University of Hawai'i Press

The acclaimed American novelist, poet, and essayist Ursula K. Le Guin died in 2018, at age 88. The Library of Congress called her "a living legend" (LoC 2000), and in August, 2019, she was featured in the American Masters series on PBS, which credited her with "bringing science fiction into the literary mainstream."1 The novelist Michael Chabon called her "the greatest American writer of her generation" (2018).

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Le Guin was heavily influenced by Daoism. As a child, she watched her father frequently reading from Paul Carus's 1898 edition of the Daode jing—he selected passages that were read at his funeral—and she embraced the book. "I was lucky to discover [Laozi] so young," she wrote, "so that I could live with his book my whole life long" (1997, ix). She had no formal practice, though, telling The Guardian that "I don't really know how one 'is' a Daoist. I do know that Daoist ideas inform a great deal of my writing" (Guardian 2004).

Her 1971 novel, The Lathe of Heaven, was a direct exploration of Daoist themes; the title is taken from James Legge's translation of the Zhuangzi (ch. 23). Here a therapist finds that one of his patients can change reality through his dreams. The therapist wants to harness this power for good; but will his meddling prove wise? (The book also presciently describes a 21st-century world impoverished by global warming.)

I lived in the same neighborhood as Le Guin for nearly all of my life; we had mutual friends. I read Lathe as a preteen, about the same time I found the Zhuangzi and the Daode jing on my own father's bookshelf, but I never met her outside of public book readings. She was very private and made that clear, both to friends and on her website. Though I was keen to interact with her, I respected that choice.

In 1997, she published a popular English version of the Daode jing. In her typically blunt manner, she stated in the back matter, "This is a rendition, not a translation. I do not know any Chinese." Still, she enlisted the noted translator and professor emeritus Jerome P. Seaton as her co-author. The book was criticized as amateur and dilettantish by scholars such as Paul Goldin and Louis Komjathy, the latter a Quanzhen (Complete Perfection) initiate, lumping Le Guin together with Stephen Mitchell, the New Age author of the most popular English version of the text and calling their editions "no longer Daoist" (Komjathy 2014, 208).

That seems a bit unfair, as Mitchell tossed off his version in a few weeks and blithely told the PBS News Hour that he felt he had the "privilege" to "take off at certain points and throw the original out the window and do variations" (Brown 2011). Le Guin, by contrast, worked on her rendition for four decades and explained her editorial choices in copious footnotes. Paul Goldin allowed that of the four popular "translators" he reviewed, "Only Le Guin was aided by a genuine authority (J. P. Seaton, a specialist in Chinese literature at the University of North Carolina), [End Page 224] and her book, as might be expected, is by far the best of the lot, although it too has major weaknesses" (2005, 120). He then goes on to commend the "care and integrity" with which she parsed other translations, though he criticized several of her specific English renderings (2005, 122).

Ursula Le Guin grew to embody the "useless tree" as she aged—complex, resolute, and deeply rooted. As her fame and acclaim grew, she gave any new work and interviews to small independent presses and publications. She returned to poetry, her first art, and wrote of place, nature and time, of "dull desert stone, the weight of it is full / of slower, longer thoughts than mind can have" (Le Guin 2010). Asked if she felt "a bit out of step with [her] contemporaries," she replied, "Why should a woman of 74 want to be 'in step with' anybody? Am I in an army, or something?" (Guardian 2004).

In her final decade, she led a fierce resistance by authors against monopolizing tactics by Google, who would digitize entire libraries of books without their authors' permission, and Amazon.com, who would discourage sales of books whose publisher would not let the company control prices (Flood 2010). At the 2014 National Book Awards, her fiercely witty, impassioned and uncompromising speech against the commodification of literature "went off like a bomb, bringing the entire room to its feet" (DeNies 2014).

Le Guin never produced another work about Daoism per se. Theo Downes-Le Guin, her son and literary executor, told me that she "used her fiction to express her practice and beliefs, which might explain her reluctance to address the subject directly. She was never one to explain what she had already written."2 She did, however, discuss her process of writing, and in doing so offered a couple of glimpses. For example, in her book Steering the Craft, she said, "It's like this: in me there's a story that wants to be told. It is my end; I am its means. If I can keep myself, my ego, my wishes and opinions, my mental junk, out of the way and find the focus of the story, and follow the movement of the story, the story will tell itself" (2015, 126). Years later she told an interviewer that she saw this approach as a form of Daoist nonaction (wuwei) (Le Guin and Naimon 2018, 45). [End Page 225]

I finally found a professional reason to reach out to her in 2012 after I created taoish.org, a blog about modern manifestations of Daoism. I wrote a formal letter requesting an interview, and she replied electronically with a characteristically graceful rejection. It summarizes her approach quite concisely:

I must ask you please to lose my email address, which I try, perhaps delusionally, to keep as private as possible. Anyhow, I wish I actually were a Daoist sage and could simply vanish on the wind when asked to provide proof of wisdom, but since I'm not, I can only say I don't know anything about Daoist practice or how one applies Laozi's teachings to living. I know that it can be done, but not how it can be done, although I suspect it is mostly done in a silence where words don't go. And I really haven't got any more than that to say about it, so an interview would be useless. I do wish you good and easy walking on the Way.3

Mark Saltveit

Mark Saltveit graduated from Harvard University far too long ago and lived in China briefly during the 1980s. He writes popular and scholarly articles on Daoism, philology (esp. palindromes), and American football. . Email: marksaltveit@gmail.com.

References

Brown, Jeffrey. 2011. "Conversation: Stephen Mitchell, Author of the New Translation of Homer's 'The Iliad'." PBS News Hour, 11/11/2011. www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/conversation-stephen-mitchell.
Chabon, Michael. 2018. "Fellow Writers Remember Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929–2018." Library of America, 1/26/2018. www.loa.org/news-and-views/1375-fellow-writers-remember-ursula-k-le-guin-1929-2018.
DeNies, Ramona. 2014. "Ursula K. Le Guin Burns down the National Book Awards." Portland Monthly, 11/20/2014. www.pdxmonthly.com/articles/2014/11/20/ursula-k-le-guin-rocks-the-national-book-awards-november-2014.
Flood, Alison. 2010. "Ursula Le Guin Leads Revolt against Google Digital Book Settlement." The Guardian, 1/22/2010. www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jan/22/ursula-le-guin-revolt-google-digital.
Goldin, Paul. 2005. After Confucius: Studies in Early Chinese Philosophy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Guardian. 2004. "Chronicles of Earthsea—An Online Q&A." The Guardian 2/9/2004. www.theguardian.com/books/2004/feb/09/sciencefictionfantasyandhorror.ursulakleguin.
Komjathy, Louis. 2014. Daoism: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Le Guin, Ursula K. 1997. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way. Boston: Shambhala.
_____. 2010. Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country. Astoria: Raven Studios.
_____. 2015. Steering the Craft: A Twenty-first-century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
_____, and David Naimon. 2018. Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing. Brooklyn: Tin House Books.
LoC. 2018. "Living Legends: Americans Honored for Creative Contributions." Library of Congress Information Bulletin 59.5. www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0005/livleg.html.

Footnotes

1. "Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin - About," American Masters | PBS, August 2, 2019, online at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/worlds-of-ursula-k-leguin-about/11575/

2. Personal correspondence, 7/28/2019.

3. Personal correspondence, 1/12/2012.

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