The Left Hand of Darkness – Introduction to Shifgrethor

As soon as I read Le Guin’s introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, I immediately began to draw connections between LHD and Embassytown, especially given that Le Guin’s name comes up quite frequently in interviews with Mieville. Here’s a selection from that introduction:

It is words that make the trouble and confusion. We are asked now to consider words as useful in only one way: as signs. Our philosophers, some of them, would have us agree that a word (sentence, statement) has value only in so far as it has one single meaning, points to one fact that is comprehensible to the rational intellect, logically sound, and — ideally — quantifiable. Apollo, the god of light, of reason, of proportion, harmony, number — Apollo blinds those who press too close in worship. Don’t look straight at the sun. Go into a dark bar for a bit and have a beer with Dionysios, every now and then. I talk about the gods; I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth. The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor. (xvii)

In the introduction, Le Guin posits science fiction not as an extrapolative genre, predicting the future, but as a “thought-experiment,” something that instead reflects reality rather than makes any kind of prediction. She goes on to say that LHD is populated by an androgynous race, but she is in no way predicting that humans will become sexually androgynous so much as reflecting the fact that the lines between gender-specific roles are becoming more and more blurred, giving us career moms and stay-at-home dads for example.

Related to this androgyny — but really, ambisexuality is a better term since each Gethen has the potential to be either male or female during its mating period — is the concept of shifgrethor, which Genly attempts to define as “prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen” (14). I was at first disposed to this of shifgrethor as ethos, but that’s not quite right at all. Ethos is perhaps consciously crafted within a particular text or is generated by the multiple public faces/appearances of an individual (we can even talk of ethoi), and of course one individual in one situation may be interpreted in several different ethoi by different audiences given their particular backgrounds, assumptions, terministic screens, etc. Shifgrethor is not like that at all. Shifgrethor, Estraven tells Genly, comes from the old word for shadow (266), and given that Gethenian philosophy conceives of light and dark not as opposites but rather as a kind of unity, I think it is safe to assume that a person’s shifgrethor is not separate from him/herself. Furthermore, a person’s shifgrethor cannot be added to or taken away; it can only be insulted or confirmed.

One of the ways I think that we can think about shifgrethor is as a certain integrity of the self that has to do with the Gethen’s ambisexuality. I’ve found Gayle Rubin’s essay concerning the trafficking of women in kinship systems to be helpful in thinking about this. She writes, “Kinship systems rest upon marriage. They, therefore, transform males and females in ‘men’ and ‘women,’ each an incomplete half which can only find wholeness when united with the other. Men and women are, of course, different. But they are not as different as day and night, earth and sky, yin and yang, life and death” (279). What caught my attention in this passage was the way that Rubin compares the duality of man and woman to other dualities, dualities that Gethens readily turn into unities. I think that perhaps one way of understanding the difficulty Gethenians have in waiving shifgrethor is by thinking about the waiving of shifgrethor as a kind of acknowledgement/announcement of the un-unity of self. Interestingly, it is right after Estraven explains to Genly that shifgrethor comes shadow that Genly is able to see Estraven not first as a man then as a woman, but as both at once.

  • Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books, 2010.
  • Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes of the Political Economy of Sex.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill Inc., 2005. 273-288.

One thought on “The Left Hand of Darkness – Introduction to Shifgrethor

  1. Pingback: Pop Culture Le Guin | The Reef

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