In this third installment of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS Doctoral candidate Josh Kopin takes us to Paris through the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin. Read on for Josh’s take on conferencing abroad and the pleasures of traveling with your favorite writer.
The second best thing to do in Paris is to buy books. I don’t read French, but even buying English language books in Paris is a joy. All bookstores are jewels, but Parisian bookstores are especially striking by decree: the famous stalls that line the Seine, where I regret not picking up a poster of the 1953 Tour de France route; the big corporate ones a few blocks into the Latin Quarter, where I bought the first two novels by Northern Irish writer Anna Burns, whose recent dense and beautiful and dystopian novel of the Troubles, Milkman, flows like a river with rapids and dams; to the tourist trap at Shakespeare and Co, where I couldn’t resist a stout edition of Chinese science fiction and a Murakami-lite novel from Taiwan about a missing bicycle. But the bookstore that’s bookmarked in my memory is the big, airy one with the tall windows and the red panes across from the Jardin du Luxembourg, where a satire in translation, a hip award-winner, and one of the most beautiful book-objects I’ve ever seen, from a British press that publishes neglected twentieth century women writers, somehow found their way into my bag. We chatted with the owner, who mentioned she was looking for partners and we counted up our euros and our pocket lint and we told her we would have to think about it.
We’re still thinking about it.
Holding books in Parisian bookstores is a joy; American paperbacks almost never fulfill the primary function of a softcover book, which is to fit into your back pocket. In my two weeks in France, I didn’t ride in a car even once. Having a book at hand at on the train, in the park, walking down the street, having so many small, satisfying treasures to choose from, felt just about utopian.
I was in Paris this summer to talk about books, specifically about one book, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, at a conference dedicated to her life and work. When Le Guin died at the beginning of 2019, I was devastated; I turn to her for wisdom and guidance; she is my heart. The opportunity to celebrate her with others was a kind of homecoming; of the many extraordinarily talented and dedicated scholars I was on the schedule, I’m proud that I can now call a few my friends.
The Dispossessed, published in 1974, is a novel from Le Guin’s Hainish cycle, a group of experiments in political thinking that proceed from the premise that there are genetically modified humans living on planets arrayed across the stars. In The Left Hand of Darkness, perhaps her most famous novel, the inhabitants of the ice planet Winter are without gender or even differentiated biological sex; the humans of The Dispossessed are covered in short, fine hair, but they are otherwise similar to Earth-humans. The novel is set on the planet Urras, a planet fighting a thinly veiled analogue of the Cold War, and its moon, Anarres, where a colony of anarchists were allowed to settle a century and a half before the events of the novel. On Anarres, individuals are nominally free to do as they please, supported by and supported their society. Guided by the works of a philosopher named Odo, the moon lacks what we would call government; it uses a central computer for planning purposes and the opinions of an individual’s neighbors, rather than laws, as a means of social control. Both planet and moon have recently been shaken by the arrival of representatives from interstellar humanity, including an ambassador from Earth.
The dual stories of the plot center around the youth of the Anerresti physicist Shevek, the way that the stifling social conditions of the moon drive him to rebellion as he completes his great theory of simultaneity (an apparently extraordinary development in theoretical physics that leads to the ansible, a piece of speculative technology that allows individuals to communicate across the vast distances of space in real time), and his eventual fool’s errand to Urras, where he hopes to reconcile the two societies.
My paper focused on an unusual feature of the anarchist philosophy presented in the book, its emphasis on what Le Guin calls “fidelity.” I can say without hesitation or self-consciousness that the passage where I first remember encountering her use of that word changed my life; she writes:
…the variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.
Outside the room is the landscape of time, in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings.
I was awed by Le Guin’s fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity, one of the utopias put forward for consideration in The Dispossessed (subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia”). Modeled on a just relationship between individuals premised on their mutual support for each other’s flourishing rooted in the individual’s moral obligation to promote their own, Le Guin’s fragile, makeshift, improbable utopia is striking because it appears as a fractal, the same pattern repeating over and over at increasingly smaller scales, from the level of the society all the way down to individual relationships. Some of these are premised on the sexual monogamy we usually mean when we use the word fidelity, but the vast majority aren’t, both because most human relationships aren’t sexual and because monogamy is not the default on Anarres.
I gave my talk on Friday morning; Friday afternoon’s sessions were all in French, so my partner and I slipped out, ate some cheese for lunch and drank small sugary espressos after, went shopping for books, and then into the Jardin du Luxembourg.
In the middle of the park, between the small restaurants and the bocce courts, there’s a grand fountain. In the plaza around the fountain sits a little stall that rents tiny toy sail boats and bamboo poles; you put the boat in the fountain, poke it with the stick, watch it sail around until it hits the wall, at which point you get it moving again by giving it another poke with a stick.
This is the best thing to do in Paris.
My partner stayed for a few more days, and after she left I traveled to Angoulême, a small city in the southwest. Every year, the city holds the world’s most important comics festival, and it is the home to a comics museum, open year round. I traveled there to give a paper on the role of the Ranger (a UT-Austin humor magazine that was also responsible for producing a significant number of important American media personalities over several decades in the middle of the twentieth century) in the prehistory of the US underground comix movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Although the Underground was a national phenomenon, it is generally thought of as having been founded in San Francisco; recovering the Ranger and other campus humor rags in the movement’s coalescence serves a broader project of reconceptualizing the Underground that was the focus of an issue of INKS, put out this summer and co-edited by my friends Margaret Galvan and Leah Misemer, that featured my first published academic article.
While I was in Angoulême, the temperature, already hotter than temperate France is used to, exploded. It exploded all over Europe. The Paris I returned to for a day and a half at the end of my trip was still bustling, but it was clearly under a good deal of strain. I went back to the Jardin du Luxembourg to see the boats one last time, but they weren’t there; it was simply too hot.
Although many of Le Guin’s novels are early examples of the increasingly important genre of speculative environmental fiction we now call cli-fi, The Dispossessed is not usually counted among these. Critics instead (and perhaps rightfully) tend to focus on its experiment in anarchist living. But the novel pays clear attention to environmental conditions: its plot turns on a major ecological catastrophe on Anarres, a drought that causes many deaths and shakes Shevek’s faith in the way the moon’s people govern themselves; the beauty of Urras, meanwhile, emerges from its vegetation, its large animals, its wide open wild spaces, all absent from the harsh ecology of the moon. Even the one character from Earth, an ambassador, describes our planet’s future state in environmental terms; ecological catastrophe from climate change has rendered much of the planet uninhabitable, leaving its population at a sparse half a billion.
It’s not clear exactly who Le Guin believes are the dispossessed of her novel’s title. Is it the anarchists of Anarres, scratching by on a barren world? Is it the poor of Urras, rendered abject by capitalist excess? As Paris boiled, as I tried to read my book and watched a fountain emptied of its happy boats, I began to wonder if, instead, she meant us.