Communities of the Heart: The Rhetoric of Myth in the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. (Book Reviews).
Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2001. xii + 195 pp. 15.95 [pounds sterling].
THIS STUDY of Le Guin's use of myth in much of her fiction began as a dissertation and has become an item in the Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies series. Its origin helps account for the derivative character of much of the analysis as well as some minor deficiencies in style and content, while its terminus reflects the importance and general cogency of its central claims as well as its ambitious scope. Most of Le Guin's fictional novels and short stories, and many of her essays, are included in an analysis that draws on a number of theories and interpretations of language, storytelling, myth, the literature of science fiction and utopia, American culture, and more. The arguments are sometimes a bit quick, but this is certainly a worthwhile study of important ideas in, and about, an important writer. Anyone interested in the nature and rhetoric of myth, or in science fiction and utopian literature, will find the text useful; anyone seriously interested in Le Guin should add it to their library.
There are on my reading two parts to the study. In the first three chapters, the author describes Le Guin's understanding of the rhetorical power of storytelling and myth, and examines her revisions of two culturally influential myths. In the last two chapters, Le Guin's rhetoric is related to a particular understanding of "American romantic/pragmatic rhetoric" in order to amplify key elements of her vision regarding the nature and value of community and, relatedly, of the telling of stories and myths.
An essential contention is developed in the first chapter. Drawing primarily on Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Le Guin herself, Rochelle argues that myths, typically told in story form and expressed in metaphorical and symbolic language, serve a number of purposes of which two seem most important: first, the telling of myths allows the conscious mind to become aware of the truths and wisdom present in the unconscious, particularly the insights present in and evoked by universal archetypes; second, the universality of archetypical truths are always expressed in contextually distinct ways, and so typically serve to legitimate as well as reflect culturally dominant values and forms of life. One of Le Guin's guiding purposes, Rochelle demonstrates, is to employ myths in her stories in order to communicate to readers the presumed truths of the collective unconscious while crafting or "revisioning" their content and form so as to promote preferred values and meanings. "This reimagining [or] revisioning is key ... to how Le Guin sees and uses myth in her fiction" (23).
Rochelle then focuses on Le Guin's rhetorical deployment of two common myths, that of the Journey and Quest, and the myth of utopia. The basic (and not unfamiliar) argument in both cases is that her revisioning of these myths becomes "increasingly more radical," and that this evolution in her thought is due to her growing consciousness of and commitment to (a too broadly defined) feminism: "feminism is the key to Le Guin's transformation" of both myths (33; 49). The evidence for this argument relies principally on Rochelle's exegeses and comparisons of the novels in the Earthsea tetralogy, of Tehanu, a fourth addition to the original tetralogy, and of The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home. In the case of the myth of the Journey and Quest, Rochelle argues that the traditional elements of hero, quest and journey are clearly evident in the earlier works but appear there in innovative guises, and, in later works, specifically in Tehanu, undergo more radical revision, even subversion. For example, in the earlier cases, the heroes, although male, deviate from traditional images in other ways, the quest has no end but is instead ongoing, and the journey connects personal and public action, purpose, and maturation in novel ways; in Tehanu, a heroine appears, the private realm and everyday life is valorized, extraordinary quests are effaced, and the idea of a struggle between transparent conceptions of good and evil is virtually jettisoned.
Perhaps of most interest to readers of this journal is Rochelle's treatment of Le Guin's revisioning of the myth of utopia in The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home. Again, the analysis depends in part on describing a traditional or paradigmatic conception of the myth in order to demonstrate that Le Guin is working both "inside and against the established generic conventions of utopian literature"; and again the argument is that her revisioning of the myth is from the outset innovative, and that it becomes more subversive over time because of the impact of feminism on her thinking (65; 78). Thus, in The Dispossessed, the earlier utopian novel, the preferred world is imperfect, changing and unfinished rather than perfect, static and complete, the protagonist is not an outsider looking in but an insider who is also an outsider, and there are inherent tensions as well as connections between individual and community, freedom and social duty, private and public, men and women. In the later work, Always Coming Home, the narrative form is destabilized, multiple understandings within the work and by readers are unavoidable, and there is an even greater emphasis on process and imperfection and on feminist values which, for Rochelle, seem especially to include recognition of the connectedness of things (of individuals, communities and nature, of public and private, of the local and the universal) and the valorizing of an inclusive, multivoiced and nurturing community (see esp. 91). Rochelle also observes that Always Coming Home draws on the religious and social customs of native Americans of California which, he says, "closely parallel [beliefs and values in] feminist thought"; and he contends, too, that the work evokes American cultural myths such as the idea of America, and of California, as the promised land, and the Indian as archetype (92; 95f). Indeed, he concludes this analysis by contending that an essential meaning of Always Coming Home is that moving toward utopia requires constant effort and struggle in the present, and that this meaning comports with the happy "American national myth" that the world can always be made a better place (100).
In the second part of the study, Rochelle tries to amplify Le Guin's vision of community while placing key elements of that vision and of related ideas within what has been called "American romantic/pragmatic rhetoric" (reflected in the rhetoric of such historical and contemporary figures as R.W. Emerson and H.D. Thoreau, C.S. Pierce and J. Dewey, Cornell West and Robert Coles). For these purposes he focuses mainly on Le Guin's more recent short stories and novellas, and he also offers an interpretation of the role played by Le Guin's imaginary Hainish universe as a kind of master statement of her master trope, community. The arguments in this part of the work are many, often derivative, and not always sufficiently developed, but they are generally thoughtful and at times provocative. The key point regarding romantic/pragmatic rhetoric seems to be that motifs, values, and ideas expressed in that rhetoric reappear in Le Guin's writings. Included are emphases on the interconnections of selves and of selves, communities, and nature; of the values of localism, the private and personal, the small and the feminine, and yet universalism and difference and inclusiveness too, and so also decentralization and democracy; of the importance of love (love--or something like it such as solidarity or fraternity or an ethic like the Golden Rule or all of these--should be the basis of community); the relation between truth and action; and the role of community in engendering, sustaining, and changing truth and meaning.
Perhaps Rochelle's central claim in this part of the study is that community is for Le Guin a "master trope" which not only "encompasses such dichotomies as public and private, community and individual, past and present, and their rhetorical mediations," but also the idea of "story as metaphor, as a way of knowing, and myth as a particular way of knowing," because story and myth carry meaning across cultural, psychic, and other barriers, and so can promote community through the activities of listening to and interpreting their messages and meanings (148; 178-9). In the final analysis, contends Rochelle, Le Guin's rhetoric gives voice to the yearning for a community "of the heart, in which a human life can be lived with worth, honour and value;" for recognition of multiple ways of knowing and of making meaning; and "for being fully human: Apollonian and Dionysian, rational and irrational, body and soul, heart and mind" (173).
Although Rochelle is correct to argue for the "influence" of feminism on Le Guin, and although his claim that her rhetoric is reminiscent of American romanticism and pragmatism is defensible, there is virtually no consideration of the significance for Le Guin of Taoism and communal anarchism. Arguably, the values and motifs associated with this philosophy and this political theory are as central to her vision as is feminism; arguably, her rhetoric is as reminiscent of their rhetoric as it is of the rhetoric of romanticism and pragmatism. The failure to consider these arguments seems to me an oversight of the study, much as the tendency to inflate the meaning of key concepts (such as feminism and love and even community) seems to me problematic. But these are at least partly the provincial complaints of a political theorist; Rochelle teaches creative writing, and this creation is worth a look.
Dan Sabia University of South Carolina
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2001|
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