The Open Wound: Borders and Liminal Space
in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness
© Copyright 2020 by Natasha Rogers
Gloria E. Anzaldua saw borders “as an open wound” and suggests that “before [the] scab forms it hemorrhages again” (25). This provocative metaphor demonstrates how a border is a wound that cannot heal and continually opens and pours its blood across all who touch it. This paper will demonstrate how Ursula K. Le Guin describes this sense of hemorrhaging through her 1969 science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. Le Guin’s characters continually cross borders literally, metaphorically, and emotionally throughout the novel. However, Anzaldua also adopted the term “nepantla” in her later work. Nepantla is a Nahuatl word meaning “in-between space,” or a liminal space beyond borders where transformation occurs (qtd. In Keating 8). AnnLouise Keating describes nepantla as “painful, messy, confusing, and chaotic; it signals unexpected, uncontrollable shifts, transitions, and changes” (9). The tension within Le Guin’s novel between the open wound of borders and the chaos of the liminal space is fascinating. Both are painful, messy, and confusing; however, one inspires change while the other enforces stagnation. As Keating explains, nepantla is uncomfortable, disordered, and chaotic because safety and “the other” are not defined by borders. The questions this paper will explore through analyzing Le Guin’s novel is how and why we should choose this chaotic space while living where borders are maintained.
In examining border theory, as mentioned above, I turned to the late border theorist, poet, and scholar, Gloria E. Anzaldua to better understand the border demarcations in Le Guin’s novel. It is important to note that Anzaldua grew up near the border between Mexico and the United States. She witnessed that “borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them” (25). Anzaldua here suggests that borders define differences; borders create an “us” and “them” dichotomy. Anzaldua’s theory offers a rich exploration of the consequences of borders according to her experience of navigating life in borderlands. Anzaldua’s vital work with borders serves as a useful and instructive perspective that can inform and enrich a reader’s reading of The Left Hand of Darkness by allowing the reader to visualize in a very real way how Le Guin presents the significantly harmful and dichotomous consequences of borders and how the characters’ lives are impacted by various forms of border demarcations. Anzaldua uses violent metaphors to demonstrate the destructive nature of borders on societies; however, Le Guin’s novel and Anzaldua’s work imagines liminal spaces beyond borders where the wound heals, and differences between individuals are no longer feared. Furthermore, this insightful work on border dynamics provides a fruitful framework for reading Le Guin’s novel.
Before I begin my analysis, here is a brief summary of The Left Hand of Darkness. Le Guin’s novel is a fascinating theoretical experiment which takes place on an alien ice planet named Gethen. A human envoy from Earth, Genly, struggles on Gethen where he is the only man on a world populated with androgynous humans. Genly retrospectively narrates the marked differences between the Gethenians and himself, particularly between himself and the soon to be exiled Prime Minister of Karhide, Estraven. Beyond the physical, cultural, and emotional borders between the characters, the political borders between the countries, Orgoreyn and Karhide, are being maintained through violence, fear, and order. Genly and Estraven, along with thousands of other Gethenians, deal with the consequences of the border disputes and political unrest. However, there is also an expanse of desolate ice to the north where borders don’t exist. Le Guin, in her novel, creates a physical nepantla – a place beyond borders where her main character transforms: The Gorbrin Ice. The Gorbrin Ice becomes a space where the border wounds begin to heal and transformation occurs.
While much of the diverse and active critical responses to Le Guin’s novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, have addressed its gender theme, or lack thereof, this paper will primarily focus on borders, liminal space, and their effects on the characters’ moral progression. Concerning the retrospective narrator and main character, Genly Ai, Christine Cornell points out that “Genly progresses from rejection of the Gethenian to revision of the preconceptions” (320). While I agree that Le Guin’s novel displays Genly’s progression, I would argue that his progression is restricted to The Ice, or liminal space, outside the country borders of Orgoreyn and Karhide. In my reading of The Left Hand of Darkness, combined with Anzaldua’s work, borders are literary devices to illustrate the destructive and dichotomous uses of differences as divisions between individuals. In contrast, by stepping into a liminal space, geographically or metaphorically, the characters choose to embrace complexities and transform the fear of differences into love. My paper will first present Genly’s tendency toward the ease of dichotomous thinking which creates an apathy toward suffering, next, it will examine Genly’s transformation within the chaotic liminal space and explore how differences are not the dividing borders between us, then it will address how Genly becomes paralyzed once he re-crosses the border, and lastly, this paper will explore Estraven’s character and return to Anzaldua’s theoretical exploration of the difficulty of being a social actor in a society where borders are maintained.
The Border Wound
Le Guin’s novel reveals that dichotomous thinking is part of the wound a border creates. Specifically, while confined within borders Genly’s narration demonstrates dichotomous thinking. For example, at the beginning of the novel, Genly is incapable of looking past the differences between himself and the Karhidish people. Genly uses the differences to uphold a border; this metaphorical bordered thinking displays dichotomous thinking. Dichotomous thinking is defined by the psychologist Atsushi Oshio as “the propensity to think of things in terms of binary opposition: ‘black and white,’ good or bad” (730). In other words, dichotomous thinking is viewing the world in binaries and eliminating complexities; it’s viewing life as all one thing or the other – no in between. Genly expresses bordered thinking by having strict divisions within his mind which separate and divide everything into two groups (known and unknown, good and bad, black and white, male and female, me and them). While this approach seems to create order and an aspect of safety, it promotes fear of or indifference to the other while using differences to maintain a sense of separation between individuals.
This indifference is illustrated in Genly’s apathy to the suffering of Gethenians. For instance, Genly has been on Gethen for two years when Estraven invites Genly to dinner for the first time. During their dinner conversation, Estraven shares his concern for people across the border, in the Sinoth Valley, trapped in a violent border dispute. Annoyed and frustrated with Estraven, Genly interrupts him by saying the border dispute is “not of interest to me” (16). That is, Genly is apathetic towards others’ suffering. He separates himself from the Gethenians and protects himself from their suffering. Thus, Genly ignores not only Estraven’s suffering, but the suffering of the nameless refugees being killed in forays and taken in trucks to “Voluntary Farms,” or prison camps. In this way, Genly is oblivious to the peril of his own life, and, as we see here, indifferent to the perilous lives of others. Dichotomous thinking is, in a sense, blinding. It gives Genly the illusion of safety by separating himself from others’ pain; Genly is apathetic to suffering within the confines of borders. In short, dichotomous thinking is an easy way to think, but it blinds Genly from seeing real danger and feeling compassion.
Some might say that avoiding suffering is the basis of health and therefore believe that it is useless to be interested in the suffering of strangers on the other side of a border, but I argue that borders create this type of thinking: not because it’s right, but because it’s easier. Ajay B. Satpute and partnering psychologists conducted a study to determine how dichotomous thinking effected moral judgments and found that “participants found it easier to make categorical than continuous judgments,” because categorical thinking takes less time, effort, and emotional exertion (1437). These scholars found that making categorical, or dichotomous, judgments is easier than continuous, or complex judgments, because it is easier to avoid emotional effort. We see this concept in the novel through Genly’s narration. Genly separates himself from Estraven and the Gethenians because it’s easier and less painful to extricate himself from the suffering of others. It’s less effort to continue to categorize strangers than to listen and learn from them, and it would take time to unlearn how he views the world. In essence, despite the appeal and ease of categorical thinking, it does not protect Genly or anyone around him from danger or suffering.
Genly’s indifference of the suffering at the border causes him to obliviously cross a politically dangerous bridge into a deadly situation. In this way, only weeks after Genly’s conversation with Estraven, Genly crosses the border over the raging river, Ey, into Orgoreyn, into the Sinoth Valley, where he gets caught in a “nightmare about explosions, invasion, murder, and conflagration” (110). The reader is, at first, confused whether the invasions and explosions the narrator describes are in his dreams or reality, but soon the reader realizes that Genly’s nightmare is reality: he’s completely surprised to be seized in the border dispute he walked directly into. Genly is captured and becomes the hungry, nameless refugee of no interest to him only weeks before - the story of the suffering “other” becomes Genly’s story. But he still separates himself from the Gethenians. Genly is blind to the suffering of the other captured citizens; he calls them nameless and explains that “there was no fellow feeling of being prisoners together” (112). To put it another way, simply crossing a border does not change Genly’s views: there is no “fellow feeling” even when they are “together” because his dichotomies are maintained. I believe that Le Guin demonstrates the power and restrictive thinking of borders. Within borders, Genly confines himself with the ease and safety of dichotomous thinking; he polarizes himself - he uses borders to “distinguish us from them,” as Anzaldua laments borders do - by assuming they are “not of interest to me.” This significant effect of borders festers the open wound. That is to say, even when Genly becomes the nameless stranger in the border dispute, he refuses to see the open wound he is propagating through his ignorance.
The Joy and Love in the Liminal Space
While Le Guin’s novel proves the destructive nature of borders, in contrast, the novel also proves the joy and love created in a liminal space: The Gorbrin Ice. Genly has been a nameless refugee, a naked, starving, silent, and confused prisoner. Estraven has been exiled, nearly killed, a refugee, and now he drags Genly, dying, from a work camp across the frozen winter ice. Genly, recovering and exhausted, asks Estraven, who is also recovering and exhausted, inside their tent, “What was it all for?” (198) These two people, two foreigners, have had their lives torn apart by borders, and Genly asks why? Estraven answers, “the alliance of my world with your worlds” (198). This alliance is the union of different worlds amidst all this division and destruction. This is what Estraven’s been striving for from the beginning - dissolving borders and healing the wound. It isn’t just crossing a border from one dichotomy to another, like Genly did crossing the bridge from Karhide to Orgoreyn. Estraven is proposing being in that complex middle space where borders are seen for what they are and where healing starts. The alliance is love and joy, but also confusion, extreme work, courage, and strength. The alliance is transformation beyond borders. “It will be hard, very hard” (211) warns Estraven, but Genly chooses nepantla. Genly chooses to ski across 800 miles of ice away from the ease and divisions of borders into a chaotic liminal space with Estraven.
The arduous journey across The Gorbrin Ice, away from borders, is also a strenuous journey across moral development, away from dichotomous thinking for Genly. Marcia Texler Segal, a sociologist, observes that “it really is all in how you look at a thing, and who you are shapes your gaze” (352). To put it another way, who Genly is shapes the way he sees things. In order for him to change his dichotomous thinking, he must choose to look “at a thing,” the thing being Estraven and Gethenians, differently. More specifically, in the novel The Ice serves as a liminal space of transformation where Genly chooses to view Estraven in a new way by dissolving the boundaries dividing them. During a conversation between Estraven and Genly, Estraven teaches Genly that “love does not have a boundary-line of hate” (212). Or in other words, love cannot be divided by borders. From Estraven’s personal journal, Genly translates, “We creep infinitesimally northward through the dirty chaos of a world in the process of making itself” (227). Clearly, The Ice becomes a metaphor for Genly; as Genly “creeps” slowly across this dirty chaotic ice, Genly, within himself, also is shifting and creaking: Genly’s open wound is healing. He is learning to look at things in a new way; his shifting thoughts are shaping his gaze; he’s learning to love. Ultimately, Genly is no longer stagnant and trapped within dichotomies, he is making himself in the liminal space.
Estraven and Genly push and pull a sled filled with food and shelter across the desolate Gorbrin Ice all day, and then spend the nights together in their tent eating their rations, sleeping and conversing: the days are a witness to the shifting world, and the nights are a witness to the shifting of Genly. Genly “creeps infinitesimally” toward an acceptance of Estraven. This is illustrated one night, in the darkness and warmth of their tent when Genly retrospectively admits that “until then I had rejected [Estraven], refused him his own reality” (248). Genly has the heartbreaking realization of his rejection, based on his dichotomous notions, of Estraven. Genly sees the border he has created between them: the open wound. Genly was oblivious to his own refusal and rejection until he chose the liminal space, to step beyond borders onto The Ice where he could see. As Anzaldua’s epigraph in this essay notes, “removed from [a] culture’s center you glimpse the sea in which you’ve been immersed but to which you were oblivious, no longer seeing the world the way you were enculturated to see it” (qtd. In Keating 8). In other words, being submerged in a culture’s center makes a person blind to it, or oblivious, but when individuals are removed from culture, they can see it in a new way and are no longer enslaved by it. In this way, Genly, oblivious to his rejection and refusal to acknowledge Estraven’s reality within borders, is able to see it in the liminal space beyond. Remarkably, then, this shifting and creaking through the liminal space of Genly’s moral development creates an opening for joy and love to heal the borders between these two humans.
The liminal space does not dissolve or ignore differences: differences are not the dividing borders. In fact, this is part of the chaos; as we see in Le Guin’s novel, the liminal space provides the area where differences are acknowledged, listened to, and accepted to create a bond of love and joy between the characters. Within borders in the novel, the differences between nations and characters are used as weapons to divide and establish fear and order: to keep the wound hemorrhaging. In contrast, within the liminal space of The Ice, differences are used as bridges to unite and bring the characters together. Genly, looking back on his conversations with Estraven, recognizes that “it was from the differences between us . . . that love came: and it was itself a bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us” (249). Genly, instead of being disgusted and afraid of Estraven’s differences as he once was, finally is able to accept them. Through this acceptance, Genly is able to finally feel love towards Estraven. Within the confines of Karhide and Orgoreyn, Genly sees Estraven’s differences as the borders between them, the fierce river; but here on the ice, Genly learns to love the androgyny, shiftgrethor, intimate, passionate, loyal, and complex person that Estraven is. The fierce river freezes and becomes itself a bridge which unites them. The differences still exist, but Genly’s perception of them has transformed.
Estraven and Genly journey across the “harsh, intricate, obstinate” (245) liminal space of The Ice through terrifyingly dangerous situations, extreme cold, and hunger. And somehow, amidst all the demands of survival, Genly describes his memories of this time on The Ice as “treasurable illusions” (240). Genly has “glimpsed the sea,” or the borders, in which he had been immersed and realizes he is free from them. He can love Estraven by embracing complexities. This liminal space is “harsh, intricate, obstinate,” Genly remembers that he was “hungry, overstrained, and often anxious, and it all got worse the longer it went on” (240), but somehow, through his building hunger, strain, and anxiety, when Genly looks back on it, he realizes and remembers “the heart of warmth . . . I mean joy” (241). This paradox of a harsh environment producing joy in the novel is fascinating. Genly, who at the beginning of the novel, takes the easy, dichotomous way every time, even when he’s thrust into appalling circumstances, remembers the most difficult journey of his life and realizes he felt joy. Clearly, the “shifting” that happens on The Ice for Genly, in a liminal space, even though it’s “harsh, intricate, and obstinate,” ultimately creates something deeply good. This joy is created by a love that comes from healing the border wounds between him and Estraven. Once they leave The Ice, however, Genly cannot find this joy again in the novel: the open wound starts to hemorrhage again.
“Before the Scab Forms it Hemorrhages again”
Estraven and Genly cross the border back into Karhide and their journey across The Ice is over. Genly leaves the liminal space and enters the confines of borders again. As this plot development takes place, the tone of Genly’s narration reverts back to the joyless, confused, and blind tone of before. Psychologists, Theodora Zarkadi and Simone Schnall, found through their research that “visual contrast polarizes moral judgment” (355). Or in other words, in a visually black and white environment, like Gethen, moral judgment is more likely to be polarized, or dichotomous. The world of Gethen is a world of black and white, white snow against black rock (280), a metaphorical world divided by borders and dichotomous thinking. Genly, in the liminal space, was able to see the borders between him and Estraven as constructs designed by himself which prevented love and joy. When he crosses back into the confines of borders, Genly describes himself as “empty,” “desolate” (271), and “depressed” because “we were going the wrong direction” (277). Tragically, the joy, love and freedom from borders Genly experienced on The Ice are melting away once he enters Karhide. Genly recognizes the “roofs white” against the “hills spotted black” (280): the backdrop that encourages dichotomous thinking, and he struggles not to let borders bleed on him again. If borders can be viewed as a metaphor for Genly’s internal dichotomous thinking, he realizes he is going back to “that damned border” (277), and he doesn’t know how to change direction.
The river Ey is the border which divides Karhide from Orgoreyn; Genly and Estraven find themselves there, on that “damned border” for a third time. Before, when Genly crosses the border into Karhide, the river is raging and “fierce” (108) in the warmer summer weather. Genly crosses the bridge over the raging border river to get to the neighboring nation. This time, however, the river is frozen and the “uneven ground hid the border from us” (283): where there once was a raging, fierce river dividing the two nations, now there is only ice which acts as a bridge. Anzaldua’s imagery describes this moment as the scab forming over the border, what once was a raging open wound, is now starting to heal and bridge the two worlds together. The river Ey embodies the metaphor for the border separating Genly from others: where there once was a fierce border dividing them, through the journey over the ice, his border river, or the differences between Estraven and Genly, change from fear to love and have become itself a bridge. However, as Estraven and Genly ski over the frozen river, they “suddenly saw [the border] plain, marked with a fence” (282). The border is still there, barely visible, but it isn’t until they are almost free that they realize the border still exists upheld by a flimsy fence nearly buried in ice. In the end, the dichotomous border is maintained.
Admittedly, Genly and Estraven have created a bridge of love in the liminal space. However, when they return to the confines of the Karhide border, the tone of the novel changes and Genly is unable to retrieve the love and joy he felt outside of the border . . . “and before [the] scab forms it hemorrhages again.” Because of the fence, the border becomes plain. Genly reverts back to dividing himself and everyone around him into dichotomies, into “right” and wrong (296), and “two different species” (296). This language divides, and even he describes the tone of his narration as “empty.” Swedish psychologists Gustafsson Senden and colleagues refer to a large body of research which “indicates that people (especially adults) strongly prefer the system that they currently live in” (9). In short, most adults strongly prefer not to change. The psychologists continue, “people prefer to keep things stable and predictable” (9). In the same way, Genly has already admitted to readers that he prefers order and stability. Genly, as Cornell suggests, “progresses from rejection of the Gethenian to revision of the preconceptions,” but then he reverts back to his rejection when he crosses the open wound of borders again. Even after “glimpsing the sea” from the liminal space, Genly gets swallowed up and follows the cultured outlines of borders, he becomes blind to his dichotomous thinking again. Consequently, Estraven, a traitor of borders, after taking Genly on his journey into the liminal space, has his chest “half shot away” (284), and he dies there on the frozen river border Ey. The border becomes “an open wound . . . and before [the] scab forms it hemorrhages again.”
Consequently, Estraven, who is a traitor of borders because he “lacked the trick” of hate (210) and who lives his life in the liminal space where there are no borders or “others,” transforms into the wound of the border in his attempt to heal it. While Genly’s journey to nepantla demonstrates change in his dichotomous thinking, I would add that Estraven lives in this nepantla constantly. In the words of Estraven, nepantla, or the transformation beyond borders, is “hard, very hard.” Estraven knows this because he dwells there. Even within the confines of borders, Estraven lives between cultures. He accepts complexities, rejects borders and is deemed by his country as a traitor of borders. Estraven is a traitor because he cares for the refugees on the other side of the border - “love does not have a boundary-line of hate”-, because he risks his life to save Genly, and because he is feared by the government who depends on blindness for power. Estraven chooses to exist within this painful, messy, confusing and chaotic nepantla - he chooses to feel others’ suffering.
Anzaldua explains that there are people who are “supreme border crossers,” who “serve as agents of awakening, [and who] inspire and challenge others to deeper awareness” (qtd. In Keating 9); she refers to these people as Nepantleras. In other words, Anzaldua recognizes people, like her, who serve and inspire others into liminal spaces. Ultimately, in Estraven, Le Guin creates a character who never takes the easy dichotomous way; who sees the border wound dividing land and people from each other. Estraven, who explains to Genly that there is no “sense of giving a boundary to all that” (211) - “all that” being hills, fields, and people -, is, in a sense, a Nepantlera. Borders cannot contain those who choose to bridge them. Estraven’s whole purpose is healing borders. In addition, Tibe, the Karhider who replaces Estraven as Prime Minister, once told Genly that “Estraven is famous for his kindness to foreigners” (9). While Tibe did not reveal this as a compliment, we learn very early in the novel that Estraven is kind to everyone regardless of where the borders lay. Consider Estraven’s concern for the people caught in the border dispute, as well as Estraven’s mission to convince Genly to care about others no matter their differences. Estraven is a “supreme border crosser” and, because of this choice, his own blood becomes the violent open wound on the border river Ey.
The violent wounds of borders are a reality in our own world today. Dichotomous thinking is dividing humans on this earth and in this country, and blinding us from the suffering of others. In The Left Hand of Darkness, while a reader witnesses Genly move from borders to liminal space and back into the confines of borders again, “the sea” is clear to perceive. However, it is difficult to glimpse the “sea in which you’ve been immersed but to which you [are] oblivious.” Historians Sabine Kim and Greg Robinson claim that a central theme of the current Trump administration discourse is its “strident defense of physical borders and its general attack on undocumented workers, immigrants, and refugees” (2). That is, the current U.S. presidential administration’s motivations are to defend borders and, therefore, dichotomous thinking. Dehumanizing others through geographic borders, using the differences between us to create fear and a semblance of order, and dichotomous thinking is our reality. The wound of the border, as Anzaldua’s work insists, is hemorrhaging today. It is only through stepping away from borders and into a liminal space, or nepantla, that one can see the world we are enculturated not to see. As citizens within borders, we should acknowledge that it is easier to be indifferent to another’s suffering than to choose the painful and chaotic liminal space. The question, then, is why should we endure the transitions, chaos, and pain of a liminal space when dichotomy is so much easier?
Because of love. Because of joy. Because the differences that divide become themselves a bridge that heal the border wound. For this healing to happen, the story of the nameless refugee on the other side of the border must become our story. Keating admiringly claims that “Anzaldua was not naïve; she realized how difficult transformation could be, and she was aware of the many insidious ways resistance to change can paralyze social actors” (6). Ultimately, even Anzaldua realized how difficult the liminal space is and how many subtle struggles a person can be paralyzed with which would cause a halt to the transformation. Genly felt and was awed by the miraculous joy and love created by the liminal space he entered, but it seems that Le Guin, also aware of the “many insidious ways resistance to change can paralyze social actors,” creates a character, Genly, who becomes paralyzed once he re-crosses the border into Karhide. On the other hand, we have a Nepantlera, Estraven, who is a traitor to borders and who exposes the open wound with his death. Who are we? Do we take the easy, dichotomous path, or are we arduous border crossers? Perhaps Le Guin’s novel doesn’t show us where Genly fails, or where we fail, but recognizes the intense struggle of living where borders exist. Because while borders exist and are upheld there will always be suffering and hemorrhaging for the refugee, for the dichotomous thinker, for the nepantlera, and for the world.
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