As I mention in my welcome post, what I really seek here is to explore romanticism through literature, visual arts, film, academia, and philosophy. There will certainly be times when I am simply thinking of the living space and will post as much, because I believe that establishing a space which allows your mind to indulge is incredibly important. It has been, at least, for me. This being said, today I would like to share about a novel I have just finished: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. The theme for my book-list this year is anarchy, and The Dispossessed was first on my list. (List to come.)
"William Godwin was a major contributor to the radicalism of the Romantic movement. A leading political theorist in his own right as the founder of anarchism, Godwin provided the Romantics with the central idea that man, once freed from all artificial political and social constraints, stood in perfect rational harmony with the world. In this natural state man could fully express himself."
Anytime you explore the idea of freedom, individuality and the natural state of man the way the Romantics did/do, you will come up against the wall that is society and government. I have found myself asking what my relationship to others should be, how much control others have over me, what effect does the US government have on me. There is almost an anthropological aspect to answering these: how did we get where we are, where did we come from, would it be better there, how has industry changed us? And so on.
Recently, in watching the Parthenon Films documentary Stories from the Stone Age, I was mesmerized by their interpretation of the archeological evidence of the first societal rituals of humans. There exist pillars in one of the very first cities, upon which there are vultures carved who are carrying headless bodies. The pillars were not made to hold up any roof. The theory stands as this: the pillars were used to offer bodies of the dead to the vultures. Previously, people had chosen to keep the dead under their very firepits in their homes. Now that humans were living in completely man-made cities, there seemed to be a need to “return” to the cycle of the earth.
The story takes several viewpoints throughout its telling - subtly. Each becomes important in the understanding of the thoughts, feelings, and ideals of the two separated societies. This was something I was unable to appreciate in the first half of the book, and was especially confused with in the first chapter. The perspective you begin from doesn’t know why the man is leaving, they know some people disapprove, but they’re mostly interested in just doing their job and going home. But, looking back on the beginning from the end, now I can see that the book began exactly as it should: as a disinterested, uninformed perspective - which will become the major criticism Le Guin’s characters make of the society on Anarres - a society founded on anarchism - decentralization.
The man leaving is a famous physicist, Shevek, who we come to find out is unable to work in his now-pseudo-anarchist society because they have become afraid of new ideas and of change. He is leaving to find out for himself what their planet of origin is like and to do his work unimpeded. The story switches back and forth between the man who is becoming, and the man who has become. We discover that his present, future, and past are inextricably linked, that everything he does and thinks comes from a somewhere or something - a teaching of his people, an experience in his life, or a piece of his theory on time.
This story is wonderfully told and beautifully developed. This being the first of Le Guin’s work that I have read, I cannot compare it to know whether this is her typical writing style, but I did see criticism for how seriously she wrote the main character, Shevek. For me, however, he was perfect. Shevek is a focused, confused, rejected man - he is aware of his vulnerability and he protects himself in a way that he cannot even control, shutting out all but those he can trust when he feels that vulnerability most.
One of the aspects I loved most about The Dispossessed was Le Guin’s ability to show the strengths and weaknesses of all that was in question: she shows how much Uras is able to achieve with their wealth pooled in the hands of the few and how devastating this economy is to the lower class’ quality of life; Le Guin shows how the communities of Anarres pull through a terrible famine by sharing what they do have and by working hard together, but also how they have become hardened against those who think for themselves; Shevek is shown as a brilliant mind who can set aside himself to help his fellows, but who cannot overcome his anxieties of being abandoned as a child.
There is so much complexity and thought put into The Dispossessed, that by the time I reached the end, I was ready to begin it again. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in the ideals of individualism, anarchy, and romanticism. It will leave you stunned at how conceivable each binary system presented is, and relating to multiple perspectives and ideals.