Sunday, 19 October 2008

The high price of idealism (x-posted.) On this day in 2008, Jim Beaver—a.k.a. Ellsworth—commented on my post about the language of Deadwood. I know that’s not really historical, but damn it, it’s cool. Now for something completely historical: On this day in 1929, Ursula K. Le Guin was born to Alfred and Theodora Kroeber—though you wouldn’t know it from this article, in which no mention of him having fathered one of the 20th Century’s most influential science fiction writers appears. Her Wikipedia entry was adapted from a bad student essay, as is evidenced by how thoroughly the narrative of how-I-came-to-learn-this pervades it. Her mother’s biography of Alfred Kroeber, Alfred Kroeber: A Personal Configuration, is a good source for Le Guin’s early years and for the biographical elements in her late works, especially her interest in social anthropology. Bully on you, anonymous person, for evaluating your sources. That said, the aforelinked review ain’t much better. We’re told: Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960) is amply known through his works—more than five hundred publications of which eight are books—and he was familiar in varying degrees to students, because he taught at [universities]. I’ve edited out the list of illustrious institutions, but really, I wish I’d been an academic in an earlier era, when such sentences could be published. (Not too early, though—say, Post-Trilling-as-Columbia’s-sole-Jew or thereabouts.) But I digress. Alfred Kroeber, known through his 500 publications and by students, was a proponent of “salvage ethnography. Here’s a picture of him with Ishi, who claimed to be the last of the California Yahi: Cultural preservation takes a place of pride in Le Guin’s work, albeit backwardly, via her frequent evocation of cultural obliteration. In her anti-reform novel extraordinaire The Lathe of Heaven, she skewers the idea that society can be changed for the better. All progress, she argues, entails the destruction of a society whose current form is the by-product of an evolutionary process. It may not be a just society, but it’s not an invented one, and thus is far more stable than the proto-totalitarian imaginings of well-intentioned liberals. As Sean McCann and my adviser, Michael Szalay, argue, the novel offers an all but direct allegory in which a passive aesthetic sensibility comes to replace an illegitimate effort to transform the world through instrumental means. Le Guin’s George Orr discovers that his dreams change the world; almost nightly he has what he calls “effective dreams” that reshape existence. Upon waking, Orr is the only one who recalls what the world used to be like, the only one who realizes that each night his mind refashions the lives of the planet’s billions. Orr turns to government therapists to find assistance in ending his dreams, but is understood instead to be delusional and irrationally afraid of his unconscious. He is thus committed to the care of one William Haber, a state-employed psychiatrist who quickly discovers that Orr does indeed dream effectively, and who then tries to use Orr’s dreams to rid the world of misery. Orr objects, and Le Guin organizes this novel...

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