- Ursula K. Le GuinA Remembrance
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...