buddhism in le guin's "left hand of darkness"


Since the religion that I most closely identify with is Buddhism, I was pleasantly surprised to see some Buddha-flavored (for lack of a better description) ideas emerging as the overarching themes or conflicts of the novel. Though little actually happens plot-wise, Le Guin has a very distinctive, almost sarcastic "writer's voice" that gets the reader caught up in this meandering philosophical journey.

Certainly "Left Hand of Darkness" is a classic example of how third-wave feminism looked at (and continues to look at) the cultural problems of themodern world. The way that Genly Ai, a Terran, approaches human and societal differences is indicative of the struggles that people here on Earth have with the ideas of race, gender, class and so on. On one side of the conflict we have Terran duality; on the other, Gethenian oneness and fluidity. We, too, have this driving need to classify people and phenomena into categories, defining them by a single label; day and night, male and female, black and white, rich and poor. Though we acknowledge that there are gray areas to a certain extent, we are never completely comfortable with allowing someone or something to be neither, or to be both.

Gethenians, on the other hand, have a difficult time separating things into dualities; everything exists in a singular, cohesive state. The planet, true to its name of "Winter" experiences nothing but unchanging snowy weather. Gender is completely fluid, and Genly struggles to properly express someone's gender due to the constraint of his (and by extension, our) language. For example, Genly describes one Gethenian he encounters as "{his} landlady, a voluble man" (pg.47), which is seemingly a paradox and an expression of total androgyny. Perhaps it is safer to say that Gethenians are touched by duality to a lesser extent; they are closer to being an enlightened society, if you will. Maybe Le Guin is trying to present them as an example of what we could attain.
The only instances in which duality appears within Gethenian society are: 1) when male and female become distinct during the period of "kemmer". Genly Ai sticks to a singular pronoun here: "I saw a girl, a filthy, pretty, stupid, weary girl looking up into my face as she talked, smiling timidly, looking for solace. The young Orgota was in kemmer" (pg. 171). The other is 2) within the governmental structure. Gethenians do understand the idea of separate "Domains" and nations, as a sort of replacement for the duality of different races.

What frustrates me the most about Left Hand of Darkness is that it does a wonderful job of presenting and describing the problems created by our dualistic worldview, but it fails to suggest a method for solving these problems. When read in the most simplistic way, perhaps the solution is "move towards androgyny! forcibly train yourselves to forget gender!" in which case, I simply disagree. It can be impossible to make people forget ideas that were imposed on them from birth. I wanted to know what the answer was to the duality question.
The book does offer readers a passage that resonates somewhat with the Buddhist idea of the "middle path" as the most direct route to enlightenment. Genly Ai's task as an Envoy is to move towards "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" (pg. 34). In a similarly Buddhist way, perhaps Le Guin is purposefully leaving the question open encourage us to observe how we divide things into dualities, and take the first step on the path: self-inquiry.

I wonder, reading your response just after LeoniaTavira's, whether the "solution," insofar as there can be one, to these problems presented by dualistic thinking is suggested by the Handdara...