Sunday, April 6, 2008

Ursula K. Le Guin's Cheek by Jowl

I'm pleased to announce that Aqueduct Press will be publishing a new collection of essays by Ursula K. Le Guin, Cheek by Jowl, scheduled for release in March 2009. The collection's eight essays argue passionately for the necessity of fantasy in making and negotiating our world and refuse the ghettoization of both fantasy and "kid's lit" in favor of the supposedly more literary (and serious) realism.

[photo by Joyce Scrivner]

Just to give you a taste, here is the opening of the title essay, "Cheek by Jowl":

I am writing at a desk over which is pinned a painting from the Mexican state of Guerrero. It is in very bright colors of blue and red and orange and pink and green, and shows a village, drawn in the kind of perspective I understand -- no vanishing point. There are lots of flowers the size of trees, or trees the size of flowers. This village is busy: a lady is selling pies, men are carrying sacks, a young man is proposing to a young woman, a gentleman is playing the guitar and a lady is snubbing him, people are gardening, grinding corn, cooking, coming out of church, going to school; a cowboy on a horse is herding some cows and a bull, there is a cock-fight going on, a donkey pulls a cart into town, there are rabbits, chickens, and dogs in the house yards, at least I think they're dogs although they're rather hard to tell from the goats — or are they sheep? — next door, horses carrying loads are trotting down a street past the drunk man lying on his back kicking his heels in the air, there are fish in the stream, and up on the bright green hill under the bright golden sun stand two fine stags, one bright white and one bright red.

There are almost as many animals in the painting as people, and all of them are mixed up together, cheek by jowl, except for the wild stags, who stand aloof.

If you took the animals out of the picture it wouldn't be a true picture of the village, any more than if you took the people out of it, for the villagers' lives and the animals' lives are totally entwined. Food, drink, transportation, sport: the animals provide all that to the villagers, and therefore the villagers provide for the animals; each is at the service of the other. Interdependent. A community. Cheek by jowl. And this is the way most of us have lived during the several thousand years of human history, until just the last century or two.

The two stags, the only wild animals in the picture, stand outside the village, not part of it, yet very much part of the picture.

Before history, before agriculture, we lived for hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers. A hunter-gatherer village typically consisted of people only, with maybe some pets -- dogs or baby animals. Such a human community was an element in a predominately nonhuman community: forest, jungle, grassland, or desert, with its stable population of plants and animals, its ecosystem. Each species, including ours, was part of this population, this interdependent system. Each species went about its business on a more or less equal footing -- the tribal village, the ant hill, the antelope herd, the wolf pack. As hunter-gatherers, our relationship to the animals was not one of using, caretaking, ownership. We were among, not above. We were a link in the food chain. We hunted deer; lions hunted us. With the animals we didn't eat and that didn't eat us, our relationship was neutral or neighborly: some neighbors are tiresome, some are useful, or liked, or laughable, or admirable.

[...] The more we herded and bred animals for food and work, domesticating and dominating them, and the more we lived in cities among other humans only, the easier it was to separate ourselves from other species, to assert difference and dominance, denying kinship and its obligations. In Europe, the idea of community or neighborliness with animals became so rare that St Francis was considered strange and saintly merely for asserting it.

By the eighteenth century in Europe we'd invented "Nature." Nature comprises all the other species and all the places where they live and we don't. Idealised or demonised, Nature is humanity's Other. We stand outside it and above it.

In the forest, the village, or the farm, our interdependence with animals was unmistakable, community was a fact of life; we could despise our domestic animals, bully them, brutalise them, but we couldn't get on without them and we knew it, and so we knew them. But the cities kept growing and the farms and the wilderness shrinking. After the Industrial Revolution, more and more people lived without any daily contact with other species. In the twentieth century, when the Ford replaced the horse, the last animal to be of essential use in cities, it became possible to live a whole life indifferent to and ignorant of other species. The animals needful to us for food and other requirements are elsewhere, in distant batteries and ranches and slaughterhouses; our dependence on them is so well hidden that we can literally not know it. It takes an informed, active, and uncomfortable imagination even to connect a living pig or hen with the plastic-wrapped slab, the batter-fried lumps. The disconnection is radical, the alienation complete. With the evidence of continuity gone, the sense of community is gone. We have made a world for ourselves alone, in which nothing matters, nothing has meaningful existence, but us. There are no Others.

In this radically impoverished, single-species world, pets have become intensely important links to the nonhuman world. Watching the many animal shows on TV gives us the illusion of being in touch with that world. Birdwatching, fishing, hunting -- by now an entirely artificial hi-tech sport, but linked sentimentally to its origins: through all these we seek connection with nonhuman beings, or a reminder, however artificial, that there used to be a connection. That other people used to live here. That we had a family.

Our storytellers offer such a connection.


Nancy Jane Moore said...

How excellent!

Vandana Singh said...

Oh thank goodness. Not only that Aqueduct is publishing essays by Ursula K. Le Guin, but that they are these particular essays, on this subject. I believe that good fantasy and SF offer us this lost connection with the part of ourselves we like to call Nature, and perhaps even a way back to it. I look forward to the publication of this collection.

Cat Rambo said...

This collection will rock!

Veronica said...