I've begun reading Ursula K. Le Guin's new collection of nonfiction, Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). Much of it I like, but some of it makes me want to throw it against the wall, which I can't do, because I'd wreck my tablet.*
A poet has been appointed ambassador. A playwright is elected president. Construction workers stand in line with office managers to buy a new novel. Adults seek moral guidance and intellectual challenge in stories about warrior monkeys, one-eyed giants, and crazy knights who fight windmills. Literacy is considered a beginning, not an end.That's the opening of "The Operating Instructions," the first piece in the book, which was originally a "talk given at a meeting of Oregon Literary Arts in 2002." She continues the flood of cliches throughout the essay, though she does say some things I like as she proceeds ("Home isn't where they have to let you in. It's not a place at all. Home is imaginary"). She even quietly contradicts some of her original claims, but on the whole she sticks with them.
... Well, maybe in some other country, but not this one. In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relatiion to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don't work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples. Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions. I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.
Come now. Construction workers did stand in line with managers to buy each succeeding Harry Potter novel, ostensibly for their kids but as often as not for themselves. Do we really want a poet in government? And by that I mean a person who has pursued poetry as a career, a vocation, rather than as an amateur sideline. Ezra Pound, say? I don't see how a poet or other artist would be any better as an ambassador, let alone a senator or president, than (to pluck an example at random) a reality-TV star would be. This reminds me of the people who respond to anyone who says one thing they like by clamoring for that person to run for President. The last time I saw it, they were responding to a meme featuring the late George Carlin. Just because someone has a good imagination, it in no way suggests that he or she is up to interacting with people as a government official must, to educating him or herself about the world and how people have tried and failed to run it, with millions of human lives hanging in the balance. Given the petty internecine envy and jealousy that have always characterized artistic communities, I think it would be madness to put a poet, or a composer, or an abstract expressionist painter into the Oval Office simply because of his or her artistic prowess. Some artists might be good at politics, but only insofar as they transcended being artists.
Sure, imagination is important. But as Le Guin insists, it's not an end in itself. Politics is a means to an end. Every human endeavor involves the use of imagination to some extent, of course, but applying imagination to politics or business requires different capabilities and skills than writing poetry or sculpting marble or composing a sonata. What creeps me out about Le Guin's marshalling these tired, sentimental cliches about the imagination is that they also imply an aggressive know-nothingism that is the mirror image of the Philistine who looks at a modern painting and sneers that his three-year-old kid could do as well: here it's the artist saying that he or she could run an embassy as well as someone who's had the kind of training and experience one needs to be an ambassador, simply by virtue of being imaginative.
To some extent Le Guin realizes this, for she goes on:
Small communities with strong traditions are often clear about the way they want to go, and good at teaching it. But tradition may crystallize imagination to the point of fossilising it as dogmas and forbidding new ideas. Larger communities, such as cities, open up room for people to imagine alternatives, learn from people of different traditions, and invent their own ways to live.Just before Le Guin admitted the limitations of small communities, she'd declared that we need stories that teach us who we are, culminating in "We are the people who live at the center of the world. A people that doesn't live at the center of the world, as defined and described by its poets and storytellers, is in a bad way."
As alternatives proliferate, however, those who take the responsibility of teaching find little social and moral consensus on what they should be teaching -- what we need, what life ought to be ... It's a lot to ask of a child to find a way through all that alone.
Nobody can do anything very much, really, alone.
Le Guin has a number of things wrong here. One is that children don't need to be taught that they live at the center of the world: they begin with that conviction, and unlearn it as they grow. Another is that while stories may indeed teach children their societies' beliefs about the world, many of those beliefs and "definitions" are false -- even harmful -- and must be unlearnt as they come into contact with the world outside their families, tribes, insular communities. (An example of a false, harmful belief taught by stories is that toothless old women are witches who cook little children in ovens for their supper. I know Le Guin knows that one, and knows it's harmful.) Le Guin talks as though stories encode true lessons that can be extracted and taught. (P.S. I just remembered that Marilynne Robinson has said some very similar things, and is equally wrong.) That, as she knows very well, isn't true, and shouldn't be true. It's a fundamentalist, inerrantist approach to stories, which only works in the least interesting cases. Luckily, children are pretty good at orienting themselves in larger worlds; the complexities and novelties that disorient adults are easy for children to assimilate and digest. The world is always changing anyway, and it's children who adjust to it and sometimes must help their parents and grandparents to get by. (Le Guin surely knows about immigrants and their children and grandchildren.) Luckily, people in larger communities don't have to "really do anything very much, really, alone." They have each other. But it's not a neat, orderly process, and it never ends.
Because of this, I'm a bit disturbed by Le Guin's "As alternatives proliferate, however, those who take the responsibility of teaching find little social and moral consensus on what they should be teaching -- what we need, what life ought to be." She seems to disapprove of proliferating alternatives. And adults who "find little social and moral consensus on what they should be teaching" often hurt children (and other adults) by trying to make them live as if change hadn't happened and alternatives hadn't proliferated. Do adults really always know "what they should be teaching," even about the social structures they left behind? Unfortunately, no; even more unfortunately, they often believe they do, even when they don't.
It's possible to live at the center of the world and to recognize that other people, other tribes, other nations also live at the center of the world -- that there are many, infinitely many centers of the world. Professor Joseph Epes Brown, who taught a comparative religion course that I took during my first year at IU in 1971, declared that it was possible and that indigenous peoples did so, because wherever you are standing is the center of the world. I like that insight, but I'm skeptical; I think it's a romantic projection. I think that when you start to encounter larger communities and must live side-by-side with people of different traditions as Le Guin describes it, then you inevitably find it more difficult to locate that "social and moral consensus on what you should be teaching" and learning. I think people can live happily in such an environment, either without a center or with a conception of the center that is qualitatively different from the traditional conception she extols. In order to do that, you need new stories, and imagination becomes -- at least in part -- a means to the end of establishing the center. The trouble is that you can't set out to do so; I believe that artists and storytellers will do it unconsciously, if they let their imaginations work. But what they produce then has to be scrutinized to make sure it doesn't just revert to fantasies of simpler times when everybody knew where the center was. As Le Guin knows from her own struggles with gender in her fiction, the imagination can and must be educated, not left to its own mudpies. Over time, people will find new meanings and lessons in the old stories, often believing that the new meanings were there from the beginning.
In a later essay on genre in Words Are My Matter, Le Guin refers a couple of times to Jorge Luis Borges' dictum that all prose literature is fiction: "Fiction, for Borges, thus includes history, journalism, biography, memoir, Cervantes' Don Quixote, Pierre Menard's Don Quixote, the works of Borges, Peter Rabbit, and the Bible." I agree. I would add that it includes the law as well, from the Constitution and Blackwell to court decisions. It happens that the book I read before beginning Words Are My Matter was Ronald Suresh Roberts's remarkable Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd: Counterfeit Heroes and Unhappy Truths. published by NYU Press in 1994. Originally written as his thesis for Harvard Law School, where Barack Obama was one of his classmates, Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd is an analysis and critique narrowly of black neoconservatives like Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Randall Kennedy, but more broadly of the nature of the law and the judiciary.
I first read Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd soon after it was published in the 1990s, having stumbled on it in a used book store, and it made a powerful impression on me. I was just as impressed when I reread it this week. Among his criticisms of his subjects is that they claim, not always consistently, that they are above politics and the babbling of what Thomas called "the maddening crowd," even above "race," and are simply humble servants of The Law, of facts, of reality. "A Supreme Court justice," as Suresh puts this doctrine, "is only a funnel through which law expresses itself" (page 84 of the e-book). (By the way, this resembles scientists' equally self-aggrandizing claims to be mere oracles of Nature through whom Truth flows.) So, for example, Roberts writes:
Judges may be blocked by many considerations, but a thing called law is never one of them. Much that we call law is merely an ordinary combination of strategic reasoning and value judgments. This kind of reckoning is certainly a constraint; but it is not the peculiar constraint that the thing called law needs to be. It is, rather, the same sort of thing that congressional windbags deal with every day. This kind of reckoning lacks the special leverage law needs in order to wall its empire off from the rule of men. It fails to give a judge the scapegoat she needs in order to escape ordinary moral criticism. If legal rules don't bind judges, then legal disputes are like our other disputes. If legal disputes are like our other disputes -- if judges are like the rest of us -- then we can advance ordinary moral criticism of the work they do (85).I'd noticed this before when considering President Obama's failures as an authority on the Constitution, alongside the offenses of his fellow Harvard Law alum Antonin Scalia. Obama's liberal devotees trumpet his authority as a Constitutional scholar, while tacitly ignoring that Scalia can claim the same authority. If the law really did constrain (or "bind," the term Roberts uses) lawyers and judges, then there'd be no controversy over what the Constitution says. As Roberts shows, self-styled "strict constructionists" disagree vehemently among themselves as to what the Founders' original intent was. Of course each protagonist insists that he merely explicates the plain sense of the sacred text, while his opponent imports biases and political agendas into his opinions. But how is the layperson to decide who's telling the truth? (In reality, both are lying. Neither is an empty vessel filled with law, both import biases and agendas.)
It seems to me that Le Guin wants "imagination," as she conceives of it, to occupy the same place "law" does for Justice Thomas and Roberts's other subjects or "science" does for Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye: as a pure disembodied force that transcends commerce and politics. But while imagination is important, just like law and science, it is a human production, "an ordinary combination of strategic reasoning and value judgments." I'm inclined to see imagination also as a usefully destructive force, for which "imagination" might not be the best name anyway. It's something like linguistic change, which not only undermines the stability of languages but interferes with people's ability to communicate. It's positive but also negative; we imagine new possibilities even when we might prefer not to, when we're trying to find a reliable center of the world. The world shifts beneath our feet. Language changes not because we creatively change it, but it drags us along, bulldozing through the grammars and lexicons we made to try to contain it. The center cannot hold, but contrary to what I think Yeats meant, the center has never held for long. If nonfiction is fiction, then fiction is nonfiction. The "warrior monkeys, one-eyed giants, and crazy knights who fight windmills" that Le Guin believes will liberate us from Mammon will soon become fossilized as dogma and forbid new ideas.
*Actually, I wouldn't do it to a print book either, any more than I'd tear out pages or scrawl on the pages with crayons. Not only because my mother impressed me with the inviolability of books, but because I don't believe in poppet magic -- that you can hurt the book (which is essentially the text, not the marks on the page or the screen) by hurting the physical object.