Like you, I’m mourning the late Ursula Le Guin. In an essay from 1982 that meditates on utopian potentials and failings, Le Guin writes that a persistent story about the Golden Age is that it is irrational and, unlike hyperrational utopia, conditionally possible “right here, right now.” Meanwhile, she muses,
it is of the very essence of the rational or Jovian utopia that it is not here and not now. It is made by the reaction of will and reason against, away from, the here-and-now, and it is, as More said in naming it, nowhere. It is pure structure without content; pure model; goal. That is its virtue. Utopia is uninhabitable. As soon as we reach it, it ceases to be utopia. As evidence of this sad but ineluctable fact, may I point out that we in this room, here and now, are inhabiting utopia. (“A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be”)
I’m sold on the idea that the Golden Age and utopia are not interchangeable (perhaps I have to be, since the book I’m writing is about this very thing), but not entirely on the idea that one is mystical and the other reason maddened. The differences are both more and less profound. But maybe what Le Guin means is that there’s a basic confusion at work here, as there must be in any act of translation.
Maybe she means that utopia is a no-place that can, from one angle, look like the memory of the Golden Age projected onto the screen of the future. This would have to result—how otherwise?—not in transparency, but in opacity. She’s in search of a utopia we haven’t imagined yet: one that divagates from the hard geometries of endless progress, expansion, automated logic without reference to material realities of lives as they’re already lived. This was—and is—the matter of much of her fiction, an attempt to draw new geographies within extant histories, ones that did not—do not—pretend to conditions of necessary blankness. While she believed that the traumas of history don’t die away from us, she also believed, more improbably, that history’s joys and potentials can sometimes stay gold with us.
The magic trick she works in her essay is this one: by alerting us to our arrival in utopia, she causes the coast of utopia to recede just far enough so that it’s as if we never managed to make land, tantalized between the grapes and the pool of clear water, the devil and the deep blue sea. Every time we consciously realize that utopia just might be here and now, we are immediately cast out of utopia. It passes in our conscious experience from possibility to history—or nostalgia—without ever pausing in our present.
But the mere acknowledgment of loss is not, by fiat, nostalgia, and nor is the work, equal parts avoidance and looking-it-straight-in-the-eyes, of mourning. The Other Wind, the final entry in Le Guin’s Earthsea sextet, turns its gaze to the dead. In the archipelago of Earthsea, those who go die into a place called the “dry land,” an actual geographically identifiable locale (contiguous with life, though not of it) within the physical world of the novel, separated from the domain of we with breath (as is any paradise manqué) by a wall. Like the Fields of Asphodel in classical visions of the afterlife—glaucous, hermaphroditic rambles of that greeny flower—the dry land is no golden Elysium, no endless feasting of slaughtered heroes, prodigies of aidos, exception, or (very occasionally) goodness. Nor is it like Tartarus, the realm of transgressors and their eternal contrapasso: Sisyphus and his boulder, Tantalus and his pool and his grapes, Ixion on his fiery wheel. It is, rather, the preserve of the ordinary dead, who were no one special, after all, only beloved (or not) and irreplaceable.
W.H. Auden (poet, ekphrastically) on Thetis, mother of the warrior Achilles, looking on as Hephaestos, armorer-god, forges a shield for her son, the demi-divine:
She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead. (“The Shield of Achilles”)
In Le Guin’s dry land, it is jam yesterday and jam today, but never jam tomorrow: changeless, dark always, the stars fixed in their orbits. And yet, it bristles with none of the gravid promise of the (differently ambivalent) stasis of Keats’s Grecian urn, where “happy, happy love!” is “ever warm and still to be enjoy’d” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”). Think (as Le Guin does) what the experience of such an eternity is like! A man called Alder is tormented by the knowledge of what these shades suffer:
“It’s a terrible thing to hear one’s true name called by strangers . . . and it’s a terrible thing to be called by the dead . . . “I wake,” he said, “and I’m in my own room. I’m not there, on that hillside. But I know they are. And I have to sleep. I try to wake often, and to sleep in daylight when I can, but I have to sleep at last. And then I am there, and they are there. And I can’t go up the hill. If I move it’s always downhill, towards the wall. Sometimes I can turn my back to them, but then I think I hear Lily among them, crying to me. And I turn to look for her. And they reach out to me.” (The Other Wind)
Alder’s haunting tells us, nearly explicitly, that the dry land, if we hadn’t cottoned to it already, is an allegory of mourning. And Le Guin’s conceit evokes, particularly, models of mourning (like those of the late Roland Barthes) in which this process, whose best end is the freedom of the living and the dead alike, is not an orderly series of stages but, paradigmatically, chaotic.
The major matter of The Other Wind is the effort to achieve the work of mourning in a world that, structurally speaking, forbids this labor from becoming effective, ties the dead to the earth, will not allow loss to complete itself. In one of Le Guin’s perfect inevitabilities of invention, we learn that the creation of the dry land was a mistake born of an arrogant endeavor to achieve immortality here on earth, a bait-and-switch: limbo for paradise. And so the mechanism for this project was, unsurprisingly, the paradise-impulse: the building of a sorcerous wall meant to define the limits of an immortal garden. Instead: rigor mortis.
To change the terms of mourning, to align it again with liberation rather than a fruitless clinging to the goneaway, the wall must be torn down and the dead assimilated to the rhythms of what goes on without them. “All we build, we build wrong” says one character in the appealing, uninflected, slightly archaic argot in which Le Guin renders the dialogue of Earthsea. This little speech might contain a salting of irony; it’s difficult to tell. Staggering, in light of it, to think that in the space between the creation of the wall and its falling, those many centuries, no one subject to its creation has ever achieved what mourning wants. And nor have the ends of death itself (inasmuch as it has them) ever been accomplished. Moreover, what looked like a mythic Golden Age in the past—what was painted gold—turns out to conceal a history that requires from the occupants of the present—the long now, to quote a friend quoting someone else—a complete renovation of the physical, epistemological, and affective tapestry of that tragicomical loom, the world.
But consider for a moment the mouth of the underworld, by some called Averno or Avernus, the gate where epic heroes go to feed the dead from the veins in their own forearms, where daughters are brought, unwilling, to betray, in their turn, the living earth with pomegranate seeds, where the gate of false dreams is made of ivory and the gate of true dreams of horn. Consider the poet Orpheus, descending (katabasis) to sing to the king and queen for Eurydice, his hapless snake-bitten wife, and failing her with a doubtful look over the shoulder. That Orphic glance back becomes for many theorists, Blanchot, for example, an image of how art happens, what it wants to lead out of darkness and the desideratum it carries with it even as it sings so indiscreetly to the wild beasts and stands with lamblike quiet at the proper time for the maenads, avatars of passionate precision—euoi!—to carve it by hand into pieces and circulate it through the wine-dark sea.
Louise Glück (poet by conferred laurel) on a farmer contemplating a burned field:
The terrible moment was the spring after his work was erased,
when he understood that the earth
didn’t know how to mourn, that it would change instead.
And then go on existing without him. (Averno 69)
Our close intimations of mortality, the realization that the earth doesn’t know how to mourn, that things succeed us—supersede us when we die—can be—but does not have to be—limited to the terrible moment. This is not to diminish the pain of loss or the threat of self-dissolution. It’s to say, merely, that no particular reaction can be enjoined upon us in relation to this knowledge or in perpetuity and this is a degree of what is most frightened and least tame within us. But this means, too, that what leaves you behind, what moves and moves and shows no sign of stopping for time past measure, the sublime indifference of matter and energy—which is to say nothing of the slightly-less-sublime indifference of our human spheres (that Golden Record)—what merely goes on can also—oh, don’t you think?—be understood as a form of hope—no, more substantial, still, a form of solace—a form of solace so asymptotically close to certain knowledge of a lavish impulse of matter, a confirmation of abundance, somewhere, for someone (though maybe not for us) as to seem a generous madness. If this possibility for the imparadisement (the re-verdancing) of our own dry lands—our own grammars of mourning—if this possibility for imparadisement did not exist, we would, I think, be reduced to inventing it.
(—O, Averno, no wonder you hide your face! I’d sought you so restlessly, never for yourself, but for the impossible, to steal back what you, acting in accordance with your implacable clinamen, had claimed without fault. I never knew ’til now—and so—forgive—)
Rainer Maria Rilke (poet, nominally) to Orpheus:
And if the earthly no longer knows your name [ … ] (Sonnets to Orpheus XXIX)
Anne Carson (antipoetaster, theorist of the erotic sweetbitter, waggish palinodist of the ancient and the now), a thought experiment:
Imagine a city where there is no desire. Supposing for the moment that the inhabitants of the city continue to eat, drink and procreate in some mechanical way; still, their life looks flat. They do not theorize or spin tops or speak figuratively. Few think to shun pain; none give gifts. They bury their dead and forget where. Zeno finds himself elected mayor and is set to work copying the legal code on sheets of bronze. Now and again a man and a woman may marry and live very happily, as travelers who meet by chance at an inn; at night falling asleep they dream the same dream, where they watch fire move along a rope that binds them together, but it is unlikely they remember the dream in the morning. The art of storytelling is widely neglected.
A city without desire is, in sum, a city of no imagination (Eros the Bittersweet 168)
For Carson, banishment from the city of no-desire is a kind of Fortunate Fall, for it’s in the ostracism that possibility, a spirit and a motion, can be born. Whether from Eden or the walls of the Republic, Plato’s sanitary kingdom in the clouds (no place for poets, by decree), we have been in exile from the clean rooms a long time and in strangely good company.
Rebecca Ariel Porte is a member of the Core Faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is currently at work on a book about paradise, Arcadia, and the Golden Age.
*This essay is adapted from a book manuscript about paradise, Arcadia, and the Golden Age and some of its text first appeared (fly-by-night) in the form of the 6 a.m. lecture at Night of Philosophy and Ideas (2018), an event co-sponsored by Brooklyn Public Library and the French Embassy.