18 October, 2018 • • 38.1EssaysPhilosophy

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Soft-Boiled Eggs: The Vibrant Matter of a Vibrant Life

Mari Ovsepyan

Ursula Le Guin
No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
2017
240pp
£16.89

 

 

 

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”, wrote Annie Dillard, reflecting on the privileges and the challenges of the life of an author. If, as she concluded, “good lives are hard to come by”, Ursula Le Guin’s No Time to Spare, is a window into a life truly well spent.

Le Guin, who died in January 2018 at the age of 88, opened this latest and, sadly, last collection of essays in her usual witty and spirited way by picking apart the unfortunate questionnaire sent to her and other Harvard graduates on the sixtieth reunion of their class. Question 18 is by far Le Guin’s ‘favourite’: “In your spare time, what do you do?” She responds that if spare time is the opposite of occupied time, then all of her time is “fully and vitally occupied with living.” This, among other important activities, includes sleeping (and daydreaming), writing poetry (and prose), thinking (and forgetting), cooking (and eating), walking (when she can walk), watching a movie (sometimes), and lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat (and her own crazy cat on her lap). “What is Harvard thinking of?”, wonders Le Guin, “I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.”

In spite of the wide and eclectic array of themes covered in the book, it feels like one long richly textured conversation, and its flow is as natural and effortless as ever with Le Guin. Perhaps even more than ever, because, despite her confession of a strong distaste for the word ‘blog’ (which reminds the author of “a sodden tree in a bog, or maybe an obstruction in the nasal passage”), No Time to Spare is essentially a collection of the posts she wrote between 2010 and 2015, inspired by José Saramago’s collected blogs, The Notebooks (2010).

These posts contain Le Guin’s intimate reflections on ‘what matters’, including the ‘big topics’ she is known and loved for, like gender, age, politics, religion, environment, and science fiction; yet it is the enchantment of the ordinary and the everyday that marks this collection. Attention is “the rarest and purest form of generosity”, wrote Simone Weil, and it is the attention Le Guin devotes to the particularities of the world around her, including trees, carrots, cats, and soft-boiled eggs that gives these essays an especially warm glow.

Ursula Le Guin is known as a brilliant storyteller and architect of new worlds, a sharp social critic and a fearless experimenter. But her appeal for me goes far beyond her storytelling and her politics—I have always loved her ‘way’, her method. To me, Le Guin has always been one of the most vibrant of the vibrant materialists: much of her writing seems evocative of the (re)new(ed) materialisms one can find in the works of iconic scholars like Jane Bennett and Donna Haraway. Le Guin herself would likely have resisted this description in the same way she resisted each and every category anyone has ever tried to box her into. She described her own work as ‘ungenrifiable’ and flatly refused to acknowledge any particular ‘philosophy’ or ‘theory’ behind her multiple works.

Nevertheless, I will take a chance and hope that Le Guin would not mind this label too much, since the material turn itself is not exactly a category: it is too young and too eclectic to have an established form of ‘orthodoxy’. The new materialisms are often described as a conversation between the multiple streams committed to reconfiguring our very understanding of matter (and did Le Guin love a good conversation!). Diana Coole and Samantha Frost introduce at least three such streams: the first involves a posthumanist orientation “which conceives of matter itself as lively or as exhibiting agency”; the second entails the biopolitical and bioethical issues concerning “the status of life and of the human”; and the third is devoted to a reengagement with political economy, which involves renewed attention to “the material details of everyday life.” All of these threads can be traced in Le Guin’s earlier fictional and non-fictional works and are very much present in No Time to Spare, where her entire material world is brimming with agency.

Like Bennett, Le Guin centers her focus as much on the things in themselves as on the human experience of them. At one point she considers ‘the inner life’ of a Christmas tree (which, although it is unable to see, “may be aware of light and darkness, insideness and outsideness”) as well as the ‘feelings’ of a carrot: “we don’t know what the carrot feels. In fact, we don’t know what the oyster feels. We can’t ask the cow’s opinion on being milked.” Like Haraway, Le Guin concludes that “the assumptions we make about all other living creatures are mostly self-serving.” She also considers the way in which material aspects of culture shape our experience, as she reflects on the change from “the dandy dress uniforms” of WWII to the modern “camo-pajamas”, which may be part of a change in the style of war or national attitudes to it: Le Guin writes that these ‘fatigues’ can be “grossly utilitarian, with no thought for the appearance or self-esteem of the wearer.” She wonders whether this is why “we pay very little attention to our wars or to the people fighting them.”

The vibrant materialist also comes to the foreground when Le Guin explores overlapping inter-species connections, where subjects cease to be singular entities. This often happens through the experience of a shared vulnerability and involves a change in the sensory perception of time and space. Together we travel down one of Le Guin’s memory lanes to become hypnotized by a rattlesnake’s gaze: “We were like people newly in love who ‘can’t take their eyes off each other’ […] During this time, the rattlesnake and I were alone together. Alone in all the world. We were held together by common fear—bonded. This time was outside ordinary time, and outside ordinary feelings; it involved danger for both of us; and it involved a bond between creatures who do not and cannot ordinarily relate to each other in any way […] In all these respects I think it isn’t amiss to think of this time as sacred.”

Le Guin respects the otherness of each animal species: her mindful empathy is so strikingly different from our objectifying and cruel ways, which prevent us from a genuine ‘I and Thou’ connection with the world. This is particularly notable in the way Le Guin describes the de-clawed and de-fanged lynx she met in the High Desert Museum. Le Guin invites us to consider what Rilke called “the pure gaze of the animal”, by participating in the awe of the mystery that is the lynx: despite the unnatural environment, this beautiful strong animal preserved his own nature and “brings us the gift of indestructible solitude.”

Le Guin’s deep and tender love and respect for the natural world and its many non-human members perhaps comes out most strongly in The Annals of Pard, a collection of essays devoted to the inner (and ‘outer’) life of her beloved cat. Evocative of Haraway’s famous question “whom do we touch when we touch a dog?” these essays offer a strong affirmation of our companion species and their own ontology and rights, which Le Guin has chosen to honour. These funny and insightful essays on the life of Pard serve as the silver thread connecting the four otherwise separate themes and sections of the book.

Part One, Going Over Eighty’, is devoted to the process of aging. It is brutally honest, at times even shocking to our youth-obsessed culture, which may find it difficult to accept that a woman who spent her entire life ‘dancing at the edge of the world’ could barely walk in the last decade of her life. And yet. “Old age isn’t a state of mind”, writes Le Guin, “it is an existential situation.” Therefore, saying ‘you are only as old as you think you are’ makes no sense: “If I’m ninety and believe I’m forty-five, I’m headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub.” Yet there is no self-pity whatsoever in Le Guin’s tone. Her relationship with aging flows out of her lifelong commitment to feminism: “To tell me my old age doesn’t exist is to tell me I don’t exist. Erase my age, you erase my life—me.” Elsewhere she writes: “I am not ‘in’ this body, I am this body.” The grace and beauty of the diminishing that comes with age is reflected in the invitation to a deeper trust in other bodies: Le Guin reflects on how her friend Moe (“who knows all the bargains and things”) takes her shopping, since she has lost the liberty her legs or the car gave her—something she looks forward to every week.

In Part Two, The Lit Biz, Le Guin moves onto literary subjects, such as her readers’ questions (the most charming are from her youngest audience), her reflections on Homer, the Great American Novel and current literary trends. Yet the centerpiece of this chapter is provided by Le Guin’s reflections on being a writer or, rather, on her way of being a writer. Richard Siken once said that merely having feelings does not make one a poet. Le Guin similarly insists that the craft is the necessary component of art. And her craft is to embody the word, to make it durable, “so it can go from mind to mind.” Words, to Le Guin, are material; they are actual and real things. She compares her work to what the weaver does with yarn, or the potter with clay: “Words are my matter—my stuff. Words are my skein of yarn, my lump of wet clay, my block of uncarved wood.”

In Part Three, Trying to Make Sense Of It’, Le Guin is doing just that: trying to make sense of the difficult questions and the ‘-isms’—sexism, racism, capitalism and anthropocentrism—that she has been challenging over the course of her life. In one of the essays Le Guin considers a familiar yet still unresolved question: “Can women operate as women in male institutions without becoming imitation men?” The same chapter issues a timely warning as she reflects on the history of anger as a powerful tool of social change, which, extended beyond usefulness, becomes unjust and 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.”

And of course, she wouldn’t be Ursula Le Guin, if she did not offer a sharp critique of capitalism, echoing the sense of hopelessness so familiar to the generation living in a post-truth, post-order and post-West context: “It appears that we’ve given up on the long-range view. That we’ve decided not to think about consequences—about cause and effect. Maybe that’s why I feel that I live in exile. I used to live in a country that had a future.”

The final chapter, Rewards’, is devoted to reflections on beauty in nature and art, on human need and human kindness, on the distinction between knowledge and belief, and on death. In ‘Without Egg’, among most moving essays of the chapters, Le Guin reflects on the meaning of daily, embodied rituals (like preparing a soft-boiled egg). J.K. Smith calls them secular liturgies. They are the stuff of life. They are its vibrant matter. The experience of a soft-boiled egg is “the same yet not the same every morning.” Like life itself, “it remains endlessly interesting. It is invariably delicious.” Being fully present is key to the experience, “the more complete the attention, the more you can actually taste the egg.” Le Guin concludes the essay by comparing this vibrant and textured presence of life to the emptiness and disenchantment of death: in the grave, she quotes from The Book of Ecclesiastes, “there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom.”  Nor is there any breakfast: “The grave is without egg.”

Yet death for Le Guin is not merely an absence. There is a certain (different) kind of texture to it, built on a new kind of relationship: it involves a re-embodiment rather than a dis-embodiment. In one of the last Annals of Pard, Le Guin dedicates the poem Words for the Dead to the mouse killed by her cat. The last stanza reads:

And to your body:
Inside the body
of the great earth
in unbounded being
be still.

In the final essay, ‘Notes from a Week at a Ranch in the Oregon High Desert’, the enchantment of the bodily, the ordinary, and ‘other’ culminates, as Le Guin paints an intensely beautiful picture of a desert valley, unraveling over the course of five days and nights. This last essay is an anthem to life, a symphony of vibrant matter: “Hundreds of blackbirds gathered in the pastures south of the house, vanishing completely in the tall grass, then rising out of it in ripples and billows, or streaming and streaming up into a single tree up under the ridge till its lower branches were blacker with birds than green with leaves, then flowing down away from it into the reeds and out across the air in a single, flickering, particulate wave. What is entity?”

And so, the last sentence Le Guin ever wrote for us is, in fact, a question. The last enchantment she invites us to consider is the enchantment of the unknown. Earlier in the book she writes: “How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires, all of us.”

Indeed. We are.

Perhaps, then, a good way to honour Ursula Le Guin’s well-lived life and legacy is not to rush for answers, but simply to take a moment to be still as she is. And to wonder.

~

Mari Ovsepyan is a doctoral student in Theology and Religion at Pembroke College, Oxford.