Why did it have that effect?

One of the conversations I had this week whilst on a reading retreat (on King Lear) was on trying to remember why a particular book had the impact it did on re-reading it?

As a counterpoint to Lear I was reading Ursula Le Guin's 'The Telling', I had last read this on a very different kind of retreat, over ten years ago, whilst pondering a vocation to the priesthood (and a religious community). It was a reading that was instrumental in not making me a Dominican friar. As I read, however, I had to ask myself in precisely what way had it done this. Memory is inevitably creative, so what is its present truth (never a perfect reconstruction of what unfolded)?

The book tells of a society in the process of traumatic change. It describes a world that has seized all that is possibly the least attractive of what Earth has to offer, certainly it has pulled it out of context, erasing its own history in the process, indeed forbidden all manner of old ways of seeing, knowing and being. This world is marching to the Stars as a producer-consumer state which it thinks is the epitome of modernity. The old culture, however, persists. It is 'The Telling' that is a complex patterning of understanding the body, society, nature that brings people into an abiding interconnection through repeated story telling. This enriches, embellishes the whole in such a way that it remains both faithful to memory and moves slowly into the future deepened and expanded. No story, no telling is ever fixed, all are open to development, new versions can emerge alongside the familiar. It is a society at once conservative yet vulnerable to receive the present.

It is Le Guin's version of a 'Taoist' society - organised but anarchical (in a positive sense) - where truths are embedded in processes. There is no place here for belief as fixity, as a possession of an elite, nor as singular, corralling experience into given ideological forms to which anyone, everyone ought to conform.

The story that concerns an observer from Earth and the possible saving of 'The Telling' is deftly and beautifully told.

But why did it leave such an impression on me? If I were to hazard a guess, it would be that it heightened within me a skepticism about desiring to 'represent' a narrative claiming to be true. What is a priest but a person who tells a story as if it were the story? That the story is not an experiment after truth subject to continuous deepening and revision but is in some sense exclusive. This is not to say that the story that he or she tells is not a beautiful framing, an essay after and embodying truths; but, this is different.

The 'maz' in Le Guin's tale - who are the guardians of the 'Telling' are so by virtue of their participation in the process - they tell and spend time and effort and resources learning the 'Telling' but their position confers no status beyond the processes of telling. I never wanted to assume for myself a status that is conferred by position rather than the process of offering, so priesthood was out of the question. Or so it appears to me now! Who knows what it appeared like then?

Le Guin's novel is a fable about a society that once and might again eschews belief as a virtue, that asks people to become immersed in seeing, tasting, experiencing and telling of what emerges, what in the repeating cycle of things can be trusted to bring harmony, presence and peace and what better avoided; and, suggests that one thing best avoided is the temptation to know for certain rather than live the wisdom of uncertainty. If there were a priesthood for that, I might join!

P.S. And one of its founders might have been Shakespeare - as we studied Lear in depth, I was continuously reminded of a man who likes 'telling' and deepening the questions, rather than supplying answers, but then life always emerges from living into the question(s).



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