Science Fiction Wisdom: ‘Nusuth’ – The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula le Guin

” ‘The Handdara is a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed; I am still unable to say whether it has a god or not… It was an introverted life, self-sufficient, stagnant, steeped in that singular “ignorance” prized by the Handdarata and obedient to their rule of inactivity or non-interference. That rule (expressed in the word nusuth, which I have to translate as “no matter”) is the heart of the cult, and I don’t pretend to understand it… Nusuth, the ubiquitous and ambiguous negative of the Handdara…”

Ursula le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is an incredible novel. Written in 1969, in the year of the first human steps on the surface of the moon, and at the height of the early second wave of feminism, its setting and story address questions of the dual and the non-dual through climate, gender, sexuality, political complexity, political oppression, and spirituality.

The story begins when Genly Ai, an envoy of The Ekumen – a sort of intergalactic League of Nations – travels to the planet Gethen, which is in an ice age, to invite the nation of Karhide to join The Ekumen.

The residents of Gethen are genderless, until it comes time for them to mate, when they may take on either female or male reproductive physiology, depending upon the dynamics of the relationship between them. The nation of Karhide is a monarchy, while their neighbour, Orgoreyn, is a totalitarian state.

The Handdarata

The Handdarata are adherents of the Handdara faith of the nation of Karhide, which le Guin apparently based upon Taoism. The title of the novel is part of a Karhide Handdara poem, which begins “Light is the left hand of darkness”.

The central concept of their religion, according to Genly Ai’s narrative, is nusuth – a word which he translates as “no matter”, which could imply that to the Handdarata nothing matters, and all is of no consequence. However, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that nusuth is a much deeper and more profound concept than this surface translation indicates.

There are other aspects of the Handdara religion which relate to the concept nusuth: firstly, “ignorance”, which in the Handdara context is regarded as a positive quality, an act of shifting attention away from abstract notions towards things themselves; secondly, inactivity or non-interference, rather like the Taoist concept of wu wei, which can be thought of as “doing without doing” –  simply following the natural unfoldment of the Universe, as a tree growing does.

Nusuth, peace and right action

When I first read The Left Hand of Darkness, I was in the process of immersing myself in spiritual teachings – from Sufism to Shamanism, from Tarot to Taoism – which supported and drew one towards a surrender to Ultimate Reality and unconditional love. Nusuth and its associated concepts made an enormous impact on me.

At that stage in my life I was moving from a very rigid, fixed idealism based in political certainties, towards a more pragmatic but no less radical politics based on love, connection, and embodying the change I want to see in the world. The idea of nusuth – that nothing matters, that everything is, without need for my interference – was a pointer for me towards a brand new way of thinking.

To me, nusuth is not, as it might seem at first sight and as Genly Ai states, an invitation to stagnation, a giving up on the world, a counsel of despair. On the contrary, nusuth presented me then, and still presents me now with the possibility of complete freedom in inner thought and in outer action.

To know that ultimately nothing matters, that everything unfolds according to its nature, that no action from me is required, allows me inner peace and clarity. For the Handdarata, this inner peace and clarity enables them to see the future; for me, this inner peace and clarity enables me to engage in right action, in the flow of the natural unfoldment of my self, and in alignment with love.

What is your take on this Handdara idea? Does peace give you clarity for action, or do you need outrage to fuel you to do the right thing?

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