I didn’t post anything to this blog yesterday because I started reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Telling (New York: Harcourt, 2000). It was so compelling that I stayed up late reading, and that left me no time to write….
The Telling begins with a vision of a future when a theocracy controls all of Earth. It’s a fundamentalist theocracy of a kind that sounds all too possible:
In late March, a squadron of planes from the Host of God [the theocratic political party] flew from Colorado to the District of Washington and bombed the Library there, plane after plane, four hours of bombing that turned centuries of history and millions of books into dirt. …The beautiful old building had never been attacked [before]; it had endured through all the times of trouble and war, breakdown and revolution, until this one. The Time of Cleansing. The Commander-General of the Hosts of the Lord announced the bombing while it was in progress, as an educational action. Only one Word, only one Book. All other words, all other books were darkness, error. They were dirt. Let the Lord shine out! cried the pilots in their white uniforms and mirror-masks, back the the church at Colorado Base, facelessly facing the cameras and the singing, swaying crowds in ecstasy. Wipe away the filth and let the Lord shine out! [p. 5]
Earth under the Host of God is a horrendous place for anyone who doesn’t fit into the theocratic mold — including the heroine of the story, one Sutty. But Sutty manages to get a job away from Earth, serving as a representative for the Ekumen, a kind of interstellar government. She thinks she has escaped the kind of authoritarianism represented by the Host of God, only to find herself as an emissary to a planet with an equally authoritarian government, the Corporation. Ironically, while reminiscent of the Host of God, the Corporation has outlawed all religion as a part of their policy.
Sutty winds up traveling to a remote province of this planet where she encounters the religion that flourished before the Corporation took power. It is not a religion like the Host of God, and Sutty spends a great deal of time trying to figure out what kind of religion it is:
It did not deal in belief. All its books were sacred. It could not be defined by symbols and ideas, now matter how beautiful, rich, and interesting it symbols and ideas. And [this religion] was not called the Forest, though sometimes it was, or the Mountain, though sometimes it was, but was mostly, as far as she could see, called the Telling.[pp. 111-112]
They [the religious leaders] performed, enacted, or did, the Telling. They told.
The religious leaders of this religion know books, and commentary on books, and stories that come out of books. Before the Corporation government took over, the religious centers were much like libraries — places filled with books, and religious leaders, resident experts, who Told what was in the books. (Need I add that the Corporation destroyed the libraries in just the same spirit that the Host of God bombed libraries on Earth?) But while religious, the Telling is not a dogmatic telling; “all its books were sacred”:
The incoherence of it all was staggering. During the weeks that Sutty has laboriously learned about the Two and the One, the Tree and the Foliage, she had gone every week to hear… a long mythico-historical saga about the explorations of Rumay among the Eastern Isles six or seven thousand years ago, and also gone several mornings a week to hear… the origins and history of the cosmos [and] the stars and constellations… from beautiful, accurate, ancient charts of the sky. How did it all hang together? Was there any relation at all among these disparate things?
Of course, you’ve already figured out by now that The Telling is partly a parable about the excesses of our own world — the excesses of creedal belief-based religion on the one hand, and of the free-market mythos that glorifies corporate dominance on the other hand. But in the midst of the parable are tantalizing visions of what religion could be, if we could only steer clear of absolutism — even though even this tantalizing religion winds up having its own blind spots and rigidities.
I like Le Guin’s vision of a religion that emphasizes books, not the Book; a religion that is willing to encompass all aspects of human knowing including bodily wellness and meditation and practical knowledge. I even like the vision of an incoherent religion, that gains its coherence from the simple act of telling, of speaking aloud.
Heck, I’d join a religion like that.