‘True voyage is return’
Ursula Le Guin’s temporal metaphysics and the utopian ideal of The Dispossessed
‘The State is to be progressive, it is no longer to be static, and this alters the general condition of the Utopian problem profoundly; we have to provide not only for food and clothing…but for initiative’ (H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia, 88-9).
‘You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been’ (The Dispossessed, 52).
Like H.G. Wells’ ideal State and the other ‘modern’ utopias in his wake, Le Guin’s Anarres differs from the static commonwealths in the ‘classic utopian tradition’ (archetypal examples are More’s Utopia or Plato’s Republic) by valuing progress and individual initiative. Yet Wells’ ideal is mainly based on a vision of science and non-Marxist socialism, and most twentieth-century utopias are similarly rooted in political and socio-economic theories, or the psychological-scientific basis of B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two. Metaphysical conceptions on the other hand are relatively insignificant. The case is different for Le Guin, for while she derives her utopian ideal and especially her idea of constant Revolution from anarchism, this essay will consider how her politics is also uniquely and inextricably linked to her metaphysics of time: Shevek’s temporal coincidentia oppositorum that reconciles the sequential ‘arrow of time’ with ‘the circle of time’ (TD, 188) where all events simultaneously co-exist in an ‘eternal return’.
In Shevek’s General Temporal Theory, ‘time goes in cycles, as well as in a line’ (TD, 188), with linear and cyclical time co-existing complementarily. Since the nature of time constitutes the ‘foundations of the universe’ (TD, 234), neither cyclical nor linear time when taken in isolation can completely account for the cosmos in its subjective and objective aspects. Pure linear time is unsatisfactory, for it leads to ‘chaos, meaningless succession of instants, a world without clocks or seasons or promises’ (TD, 188). ‘We are the children of time’ (TD, 318) and cycles are needed to demarcate and relate linear time, giving meaning and order to conscious experience. Linear time is also permitted and generated only within the context of a cycle. Shevek explained this with reference to cosmology: ‘And then on the big scale, the cosmos: well, you know we think that the whole universe is a cyclic process, an oscillation of expansion and contraction, without any before or after. Only within each of the great cycles, where we live, only there is there linear time, evolution, change.’ (TD, 188) Or more poetically, Anarres is described as ‘moving yet not moving, thrown by what hand, timelessly circling, creating time’ (TD, 314).
Pure cyclical time on the other hand is destructively conservative, ever reverting to the past, and cannot allow for change or ‘the evidence of evolution’ (TD, 188). Shevek’s critique of the search for pleasure is applicable to Le Guin’s wider view on pure cycles: ‘It comes to end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell’ (TD, 277). Such an ‘infinite repetition’ is ‘an atemporal process’ (TD, 188) with no real ‘beginning or end’ (TD, 188), and it collapses the past and the future, allowing ‘no change, no progress, or direction, or creation’ (TD, 188). Linear time, ‘the arrow, the running river’ (TD, 188), is hence necessary for the temporal succession and direction that creates a distinct past, present and future, thereby enabling the possibility of creative change.
In her depiction of the conflict between rigid conservatism and Revolution on Anarres, Le Guin sharply criticizes a ‘closed cycle’ temporal mentality. For Anarres to sustain its existence, loyalty to the Odonian principles of mutual aid and solidarity is necessary. Yet the loyalty that preserves Odonian anarchism has ironically ossified into dogmatic chains that strangle creative progress. For there is no law, no way to enforce social order on Anarres other than ‘social conscience, the opinion of one’s neighbours’ (TD, 130), and in accordance with anarchist theory, the reward for labor is not economic, but is ‘one’s own pleasure, and the respect of one’s fellows’ (TD, 130). Public opinion is thus transformed into ‘a very mighty force’ (TD, 130).
While this provides for stability and replaces the profit-motive, it can also be exploited. Even without the existence of a governmental hierarchy, Sabul is one of those who seize power through the manipulation of opinion, crushing ideas that threaten his position by utilizing the unthinking loyalty to solidarity and the conservative ‘fear of change’ (TD, 143). This strategy can be seen in the statement that Sabul used to champion his Sequency Physics and to stifle Shevek’s opposing work in Simultaneity:
‘That Sequency Physics is the highroad of chronosophical thought in the Odonian Society has been a mutually agreed principle since the Settlement of Anarres. Egoistic divagation from this solidarity of principle can result only in the sterile spinning of impractical hypotheses without social organic utility, or repetition of the superstitious-religious speculations of the irresponsible hired scientists of the Profit States of Urras…’ (TD, 200)
As Bedap said, ‘The social conscience isn’t a living thing any more, but a machine, a power-machine controlled by bureaucrats’ (TD, 143). The persecution of Tirin for his socially unacceptable satire, and Salas for his ‘dysfunctional music’ (TD, 150), are similar results of such engineered public opinion---‘the unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules Odonian society by stifling the individual mind’ (TD, 142).
Compounding the problem, Anarresti education is ‘rigid, moralistic, authoritarian’, and has practically turned Odo’s philosophy into dogma, the final and immutable principles for a perfect society. As Bedap puts it: ‘Kids learn to parrot Odo’s words as if they were laws---the ultimate blasphemy’ (TD, 144). On a wider scale, Anarres’ educational conservatism is seen in its self-imposed isolation and refusal to learn from other worlds, a fact symbolized by the ubiquitous walls at the spaceport. This impedes advances in all fields, and Shevek himself would never have completed his Theory, the greatest achievement of Anarresti science, without Urrasti physics and Terran Relativity. As he said to Keng, the Terran ambassador: ‘On Anarres, you see, we have cut ourselves off. We don’t talk with other people, the rest of humanity. I could not finish my work there…Here is what I need---the talk, the sharing, an experiment in the Light Laboratory…and a book of Relativity Theory’ (TD, 285).
While mundane causes like the Will to Power and the ‘innate cowardice of the average human mind’ (TD, 142) partially explain the Anarresti conservatism, yet such stagnation also results from the acceptance (consciously or unconsciously) of a warped worldview. Jean-Paul Sartre in his description of Faulkner’s ‘metaphysics of time’ in The Sound and the Fury famously compares Faulkner’s worldview ‘to that of a man sitting in an open car and looking backwards’. Thus the past ‘takes on a sort of super-reality; its contours are hard and clear, unchangeable. The present, nameless and fleeting, is helpless before it.’ This is most obvious in ‘June Second, 1910’ with a Quentin who is completely possessed by the past. As Sartre points out, Quentin’s past dispute with Dalton Ames overlaps that of the present with Bland, and even his planned ‘suicide is an immobile wall, a thing which he approaches backwards, and which he neither wants to nor can conceive.’ Thus for Quentin as for the ‘possessed’ Anarrestis, both are caught in the cycle of ‘infinite repetition’ (TD, 188) where the past is real, the present haunted and the future is non-existent.
Sartre further recognizes that this past-obsession renders time ‘decapitated’, depriving ‘it of its future, that is, its dimension of deeds and freedom.’ Similarly, Cleanth Brooks feels that the central truth in Sartre’s view is that ‘man’s very freedom is bound up with his sense of having some kind of future. Unless he can look ahead to the future, he is not free.’ Action undertaken in a closed cycle that endlessly rotates towards the past can only be a ‘fatality’, as Sartre puts it, and not follow from a free choice. In Taoist and Indo-Hellenic utopian traditions, this temporal vision where ‘cyclical recurrence precluded all real novelty, for the future was essentially closed and determined, the present not unique and all time essentially past time’, leads to certain developments where progress is always and inevitably overthrown by decay and destruction. Taoism, for instance, has its ‘recurring judgement days’:
‘As the sins of mankind’s evil generations increase to a climax, world catastr ophes, flood and pestilence sweep all away---or nearly all, for a ‘holy remnant’ (a ‘seed people’, chung min) saved by their Taoism, win through to find a new heaven and a new earth of great peace and equality, under the leadership of the Prince of Peace (Ta Thai-Phing Chun), of course Lao Tzu. Then everything slowly worsens again until another salvation is necessary.’
Thus like the Hindu Satya-yuga or the Greek Golden Age, the utopian era of ‘Thai Ping’ is more a recoverable ideal instead of an unprecedented goal. The predominance of the cycle in aspects of Taoism and Indo-Hellenism thus creates a utopian ideal that essentially looks backwards, and renders difficult a radically new future or true progress. In Le Guin’s portrayal of an ossified Anarres, she is evoking precisely this danger of the pure cyclical mentality.
The corrective balance to this is a utopian vision within a linear time conception, such as that of Judeo-Christian and Islamic eschatology, where linearity is primary, and where there are unique and unrepeatable events like the Creation, Divine Incarnation and Judgment Day. This is especially so for the apocalyptic tradition of the Christian millennium, the thousand years ‘perfected order on earth’. As Kumar writes:
‘Of all ideal society conceptions, it is the millennium which most forcibly introduces the elements of time, process and history. The millennial Good Time restores something of the glory of the Golden Age, but is also at the End of Time. It is a prelude to something radically new, something not experienced even in the original Paradise.’
Just as the ever-recurring Golden Ages in Taoism and Indo-Hellenic cultures lead to conservatism and a focus on the past, so it is the linear vision of a unique and hitherto unattained Millennium that gives value to the future and the freely creative present.
Le Guin’s utopian ideal ‘unbuild walls’ (TD, 275) between the Judeo-Christian/Islamic and the Taoist/Indo-Hellenic visions. For it is only by the acceptance of a holistic temporal conception that unites cyclical with linear time, and which encompasses not just the past, but also the future and the present, that Anarrestis can enact Le Guin’s ideal of a utopia embodying constant Revolution. Or to adapt Shevek’s speech in Nio Esseia, Anarrestis must ‘be the Revolution’ (TD, 250). For Le Guin, Revolution does not imply a political reformation that follows only linear time, or a mere reversion to the first halcyon years of the Anarres Settlement. Instead, since the first political use of ‘Revolution’ in the 17th century, there has been a link between the political meaning of Revolution with the evocation of cosmic progression and the notion of temporal cycles:
‘Revolution was born in metaphor, and the literary marks of its birth have been ineradicable. Indeed, its whole political evolution as one of mankind’s archetypal concepts and mythological symbols has, through changing circumstances over turbulent centuries, been dominated by what we may think of as a metaphorical imperative. It has, now as then, always been close to the spark and the fire…and above all the circles of time and the progressions of the very heavens.’
Le Guin draws on Revolution’s ‘metaphorical imperative’ to illustrate her view of social change. On one hand, Charlotte Spivack has observed how ‘recognition of the eternity of change’, and hence the acceptance of linearity, is ‘implicit in the social structure based on revolution’. As Bedap asks: ‘Change is freedom, change is life---is anything more basic to Odonian thought than that?’ (TD, 143), and Anarres, when ‘properly conceived, was a revolution, an ongoing process’ ( TD, 151). Thus one aspect of Le Guin’s Revolution can be fulfilled when Anarrestis accept linear time, since a ‘linear’ mentality enables change and a real future, frees up individual initiative, and permits one to ‘accept no rule, to be the initiator of his own acts, to be responsible’ (TD, 296). ‘Freedom is never very safe’ (TD, 317), and for its sake, Le Guin’s anarchist utopia is perhaps unique even among twentieth-century ‘evolutionary’ utopias in accepting a dance at chaos’ edge. Shevek, for instance, emphasizes in the aftermath of his controversial journey to Urras that:
‘Things are…a little broken loss, on Anarres…It was our purpose all along---our Syndicate, this journey of mine---to shake up things, to stir up, to break some habits, to make people ask questions. To behave like anarchists! All this has been going on while I was gone. So you see, nobody is quite sure what happens next.’ (TD, 317)
For Le Guin, if the price of order is ‘government by the majority’ (TD, 143)---a stifling of individual initiative and incidentally a standard definition of Democracy---she will rather have chaos and uncertainty. However paradoxical it may sound to have a chaotic utopia, such acceptance recognizes that Anarres is a living organism whose continuing health is contingent on constant social change. This idea is probably adapted from Alekseevich Kropotkin, the foremost anarchist theorist, who wrote that:
An anarchist society ‘would represent nothing immutable. On the contrary---as it is seen in organic life at large---harmony would (it is contended) result from an ever-changing adjustment and readjustment of equilibrium between the multitudes of forces and influences…’ (Revolutionary Pamphlets, 284).
The arresting of the ‘multitudes of forces and influences’ in Anarres may enhance stability, yet it potentially implies not just stagnation, but also the crystallization of public opinions into laws, the end of anarchism and the degeneration of Anarres into its dystopia, Urras. Attempts to achieve a static ‘perfection’ reminiscent of classic utopias are thus self-defeating. Instead, the transformational impetus of individual initiative, even pushing to ‘the edge of chaos’, is crucial for a sustained anarchist utopia.
Yet despite this radical vision, Le Guin’s Revolution is not a meaningless change enacting pure linear time. As Shevek said to the revolutionaries:
‘I am here because you see in me the promise, the promise that we made two hundred years ago in this city---the promise kept. We have kept it, on Anarres.’ (TD, 250)
Anarres is a Revolution that is also a ‘promise kept’, and since loyalty ‘asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole’ (TD, 277), this is something impossible without the agency of cyclical time. In one act of fidelity, an Odonian must be loyal not just to the principles of mutual aid and solidarity, but also to the equally Odonian radicalism that seemingly contradicts loyalty, encompasses the future and pushes for change. Thus in a society based on anarchism, the paradoxical situation becomes possible where forward-looking radicalism is rooted in a two hundred year old philosophy, and where revolutionary agents like Bedap are still inspired by those first Settlers who were believed to have eliminated stifling authoritarianism (TD, 144).
True loyalty to Odonian philosophy hence does not imply a cycle that endlessly oscillates backwards. Nor does it mean a blind radicalism that seeks to abrogate the past on the lines of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Instead, the Promise and Revolution are one. The past, in the form of Odonian philosophy and the earliest Anarresti culture, must be bound to the present and the future by the cyclical mentality, and with this fidelity, a linear vision is also necessary to accommodate the radicalism of Odonianism and its demand for change. Thus for Le Guin’s utopian vision to work, Anarrestis must encompass both cyclical and linear time, the past, present and the future, in their ideals.
Like Shevek himself, Anarres must ultimately be a society in a ‘journey and return’ (TD, 277) where one returns to a home ‘where you have never been’ (TD, 52). In this trope, Le Guin plays on the space-time mechanics of a voyage, for while returning home is a spatial reversion, it is also a progress to a new destination changed by time. Thus ‘home’ in TD implies not merely the past origin of a journey, but as evoked by the enigmatic Odonian quote, ‘true voyage is return’ (TD, 76) and the trope of global circumnavigation (TD, 52), it is also the future destination. As a temporal metaphor, the journey and return is hence a Revolution that does not only revolves between the past and the present (though such cyclical return is implied), but dynamically encompasses the future as well.
This metaphor is enriched by the symbol of Home. While serving as the goal and origin of the journey/Revolution of Time, it has wider connotations, as could be seen in Shevek’s ecstatic discovery of his Theory:
‘The wall was down. The vision was both clear and whole. What he saw was simple; simpler than anything else. It was simplicity: and contained in it all complexity, all promise. It was revelation. It was the way clear, the way home, the light’ (TD, 233).
Home is associated with truth, revelation and freedom, a vision of the ‘foundations of the universe’ (TD, 234). In this sense, the journey of Time and the Revolution of Anarres is inherently teleological, forever proceeding towards truth and completeness, towards Utopia. This is implicit in Takver’s suggestion to build a new society beyond Anarres:
‘We’d make a new community. If our society is settling down into politics and power-seeking, then we’ll get out, we’ll go and make an Anarres beyond Anarres, a new beginning. How’s that?’ (TD, 313)
Thus Le Guin’s temporal vision allows a utopian ideal that envisages a journey towards an infinite and ever-ascending perfection, but at the same time, an eternal return that never loses sight of Home.
To conclude, Le Guin’s temporal metaphysics unites the cyclical conception predominant in Indo-Hellenic and Taoist cultures, and the linear conception of Judeo-Christian and Islamic civilizations. In her philosophy, the circle and the arrow of time can never be isolated, but are complementary, with linear time being generated by the cycle, and the cycle endowing the line with subjective order. With reference to socio-political dynamics, the anti-utopian aspects of Anarres shows how a pure cyclical mentality like that of Quentin in The Sound and the Fury can lead to ossification and even the end of anarchism. Thus her utopian vision requires the Anarrestis to embrace linear time to allow for anarchist radicalism and change, but at the same time, to accept cyclical time to enact the fundamental fidelity to Odonianism and the ideals of the first Settlers. Expanding on the Greek root oikos (home), the ideal Anarres is an eco-logical utopia, an ‘ecotopia’, in the widest sense and is not merely environmentally harmonious. Instead, it ever moves forward and is yet ever rooted, being holistically attuned to the structure of Time, the ‘foundations of the universe’, and is truly at home in the cosmos. This is a utopian vision that transcends anarchism and touches the mystical.
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