Thursday, July 14, 2011

Shifgrethor -- Therem

This post concerns Ursula K. le Guin’s book The Left Hand of Darkness.


I really don’t recommend continuing here unless you’ve read the book.

I’m interested in shifgrethor, and in this post I’ll look at all the references (or I think it’s all of the references…) to it from Therem’s point of view. I’m separating his comments/references to and about shifgrethor from Genly’s because Genly is coming to it from an outsider’s perspective, whereas it is all that Therem has ever known.

Of course, the difficult thing is that Therem never explains it…but that’s also the fun bit. :)

“I waive shifgrethor” (84).

This is said by Yegey to Therem, and it shows that even though shifgrethor is something to be taken very seriously it is also something that can be discarded if doing so is deemed appropriate or convenient.

“I waive shifgrethor; I discard it” (86).

Obsle, just minutes after Yegey, decides to abandon shifgrethor. This emphasizes the previous point.

Why did they decide to discard it? I’ll have to examine that another time, once I’ve written this and other posts about it, and (hopefully) have a better understanding of it.

(Yes, I’ve read this book numerous times, and I think I know what shifgrethor is, but at the same time I suspect that I don’t really properly understand it! lol)

“To stake shifgrethor on any lesser chance is a fool’s doing, now” (88).

Part of the same conversation as the above comments.

Whatever shifgrethor is (and that still has not been established in this post) it is being staked on something HUGE, and, according to Therem, to stake shifgrethor (whatever that is) on anything less would be a really bad idea.

…and this comes after the other two in the conversation have waived shifgrethor. Hmm.

The following is unrelated to the above conversation. More or less.

“They make their invitation, they make it publically; then where is their shifgrethor, when no Star Ship comes?” (150)

Basically, they would be humiliated and made fools of if no ship came. The implication here is that their shifgrethor would be hurt. (Which of course it wouldn’t be because the ship would come…but do they properly believe that? No.)

“I am not sure he understood he was insulted; he seemed to accept my advice despite the manner of its giving . . . Is it possible that all along in Erhenrang he was seeking my advice, not knowing how to tell me that he sought it? If so, then he must have misunderstood half and not understood the rest of what I told him by my fireside in the Palace, the night after the Ceremony of the Keystone. His shifgrethor must have been founded, and composed, and sustained, altogether differently from ours; and when I thought myself most blunt and frank with him he may have found me most subtle and unclear” (151).

To offer advice (except for when shifgrethor is waived) is a big no-no. By this point in the book that has already been made clear, and from this passage it is shown that to offer advice is to (unless I’m misreading it) insult, or maybe even injure, the shifgrethor of the person who the advice is given to.

Here Therem finally realizes that Genly is even more alien than he had understood before – no matter that he is from another planet, shouldn’t they have shifgrethor there? As it turns out, no. This is a surprise to Therem.

In order to respect Genly’s shifgrethor he had made statements that were unclear and confusing to Genly. For example, “…I suppose you’ll be leaving Ehrenrang—” (20) Somewhere in the conversation leading up to this comment Therem has, he thinks, made it clear that he thinks Genly should leave Karhide and take his message to the neighboring country. Yet Genly is (as we know, since this part is told from his perspective) confused and wonders why Therem would suppose that he would be leaving any time soon.

“We must halt this rivalry with Karhide before the New Men come . . . We must cleanse our spirits for their coming. We must forego shifgrethor, forbid all acts of vengeance, and unite together without envy as brothers of one Hearth” (152-3).

Slose thinks that Genly is their Savior (to use Christian terms, which I think are and are not relevant here) and that their own version of the Rapture is close at hand.

So…they need to “cleanse” their “spirits.” Apparently this means discarding shifgrethor…which is probably more a statement about his being Yomesh than about shifgrethor.

How would he go about removing shifgrethor? That’s the more relevant point here.

To remove shifgrethor he suggests: no vengeance, and uniting together. This implies that one’s shifgrethor must be maintained by proper vengeance when necessary (perhaps as we’ve seen above, where Therem offers Genly advice) and that shifgrethor requires a certain separation between people and peoples.

“…and several times he has waived shifgrethor and frankly asked my advice” (155).

Obsle, again, waiving shifgrethor. And it seems that it’s perfectly ok to do advice if shifgrethor has been waived.

Here we see again that shifgrethor is like some clothing that can be put on and removed, as is convenient.

“He sees me as a Karhidish agent attempting to lead Orgoreyn into a tremendous prestige loss by persuading them to believe in the hoax of the Envoy from the Ekumen; he thinks that I spent my time as Prime Minister preparing this hoax. By God, I have better things to do than play shifgrethor with scum” (156).

As mentioned earlier, it would hurt their shifgrethor if they took the “bait” and announced the coming of the Star Ship, only for it to not appear.

I’m fairly certain that Genly describes shifgrethor as a matter of prestige, but this is the first time that Therem uses that word in relation to shifgrethor. This indicates that Genly does have some correct ideas about what shifgrethor is, even though he doesn’t properly understand it.

It also tells us that prestige is part of shifgrethor.

And Therem has better things to do than to lower the prestige of “scum.”

(And may I just say, I giggle like crazy whenever I read “To become a high officer in the Sarf one must have, it seems, a certain complex form of stupidity. Gaum exemplifies it.” Love it!!! lol)

“He fears for his own prestige” (160).

Therem is pushing Obsle to announce the existence of the Star Ship so that it can be called down, but Obsle refuses. He fears for his prestige.

Shifgrethor is not mentioned by name here, but we’ve already seen Therem refer to it as prestige, and we know that this is a subject on which shifgrethor is staked.

“Do you think I would play shifgrethor when so much is at stake for all of us, my fellow men? What does it matter which country wakens first, so long as we waken?” (198)

For Therem this is also a matter of shifgrethor, but to him shifgrethor is beside the point. He’s found a higher cause, and for that he is ready and willing to abandon shifgrethor, even when it means that his own shifgrethor (not to mention the shifgrethor of his own country) would be greatly compromised.

What does this mean?

Shifgrethor is:

*Taking vengeance
*Not offering advice
*Honor (I’m reading between the lines here)
*Not stating something that you think is obvious? (Maybe…?)
*Not worth playing with “scum” (so far as Therem is concerned, anyways)
*Something that can be discarded as is convenient

So with this semi-working definition, let’s see what Genly thinks on the subject. I’ll write about that later.

No comments:


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