Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chapter of miscommunication

I just finished reading chapter three on Ursula K. leGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness.


It seems to me that this chapter might be accurately called The Chapter of Miscommunication. All the bold in the quotes is my own doing, to draw attention to important points.

1) Genly is trying to explain to the king, Argaven, about the Ekumen. (The Ekumen exists to aid communication, trade, and and whatnot between the various planets. Genly hopes to convince Argaven to make his country a part of the Ekumen.) Unfortunately Argaven is trying to play a prestige game with Genly, and as Genly explains in the novel "That I was not dueling with Argaven, but trying to communicate with him, was itself an incommunicable fact" (34). Ouch. The game is lost before it's begun.

2) Argaven asks why his country should join the Ekumen and Genly tells him "Material profit. Increase of knowledge. The augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life. The enrichment of harmony and the greater glory of God. Curiosity. Adventure. Delight" (34). That sounds like reason enough, right?

Unfortunately... "I was not speaking the tongue spoken by those who rule men, the kings, conquerors, dictators, generals; in that language there was no answer to his question" (34). In other words, the answer Genly gave is completely meaningless to Argaven. Genly may as well have been speaking gibberish. And to top it off, there is no way to really answer Argaven's question.

3) Genly assures Argaven that the distance between him and the other worlds in Ekumen is so great that "forays" would not happen. But, as Genly explains to the reader, "I did not speak of war, for a good reason; there's no word for it in Karhidish" (35). Although this is not a problem in his immediate circumstances, this inability to communicate is not insignificant.

As we know from other of le Guin's books -- I'm thinking of Rocannon's World, and I think the possibility is mentioned in City of Illusion and The Dispossessed -- there will be war between the different planets, despite the great distances. It's not the same as war between different countries on the same planet because of the distances involved, but it can be just as horrific.

By rights, the fact that they expect a war will come (or wait, has it already happened by the time this book takes place...? I know chronologically this book is after The Dispossessed but I can't remember if it's before or after Rocannon's World, which is where the war begins...) is something that Genly ought to explain to Argaven.

Note to self: figure out chronological order of all these books!!

And yet, how do you explain something that there is no word for, something which would be like trying to explain fire to a fish?

So yeah, I think this counts as a major miscommunication, perhaps the biggest in this chapter.

4) Argaven sums up the problem nicely when he says "I don't speak Voidish" (38). Of course, the language of the "void" (outer space) is not actually called Voidish, further proving the point.

5) Genly tries to flatter Argaven into using the ansible. (The ansible is like a radio, expect it enables instantaneous communication between different worlds, no matter how far apart they are.) In trying to flatter Argaven, Genly says "You're a sovereign, my lord. Your peers on the Prime World of the Ekumen wait for a word from you" (38). This turns out to be a mistake, as Genly quickly realizes: "In trying to flatter and interest him I had cornered him into a prestige-trap" (38). Genly doesn't properly understand the rules of the prestige games that are played by Argaven and his people, and this leads to all sorts of trouble, such as this.

6) Genly doesn't succeed in convincing Argaven to make his country part of the Ekumen, and afterwards he reflects on everything Estraven has said to him: "He had been saying, however indirectly, that I should get away from the city and court" (42). Yes, but that's not the whole of it. Estraven wants Genly to go to another country with his message from the Ekumen. This is something which Genly fails to understand because just like Argaven doesn't speak "Voidish," Genly doesn't really understand the language of the people on this planet. Sure, he knows their words, but often their meaning escapes him, and he doesn't even know it. As we see later in the book.

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