Sunday, September 14, 2014

Solitude for the soul ever-making

"I like songs about drifters, books about the same
They both seem to make me feel a little less insane.
Walked on off to another spot;
I still haven't gotten anywhere that I want."
Modest Mouse - The World at Large

I've had a devil of a time finding song lyrics to append to my comments on Ursula K. Le Guin's Solitude. Not that I lack musical references to isolation and alienation (far from it, as I'm an old NIN/Marilyn Manson/Garbage fan) but their focus on self-condemning internalized societal expectations of social behavior renders most songs about solitude unfit to play soundtrack to Solitude. In fashioning what she called "a planet full of introverts" Le Guin reversed the expectation of codependence which predominates human interpersonal relations. Here is a world in which it is nearly unthinkable to plead or give direct advice, in which all are taught from an early age to see our many attempts to gain mental influence over another being as despicably unethical, as sorcery.

The story's title is not loneliness, but solitude. Solitude is not a lack. Introversion is not a disease or deficiency. Solitude is privacy and though social interactions may serve as observational fodder, private thought is the true vehicle for personal growth. Eleven-Soro is populated not by faceless masses of people but by individual persons. Given that it drops such philosophical distinctions on you with the casual ease of internal monologue, ignoring how alien they must seem to most, err... people... it's not surprising that Solitude is not one of Le Guin's more famous works. It has the feel of an offhand exercise, a by-the-by niche product hovering somewhere along the edges of the Hainish universe, an illustration of the sort of individualistic anarchism excluded by the political situation of The Dispossessed.

The bulk of the story is devoted to the question of breeding and child-rearing in a society which denies its tribal apes a tribal structure. Here unfortunately the author's chauvinist streak crops up as in other works, with males being seen as a destructive element necessarily kept at a distance and tolerated only for rare reproductive purposes. Society, such as it is, is female. However, it comes across as no more annoying than, for instance, Robert Heinlein's comically one-dimensional female characters - alien creatures with perplexing motivations. Paradoxically, while Sorovian men are little more than hapless, rabid, overgrown chimps, the book's female characters end up encompassing attitudes quite easily recognizable as stereotypically male. Women being generally more social than men by default, the shift of the entire spectrum of interaction away from sociability puts them in an awkward position normally reserved only for the male nerd archetype of sitcoms.

But male or female, Solitude's target audience of introverts will likely find in the narrator's life a cathartic illustration of the difficulty and necessity for personal growth unrestricted by others' attempts at mental control, of "making a soul" as the locals put it. Whatever the author's intent, this did not come together as a story of males and females but of individuals. Individuality being such a taboo in human society, Solitude stands as a welcome reminder that despite societal condemnation of privacy, your life as yourself, the soul you make, is existence.

"I'm kicking it off like a bug in the breeze
'Cause is anyone out there inside me?"
Heather Nova - Virus of the Mind

"And she says I've come to set a twisted thing straight
And she says I've come to lighten this dark heart"
Suzanne Vega - Solitude Standing

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