Monday, February 16, 2009

The Dispossessed

As I read Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974), I kept comparing it to Hitchcock film, Torn Curtain (1966). In the film, Paul Newman's character (Michael Armstrong), an esteemed American physicist and rocket scientist, is sent to attend a conference in Copenhagen, but ends up flying to East Berlin, where he is greeted by the East Berlin government and met by the media. Apparently he has defected during this Cold War period, and although later we learn it is a ruse, we spend much of the opening of the film trying to ascertain if he is a traitor. There are numerous differences between the film and book (Armstrong does plan on escaping once he has the missile information, and his aim is to help the West - not to unite two countries as Dr. Shevek wishes to do), but enough similarities to make it interesting. Both men, Dr. Armstrong and Dr. Shevek, are brilliant physicists, both are greeted warmly in their new environments - yet also met with suspicion, both have a noble aim. So this begs the question, how much fear were people under during the Cold War, whether consciously or unconsciously, that similar themes would keep re-inventing themselves? Apparently, quite a bit.

In his chapter "Utopia and Its Antinomies," Jameson notes that Le Guin has "attempted to transcend local Cold War stereotypes by making her communists over into anarchists, with overtones of Taoism" (155). I wonder if it has worked for others? I still read Cold War in the text. Jamison also notes that no objections are made against the "Anarresti collectivist mode of production" while the political structure of Urras is effectively hidden until the strike (in contrast to the Anarres lynch mob that meets Dr. Shevek at the beginning of the book) (156). Instead, we are lead to question the notion of consumption, and to watch - through Dr. Shevek - a discomfort at the wealth of a nation where the wealthly have unlimited access to food and shelter of the highest order, while the poor are unemployed and suffer as a result.

Urras has sought no leader such as Odo, who denounced the excess of a consumerist society, and the abolition of property, has a sizeable influence (God-like?) on Anarres, which places the collective and social totality above personal profit as almost a "moral incentive" (158). Ironically, Odo is from Urras - is indeed buried there with a simple stone, and one wonders what Urras could have been - with its beautiful landscape and wealth of natural riches - if it had practiced more restraint and less consumerism. And Shevek can look at Urras - with its magnificent fabrics, and rooms adorned with sensual objects, and a landscape of "blue skies and meadows and forests and great cities" and still realize - because he was raised in Anarres, that something is wrong with the package: "And you open the box and what is inside it? A black cellar full of dust, and a dead man."

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