Ursula K. Le Guin, The Wave in the Mind. Talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination
Published 2004 by Shambhala, 336p
This is not an easy book. What makes it provocative is not the style but the complexity of subjects it approaches. Le Guin is mostly known for her books of fantasy and science fiction but her poetry and essays are also intelligent and appealing.
The Wave in the Mind, whose title was inspired by a letter written by Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West, debating style matters and the profundity of rhythm (“A sight, an emotion, creates the wave in mind, long before it makes words to fit it”), is a collection of essays that explore gender, religion, society, beauty, feminism, language and literature. The author might be too frank and sometimes polemical but beyond this direct style there is humour and wit.
Le Guin was born in California in a family that encouraged her to read and exposed her to an academic environment; her father, Alfred L Kroeber was an anthropologist and her mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote the biography of Ishi, the last wild Indian in America. The young Ursula considered libraries sacred places and could find her freedom there. She had always known she wanted to become a writer and explore fantasy. She grew up listening to fairy tales, myths, Indian stories and later reading herself children’s classics. Mark Twain was one of her favourites.
Fantasy is, after all, the oldest kind of narrative fiction, and the most universal.
Later she discovered Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Tolkien, Borges, Virginia Woolf and became fascinated by their style. As a writer she was curious of everything and considered inappropriate the journalists’ question about the specific source of her inspiration. Writers, Le Guin says, find their inspiration observing streets, rooms, voices, smells, gestures, dreams, picking up details and turning them into something new, something that is made up, as imagination is humankind’s most useful tool.
The imagination is a fundamental way of thinking, an essential means of becoming and remaining human. It is a tool of the mind. Therefore we have to learn to use it. Children have imagination to start with, as they have body, intellect, the capacity for language: all things essential to their humanity, things they need to learn how to use, how to use well. Such teaching, training, and practice should begin in infancy and go on throughout life. Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive.
In a society that tends to be defined by consumerism and superficiality it is very important that we become selective and informed:
Certainly we’ve become so numbed by the quantity of unverifiable information poured out upon us that we admit factoids, as more or less equivalent to facts. And with the same numbness, we’re generally acceptant of hype of all kinds – advertising, stories about celebrity figures, political “leaks”, patriotic and moralistic declarations, and so on – reading it without much caring if the material is credible or that we’re being treated as objects of manipulation.
As she was born in 1929 in a society led by men, Le Guin had to fit in it and play by their rules. The book opens with a daring essay about gender. She pretends to be a man just to show that women can write like men but keep their own expectations. Using the generic pronoun “he” Le Guin fights for artistic freedom and options.
Later she focuses on beauty and the sacrifices women make in some cultures to be beautiful for their men. The example offered refers to the Chinese custom of breaking and binding little girls’ feet as a sign of beauty and royalty. Beauty, Le Guin says, should be about how a person is and not a game controlled by some people who make fortunes from it; beauty is about body and mind.
There’s the ideal beauty of youth and health, which never really changes, and is always true. There’s the ideal beauty of movie stars and advertising models, the beauty-game ideal, which changes its rules all the time and from place to place, and is never entirely true. And there’s an ideal beauty that is harder to define or understand, because it occurs not just in the body but where the body and the spirit meet and define each other.
The last essays of the book are opinions on writing and on the process of speaking and listening. During their conversations people not only exchange information but develop relationships. The author emphasizes the importance of face-to-face conversations and declares that her model for intersubjectivity is amoebas having sex because during reproduction they divide themselves.
Two amoebas having sex, or two people talking, form a community of two. People are also able to form communities of many, through sending and receiving bits of ourselves and others back and forth continually — through, in other words, talking and listening. Talking and listening are ultimately the same thing.
As I have already mentioned before, but I feel like saying it again, the book is extremely inspiring and profound. Everything in it is relevant for our becoming and also pertinent and closely related to the today’s society.