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The Clueless Eater

View of an ancient fountain in a courtyard in Pompeii.
Courtyard in Pompeii.

Balance and Ursula K. Le Guin


You might think "The Clueless Eater" is a strange place to talk about Ursula K. Le Guin, but I studied with Ursula, who passed away this week at the age of eighty-eight, and her work is broad enough to encompass the ideas explored here over the years. Truthfully, any writer who read her work or paid any attention to her craft has been strongly influenced by her, not only for the care with which she approached the written word, but her care for other writers.


The New Yorker recently published an article by Siddhartha Mukherjee about the decline of his father in old age. He used the term "homeostasis," wherein the body is able to maintain a stable internal environment, even when faced with changing external conditions. As his father's body began to fail, it lost this ability, and his father began falling down.


I was not that close to Ursula – there are many writers who kept up lively correspondences with her – but I do have one story that only writer Molly Gloss witnessed.


One year, we were all teaching at the Flight of the Mind Writers Conference, held somewhere on the wild McKenzie River. It was a lovely conference, and I am still in touch with a number of writers who attended. However, I was trying to meet a deadline for my third novel, and suffered from lack of sleep. In this fog, walking back to our cabins in the dark one night, I began to disparage sheep as unintelligent. I might even have used the word "stupid," because I had once considered keeping sheep for wool when we lived in a small town in Western Colorado. But I had read a book on sheep husbandry and convinced myself that they required too much attention or they would drown in a ditch.


After considering my case, Ursula and Molly slowly began to refute me as too harsh on the poor animals. Finally, Ursula stopped and fixed me with her steady brown gaze and said, "I'll speak for the sheep."


And this about sums up Ursula's relationship with the world. Ever ready to speak up for the maligned, the weak, the seemingly lesser creature, she was not going to let me go to bed thinking I was superior to a sheep. To her, we all held our ground in creation, each a necessary part of the whole.


To that end, I've noticed that the recent accolades mostly discuss Ursula's early books. If you have not read it, may I recommend her last novel. Lavinia is a 2008 Locus Award-winner, although it hardly qualifies as science fiction. It relates the life of a minor character in Virgil's epic poem, the Aeneid. The daughter of the local leader, she watches as the invaders debark from their ships and burn them to the waterline. Lavinia is married off to the leader, Aeneid, to keep the peace. In the original, Lavinia doesn't speak, but in Ursula's re-imagining of the founding of Rome, Lavinia, as a ghostly spirit, lives one more time in the imaginings of a good man.


This is such a complicated point of view, I can only call it an intimate third person. Ursula invented it to produce one of her greatest novels. Lavinia is that peace-maker, the one who, by giving credit to others, using their voices, maintains the equilibrium of a healthy body, a small community that gives birth to the civilization of Rome.


 If Ursula had any religious inclinations, it was this: That the universe is of a whole, and we must constantly strive to maintain a balance within it, like the homeostasis of Mukherjee's article. We are active participants in this balance, and need to be ever compassionate, ever vigilant, making sure that even the softest voice can be heard.