to read or refer to again.

I spent quite a while revisiting Richard Brautigan’s novels, which have been in my library since my hippy days. They are light-hearted froth in a lot of ways, and yet some of them are very well-written, and I didn’t decide to get rid of all of them, but kept one or two just in case, as you do. The same is true of Hermann Hesse’s novels: I’ve now re-read all of these apart from The Glass Bead Game, which somehow I can’t face at the moment, even though some think it’s the best of all his works. I have a very vague recollection of it being a bit of a disappointment way back in the 1970s, too. But as I grow older I realise that Hesse’s fiction, and his ideas about the self and personality were pretty influential in my younger years in terms of how I saw myself and the world I lived in, and the connections between Hesse’s characters’ lives and the psychology of Carl Jung has been quite to the forefront when I’ve been re-reading the novels. Necessarily this led to a re-reading of some of Jung as well. In the end, I think the pandemic has caused me to undertake some fairly deep reflection on my entire life, and I know this has been the case for a good number of people.

There have been some new books this year, and a good number of them I read because they were choices of other members of my current book group. I’m a little surprised that I’ve stuck with the group – I like the people a lot – but at other times when I’ve been in a book group, I’ve dropped out fairly quickly because I didn’t like other people choosing my reading matter for me…

I’ve also realised that I read very little travel writing this year, which struck me as rather odd since my own opportunities for travel have been necessarily rather constrained for the past couple of years. I re-read a short and very lovely book Something of his Art, by Horatio Clare who travelled in the footsteps of my hero J S Bach, making the journey on foot from Arnstadt in Thuringia to Lübeck to hear the master organist Dietrich Buxtehude in the early eighteenth century. Clare records his impressions of the walk and reflects on the music and musician.

Discovery: I’ve wrestled with the Tao Te Ching a few times but not really got anywhere. My liking for Ursula Le Guin led me to get her version (ie version rather than translation, with plenty of her annotation and commentary) and I feel I’m now getting somewhere with it and something from it.

Blog report: more visits than ever this year, but this is largely due, as last year, to the number of what I imagine are students of the literature of the Great War reading up about various poems and poets as part of their studies. I’m grateful for their visits, and for everyone else who reads rather more widely in my meanderings through the world of literature, and I enjoy your comments and interactions.

Best SF: Laurent Binet’s Civilisations, although strictly speaking it’s an alternative history rather than science fiction. But a superb ‘what if?’

Best new novel: this has to be the (for me) long-awaited The Books of Jacob, by Olga Tokarczuk, which was a challenging but rewarding read and shows why she is a Nobel-class writer. Looking forward to more from her.

Best non-fiction: I found Adrift, by Amin Maalouf a fascinating account of the current state of the world, and how we got here. He’s a Lebanese writer, mainly a novelist but he has written about history and society before. He anchors so many of our current political problems in the Middle East and the effects that interfering outsiders have had over the past century as they struggled for control over the region and its resources. That’s oversimplifying a great deal, but is a very thought-provoking approach and one which matches the way I have thought about the world and seen it changing over my lifetime. The West’s appalling and cavalier treatment of Palestine is at the heart of so many problems and conflicts…

Best re-read(s): Amin Maalouf again, and Leo The African, his amazing re-creation of the true story of the Muslim boy from Spain at the time of the Reconquista, and his life, travels and adventures. Simply wonderful. Also Jean Giono’s Regain, about the resurrection of a remote village in France, the power of nature and those who live in harmony with it. Another book from my student days.

Next year’s plans: I want to continue with my reading of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and I’ve also made a resolution to read/re-read more history. I shall continue to sort and tidy up my library, and attempt to buy no new books at all… I am allowing myself one exception, which will be the final volume of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy, if it’s published. And lest you think I’m being extremist here, I will point out that I have several feet of as yet unread books on my shelves…

Desert Island Books

June 7, 2015

I’m not a regular listener to this long-running radio programme Desert Island Discs, but like all other listeners, I have pondered the question of what book I’d take with me to my desert island.

You are automatically allowed the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. These are both weighty tomes, and I suppose are meant to reassure you that you wouldn’t actually run short of reading matter. The Bible is somewhat limited; there are the familiar stories, and perhaps also the various Wisdom books which might keep me going for a while, but there’s lots of rather tedious stuff like Leviticus, and the geneological lists and the history of Israel and the prophets…

I’d have no problem with the complete works of Shakespeare (you knew I’d say that, didn’t you?), with the possibility of working my way endless times through all the plays and deciphering the sonnets, and who knows, maybe even bothering with the long poems, which I admit I’ve still never opened.

So what should my personal choice be?

Do I need to go for another large tome, so I have plenty to choose from? Should it be a massive poetry anthology? The complete works of Donne, or Milton? A door-stopper of a novel, like War and Peace, or A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (which, again, I’ve never got very far with) ? Another spiritual text, in case my soul craved such reading in its isolation – the Qur’an perhaps, or the Tao, or Confucius’ Analects, or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, all of which I’ve found very useful and interesting at some point in the past…

Perhaps a favourite novel, so that I can revisit past enjoyments, and also enjoy the sensation of escapism that comes from reading a really good novel? After all, I’m obviously not going to be able physically to escape the island. But then, how many times am I really going to want to re-read any of the novels on this list? And, although I’m very tempted, I think the complete Sherlock Holmes stories would outlive any possible usefulness before very long…

Today, after a random scan of the bookshelves, I’ve narrowed it down to a choice between Tristram Shandy and Ulysses. Tomorrow? And what would you choose, and why, my readers?


Wisdom & Spiritual Texts

September 30, 2014

I haven’t written about my response to spiritual writings before, as it’s quite a challenge. But they are a part of literature, alongside anything else that people may feel them to be…

I’ve read the Bible at least three times through, and have found myself liking it less and less each time. It’s a vital part of our Western cultural heritage, and underpins many of our values. I have always liked the old, familiar Old Testament stories, and have felt saddened that today’s children are unlikely to be familiar with them – as a teacher I found myself having to explain an awful lot of references in literature. I find a great deal of the Old Testament to be full of violence and warfare and cruelty. Some of the psalms I find beautiful, many repetitive. And yes, I know about that style of writing. I am most drawn to the Wisdom books of the Old Testament (those which Protestants assign to the Apocrypha) – Ecclesiastes, Sirach, Wisdom, and the like; these texts most resemble the calmer thoughts of Eastern spiritual texts. But the language is often quite sexist, and demeaning to women. So the texts are of their time, and some sects choose to rephrase them in ‘inclusive’ language; I’m not sure about doing that to any text…

I like the gospels for their familiar stories, and for the ideas in them, Jesus as a teacher with a new and challenging message in his times, and ideas which can still have relevance for us today. I’m also interested in the very different agendas the different evangelists have when telling their stories. Paul’s epistles I have always found hectoring, dull and sexist; they are of their time. Recently I have been interested in the epistle of James. And the Revelation I have always found deeply disturbing and disturbed.

Overall, I think that if a God had meant this collection of texts to rule all aspects of our lives, then s/he would have made a rather better and more coherent job of it.

The Qur’an I have become more interested in recently. It’s hard to read, though I’ve managed once; as I understand it, it is meant to be recited, and I have found it much more accessible through a recording (librivox again, if you are interested). I’m also aware that the Qur’an is in Arabic, and that in any other language it’s actually only a ‘version’. I’m astonished at how much overlap there is between stories and characters in the Bible and the Qur’an, although that is perhaps not so surprising when I recollect where in the world both texts originated. Like the Old Testament, it’s full of threats, warnings and dire punishments for those who stray from the right path, but to me it has also a stronger emphasis on a God who cares for and about his people. I have to admit that my knowledge and understanding of it is very limited, but I can see why it is venerated and respected by its followers, in ways in which the Bible does not seem to be.

I have also read the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, The Analects of Confucius, and Marcus AureliusMeditations, which I include under the heading of ‘wisdom and spiritual texts’, although their status seems rather different. To me they are focused on what I would call ‘right living’, which I think is very important, maybe paramount; they focus on suggestion rather than command, and they do not threaten dire consequences if one does not follow them: maybe they presume intelligence and benevolence in their readers as a starting-point? They are enigmatic; they demand slow and close reading and re-reading. They certainly do not suggest that to live well, or contentedly, is an easy and straightforward task, although they do think it is something for the wise to strive for. as I have grown older, this approach is one that I have gradually come to agree with.

I hope I have not offended anyone with my musings, but this is my blog and these are my thoughts.

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