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Ursula K. Le Guin on Art, Storytelling, and the Power of Language to Transform and Redeem

“One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience… Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Art, Storytelling, and the Power of Language to Transform and Redeem

“People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them,” Emerson wrote in contemplating the key to personal growth. Hardly anything does this for us more powerfully than art — it unsettles us awake, disrupts our deadening routines, enlarges our reservoir of hope by enlarging our perspective, our grasp of truth, our capacity for beauty.

This singular function of art is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) reflects on in an interview by the polymathic marine conservationist Jonathan White, included in his wonderful Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin (Photograph: The Oregonian)

In a roaming conversation over tea, “with only momentary interruptions by Lorenzo the cat or chimes from the grandfather clock,” Le Guin tells White:

The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial that we are closed off to much of the world. We have to do this in order to get our work done. I think one purpose of art is to get us out of those routines. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again. We’re drawn in — or out — and the windows of our perception are cleansed, as William Blake said. The same thing can happen when we’re around young children or adults who have unlearned those habits of shutting the world out.

Art, Le Guin suggests a century after Kandinsky extolled its spiritual element and a decade after Susan Sontag considered its ethical responsibility, restores to secular culture the sense of sacredness and moral purpose:

Our culture doesn’t think storytelling is sacred; we don’t set aside a time of year for it. We don’t hold anything sacred except what organized religion declares to be so. Artists pursue a sacred call, although some would buck and rear at having their work labeled like this. Artists are lucky to have a form in which to express themselves; there is a sacredness about that, and a terrific sense of responsibility. We’ve got to do it right. Why do we have to do it right? Because that’s the whole point: either it’s right or it’s all wrong.

In a sentiment reminiscent of Albert Camus’s reflection on the lacuna between truth and meaning, Le Guin — who spent the last sixty-five years of her life married to a historian — considers the lacuna between the events of the past and their selective retelling in what we call history:

History is one way of telling stories, just like myth, fiction, or oral storytelling. But over the last hundred years, history has preempted the other forms of storytelling because of its claim to absolute, objective truth. Trying to be scientists, historians stood outside of history and told the story of how it was. All that has changed radically over the last twenty years. Historians now laugh at the pretense of objective truth. They agree that every age has its own history, and if there is any objective truth, we can’t reach it with words. History is not a science, it’s an art.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds

The paradox, of course, is that because our notion of history is rooted in the written record, words are both our instrument of truth and our weapon of distortion. We use them both to reveal and to conceal — a duality which Hannah Arendt so memorably dissected in her meditation on lying in politics. Le Guin — who has written beautifully about the transformational potential of words — echoes Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the power and responsibility of language, and reflects on the challenging task of those who limn reality in words:

As a writer, you want the language to be genuinely significant and mean exactly what it says. That’s why the language of politicians, which is empty of everything but rather brutal signals, is something a writer has to get as far away from as possible. If you believe that words are acts, as I do, then one must hold writers responsible for what their words do.

With a concerned eye to how our metaphors shape our thinking, Le Guin adds:

We can’t restructure our society without restructuring the English language. One reflects the other. A lot of people are getting tired of the huge pool of metaphors that have to do with war and conflict [and] the proliferation of battle metaphors, such as being a warrior, righting, defeating, and so on. In response, I could say that once you become conscious of these battle metaphors, you can start “fighting” against them. That’s one option. Another is to realize that conflict is not the only human response to a situation and to begin to find other metaphors, such as resisting, outwitting, skipping, or subverting. This kind of consciousness can open the door to all sorts of new behavior.

What literature does, Le Guin points out, is enlarge our understanding of our own experience by enriching its container in language:

One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience. There are always areas of vast silence in any culture, and part of an artist’s job is to go into those areas and come back from the silence with something to say. It’s one reason why we read poetry, because poets can give us the words we need. When we read good poetry, we often say, ‘Yeah, that’s it. That’s how I feel.’

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

In a sentiment evocative of James Baldwin’s assertion that “an artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian [whose] role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are,” she adds:

Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want, too. If we never find our experience described in poetry or stories, we assume that our experience is insignificant.

Complement this particular portion of the splendid Talking on the Water with Le Guin’s immortal wisdom on the artist’s task, growing older, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, her feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching, and her classic unsexing of gender.

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin on Busyness and the Creative Life

In praise of the mundane, unquantifiable, impractical activities that feed creative work and fill life with meaning.

Ursula K. Le Guin on Busyness and the Creative Life

Most people are products of their time. Only the rare few are its creators. Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) was one.

A fierce thinker and largehearted, beautiful writer who considered writing an act of falling in love, Le Guin left behind a vast, varied body of work and wisdom, stretching from her illuminations of the artist’s task and storytelling as an instrument of freedom to her advocacy for public libraries to her feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching and her classic unsexing of gender.

In her final years, Le Guin examined what makes life worth living in a splendid piece full of her wakeful, winkful wisdom, titled “In Your Spare Time” and included as the opening essay in No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (public library) — the final nonfiction collection published in her lifetime, which also gave us Le Guin on the uses and misuses of anger.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Two decades after her nuanced meditation on growing older, Le Guin revisits the subject from another angle, perhaps the most perspectival angle there is — the question of how we measure the light of a life as it nears its sunset. Like any great writer who finds her prompts in the most improbable of places, Le Guin springboards into the existential while answering a questionnaire mailed to the Harvard class of 1951 — alumni who, if living, would all be in their eighties. (What is it about eighty being such a catalyst for existential reflection? Henry Miller modeled it, Donald Hall followed, and Oliver Sacks set the gold standard.)

Arrested by the implications of one particular question in the survey — “In your spare time, what do you do?” — and by its menu of twenty-seven options, including golf, shopping, and bridge, Le Guin pauses over the seventh offering on the list: “Creative activities (paint, write, photograph, etc.).” She considers this disquieting valuation of creative work in a capitalist society where the practical is the primary currency of existential worth:

Here I stopped reading and sat and thought for quite a while.

The key words are spare time. What do they mean?

To a working person — supermarket checker, lawyer, highway crewman, housewife, cellist, computer repairer, teacher, waitress — spare time is the time not spent at your job or at otherwise keeping yourself alive, cooking, keeping clean, getting the car fixed, getting the kids to school. To people in the midst of life, spare time is free time, and valued as such.

But to people in their eighties? What do retired people have but “spare” time?

I am not exactly retired, because I never had a job to retire from. I still work, though not as hard as I did. I have always been and am proud to consider myself a working woman. But to the Questioners of Harvard my lifework has been a “creative activity,” a hobby, something you do to fill up spare time. Perhaps if they knew I’d made a living out of it they’d move it to a more respectable category, but I rather doubt it.

Virginia Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, illustrated by Nina Cosford for Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography by Zena Alkayat.

A century and half after Kierkegaard extolled the creative value of unbusied hours and ninety years after Bertrand Russell made his exquisite case for why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, Le Guin examines the meanings and misconstruings of “spare” time in modern life:

The question remains: When all the time you have is spare, is free, what do you make of it?

And what’s the difference, really, between that and the time you used to have when you were fifty, or thirty, or fifteen?

Kids used to have a whole lot of spare time, middle-class kids anyhow. Outside of school and if they weren’t into a sport, most of their time was spare, and they figured out more or less successfully what to do with it. I had whole spare summers when I was a teenager. Three spare months. No stated occupation whatsoever. Much of after-school was spare time too. I read, I wrote, I hung out with Jean and Shirley and Joyce, I moseyed around having thoughts and feelings, oh lord, deep thoughts, deep feelings… I hope some kids still have time like that. The ones I know seem to be on a treadmill of programming, rushing on without pause to the next event on their schedule, the soccer practice the playdate the whatever. I hope they find interstices and wriggle into them. Sometimes I notice that a teenager in the family group is present in body — smiling, polite, apparently attentive — but absent. I think, I hope she has found an interstice, made herself some spare time, wriggled into it, and is alone there, deep down there, thinking, feeling.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

Two millennia after Seneca placed the heart of life in learning to live wide rather than long and a century after Hermann Hesse contemplated how busyness drains life of its little, enormous joys, Le Guin examines the vital difference between being busy with doing and being occupied with living:

The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.

An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome. But I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters is a wonderful read in its totality, replete with Le Guin’s warm wisdom on art and life. Complement this particular portion with German philosopher Josef Pieper on why unoccupied time is the basis of culture, English psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why a capacity for “fertile solitude” is the basis of contentment, and two hundred years of great thinkers on the creative purpose of boredom, then revisit what I continue to consider Le Guin’s greatest nonfiction masterpiece: her brilliant essay on “being a man.”

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin on Anger

“Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous… It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness. Corrosive, it feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Anger

The poet May Sarton experienced anger as “a huge creative urge gone into reverse.” Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that it is often “an alluring substitute for grieving,” granting us the illusion of agency in situations that bereave of us of control. Poet and philosopher David Whyte pulled on anger’s weft thread to reclaim it as “the deepest form of compassion.” But anger, like silence, is of many kinds and thunders across a vast landscape of contexts, most of its storms ruinous, and some, just maybe, redemptive.

That is what the sharp-minded, large-spirited, incomparably brilliant Ursula K. Le Guin examines in an essay titled “About Anger,” found in her altogether fantastic nonfiction collection No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Le Guin begins with a case study in the cultural history of anger as a tool of social change — epoch-making change she lived through and helped engender:

In the consciousness-raising days of the second wave of feminism, we made a big deal out of anger, the anger of women. We praised it and cultivated it as a virtue. We learned to boast of being angry, to swagger our rage, to play the Fury.

We were right to do so. We were telling women who believed they should patiently endure insults, injuries, and abuse that they had every reason to be angry. We were rousing people to feel and see injustice, the methodical mistreatment to which women were subjected, the almost universal disrespect of the human rights of women, and to resent and refuse it for themselves and for others. Indignation, forcibly expressed, is an appropriate response to injustice. Indignation draws strength from outrage, and outrage draws strength from rage. There is a time for anger, and that was such a time.

Anger is a useful, perhaps indispensable tool in motivating resistance to injustice. But I think it is a weapon — a tool useful only in combat and self-defense.

Le Guin considers how the uses of anger can metastasize into misuses when its aims are left uncalibrated under the ferment of time:

Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger. It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice.

[…]

Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous. Nursed for its own sake, valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal. It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness. Corrosive, it feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process.

A century and a half after Walt Whitman admonished that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” Le Guin adds:

The racism, misogyny, and counter-rationality of the reactionary right in American politics for the last several years is a frightening exhibition of the destructive force of anger deliberately nourished by hate, encouraged to rule thought, invited to control behavior. I hope our republic survives this orgy of self-indulgent rage.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

She examines the tissue of public anger under the microscope of the most private laboratory there is — the self. In a disquieting reflection on the personal experience of getting angry, she writes:

I find the subject very troubling, because though I want to see myself as a woman of strong feeling but peaceable instincts, I have to realize how often anger fuels my acts and thoughts, how very often I indulge in anger.

I know that anger can’t be suppressed indefinitely without crippling or corroding the soul. But I don’t know how useful anger is in the long run. Is private anger to be encouraged?

Considered a virtue, given free expression at all times, as we wanted women’s anger against injustice to be, what would it do? Certainly an outburst of anger can cleanse the soul and clear the air. But anger nursed and nourished begins to act like anger suppressed: it begins to poison the air with vengefulness, spitefulness, distrust, breeding grudge and resentment, brooding endlessly over the causes of the grudge, the righteousness of the resentment. A brief, open expression of anger in the right moment, aimed at its true target, is effective — anger is a good weapon. But a weapon is appropriate to, justified only by, a situation of danger.

Most of our mundane outbursts of anger, Le Guin points out, are not reactions to actual danger, nor even to perceived danger — they are a kind of reactionary weapon-waving against our own insecurities, impatiences, and irritations. She writes:

Perhaps the problem is this: when threatened, we pull out our weapon, anger. Then the threat passes or evaporates. But the weapon is still in our hand. And weapons are seductive, even addictive…

Art by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

In an introspective search for any positive use of anger, Le Guin finds one — the safeguarding of self-respect. But upon closer inspection, she recognizes that what we may perceive — and react to — as disrespect often turns out to be mere misunderstanding or a case of two human fallibilities awkwardly bumping into one another without ill intent. After all, if Joan Didion was right in the astute observation that self-respect springs from “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life” — and of course she was right — then rising to anger upon feeling slighted by another is a maladaptive abdication of that responsibility. Le Guin, inquiring deeper with disarming self-awareness, acknowledges as much:

As my great-aunt Betsy said of a woman who snubbed her, “I pity her poor taste.”

Mostly my anger is connected less with self-respect than with negatives: jealousy, hatred, fear.

Fear, in a person of my temperament, is endemic and inevitable, and I can’t do much about it except recognize it for what it is and try not to let it rule me entirely. If I’m in an angry mood and aware of it, I can ask myself, So what is it you’re afraid of? That gives me a place to look at my anger from. Sometimes it helps get me into clearer air.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nutcracker

In a sentiment evocative of Cicero’s case for the constructive side of envy, Le Guin considers a particularly pernicious species of fear:

Jealousy sticks its nasty yellow-green snout mostly into my life as a writer. I’m jealous of other writers who soar to success on wings of praise, I’m contemptuously angry at them, at the people who praise them — if I don’t like their writing. I’d like to kick Ernest Hemingway for faking and posturing when he had the talent to succeed without faking. I snarl at what I see as the unending overestimation of James Joyce. The enshrinement of Philip Roth infuriates me. But all this jealous anger happens only if I don’t like what they write. If I like a writer’s writing, praise of that writer makes me happy. I can read endless appreciations of Virginia Woolf. A good article about José Saramago makes my day. So evidently the cause of my anger isn’t so much jealousy or envy as, once again, fear. Fear that if Hemingway, Joyce, and Roth really are The Greatest, there’s no way I can ever be very good or very highly considered as a writer — because there’s no way I am ever going to write anything like what they write or please the readers and critics they please.

The circular silliness of this is self-evident; but my insecurity is incurable. Fortunately, it operates only when I read about writers I dislike, never when I’m actually writing. When I’m at work on a story, nothing could be farther from my mind than anybody else’s stories, or status, or success.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Le Guin comes back to the notion that all anger is a response to fear. (Descartes framed fear as the antipode of hope, which implies the most damaging aspect of anger: the relinquishing and active annihilation of hope.) She examines the elemental core of her fears:

My fears come down to fear of not being safe (as if anyone is ever safe) and of not being in control (as if I ever was in control). Does the fear of being unsafe and not in control express itself as anger, or does it use anger as a kind of denial of the fear?

One view of clinical depression explains it as sourced in suppressed anger. Anger turned, perhaps, against the self, because fear — fear of being harmed, and fear of doing harm — prevents the anger from turning against the people or circumstances causing it.

If so, no wonder a lot of people are depressed, and no wonder so many of them are women. They are living with an unexploded bomb.

[…]

I see in the lives of people I know how crippling a deep and deeply suppressed anger is. It comes from pain, and it causes pain.

Le Guin ends with a mighty open question, partly challenge and partly — indeed mostly — a rhetorical verdict:

What is the way to use anger to fuel something other than hurt, to direct it away from hatred, vengefulness, self-righteousness, and make it serve creation and compassion?

Complement this portion of No Time to Spare, a magnificent read in its tessellated totality, with Martha Nussbaum on anger and forgiveness and a Zen master on the four types of anger and its paradoxical constructive side, then revisit Le Guin on being a “man,” the artist’s task, the sacredness of public libraries, imaginative storytelling as a force of freedom, and what beauty really means.

BP

Inner Preacher vs. Inner Teacher: Ursula K. Le Guin on Meaning-Making and the Artist’s Task

“That’s how an artist can best speak as a member of a moral community: clearly, yet leaving around her words that area of silence, that empty space, in which other and further truths and perceptions can form in other minds.”

Inner Preacher vs. Inner Teacher: Ursula K. Le Guin on Meaning-Making and the Artist’s Task

“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” young Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother as she reflected on her first poem. What is true of a poem is true of any work of art: Art transforms us not with what it contains but with what it creates in us — the constellation of interpretations, revelations, and emotional truths illuminated — which, of course, is why the rise of the term “content” to describe creative output online has been one of the most corrosive developments in contemporary culture. A poem — or an essay, or a painting, or a song — is not its “content”; it transforms us precisely by what cannot be contained, by what is received and interpreted.

That’s what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores in a magnificent piece titled “Teasing Myself Out of Thought,” originally given as a talk at Oregon’s Blue River Gathering and later adapted into an essay included in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week (public library) — the endlessly rewarding volume that gave us Le Guin on the operating instructions for life.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Reflecting on the framing questions her hosts had posed for the talk — “Where is a writer to find strength and hope in this world? What is a writer’s calling in this time and place? What work will make a difference? And how might we create a community of purpose?” — Le Guin writes:

I’m embarrassed because I come out with the same response to each question. Where am I to find strength and hope in this world? In my work, in trying to write well. What’s a writer’s calling, now or at any time? To write, to try to write well. What work will make a difference? Well-made work, honest work, writing well written. And how might we create a community of purpose? I can’t say. If our community of purpose as writers doesn’t lie in our shared interest in and commitment to writing as well as we can, then it must lie in something outside our work — a goal or end, a message, an effect, which may be most desirable, but which makes the writing merely a means to an end that lies outside the work, the vehicle of a message. And this is not what writing is to me. It is not what makes me a writer.

Le Guin notes that since our school days, we’ve been taught that writing is a means to a practical end — the end of transmitting a message — which much writing indeed is, from memos to love letters to tweets. And yet, she argues, a work of art — be it written or otherwise — bequeaths a gift of meaning beyond messaging:

The kids ask me, “When you write a story, do you decide on the message first or do you begin with the story and put the message in it?”

No, I say, I don’t. I don’t do messages. I write stories and poems. That’s all. What the story or the poem means to you — its “message” to you — may be entirely different from what it means to me.

The kids are often disappointed, even shocked. I think they see me as irresponsible. I know their teachers do.

They may be right. Maybe all writing, even literature, is not an end in itself but a means to an end other than itself. But I couldn’t write stories or poetry if I thought the true and central value of my work was in a message it carried, or in providing information or reassurance, offering wisdom, giving hope. Vast and noble as these goals are, they would decisively limit the scope of the work; they would interfere with its natural growth and cut it off from the mystery which is the deepest source of the vitality of art.

A poem or story consciously written to address a problem or bring about a specific result, no matter how powerful or beneficent, has abdicated its first duty and privilege, its responsibility to itself. Its primary job is simply to find the words that give it its right, true shape. That shape is its beauty and its truth.

It is precisely in the lacuna between message and meaning that art is co-created by artist and audience, by writer and reader. This, of course, is what Susan Sontag had in mind when she presciently admonished, half a century ago, against what we stand to lose when we treat cultural material as “content.” Le Guin illustrates this notion with a simple, elegant analogy:

A well-made clay pot — whether it’s a terra-cotta throwaway or a Grecian urn — is nothing more and nothing less than a clay pot. In the same way, to my mind, a well-made piece of writing is simply what it is, lines of words.

As I write my lines of words, I may try to express things I think are true and important. That’s what I’m doing right now in writing this essay. But expression is not revelation… Art reveals something beyond the message. A story or poem may reveal truths to me as I write it. I don’t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.

And other readers may find other truths in it, different ones. They’re free to use the work in ways the author never intended.

Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen from a vintage adaptation of Homer for kids

Looking to the great tragedies of ancient Greece, which continue to slake readers’ thirst for meaning millennia later and to reveal different layers of moral truth to each generation, Le Guin observes that “those works were written out of that mystery, the deep waters, the wellspring of art.” With an eye to Keats’s notion of “negative capability” and to the wisdom on Lao Tzu (whose Tao Te Ching Le Guin has amplified in an exquisite translation), she writes:

A poem of the right shape will hold a thousand truths. But it doesn’t say any of them.

Always the artisan of nuance, Le Guin is careful to point out that she isn’t advocating for the “Art for Art’s sake” trope, which she considers flawed in its implication that art is solipsistic and without any responsibility to its audience. She writes:

Art does change people’s minds and hearts. And an artist is a member of a community: the people who may see, hear, read her work. My first responsibility is to my craft, but if what I write may affect other people, obviously I have a responsibility to them too. Even if I don’t have a clear idea of what the meaning of my story is and only begin to glimpse it as I write — still, I can’t pretend it isn’t there.

This sidewise glimpse of truth, Le Guin suggests, is far more effective than the blunt badgering of preaching. Of course, Emily Dickinson knew this when she famously exhorted her reader to “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” and astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin knew this a century and a half later, when she wrote of truth obliquely illuminated in her stunning novel about Alan Turing, Kurt Gödel, and the legacy of the Vienna Circle: “Maybe truth is just like that.

You can see it, but only out of the corner of your eye.” Le Guin considers the moral reason for letting the reader glimpse the truth out of the corner of her own eye:

What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do. My only wisdom is knowing how to make pots. Who am I to preach?

No matter how humble the spirit it’s offered in, a sermon is an act of aggression.

Drawing an elegant contrast between the Inner Preacher and the Inner Teacher — a contrast of excruciating necessity in our golden age of self-righteousness aggressively delivered — Le Guin adds:

“The great Way is very simple; merely forgo opinion,” says the Taoist, and I know it’s true — but there’s a preacher in me who just longs to cram my lovely pot with my opinions, my beliefs, with Truths. And if my subject’s a morally loaded one, such as Man’s relationship to Nature — well, that Inner Preacher’s just itching to set people straight and tell them how to think and what to do, yes, Lord, amen!

I have more trust in my Inner Teacher. She is subtle and humble because she hopes to be understood. She contains contradictory opinions without getting indigestion. She can mediate between the arrogant artist self who mutters, “I don’t give a damn if you don’t understand me,” and the preacher self who shouts, “Now hear this!” She doesn’t declare truth, but offers it. She takes a Grecian urn and says, “Look closely at this, study it, for study will reward you; and I can tell you some of the things that other people have found in this pot, some of the goodies you too may find in it.”

And yet, Le Guin notes, even the Inner Teacher isn’t to be put in charge of meaning — for, “after all, she’s the one who taught the kids to expect a message.” She considers instead the ultimate job and responsibility of the artist:

My job is to keep the meaning completely embodied in the work itself, and therefore alive and capable of change. I think that’s how an artist can best speak as a member of a moral community: clearly, yet leaving around her words that area of silence, that empty space, in which other and further truths and perceptions can form in other minds.

Complement this fragment of Le Guin’s altogether glorious Words Are My Matter with Wassily Kandinsky on the three responsibilities of the artist and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society, then revisit Le Guin on being a “man,” the sacredness of public libraries, imaginative storytelling as a force of freedom, what beauty really means, where good ideas come from, and writing as falling in love.

BP

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