Saturday, January 14, 2017

Earthsea: the Soul and the Machine

Two young wizards of Earthsea, Ged and Vetch (Ged is the one with the scars on his face). Behind Ged, the Shadow. A wonderful image by Paul Duffield, one of the very few images that manage to do justice to the spirit and the substance of the "Trilogy of Earthsea" by Ursula Le Guin. 

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Arthur C. Clarke)

Long ago, one of my teachers in high school said that the existence of the Middle Ages in history was justified because it had produced such a genius as Dante Alighieri and a masterpiece such as the Comedy. Surely, there is virtue in genuine enthusiasm and it is true, in my opinion, that some ages are characterized - and perhaps justified - by the literature they produce.In this light, I came to think that if the second half of the 20th century had something comparable to Dante's Comedy, that might well be Ursula Le Guin's "Trilogy of Earthsea".

It takes little effort to identify the elements of the fictional Earthsea universe that couple with the corresponding elements in our world, with magic being the Earthsea equivalent of science and technology in our world. Of course, that has to be taken with some caution: it is an old cliché that of saying, for instance, that a girl's eyes are like stars, and then go on describing stars while referring to the girl's eyes. Shakespeare could do that, but Shakespeare was Shakespeare; for a modern writer, allegory is a deadly trap. But in Le Guin's work (just as in Dante's) allegory goes way beyond banality. It has been said that true writers don't think in symbols and I am sure that Le Guin never planned the allegorical two-way correspondences in her world and ours. But, no matter what mental process produces symbols, good literature teems with them. Le Guin's writing, then, sprouts out symbols like a Medieval cathedral sprouts out gargoyles.

So, what is the Earthsea world telling us? To explain my point, I have to start from far away. Imagine that you have never been exposed to the thousands of years of accumulation of what we call "culture". Culture is a way of classifying and categorizing; it tells you that things may be organic/inorganic, hard/soft, good/bad, friendly/unfriendly, etcetera. But imagine that you are looking at the world with fresh eyes; as if seeing it for the first time. You see all sort of things: people, animals, rivers, rocks, building, mountains, and much more. And you try to make some sense of all that. So, you notice that some things move, grow, shrink, and change shape. There seems to be some hierarchy in this kind of entities; some move fast and some slow, some don't move at all, but that doesn't mean they never do (think of a volcano). Let's  say that that you could think that all things have a soul; in a way they are like you, there is a certain kinship in all things.

So, if things have a soul, then you can speak to them. To people, you can talk and they talk back to you. You can do that also with animals; they won't talk back to you but they may listen. You can talk to plants, streams, and rocks; who knows? They might be listening. You may well try to convince the sky to produce some rain when you need it. Praying, dancing, offering sacrifices. That's the origin of what we call "religion", that's a very, very old way of understanding the universe. The universe has a soul. It is a soul. It is the definition of God (or of the Gods).

But there is also another way of understanding the universe: it is to assume that it is a sort of a machine. A machine is not something you talk to; it is something you act upon. And if you act in the right way, it will react predictably and as expected. So, you may pray to get the benevolence of the soul of a great forest tree, but you may also chop it down with an axe. You can do the same with an enemy: if you bump his head with a battle axe, the results will be predictable. If you know the functioning of the machine, then you can make it behave as you want to. This is the origin of Magic; that some also call "craft". Finding the rules that things follow gives you power on them.

Religion may be older than magic, but they seem to have been going in parallel in human history. Take one of the oldest Western pieces of literature, the Iliad, and you'll find Gods appearing on almost every page, but no wizard ever crosses them. But, in the "Odyssey"; you have an almost prototypical witch; Circe, who turns people into pigs, although she is also described as a Goddess. In some of the earliest literature we have, the Sumerians left us plenty of healing recipes where they freely mix invocation to Gods with herbs and other substances that surely had some healing powers of their own.

In time, Religion and Magic diverged more and more to the point that most modern religions despise magic as evil. Priests may well perform rituals to obtain something for the benefit of the faithful, but they are always careful to state that success or failure is never guaranteed. If you pray God (or the priest does that for you) you may ask Him that He would cure your ailment. If you are cured, then you are supposed to thank God for His benevolence. But the ailment doesn't disappear or you get worse, then you are not supposed to blame God for that. The divine will is unfathomable and it may be argued that it is your fault because of some sin you committed that made you unworthy of God's benevolence. A win-win condition for the priests, for sure.

Over history, magic took different paths. One was that of the Europan alchemists. They tended to renounce to all the dark incantations of old times and they became true empiricists, originators of what we call the "scientific method". Their theoretical basis was faulty and they lost a lot of time in tasks that today we recognize as impossible. But they were always in search for things that worked. Modern science is a wary of recognizing their role, but the basic idea is the same: the world is a machine: you don't need Gods to operate on it. And, in a certain way, the daughter of alchemy, science, triumphed. In most of the Western World, when people want to be cured of their sickness, they trust a doctor more than a priest; even though they may also pray God to give them a hand, just in case. But praying God is way more unreliable than taking a pill or undergoing surgery.

There is a problem with the universal machine, though. Magic, just as Science, has no moral compass: the end result of magic doesn't depend on whether it is done for a good or a bad purpose. Science-based medicine will unflinchingly cure an evil person while the best modern technologies have developed weapons that will kill anyone. And this is a big problem especially when science fails - and it does. While you can't sue God for malpractice, you can and you do that when you think a doctor did something wrong to you or to someone close to you. And modern science has been unable to maintain its promises and it is been as an evil form of black magic for having lost control on those that it did manage to deliver; think of nuclear energy as an example.

Now, let's go back to Earthsea. It is a society nearly fully based on magic, just as our modern world is nearly fully based on science. That allows Le Guin to dissect the moral dilemmas of science in a variety of narrative plots. Earthsea is a machine all based on the "old speech" that plays the same role as mathematical models in our world. This old speech, in other words, is something like an instruction manual for the world machine. Then, the novel describes idealized scientists - portraited as wizards. They are benevolent, crafty, intelligent, and always worried about not doing damage to the equilibrium of things. One wishes our scientists were like that! But, even the wise mages of Earthsea have problems. One is that they can do very little; we see them mending broken vases, curing goats' infected udders, raising - sometimes - the magewind to push boats, and curing human ailments only when they are not too serious. So, they are at times considered as useless and rejected. One of the stories of the series deals with an age in which wizardry had fell from grace and was widely despised. Just like what may soon happen to science in our world.

True, the protagonist of most of the stories, Ged, also fights dragons, but dragons are not a problem; they are more part of the danger of doing science, a little like nuclear energy. The real problem with magery in Earthsea is the same we have with science in our world: the lack of a moral compass. So, in the first story of the series, Ged's enemy is not a dragon but himself. And, later on, it will be another mage, turned evil. Over and over, the mages of Earthsea are at loss on how to deal with the Otherworld; the realm of the dead. A realm that's alien to magic and to science, but that's the natural domain of religion.

Le Guin's view of the Otherworld is nearly identical to the Sumerian one reported in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the interaction of the dead and the living is a theme that goes through the whole series; concluding it in a way that's a pure rendition of the Buddhist concept of Nirvana. The dead vanish in a puff of smoke, but the problem remains and it is one that neither science nor magic can solve.

So, Earthsea is not a Godless world; it can't be. It was created by Segoy; who maybe is a dragon, or maybe he is a God. And it is hinted that there is something more; much more than that and at least one region of Earthsea, the Kargad Lands in the North, are described as dominated by a religious vision of the world. Initially, the Kargish are just pirates and barbarians, but then they take up power and importance in the stories, hinting that their view may be on a par - perhaps superiors to their crafty Southern Neighbors. It is like that: Earthsea is a real world, it is alive. Le Guin says that she won't write more novels about it, but that doesn't matter. It was another writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who said that a writer only adds pages to a giant book that's being written by all the previous writers.

So, as I am writing these note, I am almost overwhelmed at the vastity and the complexity of what I am trying to describe. The Earthsea universe is so complex that to describe it you would need to write another complete Earthsea cycle. Something like what Borges had one of his characters trying to do, becoming capable of rewriting the Don Quixote, exactly as Cervantes had written it. Or, maybe, you need to live in Earthsea, as Ursula Le Guin has probably done. So, in the end, what's the point of creating a whole new universe which has the same problems we have with ours? Maybe creating universes is unavoidable for some people with truly awesome creative powers. Maybe there is no rational justification for doing it, it just happens. And maybe these universes are not created by anyone, they just exist and they are described by some people who have the gift of seeing them.

Maybe we should just read about Earthsea for the pure joy of doing that. Or, maybe, we can read it in order to learn something about the contradictions and the problems of our world. What's all our science for? Can it solve problems or does it just create more of them? Can we attain the "balance" that the wizards of Earthsea keep striving for? How can we keep our nuclear dragons for burning all of us to cinders? What should we do with our dull and arrogant wizards who think they know more than anyone else?

Will we ever know if the universe is a soul or a machine? Maybe not. Like Ged in his little ship, the Lookfar, "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (*)” It is our destiny to follow the great current that's taking us across the ocean of time to an unknown destination. Or maybe toward Earthsea.

(*) For those who live in Earthsea and may not have heard of "The Great Gatsby" by Scott Fitzgerald, that book is the origin of this quote.

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