Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nothing will be left to chance, to random impulse, to irrational narcissistic whim

In Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven from 1971, a therapist gets a patient who can change the world with his dreams. When things change, they change so that it has always been that way, and nobody knows the difference.

The therapist believes he can use this power to make the world a better place, and also get himself a nicer office, and he starts to take control over the patient's dreams. He gradually changes the world from an over-populated, starving, war-crazed mess to a sparsely populated, well-fed world that is ordered according to his ideals. Which include eugenics and state-run child upbringing.

And everybody knows it's always been like that.

This is a story about utopianism versus real life. The therapist never gets exactly what he wants. The dark side of human nature keeps reasserting itself. And when he gets what he wants, there's a price. To solve over-population, the dreamer's subconscious invents a plague in which billions of people died. To solve race conflicts, everyone must turn the same grey skincolor. The world becomes gradually duller, joyless.

Le Guin introduces the chapters with taoist quotes, and the patient eventually arrives at a taoist point of view: You can't force your will on the world, even when you think you're right. You have to respect the dynamics of things as they are.

Or as Lao Tzu says in Ron Hogan's creative translation of Tao The Ching:
Stop doing stuff all the time,
and watch what happens.



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