I am finally getting around to reading Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction classic, The Left Hand of Darkness, a book that over the years, numerous friends and acquaintances have encouraged me to read, largely because she explores a topic that has long fascinated me — sexual difference.*
About half-way through the book, I find it at once the most brilliant work of science fiction I have ever read — and among the most frustrating. Brilliant because of Le Guin’s insights into how human sexual difference has defined our culture — the book is set on a planet where the humanoids are hermaphroditic. Frustrating because, at times, it seems less a story than a reflection on sexual difference via conversations with and character sketches of some leading figures on the Planet Gethen (also called Winter), the setting for this novel.
What really got me thinking (and there is much in this book to get one thinking) was this paragraph in the chapter on “The Question of Sex”:
Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact, the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.
Perhaps, it is serendipitous that at the moment I read this book I am watching some lectures of Joseph Campbell on DVD. That great scholar of myth is constantly talking about the images of difference which recur in mythological narratives and artwork (i.e,. the ying and the yang). Carl Jung, one of Campbell’s mentors once wrote, “there is no energy unless there is a tension of opposites“. Without sex difference, Gethenian culture would necessarily lack such tension.
LeGuin is right. This dualism does pervade human thinking. It is a theme repeated across cultures and over time.
And LeGuin is really onto something in seeing it as a defining aspect of humanity. Despite the book’s seemingly disjoined narrative, my friends were right to recommend it. It is a fascinating read and well worth your time.
*(As testament to that encouragement, I recently found that I had two copies of the book on my shelves and am reasonably certain I have one in storage as well. Not to mention the used copy I first started reading in high school — until I lost it.)