The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

New Project (3)

p. 31

I SLEPT LATE and spent the tail of the morning reading over my own notes on Palace etiquette and the observations on Gethenian psychology and manners made by my predecessors, the Investigators. I didn’t take in what I read, which didn’t matter since I knew it by heart and was reading merely to shut up the interior voice that kept telling me It has all gone wrong.


One voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies, given time; plenty of time; but time is the thing that the Ekumen has plenty of . . . You don’t said the interior voice, but I reasoned it into silence, and arrived at the Palace for my audience with the king at Second Hour full of calm and resolution. 

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p. 68

I knelt down beside Faxe. He looked at me with his clear eyes. For that instant I saw him as I had seen him in the dark, as a woman armed in light and burning in a fire, crying out, “Yes—”

Faxe’s soft speaking-voice broke the vision. “Are you answered, Asker?”

“I am answered, Weaver.”

Indeed I was answered. Five years from now Gethen would be a member of the Ekumen: yes. No riddles, no hedging. Even then I was aware of the quality of that answer, not so much a prophecy as an observation. I could not evade my own certainty that the answer was right. It had the imperative clarity of a hunch.

We have NAFAL ships and instantaneous transmission and mindspeech, but we haven’t yet tamed hunch to run in harness; for that trick we must go to Gethen. 

“I serve as the filament,” Faxe said to me a day or two after the Foretelling. “The energy builds up and builds up in us, always sent back and back, redoubling the impulse every time, until it breaks through the light is in me, around me, I am the light. . . The Old Man of Arbin Fastness once said that if the Weaver could be put in a vacuum at the moment of the Answer, he’d go on burning for years. That’s what the Yomeshta believe of Meshe: that he saw past and future clear, not for a moment, but all during his life after the Question of Shorth. It’s hard to believe, I doubt a man could endure it. But no matter. . . .”

Nusuth, the ubiquitous and ambiguous negative of the Handdara. 

We were strolling side by side, and Faxe looked at me. His face, one of the most beautiful human faces I ever saw, seemed hard and delicate as carved stone. “In the darkness,” he said, “there were ten; not nine. There was a stranger.”

“Yes, there was. I had no barrier against you. You are a Listener, Faxe, a natural empath; and probably a powerful natural telepath as well. That’s why you’re the Weave, the one who can keep the tensions and responses of the group running in a self-augmenting pattern until the strain breaks the pattern itself and you reach through for your answer.”

He listened with grave interest. “It is strange to see the mysteries of my discipline from outside, through your eyes. I’ve only seen them from within, as a disciple.”

“If you permit—if you wish, Faxe, I should like to communicate with you in mindspeech.” I was sure now that he was a natural Communicant; his consent and a little practice should serve to lower his unwitting barrier. 

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“Yes. I see that. . . . Well, I thank you, Genry. But my business is unlearning, not learning. And I’d rather not yet learn an art that would change the world entirely.”

“By your own foretelling this world will change, and within five years.”

“And I’ll change with it, Genry. But I have no wish to change it.”

It was raining, the long, fine rain of Gethenian summer. We walked under the hemmen-trees on the slopes above the Fastness, where there were no paths. Light fell gray among dark branches, clear water dropped from the scarlet needles. The air was chill yet mild, and full of the sound of rain. 

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“Faxe, I don’t think I understand.” 

“Well, we come here to Fastnesses mostly to learn what questions not to ask.”

“But you’re the Answerers!”

“You don’t see yet, Genry, why we perfected and practice Foretelling?”


“To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”

I pondered that a good while, as we walked side by side through the rain, under the dark branches of the Forest of Otherhord. Within the white hood Faxe’s face was tired and quiet, its light quenched. Yet he still awed me a little. When he looked at me with his clear, kind, candid eyes, he looked at me out of a tradition thirteen thousand years old: a way of thought and way of life so old, so well established, so integral and coherent as to give a human being the unselfconsciousness, the authority, the completeness of a wild animal, a great strange creature who looks straight at you out of his eternal present. . . . 

“The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no heartgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion. . . . Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable—the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”

“That we shall die.”

“Yes. There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer. . . . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.

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It certainly was difficult to imagine him as a young mother. He was a hard shrewd jovial politician, whose acts of kindness served his interest and whose interest was himself. His type is panhuman. I had met him on Earth, and on Hain, and on Ollul. I expect to meet him in Hell. 

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“Most of them are warmer. Some are hot; Gde, for instance. It’s mostly sand and rock desert. It was warm to start with, and an exploitive civilization wrecked its natural balances fifty or sixty thousand years ago, burned up the forests for kindling, as it were. There are still people there, but it resembles—if I understand the Text—the Yomesh idea of where thieves go after death.”

That drew a grin from Obsle, a quiet, approving grin which made me suddenly revise my estimation of the man. 

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“I have here what I was asked to bring you,” I said, and gave him the foilskin-wrapped packet of money, which I had set out on a table ready after his call. He took it and thanked me gravely. I had not sat down. After a moment, still holding the packet, he stood up. 

My conscience itched a little, but I did not scratch it. I wanted to discourage him from coming to me. That this involved humiliating him was unfortunate. 

He looked straight at me. He was shorter than I, of course, short-legged and compact, not as tall even as many women of my race. Yet when he looked at me he did not seem to be looking up at me. I did not meet his eyes. I examined the radio on the table with a show of abstracted interest. 

“One can’t believe everything one hears on that radio, here,” he said pleasantly. “Yet it seems to me that here in Mishnory you are going to be in some need of information, and advice.”

“There seem to be a number of people quite ready to supply it.”

“And there’s safety in numbers, eh? Ten are more trustworthy than one. Excuse me, I shouldn’t use Karhidish, I forgot.” He went on in Orgota, “Banished men should never speak their native tongue; it comes bitter from their mouth. And this language suits a traitor better, I think; drips off one’s teeth like sugar-syrup. Mr. Ai, I have the right to thank you. You performed a service both for me and for my old friend and kemmering Ashe Foreth, and in his name and mine I claim my right. My thanks take the form of advice.” He paused; I said nothing. I had never heard him use this sort of harsh, elaborate courtesy, and had no idea what it signified. He went on, “You are, in Mishnory, what you were not, in Erhenrang. There they said you were; here they’ll say you’re not. You are the tool of a faction. I advise you to be careful how you let them use you. I advise you to find out what the enemy faction is, and who they are, and never to let them use you, for they will not use you well.”

He stopped. I was about to demand that he be more specific, but he said, “Goodbye, Mr. Ai,” turned, and left. I stood benumbed. The man was like an electric shock—nothing to hold on to and you don’t know what hit you. 

He had certainly spoiled the mood of peaceful self-congratulation in which I had eaten breakfast. I went to the narrow window and looked out. The snow had thinned a little. It was beautiful, drifting in white clots and clusters like a fall of cherry-petals in the orchards of my home, when a spring wind blows down the green slopes of Borland, where I was born: on Earth, warm Earth, where trees bear flowers in spring. All at once I was utterly downcast and homesick. Two years I had spent on this damned planet, and the third winter had begun before autumn was underway—months and months of unrelenting cold, sleet, ice, wind, rain, snow, cold, cold inside, cold outside, cold to the bone and the marrow of the bone. 

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He gave me Ashe’s money as one would give a hired assassin his fee. I have not often been so angry, and I insulted him deliberately. He knew I was angry but I am not sure he understood that he was insulted; he seemed to accept my advice despite the manner of its giving; and when my temper cooled I saw this, and was worried by it. Is it possible that all along in Erhenrang he was seeking my advice, not knowing how to tell me that he sought it? If so, then he must have misunderstood half and not understood the rest of what I told him by my fireside in the Palace, the night after the Ceremony of the Keystone. His shifgrethor must be founded, and composed, and sustained, altogether differently from ours; and when I thought myself most blunt and frank with him he may have found me most subtle and unclear. 

His obtuseness is ignorance. His arrogance is ignorance. He is ignorant of us: we of him. He is infinitely a stranger, and I a fool, to let my shadow cross the light of the hope he brings us. I keep my mortal vanity down. I keep out of his way: for clearly that is what he wants. He is right. An exiled Karhidish is no credit to his cause.

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To oppose something is to maintain it. 

They say here “all roads lead to Mishnory.” To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the the Mishnory road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road. 

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The Envoy spoke well, with moving candor and urgency. There is an innocence in him that I have found merely foreign and foolish; yet in another moment that seeming innocence reveals a discipline of knowledge and a largeness of purpose that awes me. Through him speaks a shrewd and magnanimous people, a people who have woven together into one wisdom a profound, old, terrible, and unimaginably various experience of life. But he himself is young: impatient, inexperienced. He stands higher than we stand, seeing wider, but he is himself only the height of a man. 

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No raindrop falls in the storms of autumn that ever fell before, and the rain has fallen, and falls, and will fall throughout all the autumns of the years. Meshe saw each drop, where it fell, and falls, and will fall. 

In the Eye of Meshe are all the stars, and the darknesses between the stars: and all are bright.

In the answering of the Question of the Lord of Shorth, in the moment of the Seeing, Meshe saw all the sky as if it were all one sun. Above the earth and under the earth all the sphere of sky was bright as the sun’s surface, and there was no darkness. For he saw not what was, nor what will be, but what is. The stars that flee and take away their light all were present in his eye, and all their light shone presently.*

Darknesses is only in the mortal eye, that thinks it sees, but sees not. In the Sight of Meshe there is no darkness. **

Therefore those that call upon the darkness are made fools of and spat out from the mouth of Meshe, for they name what is not,  calling it Source and End.

There is neither source nor end, for all things are in the Center of Time. As all the stars may be reflected in a round raindrop falling in the night: so too do all the stars reflect the raindrop. There is neither darkness nor death, for all things are, in the light of the Moment, and their end and their beginning are one. 

One center, one seeing, one law, one light. Look now into the Eye of Meshe!

*This is a mystical expression of one of the theories used to support the expanding-universe hypothesis, first proposed by the Mathematical School of Sith over four thousand years ago and generally accepted by later cosmologists, even though meteorological conditions on Gethen prevent their gathering much observational support from astronomy. The rate of expansion (Hubble’s constant; Rerherek’s constant) can in fact be estimated from the observed amount of light in the night sky; the point here involved is that, if the universe were not expanding, the night sky would not appear to be dark. 

**The Handdarata.

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I was aware of his thirst and his suffering, and the sick man’s, and the others’, much as I was aware of my own. I was unable to do anything about any of the suffering, and therefore accepted it, as they did, placidly.

I know that people might behave very differently in the same circumstances. These were Orgota, people trained from birth in a discipline of cooperation. Obedience, submission to a group purpose ordered from above. The qualities of independence and decision were weakened in them. They had not much capacity for anger. They formed a whole, I among them; each felt it, and it was a refuge and true comfort in the night, that wholeness of the huddled group each drawing life from the others. But three was no spokesman for the whole, it was headless, passive. 

Men whose will was tempered to a sharper edge might have done much better: talked more, shared the water more justly, given more ease to the sick, and kept their courage higher. I don’t know. I only know what it was like inside the truck. 

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Prisoners who had been there for several years were psychologically and I believe to some extent physically adapted to this chemical castration. They were as sexless as steers. They were without shame and without desire, like the angels. But it is not human to be without shame and without desire. 

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Once he told me that, being so slow-thinking, he had to guide his acts by a general intuition of which way his “luck” was running, and that this intuition rarely failed him. He said it seriously; it may have been true. The Foretellers of the Fastnesses are not the only people on Winter who can see ahead. They have tamed and trained the hunch, but not increased its certainty. In this matter the Yomeshta also have a point: the gift is perhaps not strictly or simply one of foretelling, but is rather the power of seeing (if only for a flash) everything at once: seeing whole. 

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“No, that’s true. . . . You hate Orgoreyn, don’t you?”

“Very few Orgota know how to cook. Hate Orgoreyn? No, how should I? How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession. . . . Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.”

Ignorant, in the Handdara sense: to ignore the abstraction, to hold fast to the thing. There was in this attitude something feminine, a refusal of the abstract, the ideal, a submissiveness to the given, which rather displeased me. 

Yet he added, scrupulous, “A man who doesn’t detest a bad government is a fool. And if there were such a thing as a good government on earth, it would be a great joy to serve it.”

There we understood each other. “I know something of that joy,” I said. 

“Yes; so I judged.”

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There is a frailty about him. He is all unprotected, exposed, vulnerable, even to his sexual organ which he must carry always outside himself; but he is strong, unbelievably strong. I am not sure he can keep hauling any longer than I can, but he can haul harder and faster than I—twice as hard. He can lift the sledge at front or rear to ease it over an obstacle. I could not lift and hold that weight, unless I was in dothe. To match his frailty and strength, he has a spirit easy to despair and quick to defiance: a fierce impatient courage. This slow, hard, crawling work we have been doing these days wears him out in body and will, so that if he were one of my race I should think him a coward, but he is anything but that; he has a ready bravery I have never seen the like of. He is ready, eager to stake life on the cruel quick test of the precipice. 

“Fire and fear, good servants, bad lords.” He makes fear serve him. I would have let fear lead me around by the long way. Courage and reason are with him. What good seeking the safe course, on a journey such as this? There are senseless courses, which I shall not take; but there is no safe one. 

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Finally he asked, had he offended me? I explained my silence, with some embarrassment. I was afraid he would laugh at me. After all he is no more an oddity, a sexual freak, than I am: up here on the Ice each of us is singular, isolate, I as cut off from those like me, from my society and its rules, as he from his. There is no world full of other Gethenians here to explain and support my existence. We are equals at last, equal, alien, alone. He did not laugh, of course. Rather he spoke with a gentleness that I did not know was in him. After a while he too came to speak of isolation, of loneliness. 

“Your race is appallingly alone in this world, No other mammalian species. No other ambiseuxal species. No animal intelligent enough even to domesticate as pets. I must color your thinking, this uniqueness. I don’t mean scientific thinking only, though you are extraordinary hypothesizers—it’s extraordinary that you arrived at any concept of evolution, faced with that unbridgeable gap between yourselves and the lower animals. But philosophically, emotionally: to be so solitary, in so hostile a world: it must affect your entire outlook.”

“The Yomeshta would say that man’s singularity is his divinity.

“Lords of the Earth, yes. Other cults on other worlds have come to the same conclusion. They tend to be the cults of dynamic, aggressive, ecology-breaking cultures. Orgoreyn is in the pattern, in its way; at least they seem bent on pushing things around. What do the Handdarata say?”

“Well, in the Handdara . . . you know, there’s no theory, no dogma. . . . Maybe they are less aware of the gap between men and beasts, being more occupied with the likenesses, the links, the whole of which living things are a part.” Tormer’s Lay had been all day in my mind, and I said the words,

Light is the left hand of darkness

And darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

Together like lovers in kemmer, 

Like hands joined together,

Like the end and the way. 

My voice shook as I said the lines, for I remembered as I said them that in the letter my brother wrote me before his death he had quoted the same words. 

Ai brooded, and after some time he said, “You’re isolated, and undivided. Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.”

“We are dualists too. Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.”

“I and Thou,” he said. “Yes, it does, after all, go even wider than sex. . . .”

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Information on the book: The Left Hand of Darkness


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