M. Keith Booker
April 17, 2007
The Quest for Utopian Community:
A Marxist Approach to LeGuin’s The Dispossessed
A group of anarchists carves out an existence on the moon, understanding themselves as a social organism, a community, an entity that must strive together to survive or fall into ruin. They came from an individually-driven, capitalistic nation where class distinctions are strong, where both the extremely wealthy and extremely poor exist side by side, the rich exploiting those beneath them. In her novel The Dispossessed, Ursula LeGuin sets up two distinct societies: Anarres the world of the socialist anarchists and A-Io the capitalistic nation on the planet Urras. However, LeGuin has no interest in pitting a perfect utopian society against its flawed counterpart; instead, she presents two worlds, each with its problems, and she strives to show us a vision for community and a pursuit of Utopia.
The utopian impulse lies at the heart of Marxism. Fredric Jameson’s critique of postmodernism is in part based on the observation that postmodernism is not concerned with a pursuit of utopia; in many ways, it denies that such a quest is possible and accepts the futility of any attempt to seek it. Postmodernism, in fact, seeks to declare an end to such an ideology along with the political ideology of Marxism. However, the sixties saw a revival of utopianism that the fifties had tried to eliminate and postmodernism would later attempt to deny. Jameson comments: “If one inserts the sixties into this historical narrative, everything changes: ‘Marcuse’ virtually becomes the name for a whole explosive renewal of Utopian thinking and imagination, and for a rebirth of the older narrative form” (160). Jameson praises The Dispossessed as “the richest literary reinvention of the genre”, and LeGuin intends the novel not as a dystopia like 1984 or Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale but as a work that comments on the meaning of seeking Utopia. The Dispossessed is subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia” because none of the societies presented within the novel are the ultimate fulfillment of the utopian vision, yet that vision is one that drives LeGuin’s novel.
To follow Jameson’s Marxist mandate “Always historicize!”, our first stop in getting at LeGuin’s work is to situate it in the period in which it originated. The Dispossessed was published in 1974, within the rich period of literary theory and a period that saw the birth of the feminist movement, political shifts in power, a growing discontentment with capitalistic/consumerist culture, the rise of environmental concerns, and the emergence of several new aesthetics, including science fiction. Indeed, A-Io on Urras functions as a projection of the
By looking at the novel historically and politically, we gain access to LeGuin’s pursuit of both community and Utopia. As Jameson discusses in his work Postmodernism, the social and political forces of the sixties led to the reemergence of utopian concerns in literature and art. For LeGuin, the utopianism within The Dispossessed centers on an idea of community which affects Shevek’s theories in temporal physics and is present in the structure of the novel itself. In the first chapter when Shevek departs Anarres for the world he grew up believing ran counter to everything he was, his feeling is that of isolation:
He was clearly aware of only one thing, his own total isolation. The world had fallen out from under him, and he was left alone…He had always feared that this would happen, more than he had ever feared death. To die is to lose the self and rejoin the rest. He had kept himself, and lost the rest. (6)
Shevek’s removal from his community invokes a deep fear; death is preferable to the isolation he now feels because individuals of Anarres are keenly aware of their reliance on their society and their need to belong.
Community manifests itself in many ways in The Dispossessed the first of which is in the societal structure of Anarres. The inhabitants of Anarres are anarchists and thus without government, but not without a social order. Odo’s plan was to decentralize their society, not de-urbanize it: “She intended that all communities be connected by communication and transportation networks, so that goods and ideas would get where they wanted, and the administration of things might work with speed and ease, and no community should be cut off from change and interchange” (95). Their planet is not an easy one to live on, and without cooperation from the entire Anarresti community, their society could not survive the harsh conditions. Their work is connected to the community—what they do, how they do it, and where their talents lie are contributions to society. The connection between the makers and their products is strong—thus, Shevek is confused when he visits the Urrasti equivalent of a mall:
And the strangest thing about the nightmare street was that none of the millions of things for sale were made there. They were only sold there. Where were the workshops, the factories, where were the farmers, the craftsmen, the miners, the weavers, the chemists, the carvers, the dyers, and the designers, the machinists, where were the hands, the people who made? Out of sight, somewhere else. Behind walls. All the people in all the shops were either buyers or sellers. They had no relation to the things but that of possession. (132)
The connection between maker and product is part of what keeps the Anarres society communal; they do not experience reification and isolation from one another that Althusser describes is the result of industrial specialization when a worker has no connection with her work (Booker #). Shevek also has difficulty understanding the capitalistic society of Urras: “[I]n the rites of the money-changers, where greed, laziness, and envy were assumed to move all men’s acts, even the terrible became banal. Shevek looked at this monstrous pettiness with contempt, and without interest. He did not admit, he could not admit, that in fact it frightened him” (131). Much of his confusion and distress emerges because the function of labor and production on Anarres are forces of the community and of the social organism, while on Urras they fracture, reify, and separate the community.
The Anarresti community also does not consider basic distinctions between individuals as affecting their societal function. One does the work they are best suited to do, regardless of gender or age. The scientists on Urras are confused when Shevek inquires about female scientists—on Anarres, about half the scientists are women as they are about half of the population; however, the Urrasti believe that women “can’t do the math; no head for abstract thought; don’t belong. You know how it is, what women call thinking is done with the uterus! Of course, there’s always a few exceptions, God-awful brainy women with vaginal atrophy” (73). For the men of Urras, an intelligent woman is one who is not a true woman, a woman who does not have access to femininity or feminine sexuality because she thinks. One scientist, Pae, admits that perhaps women would make good lab technicians, to “free men for original work much sooner”, though Oiie comments, “Not in my lab, you won’t…keep ‘em in their place” (74). Shevek realizes
that he had touched in these men an impersonal animosity that went very deep. Apparently they, like the tables on the ship, contained a woman, a suppressed, silenced, bestialized woman, a fury in a cage. He had no right to tease them. They knew no relation but possession. They were possessed. (74-5)
The loss of community on Urras occurs when women are not allowed to participate or to have meaningful relationships—they are merely possessed.
When he is invited to Oiie’s home on Urras, he realizes that he was cut off from a part of himself by being isolated from both women and children: “It was so good to be talking with a woman again! No wonder he had felt his existence to be cut off, artificial, among men, always men, lacking the tension and attraction of the sexual difference” (146). He sees, however, that an Anarres-type community exists on a small scale in his colleague’s home: “Oiie was fond of his wife and trusted her. He behaved to her and to his children very much as an Anaresti might. In fact, at home, he suddenly appeared as a simple, brotherly kind of man, a free man” (147). On Anarres, that community that is confined to the home on Urras is extended throughout the Anarresti society.
Another community present within the novel is the community of the individual—one’s relationships with others. As we saw from the example of Oiie’s relationship with his wife in his home, it’s closely tied to the societal community but localized within the individual. Shevek comes to understand the importance of connecting the individual community to the social structure, a connection that is often lost on Urras. For an Anarresti, cultivating individual relationships is just as important as contributing one’s talents to the functioning of the social organism. Shevek grows to adulthood believing himself to be an isolated individual: “I haven’t really ever known anybody. You see how I didn’t understand you. I’m cut off. Can’t get in. Never will. It would be silly for me thinking about a partnership. That sort of thing is for…for human beings…” (50). Community did not come easily to him, as it did his father and most others (106).
When he goes to Abbenay to study physics and work under Sabul, he is given a private room and begins to isolate himself. Only when he becomes severely ill from overwork and lack of sleep does he realize that he needs other people: “His illness had made him realize that if he tried to go on alone he would break down altogether” (155). He makes friends, re-enters society, and by cultivating the individual community, he begins to understand the connection between his work and his personal relationships. He also comes to realize that a partnership, a bond deeper than friendships, is something he needs to be fulfilled and whole, (179). He forms that bond with Takver; he is no longer isolated, and their partnership becomes central to their friends: “…they sought to share in what Shevek and Takver shared, and to celebrate, and to praise” (189). For Shevek to be able to participate in society as a functioning individual, he needed to cultivate his personal relationships.
The Dispossessed also reflects community in other ways. LeGuin consciously writes about ideas of time: Shevek’s goal is to create a unified theory of time that explains the relationships of past, present, and future. It is his physics work that leads to the creation of the ansible, which will eventually allow an interstellar community to develop and flourish because they can communicate instantaneously. In a sense, what Shevek seeks to accomplish is the formulation of a community of time, where past and present and future are unified. This corresponds on certain points with the Marxist historicist perspective of history; Jameson describes the historicist perspective as one “in which our readings of the past are vitally dependent on our experience of the present” (11). Shevek comes to Urras with the intention to learn, saying, “You are our history. We are perhaps your future” (75). When Takver describes her perceptions of time as simply being a road laid out that one traveled, Shevek takes her metaphor and explains “unless past and the future were made part of the present by memory and intention, there was, in human terms, no road, nowhere to go” (183-4).
In fact, the novel’s structure conveys a community of past and present; they interact dialectically to give the reader the whole narrative. The Dispossessed begins with Shevek’s departure from Anarres and arrival in A-Io on Urras. Each subsequent chapter alternates between his past on Anarres from the time he was a baby and his present narrative on Urras. Some readers find the structure jarring; it is not clear until several chapters in precisely what LeGuin is attempting to accomplish with her structure, and ideas that are introduced early in the novel are not developed until much later. Incidentally, the novel invites multiple readings; only after a second time through does the reader understand certain clues that LeGuin places early in the text but are not fully revealed until much later chapters, such as Shevek’s reasons for leaving Anarres and his relationship with Takver. By the end of the novel, the structure effectively conveys a whole narrative, past and present mingling to form The Dispossessed. Tellingly, Shevek is planning to go to Urras in the second to last chapter, and in the final chapter, he is returning home, his journey complete, and both he and the reader changed.
Shevek’s sense of time and the formulation of a community of time has a point: LeGuin uses it, along with all the other senses of community including the narrative structure, to impart her utopian vision. Shevek says, “To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly” (225). The connection of Shevek’s theory of time to acting responsibly, to the ability to hope for a better future returns again at the end of the novel in Shevek’s discussion with the Terran ambassador, Keng, who describes how Earth has become barely habitable and how they have no hope of achieving a society like Anarres. Shevek responds:
You don’t understand what time is…You say the past is gone, the future is not real, there is no change, no hope. You think Anarres is a future that cannot be reached, as your present cannot be changed. So there is nothing but the present, this Urras, the rich, real, stable present, the moment now. And you think that is something which can be possessed…You cannot have anything…And least of all can you have the present, unless you accept with it the past and the future. Not only the past but also the future, not only the future but also the past! Because they are real: only their reality makes the present real. (349)
Keng can only respond: “I don’t understand…You are like somebody from our own past, the old idealists, the visionaries of freedom; and yet I don’t understand you, as if you were trying to tell me of future things; and yet, as you say, you are here, now!” (350).
LeGuin’s sense of utopia is not clearly defined, but the novel is “An Ambiguous Utopia”. Her interest is not in giving her readers a utopian vision where the “root of all evil” (in Jameson’s terms) has been eliminated from the world; instead, she seeks to form a dialectic between the two distinct societies of Anarres and Urras, a dialectic that is reflected in the structure of the novel. Anarres, while having solved many of the problems that living in a capitalistic society created, is not without its own faults. Urras, while still struggling with class problems and divisions because of their elitism, is not without its strengths. There is no root of all evil to be eradicated to form the ultimate utopia; there is no underlying human nature to cause problems. Jameson, in his essay “The Politics of Utopia” comments that for Marx, there was no essential human nature: “If there have been not just one human nature but a whole series of them, this is because so-called human nature is historical: every society constructs his own” (37).
So each society in The Dispossessed has its own nature, but they are linked because they share a common past. They form a dialectic: Anarres may have solved the problem of creating a society that can function harmoniously, but they do not know how to deal with the individual, if the an individual’s function appears to run counter to the rest of society. Shevek dealt with societal censure at many points in his life, yet his theories were vital for the formation of the interstellar community with the invention of the ansible. Urras, however, has conditions where the individual can flourish, and Shevek is able to finish his theory on Urras where he could not on Anarres. Shevek learns from his journey to Urras, and he begins to tear down walls that are holding Anarres and Urras back from achieving a better society.
LeGuin’s intention is to demonstrate that Utopia is not something a society achieves, it’s something that a society (and individuals within that society) pursue. Jameson paraphrases Brecht and says, “…since human nature is historical rather than natural, produced by human beings rather than innately inscribed in the genes or DNA, it follows that human beings can change it; that it is not a doom or destiny but rather the result of human praxis” (37). Utopia, if it ignores the needs and functions of the individual, cannot be fully realized even if inequality and the private ownership of the means of production are eliminated as the Marxist vision of utopia would indicate. LeGuin’s focus on community would suggest that Anarres needs to form a community with the world outside of themselves and reconcile the needs of the individual with the needs of the community, to do what Shevek seeks to accomplish and tear down walls.
LeGuin’s utopia is then truly ambiguous because she seems to suggest that though we, as the human species and human societies, may never actually achieve Utopia, we must try. And though a society may never achieve the utopian vision, to give up is to give up hope, and that is far worse than failing at the attempt. Her vision seeks to give her contemporary readers hope that we can strive to solve our problems, to find a way out of the mire of consumerism and capitalism that is leading our society to destruction; to form a dialectic with our present and our possible futures and seek to achieve a utopian community.