Alone by Day/Together at Night – Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes – Part 6

This is a picture I took as I went on a routine walk on the street where I live. For some reason, when I see this photograph, I conflate “soul” with “sole”. As in singular. As in the only care that America gives you to worry about is of the kind that includes only you. “Treat yourself”. Here the sign “Soul Care” offers total ambiguity. I have no idea what goes on inside that building, as it is separated entirely from the rest of the buildings in the massive complex that is the Bible church. Is it conversion therapy? Meditation? Spiritual tax evasion? Who’s to say…

In any case, the individualizing of religious experience is of interest to me here. Christianity and Capitalism have always been a contradiction in our history, and the Protestant break from Catholicism, its Clergy, and the pressure of tithes, did little to assuage the problem of money and ownership in religion. Now, to a certain extent, spirituality is a sole/soul endeavor. What you have with your God is your business. Whether you find yourself in the red or the black on the balance sheet of your soul is up to your own conscience. But in collective services, the practitioners of religion have the opportunity to experience a communal lesson, one that impresses upon us a moral of the story we tell ourselves. Some claim, as Christopher Hitchens does, that the Church service produces a hallucinatory effect in the hymns sung repeatedly, lolling those into a droned passivity, or producing euphoric excitement. Perhaps the experience is intentional, as a way to make you forget your troubles outside the walls of the cathedral, and instead to rest as yourself in the moment the service takes place. Perhaps, by going each week to church, one can through repetition learn how to accept the one thing every person does, which is to die.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s narrator in Changing Planes seems not to be interested in going in-person to the world of the Frin, as the beginning of the chapter offers an author’s note that the research obtained comes from An Oneirological Survey of the Frinthian Plane published by “Mills College Press”. Perhaps the reasoning for this is twofold. But before that, the first thing to note is the fact that the Frinthian share dreams. At night, when they go to sleep, they achieve synchrony, and their dreams meld and warp together with the others in a radius as wide as the loudest of human speech. There are some savants who dream “louder” and who can absorb and mold dreams of a greater energy level than that of the laymen, but by and large the breadth of dreams remains whatever the Frin can dream up. They also inherit dreams of the non-Frin kind around them, with some even dreaming alongside the trees. Human tourists as well. Few people visit perhaps because they have heard rumors that the Frin are voyeurs, spying on the dreams of those who visit. But the truth is more sacred: the Frin take the language of the dreams seriously, and do not like when their kind is “tainted” by outside influence. That is because, to the Frin, the communal dream is their gateway into the public sphere, a method for them to interpret together (as they see dreams in the same way) what they experienced together. Not all of the dreams are good, and as the dreams of the dreamers coalesce into one congealed whole, horrifying combinations can ensue. Rapes mingled with nightmares of embarrassments at school. Disembodied beings, faces without eyes, taboos, the works. On the other hand, when the stars align, the harmonic listening in on a pregnant child’s experience in amniotic fluid for example, the public becomes a soothing and hallucinatory ride. It is at night when they worship. Strangely, Ursula K. Le Guin mentions little of the Frin in the daytime, save for one of the Frinthian scholars who remarks, “In the day we are alone, at night we come together.”

An obvious parallel to the Frinthian dreamscape that we could point to is social media. Each person, silenced by lack of opportunity, literate skills, or without a platform of high reputation like an Ivy League School, can participate in the “conversation”. This works both ways as well. It turned out that the “conversation” was a dumpster fire, refueled without pause by rage, the tinder most incentivized, and therefore the most in demand. While America finds itself well-placed with vaccines in 9 months, a fantastic human achievement, we have people rejecting it based on the communal dreamscape (or hellscape) of social media. While the Frin seem slow to speak, interpreting their dreams with caution, our social media muscles are weak and prone to atrophy. Lactic acid can easily overwhelm them.

It is an element of the public sphere we did not realize was dangerous. The madness of crowds is easy to discern, but crowd formation using digital devices is a step beyond, one that is startling for how well it works. One is reminded of the early days of the printing press. It is not as if publishing, in its infancy, was producing the works that we came to acknowledge as the best of human ingenuity right off the bat. I am increasingly interested in the time period between 1850 and 1900 for producing much of the fantastic world literature we know today, a full 400 years after the printing press was invented. Let us hope we earn our legs for social media far before that. Even then, writers like Benjamin Franklin took the press and used it frequently to his advantage, using anonymity with false names like “Poor Richard” to change the public conversation, not unlike that of the anonymity of reddit, 4chan, and so on.

The Frin know what the dreams are that they share, because they all shared it. But finding the culprit of a particularly heinous segment of a dream, or of a taboo the Frin finds morally profane, is the task of the next morning.

“The sight of a red-and-black bird pecking at the ear of a bearded human head lying on a plate on a marble table and the rush of almost gleeful horror that accompanied it – did that come from Aunt Unia’s sleep, or Uncle Tu’s, or Grandfather’s, or the cook’s, or the girl next door’s?…The stock answer is, ‘We all did.’ Which is, of course, the truth.”

The truth is that human beings are possessors of horrific thoughts. What is the answer to this? One is that the Frin have come to terms with the understanding that their loss of Self at night raises big questions about the existence of the Self at all. Like when we take psychotropic drugs, and we have a good trip, or when we meditate, we realize our part in something much much bigger. Terminology like forbidden and taboo are harder to pin in experiences like this.

In contrast to the Big answer above, there’s the opposite, which is to say that our minds are “explanation machines” and should not be taken seriously. Nor should we identify our “selves” with the images the mind inspires. Much of positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy rest on the foundation that most self talk, the permanent kind we bind to our personalities, should be based on our achievements rather than our failures.

Another answer may come from Esther Perel, who writes on and works as a couple’s therapist. Her answer? Lean in to the strange. Erotic couples, says Esther Perel, “have a lot of sexual privacy.” Responsibility and desire, she continues, “just butt heads. They don’t really work together.”

Perhaps the reason Le Guin has so little to say about the daytime of the Frin is because it is none of our business. The benefit of the Frin is that they may take what occurred and process it however they choose. Once they check back into the communal dreamspace, however, that interpretation is prone to be hijacked.

Not so for the case of human beings. The moral of this sermon from Le Guin is perhaps the impetus she had for writing at all. It is because of the immense privacy of reading, of the intimate conversation between the writer and the reader. A church service of one, if the writer (like Ursula) has passed. What an immense pleasure, almost sexual. That privacy should be nurtured, for the benefit of your partners. Surprise them with your capacity to take in new information with grace, humility, and excitement. We have all been surrounded by a person like this, and we know how sexy it is. Call it ambition, call it passion. What it is happens to be what church services try to do each Sunday, with mixed results. Soul Care is not treating yourself. It is cultivating a personality to ward off the darkness. It is not about waiting to die. It is about learning to live.

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