If you don’t understand Greek, please signify by nodding

April 13, 2011

ursula leguin

Ursula LeGuin is my hero. I tell my students this every semester. And each semester, they find themselves excited to read her yet come away telling me “she’s not the greatest writer ever or anything, Professor.” This semester, I directed one of my students who said this, a rather bright girl in every other respect, to this commencement address by Ursula LeGuin.

What she’s arguing for in it is the creation of a new world, essentially. One that does not fetishize ascension, the afterlife and the common languages of power. A world not powered by the gender binary. A world where we don’t look upwards into the light but into the dark earth. A world where we are comfortable with the darkness in our hearts because it is what nourishes us. What she’s arguing is the Feminist Manifesto. It’s the Manifesto of the Other.

I was raised in a community of mostly women until I was 11. Female doctors and nurses in a rural community, mostly, with their husbands away in the bigger cities. I did not realize until I was much older how brave they were, and are, to choose a life outside of the paradigm. There were many partings, tears, intrigue, all varieties of the human experience. I witnessed a woman giving birth when I was 6. I’ve always known where babies come from. My sister will agree that I raised her much more than my parents ever did. Her values are mine. I taught them to her even though they were not the values held by the people around us at the time. I’m extremely proud of her. Where does LeGuin fit into all this, you might wonder. You see, I gave up med school, a safe career path, money and a small measure of power to become a nobody, another musician/writer in the Big City. I find kinship with those women whose names I’ve mostly forgotten but whose memories I honor in some small way. Sometimes, when I find myself questioning my path, I read this to myself.

Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.

What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.

Well, we’re already foreigners. Women as women are largely excluded from, alien to, the self-declared male norms of this society, where human beings are called Man, the only respectable god is male, the only direction is up. So that’s their country; let’s explore our own. I’m not talking about sex; that’s a whole other universe, where every man and woman is on their own. I’m talking about society, the so-called man’s world of institutionalized competition, aggression, violence, authority, and power. If we want to live as women, some separatism is forced upon us: Mills College is a wise embodiment of that separatism. The war-games world wasn’t made by us or for us; we can’t even breathe the air there without masks. And if you put the mask on you’ll have a hard time getting it off. So how about going on doing things our own way, as to some extent you did here at Mills? Not for men and the male power hierarchy — that’s their game. Not against men, either — that’s still playing by their rules. But with any men who are with us: that’s our game. Why should a free woman with a college education either fight Machoman or serve him? Why should she live her life on his terms?

Machoman is afraid of our terms, which are not all rational, positive, competitive, etc. And so he has taught us to despise and deny them. In our society, women have lived, and have been despised for living, the whole side of life that includes and takes responsibility for helplessness, weakness, and illness, for the irrational and the irreparable, for all that is obscure, passive, uncontrolled, animal, unclean — the valley of the shadow, the deep, the depths of life. All that the Warrior denies and refuses is left to us and the men who share it with us and therefore, like us, can’t play doctor, only nurse, can’t be warriors, only civilians, can’t be chiefs, only indians. Well so that is our country. The night side of our country. If there is a day side to it, high sierras, prairies of bright grass, we only know pioneers’ tales about it, we haven’t got there yet. We’re never going to get there by imitating Machoman. We are only going to get there by going our own way, by living there, by living through the night in our own country.

So what I hope for you is that you live there not as prisoners, ashamed of being women, consenting captives of a psychopathic social system, but as natives. That you will be at home there, keep house there, be your own mistress, with a room of your own. That you will do your work there, whatever you’re good at, art or science or tech or running a company or sweeping under the beds, and when they tell you that it’s second-class work because a woman is doing it, I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they’re going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing — instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.

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