The Death of Better – Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Changing Planes” – Part 3

For some time I have been debating the concept of Self. This has not been a straightforward journey, as there are turns and twists and double-backs, as well as the case where I continue to act in a world as if I have agency and free will, though I occasionally become lucid and realize otherwise.

Reading Karl Ove Knausgaard talk about the flow state when he is writing in his latest essay collection In the Land of the Cyclops brought me back to Self. Listening to Sam Harris’s latest series on free will brought me back to Self. And I think all this time reading books like The Biological Mind by Alan Jasanoff has given me a rich enough toolset to understand the limitations of persisting in certain beliefs about identity. Like Karl Ove Knausgaard, when I write, I am looking for a certain flow state, where all the ideas seem to flutter around me without weight, and time moves effortlessly enough that I have a feeling I am going to forget to pick up groceries at my scheduled time from the market. I have a feeling that the words I write will seem forced and awkward later, but for now I have little to no knowledge of where they come from. Thank God for Disney and Pixar’s Soul for visualizing in a much more convenient way how powerful the idea of flow is for young people. I have tried for years to inculcate the best ideas of flow state into my students, and now I have an easy reference point. All this to say that when Karl Ove Knausgaard dips into these flow states, he is suggesting that our Self drops away, and we begin to borrow from a collective consciousness, of the aliveness of language as it interacts between us. It is the spaces rather than the points.

By 2021 we can claim to have a cursory understanding of flow state as a loss of self, which brings about the question of what exactly is the “self”? Can you point to the one who is looking? When you feel the food you are cutting with your hands, are you feeling that in your head, or are you feeling that in your hands? When you hear the sounds of a UPS delivery truck driving by, the big engine accelerating to complete the next task, are you hearing the sound in your head, or is it diegetic to the truck out your front door? What does it mean to have a unified person inside of you, and how do we know it remains the same between the time you are reading this and the time just before you opened my post?

My father would likely scoff at this. He would claim that he is who he is under the Lord. A great deal of Christianity points to predestination, immutability, and fate. But what my father does not realize is something I see rather than him, which is that I cannot claim he is the same person. The kindness and generosity and gravity of the person stems, true, from my perspective of him as a small child, in fear of his every opinion. When I was little I was scared of getting hit by baseballs pitched by other children, so he arranged a plank of wood behind my feet to train me into not stepping backward. He threw pitch after pitch, and because baseball was not his major sport growing up, his accuracy was just as wild as the boys. Shouldn’t my father believe in change and difference at least at the conceptual level based on this evidence? Surely he felt that this development towards a more resilient batter in the box not to be wasted time?

But now my father has performed the psychological equivalent of undoing his seatbelt. Now my father seems, now that his children are grown, that he can express all the opinions that he had kept at bay in those years raising me and my sister. Combined with a general derision at work, where far too late he is being taken seriously, has left a vacancy and a feeling of intellectual worthlessness. He educates himself with YouTube videos on politics. I do not even know if he reads his Bible anymore. My father seems unhinged and anchored simultaneously. He cannot seem to let go, but he is clearly not at home with himself either.

People change. It is a hard fact to realize, but when we entered puberty we should have known better. All those friends you hung out with in middle school who changed and wanted other things. It counted for them, but it did not count for you. There was a sense of abandonment for everyone, pieces shifting on a chessboard without a master moving them, a chaotic spree of flirting and awkward theater auditions. And few of these took place on a literal stage, but rather a figurative one. We tried out new roles for ourselves. Is this who I am becoming? Such a strange question for me to ask myself now, compared to then when change was so rapid, so quick. In one sense, rejecting a self could have been easier back then, and yet still the more impossible, for who is more self-centered than the identity of a teenager?

Our narrator (for our sake lets assume she is Ursula) happens upon the Hennebet, a collection of people who look remarkably like her. Here we get an equivocal definition of sameness as the author (and I have a newfound respect for her neutrality), mentioning positive features like her brown green eyes, as well as the negative ones like a horrific posture. All writers seem plagued with poor posture and circulation. It is pre-destined…

She marvels at the sameness of the world around her. Trash is emptied, chores are done, and the socialist welfare state of the Hennebet runs things largely as they have done before, if a little bit inefficiently. It is clear that Hannah Arendt’s term “labor” is being performed in this land, the kind of behavior that comes from just living. But what about those other more profound human features “work” and “action”? Ursula follows the residents, specifically the father, as he shares in discussions of politics, only to realize that he might not have a single hard opinion of his own. In fact, listening to the other residents who share her features seem only to have the barest of idiosyncrasies. Some crochet, others arrange flowers. What, excuse me, the fuck is this place?

Most displeasing is that, listening in on networks of communication on public policy, Ursula finds only radio static. Latching onto this cornerstone problem with Hennebet, she pries into the political nature of the land, realizing that the older inhabitants get more votes. Older residents may be eligible to vote 18 times, and that is without doing the diligence of registering, which may push that number up to 30. Conservative influence of the elderly permeates Hennebet, a pressure to not rock the boat. “So as you get older…you’re supposed to be wiser?” Ursula says, challenging the assumption.

He looked uncertain.
“Or they honor the elderly by giving them more votes…?”
“Well, you already have them, you know,” Annup said. “They come back to you, you know? Or you come back to them, actually, Mother says. If you can keep them in mind. The other votes you had…When you, you know, were living again.”

Changing Planes pgs 36 – 37

One revelation leads to another I suppose. It is a profound shift when, realizing that Ursula may have discovered a species of people who reincarnate, she investigates the language of the population for concepts pertaining to mind-body distinctions, and the logic surrounding souls. The Hennebet have no such understanding of the terms, nor do they seem all that enamored by separations of identity. They are all, all of them, themselves, and that seems to extend to their activities as well. She is astounded to see such assuredness in a collection of people for the metaphysics they keep, in the way they internalized the reincarnation so deeply that they can “recall” things and not remember them. At least, it seems that the older the Hennebet get, the closer they are to realigning with their previous lives, and as they approach the death asymptote they are reborn, and they return to sameness anew. If any of that makes sense.

Strange that here in Hennebet the power of reincarnation produces a place so static. A place where routine, chores, and policy are of an equal plane, where people do not seem to carry strong opinions or feelings. They are as temperate as the climate seems to be, which is given barely a sentence in this chapter. With the opportunity for reincarnation one assumes there also arises a chance for experimentation and play, but Ursula is suggesting that remembering may be a prison all its own. This is Nietzsche urging us to forget. This is the Constitution as a living document rather than the Ten Commandments. The Hennebet, whose sense of self transposes with action just as much as we do with beliefs, has the ominous relation to the town of Specter in the 2003 film “Big Fish” directed by Tim Burton. If heaven existed in America’s deep south, this would be it. A flat and green expanse of white suburban houses done in southern gothic, with porches, rocking chairs, “Arnold Palmer” teas, with a splash of vodka, and not a single black person in sight. The town poet, played by Steve Buscemi, persists in a lackadaisical posture, culminating in a work-in-progress that he workshops with the ladies at a nightly town festival, “roses are red, violets are blue, I love Spectre…”
It seems that paradise makes art suck.

If reincarnation were to start right now, would our lives propagate the culture of this century in a tumultuous sameness? Would we hardly see the future because we were not meant for it? Thomas Jefferson did proclaim that each generation belonged resolutely to them, and should not be dictated by the opinions of those long dead. Was this warning fit for the Hennebet, who seem imprisoned by their own identities? What does reincarnation even look like when paired with cultural evolution? We balk at the violence found in classics like The Iliad and The Odyssey for the good reason that we learned from one another enough to demand more. Could we demand more from a people who do not even know what “more” is?

I think it has become abundantly clear to me that this is the sort of science fiction that fascinates me in print. Too long I have considered the genre to be sort of incestuous and focused too much on space battles. But here, the essential ingredients that make science fiction compelling are (thank God) brought to us by Ursula. She understands the double duty that the genre must provide: thinking about the future, but from our limited present. We are thus able to learn about both. What we desire from the now, as well as what we hope for our future generations. Perhaps reincarnation does not exist, or that we cannot hope to tap into it. But this thesis argues against Silicon Valley for their insistence on cheating death. Can we hope for a more progressive society when the leaders live to be 200? 300? 400? Do they have the good sense to allow society forward even if it conflicts with the archaic impulses of old men and their dreams for a fascist world? A world where the trains finally run on time? Perhaps, old man, the “on time” was never the point.

People die so that their opinions too die. They must. As much as I adore the language of the classics, I have no desire to go back. Time travel already exists in concepts like nostalgia, but to have a kind of metaphysical time travel exist in our identities would be the death knell of our species. The death of the concept of better.

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