“The grass is always greener on the other side.” Until you get there, of course. And if you had to travel far enough to get there, you realize that, greener or not, the grass isn’t the only thing that’s different. When you make the journey to a new land, you always get a lot more than you bargained for, and it’s rarely what you expected. So as I sat in an airport waiting to fly home to USA from Madagascar and read Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel, “The Dispossessed”, I found quite a lot to relate to.
For several years now, I’ve held an ever-growing admiration for Le Guin’s excellent writing, and I had high hopes for “The Dispossessed”, knowing that it’s considered a classic. As it turns out, “The Dispossessed” is an exceptionally good book from a writer whose merely average-quality story is already exceptional among all the rest. It has all the makings of fine literature: a non-standard narrative structure, deep looks into human nature and identity, plenty of sociological musings, prose that’s often poetic, and packed full of significant themes and symbolism touching the very core of what it means to be human and to exist in our universe. And with all of this (unlike all classic literature), the writing and plot is engaging, entertaining, and full of enough intrigue and adventure to make it hard to fall asleep at night.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” centers on a man named “Shevek”, who grew up in the harsh environment of a distant planet, in a society that intentionally had no form of government (anarchy) and which rejected the notion of property (and thus was communistic, but not by force). Shevek is a theoretical physicist focusing on the science of time, in particular whether time exists only linearly or with some form of simultaneity (which, in the book, was also demonstrated cyclically). Because of the close-knit community required for the survival of his society under the planet’s harsh conditions, they’re also reluctant to accept new ideas and thus Shevek’s new field of science is also not accepted. So, Shevek finds a way to return to another planet (which is his own planet’s “moon”, since the two planets exist in a binary system) that his people emigrated from 200 years earlier, to escape the oppression of its capitalistic and autocratic societies. There Shevek hopes to find an acceptance for his ideas and a suitable workplace to finish his major scientific theory of the nature of time – the “General Temporal Theory.”
Now, if you’re not a student of physics or sociology, you may have a little trouble making sense of most of that paragraph. Suffice it to say that what Shevek was working on was akin to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity with the same degree of importance. Where Einstein’s theory led to nuclear physics and the creation of both the atom bomb and the nuclear reactor, Shevek’s theory was expected to have similarly wide-ranging consequences relating to instantaneous space travel and annihilationist weaponry. That’s the caliber of person we’re talking about and the significance of his ideas. That’s also why the governments of the other planet, who originally expelled Shevek’s people as rebellious revolutionaries, were willing to receive him with wide-open arms, because of the benefits they hoped to gain from him. So, the story is full of political and scientific intrigue.
But at its core, the human and emotional elements of the story are all about voyage and discovery, and that’s where I come in. I think we can all remember some experience as a kid, when we see something new, having no idea what it is, and see it all backwards. It’s like one of those illusions where there’s a picture that’s simultaneously an old woman and a young woman, and we always see one first and often have a hard time seeing the other. Then when we do see the other, it’s sometimes hard to switch back again. Every new thing we see and experience for the first time is magnified and distorted by our inexperience.
Le Guin echoes this well in the first chapter of “The Dispossessed”, when Shevek gets in the rocket and lifts off from his planet; he’s so unprepared for what he sees that he initially views the growing curve of his planet as a bowl, as something concave, totally messing with his depth perception. Only after blasting even higher do his eyes and brain re-align and he realizes what he’s seeing is the convex curve of his planet. Because the new planet Shevek arrives at is so different than his own (exceptionally fertile, rather than arid and infertile), it takes him weeks or more just to adjust his senses. Our first experiences in a totally new place are often so much like that.
I still remember my first visit to Madagascar back in 2002, and how exceptional the sights and sounds and smells were. After stepping off the plane in a tiny airport, I was soon speeding down a packed highway with traffic of all sorts (motor, animal, and foot-powered) cramming into the empty spaces and going all directions. The trees and plants were like nothing I’d ever seen before and most the food too! The language was bizarre and sing-songy. I was only there for a couple of months, but those new experiences, especially the first few days, left a major imprint on my brain. So much so that over a year later, while hiking in the edge of the Alps in France, a certain smell of smoke and spice immediately brought back vivid memories of Madagascar to my mind.
Since then, I’ve longed for that “new” experience over and over again. Since that first trip to Madagascar in 2002, I’ve spent some time (short or long) in 8 different countries around the world on 4 different continents. That’s hardly any compared to some world travellers I know, but every time before the trip, I’d get excited about the prospect of experiencing something genuinely new with that same degree of vividness again. Unfortunately, I’ve long since given up on ever having quite that same strength of feeling return.
The truth is, for us humans (and for Shevek in Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” as well), we’re made to accept the details around us. What once was new becomes old and comfortable with time. What language was once foreign and indistinguishable (as Malagasy was for me) now becomes the only vessel for carrying certain thoughts that your mother language can’t convey, and you don’t even translate in your head anymore. In the same way, Shevek learned an entirely different language for his scientific research, and rarely even bothered trying to translate it into his planet’s home language anymore. An understanding of the “different-ness” remains, as well as how to make the most out of it, but the acute awareness of vivid newness simply fades away, never to return. And the more I’ve visited new places, the less anything seems remarkably different anymore.
I think, at least on this planet, there’s a finite limit to the range of human lifestyles and environments that we can experience. And the more variety you become comfortable in, the less anything new seems to differ from what you’ve already experienced. At least, that’s how it’s been for me.
But of course, there are other aspects to new worlds other than just the sensory shocks. The people themselves are strange. In Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed”, Shevek came from a society that didn’t even believe in the concept of property, where the term “propertarian” (“owner” in common English) was the most derogatory insult. And yet he had to adapt to a group of scientists and mathematicians who not only believed in protecting personal physical property, but also in safeguarding and protecting the ideas in their mind, in getting “credit” and recompense for what they discovered about the universe. Shevek came expecting that and tried to be prepared, but differences in cultural values influence every aspect of life, and they wore away at Shevek little by little, exhausting and exasperating him.
In the same way, I’ve become used to different versions of “truth” and “honesty” in South Africa and Madagascar. In their conceptions, no statement of reality can really be made without consideration of the person who’s hearing it. In Madagascar it’s most obvious, with a Malagasy person typically telling their listener whatever they think he/she wants to hear, whatever might be the most-hoped-for situation, apparently with some idea that “happy thoughts” are better than tough realities. Though having several years of adapting to these differing conceptions of truth, and though I’ve come to expect certain things and decipher their meanings, I still haven’t integrated it into my own conceptions or usually even my speech. Those are the kinds of “newness” which don’t express themselves in sensory vividness, but which will always be, at least to some extent, foreign to the foreign visitor. Le Guin does an amazing job of pulling these out in Shevek’s experiences in “The Dispossessed”.
As I wrote earlier, Shevek’s motivation for leaving his people and everything he knew was the hope for greater acceptance in the place he was going. To some extent he found that, especially regarding his scientific work and ideas. But he also found a whole lot more. As I wrote at the beginning, whether or not the grass is greener, a person who journeys to another land will also find that the whole environment is different, and that’s what changes the color or quality of the grass. But in the new environment there are things that the visitor will find are desirably different and things that aren’t.
In “The Dispossessed”, it was Shevek’s environment itself, his personal upbringing in an anarchic communistic society with a philosophy of society as an interworking social organism, with each member doing his own unique work, but together in the organism at the same time, that was the fertile ground for Shevek’s concepts of simultaneity in time. In the profit- and power-motivated environments everywhere else, where everything was seen strongly as step-by-step cause-and-effect in the interest of a single goal, no one had previously thought of time as anything but sequential. But in Shevek’s environment, the “social organism” which needed cooperation to survive was an environment that discouraged change and outside-the-box thinking, though that was what it needed to thrive.
When I was in high school, I didn’t directly “rebel” against authority, but I never trusted it much and I preferred autonomy. I was fascinated by the idea of anarchy. That alone made this book’s exploration of a living anarchic society intriguing to me. But through various experiences, and of course through working in the real world of America where no one really wants anarchy, I left the idea aside. However, as I grew older and around the time I entered high school, my Christian faith and ideals and my interest in the structure of the early Church led me to consider the merits of communism. I mostly joked about it with my friends, because of course it’s an unacceptable idea in American society, but I practiced implementing a few small aspects of communist living, both to be true to my ideals and to see how it would work out. Of course, that’s all much easier to do in a men’s college dormitory than it is in “real life.” But you can see how that concept was also one more fascinating thing for me as I read Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed.”
Through my interest in anarchy and communism, and through my studies in anthropology and my initial experience in Madagascar in 2002, I became even more intrigued by traditional rural tribal societies, whose lifestyle and consideration of property is much more community-centered by default and whose authority structures are much more local. Like many who first experience a new way of life and whose time there has been limited, you might say I had “rose-colored glasses” about the idea and the people. I was definitely getting tired of working hard at seemingly pointless jobs for minimal financial return and I was becoming more incensed at the injustices of the massive inequity present (even for those who work hard) in America’s capitalist economy, and also becoming more skeptical that anything could ever change. So when thinking about potential alternatives, I really thought that in many ways, “the grass was greener on the other side.”
So, when my wife and I joined the Peace Corps for a commitment of 2+ years and they sent us to rural South Africa, I got a chance to experience it all firsthand. Much of what I idealized turned out to be true: people in these community-centered societies really did put people first and they cared for others, even those who aren’t in their family, who aren’t their friends, and who they don’t even know, in a way that’s simply not present in most Americans. Within their local communities (which is where most life happens), they will rarely overcharge for goods or services to another community member. Often they’ll do the work for free, just to help each other out. Relatively speaking, there were few who were very poor and few who were very wealthy.
But, just as Le Guin wrote of Shevek’s society in “The Dispossessed”, I learned that (at least in my experience so far) tribal community-centered societies have a hard time accepting change. Even worse than that, jealousy of those who seem to “over-achieve” or “work too hard” easily develops and it can be harmful to the entire community and certainly damaging to personal relationships. So yes, in many of the ways I wanted things to be different, they were, and it was good. But in that same environment were many negatives I didn’t expect. Since then, I’ve learned that life is like that. A culture is an entire environment. Where the grass is greener, there may also be too much rain. So I’ve learned (and with helpful advice) to appreciate the best aspects of each place I am while I’m there. And I also strive to find ways to assimilate the best of all. But that can’t be done in a truly “natural environment.”
So, during Shevek’s journey from his homeland to the place where he sought acceptance and a conclusion to his work, his thoughts were always returning to his true home. The fact that his wife and children were back home surely made that inevitable. But so did the increasing understanding that he might have to give up more than he wanted in this new society in order to get what he came there for. During all the speculations and research of math and physics, during the intrigues and dangers of economic revolutions and political uprisings, and during the voyage of discovery itself, Shevek frequently thought of home.
Le Guin even used a nice narrative device echoing Shevek’s idea of time: she simultaneously told the story of Shevek’s childhood and early adult life while she also told the story of his later exile and journey. It was as if the two were happening at the same time, and each set of chapters, though from radically different times in his life, echoed a mutual identity with each other nonetheless. And both led to his “return home”, to his self-realization, and where he fit in the community he came from.
Similarly, in all my years of living overseas, I’ve learned that no matter how well a foreigner can become adapted to the local life and culture, no matter how hard one tries, home is still home. Though I started Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” while in Madagascar, and though I continued it in the airports on the way, I didn’t finish it until I’d returned back to my childhood home in USA. I no longer think that my home is “better” or even “worse” than the places I’ve lived since then. But nothing will change that it’s my home. I’ve let go of it, and I’ve grown beyond it. But as I have opportunities to visit again, I know it’s the place I feel most comfortable, the place that connects my past and my present, the place that formed me and led me to where I am today. No matter how full we pack our bags for the trip (us “propertarians”), we can’t really bring anything from one place to the other. We become like Shevek and have nothing to bring but ourselves and who we are and who we’ve become. I love the last line in the book. Of Shevek’s return home, Le Guin writes, “But he had not brought anything. His hands were empty, as they had always been.”
To draw in one more quote from another great author of the voyage of discovery and the transformation of self, Joseph Conrad writes in “Lord Jim”: “Each blade of grass has its spot on earth whence it draws its life, its strength, and so man is rooted to the land from which he draws his faith together with his life.”
I highly recommend Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed“ to a wide audience: to all lovers of science fiction, or those of anthropology, or sociology, for those who like to think of alternative government structures or economies, or those who love math or physics, or to those who love to travel, or for those who appreciate the idea of a deep and abiding romance, of two people who are drawn together across vast distances. All of those things and more are at the core of this book, and I think a healthy dose of self-discovery goes along with it as well. Give it a chance and you won’t be disappointed!
Pages: 341 FOA Pages: 13,130