The Left Hand of Darkness – Nationalism and Communication

On of the things that immediately struck me about shifgrethor is that it’s an ideology based on the premise that all communication is rhetorical. Consider Genly’s thoughts on his first interview with the king of Karhide, Argaven:

Though Argaven might be neither sane nor shrewd, he had had long practice in the evasions and challenges and rhetorical subtleties used in conversation by those whose main aim in life was the achievement and maintenance of the shifgrethor relationship on a high level. Whole areas of that relationship were still blank to me, but I knew something about the competitive, prestige-seeking aspect of it, and about the perpetual conversational duel that can result from it. That I was not dueling with Argaven, but trying to communicate with him, was itself an incommunicable fact. (35)

I’ve frequently noticed in “alien encounter” stories that language is something of a barrier, but the ideology behind that language isn’t that big of deal. For example, in Octavia Butler’s Dawn, Lilith is slightly altered genetically by the Oankali to remember everything she has heard, meaning that the language lessons she was undergoing have a new efficacy. However, translation seems to continue to work on a one-to-one model; the fact that the Oankali are supposedly a non-hierarchical race does not seem to affect Lilith’s ability to understand their language at all. Here we see something a bit different; Genly has no problem with speaking Karhidish or Orgota, but there are aspects of communication that he does not understand at all, and we as readers are repeatedly reminded by him that he struggles with understanding. Similarly we are constantly reminded of his difficulty in seeing Estraven as ambisexual. There are underlying ideologies to communication that Genly simply cannot comprehend for quite a while. And, of course, he seems to be assuming that his own communication is unrhetorical, even though he is in fact attempting to persuade the Gethenians to join the Ekumen of Known Worlds. But beyond all communication being part of shifgrethor, it seems that almost any act has the potential to confirm or insult shifgrethor. Once he reaches Orgoreyn, Genly says, “Manners here were certainly different from manners in Karhide; there, the fuss he was making would either have degraded his own shifgrethor or insulted mine; I wasn’t sure which, but I would have done one or the other — practically everything did” (127). Shifgrethor is constantly on-going and extremely performative, which does make it more like our postmodern conceptions of ethos than Aristotle’s (though I stand by my previous statement that shifgrethor and ethos shouldn’t be conflated).

Genly’s thoughts on shifgrethor upon entering Orgoreyn are important in discussions of nationalism in this novel as well. One of the things I liked the best about this novel is that we get to see two different cultures on this planet rather than the Gethenians being collapsed into one cultural group, and the tensions between national identity and shifgrethor play out in interesting ways. At one point Genly says to Estraven, “You’re isolated, and undivided. Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism” (252). Estraven refutes Genly’s assumption, stating, “We are dualists too. Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other” (252, emphasis in original). This harkens back to a previous instance when Estraven spoke of “the other” shortly before his exile, when he explains to Genly what he means by patriotism: “No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression” (20). If shifgrethor is an expression of Gethenian unity, patriotism is then an expression of Gethenian duality. Karhide is often suggested to be lacking in a certain national cohesiveness which Genly describes like this: “Quarrels, murders, feuds, forays, vendettas, assassinations, tortures and abominations, all these were in their repertory of human accomplishments; but they did not go to war. They lacked, it seemed, the capacity to mobilize. They behaved like animals in that respect; or like women. They did not behave like men, or ants” (51). The gendered nature of this comment aside, Genly references ants again when he is imprisoned in a work camp in Orgoreyn: “If there were ants on Winter, Gethenians might have tried to imitate them long ago. The regime of the Voluntary Farm is a fairly recent thing, limited to one country of the planet and literally unknown elsewhere” (191). Sharp contrast is drawn between Karhide and Orgoreyn; whereas Estraven calls Karhide a “family quarrel” and Genly witnesses the feudal system in which by and large individual lords do as they will, Genly describes the Orgota as “people trained from birth in a discipline of cooperation, obedience, submission to a group purpose ordered from above,” in short, people who are able to mobilize (186).

The increasing national unity in Orgoreyn seems to have a correlating diminishment of shifgrethor. In his journals, Estraven writes, “Tibe [the prime minister put in place after Estraven’s exile] wants to teach Karhide how to lie. He takes his lessons from Orgoreyn: a good school” and later explains that Karhide becoming more like Orgoreyn would most likely result in war erupting between the two (162). Genly hears Tibe’s attempts on the radio, saying, “He talked much about pride of country and love of the parentland but little of shifgrethor, personal pride or prestige” (108). This suggests to me that nationalism and shifgrethor are, in fact, incompatible, and this can perhaps be seen most clearly in the difference in how Karhiders and Orgota treat shifgrethor, which we can see when Genly comments on the differing manners and customs of the Orgota which would have been considered shameful in Karhide. Moreover, Orgota seem to have much less difficulty waiving shifgrethor, perhaps showing that with the construction of the national identity, maintaining the integrity of self throught shifgrethor becomes increasing less important, and given the somewhat dystopic nature of Orgoreyn (labor camps, secret police, the necessity of having “papers” for travel and work), I think that Le Guin is suggesting that this is a bad thing.

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