The Mind He Made, the Hand He Touched, the Winter Rose
The Compass Rose by Ursula K. Le Guin
In one of the short stories in Gerald Murnane’s Stream System, the narrator recalls being fascinated by a book with the title “Portrait Into Landscape.” One can talk of a “Portrait of a Landscape,” sure, but “Portrait Into Landscape”? What is that?
A similar mystification drew me to Ursula K. Le Guin’s book, The Compass Rose. Being an ignorant landlubber, I had no idea what a “compass rose” was. Did the title refer to a compass rising in the past tense? A rose in the shape of the compass? Or a compass with the name “Rose”? I felt a brief sense of the mystery of language, which is exactly what the best stories in this collection convey.
The opening story, The Author of the Acacia Seeds, is its most intriguing. It is presented as a series of research papers on decoded animal languages. The first paper discusses a series of messages written on some acacia seeds found in a hidden tunnel of an ant colony. The author gives a linguistic analysis, but is not able to say what the poem is actually about; for instance, because the ant language only has 3rd person singular and 1st person plural, it is not possible to determine whether the text was meant as an autobiography or a manifesto. The author therefore notes two possible ways to interpret seeds 1-13 (4):
[I will] not touch feelers. [I will] not stroke. [I will] spend on dry seeds [my] soul’s sweetness. It may be found when [I am] dead. Touch this dry wood! [I] call! [I am] here!
[Do] not touch feelers. [Do] not stroke. Spend on dry seeds [your] soul’s sweetness. [Others] may find it when [you are] dead. Touch this dry wood! Call: [I am] here!
Lovely. The final two seeds seem to indicate that the entire poem is an incitement to rebellion: “Eat the eggs! Up with the Queen!” (5)
In The New Atlantis, two stories are interwoven to depict a future in which humanity is on the brink of its knees from authoritarian government and ecological disaster. In the first story, a group of amateur scientists are working in secret on a breakthrough in solar energy. They are also being monitored by the government. One of them is taken away for being “unwell”—the government “must look after him and restore him to health, because health is the inalienable right of the citizens of a democracy.” (5)
Meanwhile, on the radio in the background, the news breaks of a new continent that is rising from the ocean. In the second story, the continent’s inhabitants, the lantern-creatures, begin to wake up:
“They were dark-coloured, most often a dark red, and they were all mouth. They ate one another whole. Light swallowed light all swallowed together in the vaster mouth of the darkness... Their eyes, round with fear, were never closed. Their bodies were tiny and bony, behind the gaping jaws. They wore queer, ugly decorations on their lips and skulls: fringes, serrated wattles, feather-like fronds, gauds, bangles, lures. Poor little sheep of the deep pastures! Poor ragged, hunch-jawed dwarfs squeezed to the bone by the weight of the darkness, chilled to the bone by the cold of the darkness, tiny monsters burning with bright hunger, who brought us back to life!” (30)
There is no explicit connection between the two stories. Perhaps, civilisation having doomed itself, the earth is moving into a new epoch, one in which humans are extinct and the lantern-creatures are supreme. Their emergence from water mimics the evolution of earlier aquatic life-forms into vertebrates (and from there, into mammals and humans).
The lantern-creatures are simple and primitive, but in their woken state they seem gripped by a new tenderness. To them, humans must seem like ancient gods who have departed earth. The story’s end is their haunting cry of loneliness, a desire to belong somewhere on an earth made for them: “Where are you? We are here. Where have you gone?” (52).
In this late-stage civilisation, psychiatry is wielded as a means of political subjugation. This is a recurring theme. It comes up again in SQ, a short, funny satire about a world that becomes dominated by sanity testing. It is told in the form of the journal of the secretary of Dr. Speakie, the inventor of the test. Those who measure above a certain threshold on the test (i.e. those who are insane) are put into his rehabilitation programs.
This has major ramifications when various heads of state test as insane. Since the test is scientific and rational, there is no effective way for them to deny its conclusions without indicting themselves as unscientific and irrational. It’s a lose-lose. While they’re checked into rehab, the UN Bureau of Psychometrics assumes control of their countries, forming the nucleus of a world government. Most people in the world go crazy at least once, hence everyone is slowly inducted into the new political order.
Even Dr. Speakie goes insane and has to be rehabilitated against his will. His secretary is shocked, but she maintains her belief in the test and her respect for the doctor. She goes to visit him every week, in between running the world government, which she does alone with some help from the janitor: “It really isn’t as difficult as you think.” (104).
The Diary of the Rose is a similar story. It is presented as a journal kept by Rosa, a psychoscopist, someone who monitors and examines the thoughts and mental images of the mentally unwell using a tool called a psychoscope. One of her patients, Flores Sorde, has been referred for psychotic thoughts. If her observations confirm these, he will be referred on for shock therapy; in addition to having his thinking corrected, he will lose most of his memories.
Neither patient nor doctor know exactly what Flores did which caused him to be brought in for observation. Rosa believes he will be a routine case, interpreting his resistance as a sign of irrationality and ill-health in itself. “Of course I’m irrational,” complains Sorde, “faced with the imminent destruction of my memory—my self. But I’m not inaccurate. You know they’re not going to let me out of here unchanged.” (155)
We learn that Flores is some kind of political subversive. He has already been undergone shock therapy numerous times. He had a traumatic experience when he saw police beating up peaceful protestors. And he had some kind of acquaintance with Dr. Arca, a professor who wrote a politically subversive book on liberty, whose mind was subsequently obliterated by shock therapy.
Unlike most of Rosa’s other patients—depressives with insipid, grey thoughts—Flores has exceptionally vivid and concrete images in his mind, especially that of a rose, which connects him to his vision of a humane, hopeful democracy. Unlike Dr. Arca’s more rationally, deliberately ordered mind, Flores has a more muddled mind, preferring more practical thoughts and concrete images. His convictions are strong, but he does not conceptualise them in abstract certainties, so the doctors struggle to locate and shock the hope and democracy out of him.
According to the experts, Flores is suffering from political psychosis. Rosa begins to doubt her medical training—“There is no judge here to give him a life sentence. Only doctors to give death sentences” (161)—and tries to save him from being referred for shock therapy. She fails. Her diary ends with her resignation and a final shocking piece of word salad: “I am Rosa. I am the rose. The rose, I am the rose. The rose with no flower, the rose all thorns, the mind he made, the hand he touched, the winter rose.” (163)
This is the kind of striking writing that contains the whole story within. Either it is the kind of powerful, oblique image that helped Flores cling to the hope of democracy through all of his shock treatments; Or it is the painful discovery that everything Rosa knows and believes has been conditioned into her, that her thoughts are not—have never been—her own; failing to accept this, her mind falls apart.
This book is divided into six parts, each named after a direction: nadir, north, east, zenith, west, and south. This suggests that its stories form some kind of overarching journey or discovery. In the preface, Le Guin says that they “take place all over the map, including the margins. It is not even clear to me what the map is a map of.” (ix)
The one clue she offers is that certain stories contain “excursions outwards” which are, in fact, “excursions inwards.” This is so vague, though, that it could apply to just about any story. It reminds me of that clever observation that there are only two plots:
1. A person goes on a journey
2. A stranger comes to town
(Depending on how you look at it, these might be the same plot.)
Point being, it’s hard to see how these stories form any kind of overarching journey. Many are about travel or discoveries, but just as many are not, and are often too small or inconsequential to be good reading in their own right. Therefore, despite flashes of brilliance, The Compass Rose doesn’t always stand up as a whole.
Thankfully, it ends with something memorable. Sur is a feminist reimagining of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. Presented as a journal found in an attic, it tells of an expedition of South American women to the South Pole in the winter of 1909/1910—a year before Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott got there.
Dropped off by Luis Pardo (the Chilean captain who later rescued Shackleton’s expedition from Elephant Island), the ladies marvel at the Ross Ice Shelf’s “sheer cliffs and azure and violet water-worn caves.” (351) They visit Scott’s Hut, which is in a disgusting state: seal skins, penguin bones, empty tins... “No doubt the last occupants had had to leave in a hurry, perhaps even in a blizzard. All in the same, they could have closed the tea tin. But housekeeping, the art of the infinite, is no game for amateurs.” (352) I’m sure my missus would agree.
From there, they strike out for the South Pole in two sleigh teams, crossing a glacier which they name after Florence Nightingale—a year later, Shackleton will christen it “Beardmore.” After making it back, their youngest, an illiterate, uneducated Peruvian girl, realises that she is pregnant. She gives birth just as Captain Pardo comes back to pick the ladies up. The baby is named Rosa de la Sur. The ladies toast to her with the last of the Veuve Clicquot.
This incredible journey, kept secret by Pardo and by the women, is slowly being forgotten. All the women grow apart; they get married and go their own ways. A year later Amundsen and Scott will show up, make some fuss, skin some seals, plant some flags, take some photos, and be celebrated for it. The memoirist, not wishing to embarrass the boys, implores the reader not to tell them! She prefers it to live on only as a crazy grandma’s tale.
While Sur is about a journey to the South Pole, the actual arrival there is only a single sentence. Much more is made of the continent’s beauty, the friendship that develops between the ladies, the way they find comfort and amusement with their limited furnishings, and the birth of Rosa de la Sur. Like other women before and after them, their deeds are erased by history—for they left no traces, “no footprints even.” (368)