Reading: The Dispossessed

Posted: reading

Talking about The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Before diving into the contents of this book, it's interesting to note that Ursula K. Le Guin was a big fan of Taoism, big enough to publish her own commentary on the Tao Te Ching. This perspective lends an additional layer of analysis when discussing The Dispossessed, making it difficult to discuss the book without looking for influences from one to the other.

In particular, where Taoism was a rejection of traditionalist and hierarchical Confucianism, so too Odonian ethics a rejection of Urras capitalism. These ethics embody principles that on a whole resemble those of Taoism, particularly with their emphasis on work being a reward in and of itself, a rejection of "egoism" and accomplishments aimed at elevating the image of self, and the "acting to one's own nature" that is consistent with the lack of laws and governmental structure on Anarres.

In a way, Shevek can be portrayed as a Taoist Sage. Shevek keeps his theory protected not for the pursuit of aggrandizement, but to release it intergalactically such that all can benefit. "Hence the sage is able [...] to accomplish his great achievements. It is through his not making himself great that he can accomplish them" (p. 89 Tao Te Ching).

The relation to Taoism aside, what struck me most about this novel was its achievement not as political commentary, but as an expression of empathy and unity. Shevek's struggle with shared suffering and problems common to humans forming communities of governance make for an excellent mirror for self-reflection. None of the communities are without issue; the narrative lens does not focus on perfection of institutions but rather the exploration of learning from shared experience. An "ambiguous utopia" indeed.