July 19 2024

Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018): Author, Activist, Amateur Scholar of Religion

by Jonathan Herman

Ursula Le Guin speaks at a podium in 2013. Photo by Jack Liu.

When the beloved author Ursula Le Guin died earlier this year at the age of 88, print and online tributes rightly celebrated her legacy of wonderful fantasy and science-fiction literature, as well as her place as a feminist literary icon, her facility with both trenchant satire and gentle children’s fables, her incisive social and political commentary, her generous support for aspiring young authors, and her abundant personal magnetism. But they generally made little mention of much having to do with religion, beyond noting how Le Guin had proudly received the “Emperor Has No Clothes Award” from the Freedom from Religion Foundation a decade ago. “Let the tailors of the garments of God sit in their tailor shops and stitch away,” she declared at the award ceremony, “but let them stay there in their temples, out of government, out of the schools.”

And yet, for someone who preferred to keep religion at a distance, Le Guin consistently wove religious themes—especially those culled from the Daoist tradition—into her sci-fi reveries, nonfiction writings, and personal interviews, to the point that her more astute scholarly confidantes unapologetically characterized her as a “lifelong Daoist” or (somewhat whimsically) a “nonviolent Daoist anarchist.” What’s more, Le Guin would even take a brief turn as something of an amateur scholar of Chinese thought, during which time she honestly and self-critically addressed the ethics of religious appropriation. In short, Le Guin’s relationship with Daoism was a deep and fascinating one, and it is fitting to add to her many testimonials one offered through the lens of religious studies.

Daoist Beginnings

Le Guin first encountered Daoism as a young teenager—that is, sometime in the early 1940s, when Daoism was hardly the rage—through her father Alfred Kroeber, a respected cultural anthropologist and expert on the Yahi branch of the indigenous Yana people, a loosely affiliated network of hunter-gatherers who were devastated during the California Gold Rush and subsequent massacres. Neither Kroeber nor his wife, author Theodora Kroeber, was overtly religious, but he did read frequently from philosopher Paul Carus’s now-dated translation of the ancient Daoist text, Laozi’s Daodejing, and had requested that portions of it be read at his funeral. For Le Guin, the text was initially an exotic curiosity, though it clearly resonated with her alienation from traditional western religious sensibilities and openness to alternative sources of meaning. “Monotheism never made any sense to me at all. People who insist you can’t have religion or morality without belief in a god are talking about their problems, not mine. To me all the God stuff just gets in the way of real mystical feeling and real moral responsibility.” Consequently, Le Guin was drawn to the text and often returned to it, eventually seeking out different translations and secondary sources. “Daoism gave me a handle on how to look at life and how to lead it when I was an adolescent hunting for ways to make sense of the world without going off into the God business,” she reflected in 2013. This marked the beginning of Le Guin’s enduring involvement with Classical Daoism, mainly through the Daodejing and the eponymous Zhuangzi, the former’s sister-text from China’s Hundred Schools Period.  But while she would readily acknowledge the place of Daoism in the formation of her worldview and its influence on her fiction, Le Guin for most of her life remained cautious about claiming any “Daoist identity,” perhaps echoing the skepticism and self-effacement she recognized in the texts themselves. It was only a few years ago when she first stated categorically (albeit perhaps ironically) that she “became a Daoist” in her teens.

The Dao of Science Fiction

Arguably the one novel that most exemplifies Le Guin’s Daoist-themed fiction is The Lathe of Heaven (1971), a futuristic tale of a man whose unpredictable, and unwelcome, capacity to dream in a particularly vivid and “effective” way has the consequence of altering reality retroactively. The story follows a battle of wills, which plays out like a metaphorical clash between traditional Daoist and Confucian values. On one side, the novel’s protagonist, George Orr, finds it unconscionable to undo a history that has already occurred—“Who am I to meddle with the way things go?”—and wants only to be “cured” of his malady. On the other side, Orr’s opportunistic doctor seeks to harness his power in order (among other things) to remedy human suffering and injustice. While Orr loathes to interfere with the natural course of existence (echoing the Daoist virtue of “non-doing”), his doctor demands moral responsibility for enabling positive social change (standing in for a “misguided” Confucian sage). In accord with Le Guin’s Daoist logic, the latter’s attempts to rescue the world only injure it further. When he instructs his patient to dream of a world that no longer suffers from debilitating overpopulation, Orr effectively dreams of how a devastating plague had wiped out billions of people a generation earlier, people who (along with their erstwhile descendants) now no longer ever existed. When he demands a solution to racial disharmony, Orr dreams into being a world of monochromatic humans devoid of distinct ethnic or cultural identity. When he demands peace among nations, Orr dreams that countries on Earth reach an uneasy peace only in response to a violent threat from extraterrestrials. When he specifically directs Orr to dream that the invading aliens are no longer hovering on the Moon, his patient simply dreams the aliens onto the Earth. And so on. As Laozi points out, “For those who would like to take control of the world and act on it, I see that they simply will not succeed.” Or more succinctly, “those who would rule it ruin it, those who would control it lose it.”

Le Guin revisited the relationship between dream and reality in The Word for World Is Forest (1972), and the value of non-doing in The Dispossessed (1974). She also integrated other common Daoist themes into her works as well. In The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), she challenged conventional dualistic thinking through her portrayal of a race of genderless beings who temporarily take on either male or female sex characteristics at different times in their reproductive cycles. This idiosyncratic biology produced one of Le Guin’s most archly incongruous literary moments, when word spreads among the people that “the king was pregnant.” In what could be best described as a Daoist literary experiment (though Le Guin calls it an “archaeology of the future”), Always Coming Home (1985) envisions a race of people who live in harmony without striving for knowledge or seeking progress, who have a basic technology but seldom use it, and who know of people beyond their borders but have little motivation to wander beyond their own horizons. And to get back to Le Guin’s canonical roots, her characters in City of Illusions (1967) frequently quote something called the “Old Canon,” which incorporates spins on passages from the Daodejing.

The Left Hand of Laozi       

Well before the publication of City of Illusions, Le Guin had experimented with recasting translated portions of the Daodejing, aligning them with her own “intuitive and poetic understanding” of the text. Although she never learned to read literary Chinese, she nevertheless took painstaking steps to make her enterprise as scholastically honest as she could. She worked initially with the Carus translation, which “printed the Chinese text with each character followed by a transliteration and a translation,” and then compared and assessed the interpretive choices made by the most important twentieth century translators, including Arthur Waley, Witter Bynner, D. C. Lau, Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, and Robert Henricks. She also took note of differences between the received version of the text and those that were discovered in recent archaeological excavations. Eventually, with the assistance of J. P. “Sandy” Seaton, an established scholar of Chinese poetry, and motivated by “a lot of chutzpah,” Le Guin published a complete “version” of the text in 1997—she was explicit that it was not a “translation”—coupled with annotations explaining her decisions to gloss or jettison language that “goes against the spirit of the book.” In Le Guin’s hands, Laozi spoke in a voice that was unambiguously egalitarian, largely pacifistic and apolitical, and “mystical” in a somewhat perennialist vein, espousing Le Guin’s understanding that “mysticism rises from and returns to the irreducible, unsayable reality.” Along these lines, she was wholly comfortable paralleling Laozi with Emily Brontë, Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, among others.

Just as her version of the Daodejing was going to press, Le Guin accepted an invitation to speak at the 1998 Conference on Daoism and Ecology, which was one installment of the multi-year Religions of the World and Ecology series. She was initially reluctant to attend, noting that “though the topic is a fascinating one, I simply don’t have the intellectual equipment to participate usefully in a discussion of it, let alone give a talk among scholars.” Though Le Guin made no mention of it at the time, she may also have been aware that scholars of Chinese religion, especially those of Daoism, had historically been somewhat less than generous in their treatment of non-specialists who dared to co-opt materials in their charge. One Sinologist was on the record railing against “self-indulgent dilettantes who deceive the public by publishing pseudo-translations of the Daodejing” and those who produce “mindless fluff” like The Tao of Pooh.[1] Some years later, another would find nothing but “hubris” and “gimcrack integument” in these “ludicrous” and “disingenuous” undertakings. Nevertheless, Le Guin ultimately could not resist the opportunity to immerse herself in Daoist academia for a few days, and she and her husband Charles, a long-time history professor at Portland State University, attended almost every session and mixed easily with the various presenters. If there were any Sinological sharks in the conference waters, Le Guin largely disarmed any potential criticism, by acknowledging out front the challenge in being “passionately sympathetic” to the subject and “exceedingly conscious of possible transgression,” and seeking creative and responsible ways “to take without taking away.” Moreover, she voiced her respect for the very scholars who might be most likely to criticize her, those who had a justifiable and proprietary interest in protecting material from misuse or marginalization, while simultaneously offering some instructive advice:

Defensiveness against cheapening and trivializing Daoism thus seems to me an inevitable, essential part of your work as scholars; and yet, like the ecologist, the conservationist, you don’t have the luxury of being absolutely defensive. Compromise is also inevitable. People will use the river and the desert. Daoist texts are popular. The barbarians are inside the gates—here I am. I strongly support (you) in saying that if we unscholarly types whose historical knowledge is gappy, who confuse hermeneutics with heuristics, who don’t even know Chinese—if we amateurs are co-opting your texts, then perhaps your best move is to start co-opting ours. Use our efforts and our blunders, our naiveties and misunderstandings of Daoism, as signs, signals, guides to your own work: what most needs explaining, what keeps living and therefore changing in the tradition, what is translatable (in every sense of the word) and what is not. Not to declare war on foolishness and ignorance, but to use foolishness and ignorance as guides, seems quite in the spirit of Laozi.

In the end, the scholars seemed satisfied that Le Guin was more of an ally than a “cultural strip-miner.” The keynote speaker, Dutch Sinologist (and ordained Daoist priest) Kristofer Schipper noted at the time how moved he was by her presentation, while other participants discreetly asked her to autograph copies of her novels.

Dao Song

The papers from the Conference on Daoism and Ecology, including Le Guin’s remarks (which came at the conclusion of the multiday gathering) eventually gave rise to the important volume, Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape (Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School, 2001). As a coda to her presentation, Le Guin included the brief poem “Dao Song” (originally “Tao Song”) which she had penned more than two decades earlier for her Wild Angels collection. The poem provided a delicate complement to the scholastic rigor of the volume, and it now provides an appropriate and fond memorial to her. It is prefaced here by her own words, which did not appear in the Daoism and Ecology volume:

Finally, by way of thanks to Dr. Herman, to Dr. Seaton, and Dr. (Norman) Girardot, to our hosts here, and to you all, for these three days of hearing about the Way, learning about the Way, wandering onto the Way and off it, three very exciting days that I will carry west with me and ponder for months to come, I will end with a small poem I wrote many years ago.

O slow fish
show me the way
O green weed
grow me the way

The way you go
the way you grow
is the way

O bright Sun
light me the way
the right way
the one
no one can say

If one can choose it
it is wrong
Sing me the way
O song:

No one can lose it
for long

[1] Russell Kirkland, “Teaching Taoism in the 1990s,” Teaching Theology and Religion 1, no. 2 (1998): 113.

Jonathan Herman is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Georgia State University. Herman's scholarship focuses on theoretical and comparative issues in the study of religion, including such topics as the public discourse on religion in education and the media, the Western integration of Asian religious resources, and the historical development of mystical traditions. His recent publications include “Who Cares if the Qur’an is the Word of God? W. C. Smith’s Charge to the Aspiring Public Intellectual,” in Wilfred Cantwell Smith: The Scholar and His Legacy (SUNY Press, 2017); “The One Gave Birth to the Two: Revisiting Martin Buber’s Encounters with Chinese Religion,” in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion 85:2 (2017); “The Spiritual Illusion: Constructive Steps Toward Rectification and Redescription,” in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 26: 2 (2014); “A Picture Worth a Thousand Tears: How a Single Photograph Healed a Jewish Family,” in Harvard Divinity Bulletin 42:1 (Winter/Spring 2014); and Taoism for Dummies (Wiley, 2013).

Photo credit: Jack Liu