Thursday, January 27, 2011

Le Guin's CHEEK BY JOWL (Todorov, Adams, Pullman)

So, earlier this month I got to run by the University Bookstore for the first time in quite a while, on my way to Suzzallo-Allen to return a v. bad book I'd borrowed (more on this one later) and check out some better ones. I didn't find the one I was looking for (a modern translation of Verne's JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH),* but I did come across a book of essays by Le Guin I hadn't heard of before, CHEEK AND JOWL, published by Seattle's own Aqueduct Press [2009].

It's an interesting collection, as one wd expect of Le Guin, who's one of the most eloquent and quirky authors writing science fiction and fantasy today -- the latest in a line of collected essays starting with the brilliant THE LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT [1979] (which includes "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie", "A Citizen of Mondath", "The Staring Eye", &c) and continuing through the disappointing DANCING AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD [1989] and THE WAVE IN THE MIND [2004], which I have but have not read.

On the plus side, Le Guin is an intelligent and amusing writer. I enjoyed reading her various comments about Tolkien, her two brief references to Dunsany (an author we both greatly admire), her perceptive observation about Spenser. But I was distressed, at one point in her essay "The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists" (which is obviously greatly indebted to Tolkien's "The Monsters & the Critics"), to read her dismissive remarks about Tzvetan Todorov (p. 31) and realize that she apparently hadn't actually read Todorov -- or, if she had, she utterly misunderstood, and misrepresents, his thesis.

That, I admit, shook me, but at least Le Guin was only repeating canards I've seen elsewhere about Todorov's work, which is more widely referenced than read. And I can see why she's a bit terse in her comments on the Harry Potter books being praised for inventing the idea of a school for wizards (though it wd have been generous for her to mention Terry Pratchett's Unseen University as well as her own School for wizards at Roke as honorable predecessors). What really pulled me up sharp was her attack on Richard Adams' WATERSHIP DOWN.

Now, I freely admit to being a great admirer of Adams' book, which makes my list of the ten best fantasy books of all time.** And I'm not at all bothered that an author I like (Le Guin) dislikes another author I like (Adams) -- after all, literary history is full of such examples. H. G. Wells mocked Henry James' style and Jules Verne disparaged Wells' science fiction. Twain disliked Austen, and Austen admitted that having learned Burns was a cad got in the way of her enjoying his work. Barfield never had much use for THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and so forth. But the bizarre thing here is that Le Guin attacks Adams for something that doesn't even occur in his book.

Essentially, Le Guin criticizes Adams because his rabbit-society is male-dominated, whereas wild rabbits are actually matriarchal. Fair enough; the first half of his book is certainly male-dominated, and I'm willing to accept her assertions about real-life rabbit behavior without going to read Lockley's Private Life of Rabbits for myself. But Le Guin goes much further, accusing Adams of "systematically misrepresenting" rabbit society (p. 80) and
claiming that

"Doe rabbits, in [Adams'] book, are mindless breeding slaves. Their only function is to dig holes, provide sex, bear litters, and raise the kittens. The buck rabbits do all the thinking, planning, and acting and are in unquestioned control of the females at all times. The does are so far beneath notice, in fact, that a band of bucks fleeing the home warren to establish a new one doesn't even think to bring any does along; the guys go on for two hundred pages before it dawns on them that it may be hard to establish a new warren without females. So, in good militaristic fashion, they go and rape the Sabines: they carry off females from another warren. That the females might have any voice in the matter is not even considered."

Contrast this final sentence with what actually happens in the book: having learned of a neighboring warren, Efrafa, our heroes (who had fled nilly-willy from their old home to escape impending doom) first send an emissary asking if any rabbits from that overcrowded warren, especially does, would like to come join theirs. When this open approach is rebuffed, their embassy arrested and barely escaping, the heroes come up with a new plan: one of their members joins Efrafa undercover in order to contact does who want to leave and start a new, freer life elsewhere. Given that Efrafa is a police state where all does are subject to what amounts to state-enforced prostitution with officers, many are indeed willing:

Thlayli (Bigwig), a buck from Watership Down: "Don't you want to get out and come and live on the high downs with us? Think of it!"

Hyzenthlay, a doe from Efrafa: "Oh, Thlayli! Shall we mate with whom we choose and dig our own burrows and bear our litters alive? . . . I'll come! I'll run any risk." (WATERSHIP DOWN, p. 296)

So, Le Guin's claim that Adams does not give his female rabbits "any voice in the matter" is simply wrong, an error in fact. Far from a rape of the Sabine Women, all the rabbits who leave Efrafa to throw in their lot with Hazel's group do so by their own choice, bravely escaping from an intolerable and dehumanizing life. Even in the earlier episode where Hazel and his friends free some tame rabbits from their hutch on a farm is preceded by their asking first if the domesticated rabbits want to join them:

"We've come to let you out. Will you come with us?"
There was a pause and some movement in the hay and then Clover [a doe] replied, "Yes, let us out." (p. 191; cf. also 181-182 for the initial invitation)

Finally, Le Guin completely ignores TALES FROM WATERSHIP DOWN [1996], in which Hazel hears the story of a warren with a female Chief Rabbit (p. 155ff) and, after another such a warren is founded as a satellite-colony of Watership Down's rabbits, decides it'd be a good idea to share power with a female Chief Rabbit (p. 207) within Watership Down itself, offering the job to the same Hyzenthlay who was promised a freer life way back in Efrafa days.

Le Guin, however, sees no difference between Hazel's group and the Efrafan police state ("I see both as unrighteous, unrabbitlike, and inhuman") and claims Adams presents a dichotomy between romantic protective love and "a 'natural' use by males of females as owned objects, breeding stock -- thus justifying rape. No other possibility is imagined, such as a relationship of equality, or a relationship that the female initiates or controls some aspects of" (p. 82). That, of course, is simply, demonstrably, false. Her conclusion is equally harsh:

"Adams cheated. He wanted to write a fantasy of male superiority" but could only do so by misrepresenting what rabbits are really like. "That is cheating" (p. 82).

I don't know why Le Guin decided to go all Edmund Wilson on WATERSHIP DOWN, or portray Adams as a sort of latter-day John Norman of Gor, but Adams deserves better: to be judged for what his characters actually say and do in the novel, not for some projection that wildly distorts the facts.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Given how egregious her attack on Adams is, Le Guin's dismissal of Philip Pullman is relatively minor by comparison, though baffling in its own right. The context, like her assault on Adams, is as part of her long survey of "Animals in Children's Literature",*** in the course of which she makes the baffling statement that Pullman's work contains almost no animals, dismissing the daemons as merely "fragments or images of the human psyche given animal shape . . . having no independent being and therefore incapable of relationship. Lyra's much-emphasized love for her daemon is self-love. In Pullman's world humans are dreadfully alone . . ." (p.102-103).

If that were true, all Lyra's conversations with Pantalaimon are simply exercises in narcissism: she's just talking to herself out loud. But once again, as with Adams, that's not at all the experience a reader takes away from Pullman's book. Pantalaimon is presented with a vividly realized personality of his own, and his exchanges with Lyra are real conversations; the same is true of other human/daemon one-on-ones throughout the book. And, besides, Le Guin herself offered up a superb example of real exchange between different parts of a person's psyche in her short story "Intercom".****

So, while there are good things in this collection -- for example, the scorn she pours upon "[t]he notion that a story 'has a message' . . . that . . . can be reduced to a few abstract words", or that such a 'message' is any substitute for reading and experiencing the story itself (p.126) -- I hesitate to recommend it. It's like looking forward to eating a piece of pecan pie by a really good cook whose cooking you like, only to find pecan shells in it when you bite down. Ouch.

*I found this later in the week up at Third Place Books; cf. my earlier post
**see my entry on WATERSHIP DOWN in my Classics of Fantasy series (which also included a piece on Le Guin's A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA).
***At over sixty pages in length, this is by far the lengthiest piece in the book, stretching for nearly half of the whole. Oddly enough, while she surveys a huge range of books, she omits any mention of Brer Rabbit.
****which I know through multiple listenings of the old Caedmon Records recording, which I checked out many times from the Milwaukee Public Library (being then the poorest of poor grad students and unable to actually buy the thing for myself), rather than the print version appearing in THE COMPASS ROSE [1982]. Highly recommended (the audio version, that is)!


David Bratman said...

1) If you'd read the March 2010 Mythprint, you would have seen my review of Cheek by Jowl, so you would have known of its existence.

2) Le Guin's comment on Todorov is a brief gloss on a matter she discusses more fully elsewhere - I think it was in The Language of the Night, actually, though I can't find it on a quick flip through that unindexed book - which may be summed up as saying that what Todorov discusses in The Fantastic is a mode of literature not often seen in English, and best represented in our language by The Turn of the Screw, and that his theories are not really very useful applied to works in the form that we in English usually call fantasy. It was part of a more general caution against using tools appropriate to one form of literature on other literature for which they're not appropriate, of which interpreting The Lord of the Rings as an Orwellian or Bunyanesque allegory is the golden bad example. I see no misrepresentation of Todorov here, only a creeb against misuse of Todorov by critics. The tone in Cheek by Jowl may be snide, but this is because she's gone over all this many times before, and is getting tired of critics who talk about fantasy without making any attempt to understand it.

3) You're absolutely right that the female rabbits in Watership Down are not voiceless in their fate, and I mentioned that in my review. The sex roles in the novel in general, however, are severely limited (as a comparison with Tales from, written as a painfully laborious overcompensation for the earlier book's limitations, shows) and untrue to actual rabbit society. I love the book, and I could look past these problems, just as I can look past problems in Tolkien, but the factual error does not make Le Guin's critique of Adams otherwise less valid.

4) Le Guin doesn't say that Lyra's daemon is only a conversation she's having with herself. (And if it were, why couldn't it be? The schizoid really experience parts of their own brain as separate conscious entities.) When she writes that "they are fragments or images of the human psyche," she means the daemons' function in the story, that they function as human images and not as a different type of creature; she doesn't mean that each individual daemon is a fragment of its particular human's psyche. (Note she says in the same paragraph, "In Pullman's world human beings are dreadfully alone," which doesn't mean that Lyra or other individual humans are alone, it means humans as a group are alone; which isn't true (she never mentions the bears), but you can see she's speaking of a group phenomenon not an individual one.)
In fact, she notes "Daemons are rational creatures and speak fluently with their owners and with others." This is an essay on animals in fantasy, and Le Guin notes quite correctly, and very insightfully, that daemons despite their shapes are not actual animals any more than stuffed animals are. The telling point is, "as with the beloved stuffed animal, you don't even have to remember to feed it." (all also p. 102-3)

Anne Therese said...

Dear Mr Rateliff,
I am looking for a good literary agent as I have a Tolkien calendar ready to go. Can you reccomend(and give me their name)your own agency?

Thank you,
- Glen McDonald