“I kept pushing at my own limitations and at the limits of science fiction. That is what the practice of an art is, you keep looking for the outside edge.” — Ursula K. LeGuin
Three years ago I taught a film studies course called “Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the Speculative,” a course that was mostly an excuse to discuss the long tail of fantasy and science fiction that’s sometimes called into consciousness under the rubric of the speculative. Midway through the course, I assigned Ursula K. LeGuin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”. LeGuin had died that year, just before the start of my course, so to begin the semester, we watched her 2014 speech at the National Book Awards, which contains her now-famous quote: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.” Her essay is similarly countercultural, a delicious blend of feminist critique with an anthropological take on narrative theory.
The central conceit of LeGuin’s essay is the humble carrier bag, or, as she writes, “A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. A recipient.” With a laugh directed squarely at the 1968 Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, LeGuin explains that the first cultural tool was likely not bone-as-murder-weapon, but instead, the container. She proceeds to draw a parallel between the ways in which the origins of humanity have been framed as violent and the conflict-driven ethos of the contemporary novel. Standing apart from these concepts, she writes:
I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.
I’ve been rereading this essay over Sukkot, the period in which Jews build leaf-strewn outdoor open containers in which to reside, carefully structured to allow the stars to shine in. I’ve never actually had the chance to build a sukkah—I’ve always lived in an apartment or in a house without a lawn, and I honestly find the idea of building one as intimidating as it is comforting—but I do spend a lot of time in my bay window overlooking a maple, thinking about what it means to live in container and be in relation to others through structures and containment.
This feels especially prescient as the pandemic drags on. We mask up and wash our hands to contain the virus, and we build ritual containers both spiritual and secular to replace what structures we have lost. And, structures and containment are inherent to the functioning of any kind of society, even before and beyond pandemics. Naturally, people disagree over what structures will serve us best. Fascists and the centrists who enable them, for example, will always believe in borders and security systems to bolster those borders, whether “hard” (armed military personnel) or “soft” (surveillance systems, including facial recognition technology).
What about the rest of us? What are the containers we can look towards to support justice, to support our individual and collective survival and thriving?
And, if, as I wrote in my last newsletter, we can conceptualize longing as a structure, what might this structure entail?
In Kabbalah, gevurah is the name for the sefirah (energetic aspect of divinity) defined by boundaries and limitations, right across from chesed, the sefirah of lovingkindness and expansion. These two sefirot come together and merge in the energy of tiferet, signifying beauty and balance. I like to conceptualize boundaries and accountability as tiferet, because both of these attributes require compassionate openness as well as an aligned sense of selfhood, dignity, and discernment.
The loving containers we need will be woven through with both compassion and discernment. And, ultimately, our containers must have room to grow, and shift, and change.
LeGuin defined art as “looking for the outside edge.” Right now, I understand this as standing back and seeing the whole of something for what it is, recognizing that it’s not infinite, that there’s a horizon line that could always be shifted. For LeGuin, that line marked what was deemed acceptable in science fiction.
The outside edge of the bag, the sukkah, the border wall—all can be shifted. All can be changed.
What’s your horizon line?
Thank you so much for reading!
I’m so excited to share that I will be launching my first course on longing, possibility, writing, and the speculative in early December—more to come on that front, including early bird pricing deals!