By | Par Jasmine Parsons, Yumeng Wang & Yonger Xie
ImaginAtlas is, in many ways, a place where difference meets: students from various backgrounds are invited to write about the literature that captures their imagination in both French and English. The Dispossessed is thus perfectly suited for discussion in this magazine. Published by the renowned author Ursula K. Le Guin in 1974, The Dispossessed is a story about ideological clashes, the struggle of coexistence, and what it means to live in a society. In the spirit of this idea of difference, we decided to read this book and write the article in both French and English. The following is our discussion concerning the novel.
Jasmine: It is a hard feat to write science fiction that remains relevant and powerful decades after being published. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin manages this feat beautifully through its subtle exploration of the nature of human society. After all, the meaning of freedom within a society is a question at the core of The Dispossessed, and I think this is particularly topical right now. We’ve heard the word “freedom” being thrown around by American politicians so often that the word has become almost meaningless. But I still think it’s very important to explore why freedom is such an important concept for so many people and why it has come to be so closely associated with developed, capitalist societies, while communism and socialism are associated with repression. Ursula K. Le Guin explores these associations by imagining two societies separated by outer space rather than by borders, thereby bringing local political debates that we all know well to a planetary scale. Urras, a large prosperous planet, showcases a typical hyper-capitalist society in which wealth and hierarchy are omnipresent. Anarres, a small desolate moon orbiting Urras, is populated by the descendents of revolutionary cult who followed the teachings of Odo, an anarchist philosopher. Following a revolt on Urras, the original Odonians went into self-exile on Anarres in order to build their own society from the ground up according to their ideals. The Dispossessed revolves around the story of Shevek, a physicist from Anarres who travels to Urras in order to bridge the ideological gap between the two worlds. Both of the societies that Shevek observes claim to hold the key to real freedom. Yumeng, who do you think has more freedom?
Yumeng: Sur Urras, c’est l’argent qui limite les choix : les Urrassiens peuvent faire tout ce qu’ils veulent s’ils ont l’argent nécessaire, et cela leur donne certainement une forme de liberté. Cependant, sur Anarres, seules les coutumes de la société créent des limites à leur liberté : Anarres ne possède pas de gouvernement, et ainsi pas de lois. Cela fait en sorte que chacun a la liberté de vivre exactement comme il le veut, sans restrictions légales ou physiques. Toutefois, le système social d’Anarres est entièrement centré sur la communauté, et non sur l’individu. Donc, une grande valeur est placée sur l’approbation de la communauté. Par exemple, même si chacun peut cesser de travailler n’importe quand sans aucune conséquence tangible, le désir de faire partie d’une communauté est si fort que très peu exercent cette liberté. En somme, il est facile de présumer que la population d’Anarres a d’avantage de liberté, parce que les restrictions de la communauté semblent moins concrètes que les restrictions dues à l’argent ou aux lois. Néanmoins, je pense que la liberté sur Anarres n’est pas aussi concrète que ce qu’on peut croire à première vue, et il faut prendre en compte que ces normes sociales peuvent devenir oppressives.
Yonger: Exactly. On Anarres, even if there are technically no laws, the societal expectations are so strong, and have been so deeply internalized, that very few of those who dwell on Anarres actually exercise their rights to difference even if they technically have the freedom to do so. On Urras, the wealthy elite have complete freedom to accumulate all the wealth they want. It is also obvious that the lower classes have much less freedom. They are not technically slaves, but their survival and livelihood depends entirely on their capital. In order to meet their basic needs, many are forced to work strenuous low-paying jobs; whereas, on Anarres you are guaranteed two meals a day and a place to sleep no matter who you are. Thus on Urras the freedom is clearly stratified. Also, I would disagree with Yumeng on the idea that, on Urras, you are completely free once you accumulate enough capital. Even if one is the wealthiest individual on the planet, there is always a risk of losing that wealth and thus, one’s freedom. This persistent possibility of losing whatever freedom you may have is at the heart of this hyper-capitalist system. Rather than an innate right, freedom is thought of almost as a commodity that can be obtained, lost, and traded like stock. Thus, even the elite becomes a part of this cutthroat system, and no one is truly free.
Jasmine: If I were to ask you, on which planet would you like to live? What would you choose?
Yumeng: C’est difficile de répondre à cette question, parce que les choix sont situés à deux pôles opposés. Sur Anarres, l’égalité vient avant tout, et c’est une idéologie incrustée dans la mentalité de la société. Les libertés individuelles sont laissées de côté pour le bien de la communauté. Cependant, c’est totalement l’inverse sur Urras. L’individualisme triomphe sur tout. Je pense que la façon dont les gens sur Urras traitent les gens est inacceptable, donc si je devais choisir, ce serait de vivre sur Anarres, parce qu’il y a plus de respect pour la condition de chacun.
Yonger: It’s a very difficult question. While there is certainly greater equality on Anarres, their society sometimes appears stagnant and unmoving. There is a refusal to acknowledge the societal problems on Anarres since people like Shevek who fight for change and improvement in the system are said to be going against the Odonian ideals upon which Anarres was founded. In other words, the status quo is highly valued on Anarres. On the other hand, Urras seems to be more dynamic and changeable, although of course these moments of change come with considerable violence, as seen in the mass protest toward the end of the book. This being said, just on a personal level, I’m at my happiest when I’m able to simply relax and connect with those around me. There is definitely an emphasis today on competition and constant improvement in our educational system. Even our R-Scores improve when others in our class decline and lower the average, making our own success into a zero-sum game. I’ve grown up with this way of thinking my whole life, and, to be honest, it stresses me out. When I was reading The Dispossessed, I found myself wishing I could join the society on Anarres, where one can just live without the constant fear of failure. So, all in all, I’d still prefer to live on Anarres, despite its flaws, since I’d probably be able to achieve greater personal happiness and fulfillment there.
While reading, I also thought that the different languages used on the two planets are very interesting. I found it intriguing that the societies’ ideologies fit into their respective languages. For example, Shevek’s language “Pravic” doesn’t have words to denote ownership, thus we can say that Pravic, as a language, does not contain the means to express the idea of private property. So the structure of the language itself both reflects and constructs the ideology of its speakers. In other words, the people of Anarres seem incapable of comprehending the capitalistic concepts on Urras because they literally don’t have the language for those concepts.
Yumeng: Comprendre un concept nécessite une définition. Les Annariens n’ont pas de mots associés à ces idéologies. Même s’ils sont capables de lire la traduction d’iotique, la langue sur Urras, ils ne sont pas capables de comprendre. Le langage a des limites pour ce qu’il peut exprimer.
Jasmine: I think Le Guin might be making a much more subtle argument in The Dispossessed. While speakers of Pravic do not have the words to express concepts such as power, ownership, and wealth, these ideas still infiltrate themselves into Anarassian society many times throughout the novel. Though they have no word for “corruption”, there are characters that are corrupt. Though they have no word for “envy”, and no concept of private property, there are characters that are envious. Even if the people of Anarres cannot express these concepts as easily as those on Urras, this does not mean that these natural human tendencies disappear entirely. In fact, the central conflict of the story comes from Shevek’s view that Anarres has begun to shed its Odonian ideals in favor of a burgeoning, powerful central State. He believes that the human tendency towards the accumulation of power must be directly fought so that Anarres does not start becoming like Urras. While Shevek might not have the best toolkit to express it, he simply knows that power is gathering, little by little, in certain individuals. While of course the structure of a language can influence the ideologies of its speakers, it is important to remember that no amount of linguistic manipulation can change human nature itself. There are fundamental ideas about freedom, society, and truth that are innate within us.
Yumeng: Certainement, affirmer que nous pouvons totalement contrôler la nature humaine à l’aide du langage est réductionniste. Pour quelque raison que ce soit, il y aura toujours des gens qui sortiront des limites que leur société impose. Shevek en est un exemple, bien sûr, mais cette idée me fait aussi penser à Winston Smith, le protagoniste de 1984. Malgré la censure extrême dans la société de Smith, il est quand même attiré vers l’idée fondamentale de la vérité objective, même s’il n’a pas le langage adéquat pour exprimer cette idée. Il est intéressant de voir comment certains thèmes se répètent dans les littératures de l’imaginaire au cours des années, de 1984, publié en 1949, jusqu’à Les Dépossédés, publié en 1974. Je crois que Les Dépossédés présente des thèmes qui sont encore très pertinents aujourd’hui.
Jasmine: Yes, definitely, some of the questions asked in the book 40 years ago have become even more urgent today, as issues around the use of language and how to coexist with others of different backgrounds and faiths are causing bloodshed around the world from New Zealand to Pittsburgh.
Yonger: It’s inspiring that Ursula K. Le Guin showed us different societal structures and emphasized that there is more than one way to coexist with others. What’s great about science fiction is that it gives authors the freedom to explore ideas that are really important to our everyday life. As a genre, science fiction allows for alternatives modes of living to be expressed in all their complexity. Inhabiting these fantastical future worlds through reading books like The Dispossessed helps us break free of our present assumptions that the societies we live in are somehow “natural.” Those of us living in relatively successful capitalist societies think we are freer now than we have ever been before, but it can be argued that we are in fact just trapped in our own framework of neoliberalism, not able to properly imagine alternatives to an economic system that has become so dominant. Science fiction helps us see how these assumptions are constructed, and provides the groundwork to imagine alternative ways of organizing our societies in the present day. Anarchism, for example, is a political ideology that seems very radical and destructive to most of us. However, in The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin opens the readers’ minds to this school of thought, and, without endorsing anarchism directly, allows them to view their own capitalist societies in a new, critical light. As Ursula K. Le Guin put so eloquently, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”
Révision : Daphnée Lopresti