Women’s History Month guest, Milena Benini

I love the size of the world. It’s big in some ways and very small in others. I had to go to Croatia to meet Milena Benini. We spent several nights talking and sipping good red wine and nibbling and talking some more. It was as if we’d known each other forever. Since then, we’ve been mere keyboards away from each other. I love her writing and wish more of it were translated into English for me to read. I get my wish this Women’s History Month, for Milena has given us a translation of an article she wrote for Ubiq. It came out the month after Ursula le Guin died. I rather suspect some of you will join in in watching anxiously for more of Milena’s work to appear in English. Gillian

Truly needful things:
where to find them, and what have machete and semicolons got to do with it
(a monologue for two, with recommended reading appended)
Milena Benini

            I actually only clearly remember one novel by Stephen King; a lesser known work entitled Needful Things. It stayed with me because it talks about what people are willing to do when they think they need something. Maybe I’m not allowed to start a text about Ursula K. Le Guin with Stephen King. No, I am allowed. Because:

(..) truth is a matter of the imagination. (Le Guin, 1969)

            Other King novels were not nearly as interesting, and even this one suffers from the same problem that makes me stumble with many other authors: a deep conviction that human nature is fundamentally rotten, that people, deep inside, are just evil, and that cynicism is therefore the only realistic attitude. Growing up with traditional Western canon, this is a conviction that easily gets built into the very core of the attitude towards writing, and even life itself. Until, one day:

It’s very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul. (Le Guin, 1968)

            And also:

The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. (Le Guin, 1973)

            Sentences like this are true enlightenment. Maybe not for everyone – definitely not for everyone, because no enlightenment is universal (enlightenments are intimate matters). But for me, they were, and I wasn’t even aware of the fact at the time. Going back to Needful Things: one of the factors that make the novel so convincing is the fact that all the characters in it go after things they don’t actually need: it is much more difficult, of course, to discover what you really need in life. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across some roadmarks:

Why did we look up for blessing — instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. (…) Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes. (Le Guin, 1983)

            Once you do find out what it is that you need—and the process is far from easy—the needed things need still to be found, or, if that turns out to be impossible, you need to construct, invent, build those truly needful things out of nothing. That is often even more difficult, or impossible. And if you’re doing it, or at least trying to do it through writing, you will find stumbling blocks at every step, like the unforeseeable consequences of Jason’s dragon teeth. On one side, there is the dragontail of the canon; I have already mentioned it. One might think that it is the head, its jaw agape and dangerous, but:

To think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think imitation is superior to invention. (Le Guin, 2004)

            No, the jaws threaten from the other side, where the three-headed hydra of the genre is rising. Because, yes, it is nice there, the space is completely different, but the writing must be clean, clear, easy to follow, invisible. Except:

A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. (Le Guin, 2008)

            The second head of the genre-hydra is the idea, the one that has to be sacrosanct, the axis of everything. Growing up with golden age works, I know exactly what qualifies as science in the expression “science fiction”: physics, astronomy, maybe a little biology (just enough to pucker a few foreheads), robotics. Everything else—history, sociology, philosophy, anthropology—are soft things, way too soft to give birth to the pure crystals of genre writing. No one cares about that. We’ll reach the stars, of course we will, but we’ll do it in nuclear rockets and nuclear families from the American 1950s; with astronauts who smoke and drink and curse like real men and women who, if they’re very lucky, spend a few years in their pre-birthing age working as secretaries. The stories we’ll tell about the future will be essentially the same as the stories of the past: the ones where wars and proclamations are important, while lunches and dances are not. And then:

            My heart dances, dances,

            along these paths it dances,

            through these doors it dances,

            in these rooms it dances

            with the dust motes in the morning sun. (Le Guin, 1985)

            Suddenly, new worlds that open up start getting completely different silhouettes; orders and importances clunk and rattle and change like a Goldberg machine; systems that previously seemed unchangeable melt and disappear, vanish together with the dust motes in the morning sun. That feeling of freedom, a completely different freedom, an unbridled freedom, suddenly takes over and sheds light on completely different spaces, and truly needful things, through this process, gets different names. In this new light:

If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself – as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation – you may hate it or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality.  (Le Guin, 1980)

            And, besides:

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge), by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets), and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying. (Le Guin, 1969)

            If someone is worried that I’ve forgotten the hydra’s third head: today, it is already buried under a fairly large pile of rocks, but in those ancient days, it was still very present and dangerous, and its main task was to keep watch on the borders, making sure no unicorns mount any spaceships, no wizards meet any aliens. The borderline between genres, stronger and more vicious than the Berlin Wall (remember that?) said—more like a sphinx, perhaps, than a hydra—that one of the two was, after all, serious, and the other just frivolous; that one was forward-looking, while the other was regressive (it’s you I’m looking at, Professor S.); that one was, not to put too fine a point to it, more manly, while the other was more like, you know, womanly. However:

            People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within. (Le Guin, 2004)

            And also:

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side you were on.. (Le Guin, 1974)

            And thus, equipped with freedom from canon, from cynicism, from invisible style, from binary divisions of all kinds, I took a step. One, two, three, numberless steps. The first ones were uncertain, because, even with the big things taken care of, the path remained full of tiny little teeth, shoes full of pebbles (ancient Greeks had it right and wore sandals while ploughing dragon fields). Luckily:

True myths may serve for thousands of years as an inexhaustible source of intellectual speculation, religious joy, ethical inquiry, and artistic renewal. The real mystery is not destroyed by reason. The fake one is. You look at it and it vanishes. You look at the Blond Hero — really look — and he turns into a gerbil. But you look at Apollo, and he looks back at you.  (Le Guin, 1976)

            By the way, the Apollo thing really does work: I can vouch for this from personal experience. Of course, bear in mind:

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. (Le Guin, 1976)

            Disregarding the gods, for a long time, my steps remained—and still remain—full of insecurities. Every now and then, the experience is discouraging. With everything else going on, the so called real world and its troubles, the passage of time, the weakness of reactions, occasionally, walking becomes difficult. Strenuous. It would be good if there were a way to make it easier, wouldn’t it? But then:

I have never found anywhere, in the domain of art, that you don’t have to walk to. (There is quite an array of jets, buses and hacks which you can ride to Success; but that is a different destination) It is a pretty wild country. There are, of course, roads. Great artists make the roads; good teachers and good companions can point them out. But there ain’t no free rides, baby. No hitchhiking. And if you want to strike out in any new direction — you go alone. With a machete in your hand and the fear of God in your heart. (Le Guin, 1979)

            Besides:

My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world, and exiles me from it. (Le Guin, 1996)

            And let’s not forget, also:

All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people. (Le Guin, 2004)

            And so, with a machete, or a katana, or  light sabre, or something, following as well as I can the paths she indicated or veering off them to the undergrowth, I keep tottering on. When I get stuck in thick brushwood, get lost in overly long sentences, start fearing I’m growing too soft:

I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.” (Le Guin, 2004)

            Of course, as I grew up (how tender, grew up, but I’ll explain in a moment), I also noticed so many other things for which her words were the truly needful things. From how to be a writer—which, in gender-marked Croatian, doesn’t even have a female form, so if I want to identify as a female writer, I have to go all diminutive on myself—all the way to the question when did I stop growing up and started growing old. But even then:

If I’m no good at pretending to be a man and no good at being young, I might just as well start pretending that I am an old woman. I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying. (Le Guin, 2004)

            Even if the personal and the writerly is completely disregarded, if I turn to the manly-important stuff and look around myself, for the moments of discouragement:

You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere. (Le Guin, 1974)

            Not to mention:

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. (Le Guin, 2014)

            And then, on the 22nd of January 2018, everything stopped. I knew there would be no more new words. What she’s given, she’s given. What we’ve got, we’ve got. I/we’ll have to go on our own from here. If I should feel the need for more semicolons, I’ll have to put them into my own sentences; invent my own syntax; at best, engraft myself onto the exiting attempts to invent old women. Honestly, the thought made me more fearful than the entire opus of Stephen King, adaptations included. It also made me—even more—sad, because it left the world with a whole in the shape of a podgy, untout (Le Guin, 2004) wonderful old shrew who knew her way around words, around worlds. At first, that was horrifying. But, of course:

            Only in silence the word,

Only in dark the light,

Only in dying life:

Bright the hawk’s flight.

On the empty sky. (Le Guin, 1968)

            There was so much left. So many paths, pointers, dances. Stories. Because, above everything else:

            I speak story. (Le Guin, 2005)

            Machetes ready; let’s totter on.

Literature (quoted in the text; regarding ‘recommended readings’, just look for the name Le Guin; you can’t go wrong):

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1968) A Wizard of Earthsea

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1969) The Left Hand of Darkness 

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1973) “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1974) The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1976) “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction”

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1979) The Language of the Night

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1980) The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1983) “A Left-Handed Commencement Address”

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1985) Always Coming Home

Le Guin, Ursula K. (2004) The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader and the Imagination

Le Guin, Ursula K. (2005) “A Message About Messages”

Le Guin, Ursula K. (2008) “A Few Words to a Young Writer”

Le Guin, Ursula K. (2014) National Book Awards Speech

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