Cheek by Jowl

by Ursula K. Le Guin: Aqueduct Press

Ursula K. Le Guin

Paradoxa, No. 21 (2009) -- Edited by Sylvia Kelso

A Review by William Alexander

Originally published in Rain Taxi Review of Books #54 (Summer 2009)

Cheek by Jowl: Talks & Essays on How & Why Fantasy Matters (Aqueduct Press, $16), the latest work of literary criticism by Ursula K. Le Guin, is a slim volume of essays and transcribed speeches about fantasy, animal stories, young adult literature (a marketing category that did not yet exist when she started writing the stuff in the late 1960s), and the substantial overlap, confusion, and conflation that exists between the three. Le Guin relentlessly deflates the separate-yet-related snobbery which dismisses fantasy as juvenile, and juvenile as unimportant. “There should be a word — maturismo, like machismo? — for the anxious savagery of the intellectual who thinks his adulthood has been impugned. To conflate fantasy with immaturity is a rather sizable error. Rational yet non-intellectual, moral yet inexplicit, symbolic rather than allegorical, fantasy is not primitive, but primary.” She has been making this argument for decades, at least since her 1974 essay “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” — in which she defended fantasy in general, and The Lord of the Rings in particular, from the puritan resistance to fiction that gets a little too fictional.

Her most recent defense of fantasy, an essay included in Cheek by Jowl, borrows from Tolkien the academic to champion the literary genre made popular by Tolkien the novelist. “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” is a deliberate echo of Tolkien’s “The Monsters and the Critics,” a seminal work of literary criticism that utterly transformed how we read and understand Beowulf. Prevailing wisdom prior to 1936 held that Bewoulf was a confused mess, a fragmentary Christian transcription of an oral, pagan story with little or no aesthetic value. The poem was a grave to be plundered by historians for information; it was not literature to be enjoyed. Tolkien disagreed. He argued that critics had failed to judge the work on its own terms, that the anachronisms throughout the text are not flaws or mistakes, and that Anglo-Saxon scops were not failing to “keep Scandinavian bogies and Scriptures separate in their puzzled brains... I think we may observe not confusion, a half hearted or muddled business, but a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion.” Seamus Heaney concurs in the introduction to his own translation: “Beowulf perfectly answers the early modern conception of a work of creative imagination as one in which conflicting realities find accommodation within a new order.”

The Lord of the Rings similarly accommodates conflicting realities, fusing old material with new novelistic strategies. But Le Guin demonstrates that many critics have failed to judge it on its own terms, or even recognize what they are:

It might be an entertaining and educative exercise in fiction courses to make students discover inappropriate standards by using them. For example: Judge The Lord of the Rings as if it were a late-twentieth century realistic novel. (Deficient in self-evident relevance, in sexual and erotic components, in individual psychological complexity, in explicitly social references... Exercise too easy, has been done a thousand times.)

Judge Moby Dick as science fiction....

Judge Pride and Prejudice as a Western....

And to reverse the whole misbegotten procedure: Judge modern realist fiction by the standards of fantasy. (A narrow focus on daily details of contemporary human affairs; trapped in representationalism, suffocatingly unimaginative, frequently trivial, and ominously anthropocentric.)

Those who continue to judge fantasy by the standards of realist fiction no longer represent a crushing majority of critics; that battle, arguably, has already been won. Le Guin shows no patience for the remaining holdouts, however. “I want to say to the literature teacher who remains willfully, even boastfully ignorant of a major element of contemporary fiction: you are incompetent to teach or judge your subject.”

“The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” is not limited to defensive maneuvers, and Le Guin’s argument for the value of fantasy has profound moral, political, and philosophical implications; this is no mere spat about differing literary tastes. She insists that “the literature of imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort” — something Tolkien is often accused of — “but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.” A literature based solely on verisimilitude limits our sense of the possible. By its very name, realism overestimates its own privileged relationship to reality, and reinforces the belief that the way things are is the only way they ever could be. Fantasy is important, not because it tells us that dragons exist, but because it maintains our ability to envision alternatives to the world we know.

Dragons are not alone in challenging our ominously anthropocentric perspectives, and Le Guin does not limit her appreciation to the creatures we have invented. The eponymous essay “Cheek by Jowl” is a concise and cogent survey of animal stories in children’s literature, from The Jungle Book and The Wind in the Willows to Brian Jacques’s Redwall series and Philip Pullman’s daemon-filled trilogy His Dark Materials. Le Guin’s readings are as emotionally rich as they are rigorously unsentimental, and she praises the stories that offer an alternative to our “radically impoverished, single-species world.”

The boundary-stretching imagination necessary for envisioning the perspective of another species requires honesty as well as wild invention. It is one thing to put Toad of Toad Hall behind the wheel of an automobile — an act of literary fantasy — and another to justify the brutal behavior of animal protagonists as “natural” when such behavior has been falsified, as in Richard Adams’s Watership Down:

I might try to swallow the egregious sexism of the book in order to appreciate its virtues; but I won’t, because Adams cheated. He wanted to write a fantasy of male superiority — all right, some people like that sort of thing.... People could say “Oh well, it’s just rabbits, after all.” Only it isn’t rabbits at all. Rabbits do not behave that way. A book that falsifies animal behavior as a mask for the indulgence of fantasies of morally regressive human behavior is not, to my mind, a book to give any child, or any adult either.

“Cheek by Jowl” makes an excellent shopping list of animal-populated novels for any and all readers untainted by maturismo, and is worth reading for that reason alone. The essay has loftier goals, however; quietly and without any fuss, Le Guin argues that these classics of kid-lit are necessary to both our survival and our sanity. We evolved alongside innumerable others, cheek by jowl, but as a species we are increasingly alone — and “we go crazy in solitude.”

Human beings need to belong. To belong to one another, first, of course; but because we can see so far and think so cleverly and imagine so much, we aren’t satisfied by membership in a family, a tribe, people just like us. Fearful and suspicious as it is, the human mind yet yearns for a greater belonging, a vaster identification. Wilderness scares us because it is unknown, indifferent, dangerous, yet it is an absolute need to us; it is that animal otherness, that strangeness, older and greater than ourselves, that we must join, or rejoin, if we want to stay sane and stay alive.

Like the work she espouses, Le Guin’s own fiction dramatizes Self and Other striving towards partnership and mutual understanding. Paradoxa #21: Ursula K. Le Guin (Paradoxa, $24) edited by Sylvia Kelso, is neither a survey nor a guidebook to Le Guin, but its seventeen distinct essays do offer useful perspectives on her significant body of work. The individual subject matter ranges from heartfelt tributes — including a sweet reminiscence from April Kendra “On Almost Meeting Ursula Le Guin” — to academic conversations in which Le Guin is only one of many voices. Kasi Jackson’s excellent “Feminism, Animals, and Science in Le Guin’s Animal Stories,” for example, is more concerned with feminist critiques of gendered biases in scientific inquiry, specifically such inquiry as it explores and seeks to define our relationship to other living things. Le Guin is, of course, an authority on the topic, but here she is part of an ensemble cast.

Darko Suvin’s “Cognition, Freedom, The Dispossessed as Classic” is also, among other things, an appreciative critique of scientific inquiry, though here Le Guin’s classic work of science fiction takes center stage. Several essays present Le Guin-centric literary criticism, all of which negotiate nicely between readability and academic rigor. Others focus on Le Guin’s contributions to their classroom, and more than one mentions the delicious teachability of her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Le Guin herself expands the scope of the collection by contributing a piece about the Bernard Maybeck house where she was raised. “Living in a Work of Art” is mostly about architecture, but from a richly subjective point of view, and it is filled with more than enough aesthetic and biographical insight to satisfy fans of Maybeck and Le Guin equally.

The concluding piece is a short review of another recent collection of critical essays, The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (Lexington Books, 2005). Mike Cadden’s assessment of New Utopian Politics as a “persuasive and pluralistic” volume that “offers and celebrates ambiguity and balance” applies just as well to the collection in which it appears.

Le Guin remains one of the wisest voices in contemporary fiction, and as powerful a reader as she is a writer. In Cheek by Jowl she reads us stories by others, about otherness, and in Paradoxa #21 others offer readings of her. All of this is persuasive and pluralistic, worth hearing, and worth knowing. Some of it may even keep us sane and alive.

William Alexander

Copyright © 2009 William Alexander
Reprinted with the kind permission of the author


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