The Telling

I have re-read Ursula Le Guin's "The Telling". It is a cliche to say 'this is the book that changed my life' but like many cliches it happens to be true.

I read it twice during the critical process of discernment to a Dominican vocation and it twice forestalled the saying of a 'yes'.

The Telling is the process by which the people of Akan bring the world into being. People, unlike animals, need the guidance of words, shaping narratives, bodies of knowledge. This is what the Telling provides but as guidance, enterprises after truth, neither as infallible command or certainty. The Telling is a hallowing of this world and is rooted in cumulative experience: it cannot be definitive, it cannot create boundaries of belief. It does not ask that anything be sacrificed for a hoped for future. Its model in Le Guin's mind is Taoism, especially in its philosophic and empirical forms - an aid to contented living, here and now.

On Akan it has been repressed as 'unscientific' a halt to the progress of reason, the newly enshrined god. The new order has echoes both of communism and of religious fundamentalism.

Reading it (and trusting that its vision is proximate to my own) made Dominican life impossible. This is not because in itself Dominican life bears any of the intolerance of that new order but it does participate in an institutional pattern of certainty that is not my own. It does claim truth, and certain exclusive rights to that truth; and, I discovered I could not. All I had was my own experience tested against that of trusted others, essays after knowing, always falling back into question.

I realized I could not represent more than this - and that the value of such representation is significant in a world where clashing certainties are only too real. This dwelling in question, tentative answering is surprisingly hard work but it would appear where I belong, mostly.

It is not that I do not hold beliefs (I think I am a Christian neo-Platonist with Taoist tendencies) but I do so quizzically. I certainly sense/know what I value and care for and will always try to embody these, often undoubtedly failing.

There is a beautiful passage that tries to capture the posture of identifying with yet not being captured by your perspective on the reality presented that any 'Observer' (of which the central heroine is one) needs:

"A yielding, an obedience, a willingness to accept these notes as the right notes, this pattern as the true pattern, is the essential gesture of performance, translation, and understanding. The gesture need not be permanent, a lasting posture of the mind or heart; yet it is not false. It is more than the suspension of disbelief needed to watch a play, yet less than a conversion. It is a position, a posture in the dance."

It strikes me as a good rule of practice towards the world - to enter fully yet hold to any one position lightly. Perhaps it is not what we believe that is the most important but how we hold to that belief in the face of otherness, the other.


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