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Friday, February 08, 2008

Religion in Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness

In a previous post, I mused about Ursula K. Le Guin's great novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) (LHD). Here's more.

Le Guin says that she is a Taoist. I don't know any more about Taoism that I can find in the page that the previous sentence links to, which is the Wikipedia article on the subject. I am guessing that, when Le Guin says this, she is speaking more of her philosophy than of her religion, although the two are often intimately intertwined, at least in Christianity and materialism.

There are two religions in LHD. One of these is the Yomeshta cult, which seems to be the official religion of Orgereyn, one of the two countries on the planet Gethen in which the action of the book takes place. The other country, Karhide, is described, by Estraven, the most important Gethenian character, as not a kingdom, but a family quarrel. It is subdivided into many small principalities, villages, and households. The people have many beliefs. Some are Yomeshta. Some follow the way of the Handdara. This lifestyle is the most interesting to Le Guin, and to her readers. Karhide is more interesting than Orgeryn.

The Handdara is a religion without institution, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed; I am still unable to say whether it has a God or not. The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace, 1969) p. 57. Genly Ai, the Envoy, a native of earth, describing his findings, after a few years spent on Gethen.

"Well, in the Handdara . . . you know, there's no theory, no dogma. . . ." The Left Hand of Darkness, p. 222. Estraven, a Gethenian who follows the Handdara way, to Genly Ai. First ellipsis in original.

The interesting parts of the Handdara way include their disciplines. Adherents practice controlled starvation, in part as a way of surviving this harsh environment when little or no food is available. They can go into dothe, a state allowing for prolonged exertion, and physical feats. For example, Estraven carries Genly Ai, who is heavier than he, a long distance through the snow. After dothe, the practitioner must have an extended rest period. The Handdara are also able to foretell. A group of them, led by a Weaver, and including at least one member who is coming into sexual readiness (which is cyclical among most Gethenians), one pervert -- person who is permanently sexually ready, and "zanies" (psychotics) are able to answer specific questions about the future. This ritual is performed at physical risk to the participants, and only if the person who wants an answer pays an acceptable price. Often the answer does not tell what the questioner wanted to know -- in one case, a Gethenian asked when he would die, and he was told, in effect, on the 22nd, but not which month or year. According to the Handdara, the Yomesh cult is the result of a Gethenian forcing a Weaver and associates to answer a question, "What is the meaning of life?" which implies that the answer was not valid.

As for Genly Ai, there is little to indicate his religion, except that, once, when Estraven recites a poem with these lines:
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.

Genly Ai sketches the yin and yang symbol, which is sometimes associated with Taoism, and asks Estraven if he is familiar with it (p. 222). The Gethenian is not.

Thanks for reading.

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