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To Try

The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, “to try” or “to attempt”. In English essay first meant “a trial” or “an attempt”, and this is still an alternative meaning. The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays; he used the term to characterize these as “attempts” to put his thoughts into writing, and his essays grew out of his commonplacing.

Infogalatic article “Essay”

This is not the post I started for today. The original post was to titled “Amish Dystopia”. In my Bradbury Challenge reading this past week I read the essay “Uptopiyin, Uptopiyang” by Ursula LeGuin. In it she argues masculine strictures dominate dystopian fiction. She calls them yang utopias after the masculine side of the east Asian concept of yin and yang.

Yang, the dominator, always seeks to deny its dependence on yin. Huxley and Orwell uncompromisingly present the outcome of successful denial. Through psychological and political control, these dystopias have achieved a nondynamic stasis that allows no change. The balance is immovable: one side up, the other down. Everything is yang forever.

No Time to Spare by Ursula LeGuin, page 93

My mind linked this passage to Jordan Peterson’s discussion in his [Maps of Meaning] class to the concept of the Great Mother and Great Father in their terrible aspects. The terrible aspects occur when one of the two forces cannot balance the other. LeGuin asks about the lack of yin uptopias in fiction and proposes where we find them.

Where is the yin dystopia? Is it perhaps in post-holocaust stories and horror fiction with its shambling herds of zombies, the increasingly popular visions of social breakdown, total loss of control—chaos and old night?

No Time to Spare by Ursula LeGuin, page 93

I thought I had an example in Leigh Brackett’s post holocaust novel, The Long Tomorrow. My train of thought was “male tyranny prevents change in an already realized state, so female tyranny must exist in preventing the exercise of potential”. Yes, I missed that they were the same thing. Instead, I wrote about 500 words about how the suppressed potential creation out being built on the prior holocaust in the novel was a yin dystopia.

Then I went searching for quotes to support my idea. In searching the text of Maps of Meaning I came across:

[T]he domain of nature, the Great Mother, contains everything creative and destructive, because creation and destruction are integrally linked. The old must be destroyed to give way to the new; the mysterious source of all things (that is, the unknown) is also their final destination. Likewise, the domain of culture, the Great Father, is simultaneously and unceasingly tyrrany and order, because security of person and property is always obtained at the cost of absolute freedom.

Maps of Meaning by Jordan Peterson, page 103

It was then I realized my mistake. The frozen culture of The Long Tomorrow is yet another yang dystopia. It is not unrealized potential, the smothered child of the terrible mother, that is the yin dystopia. It is the never halting changed of infinite creation.

I might examine that further and some more real-world examples later, but I wanted to look at what my revelation meant in terms of this writing. It would be easy to conclude I lost 500 odd words of writing and a half an hour beyond the writing chasing down links and quotations. You can call the whole endeavor a failure.

I do not judge it was a failure, but a success. The reason is in the etymology of “essay” above. To essay is to try. I tried to argue that something answered a question. In constructing my argument I failed, but the process did not try. If you essay and fail, you can still learn something. Failing to put your thoughts into words comes when you realize your thoughts are not clear enough to put into words. My thoughts on what constituted a yin dystopia were unclear. When I clarified my thoughts, I had to admit part of them had been incorrect.

In working to express your thoughts in precise words resulting in clarity is not new to me. The idea is the core of George Orwell’s essay ”Politics and the English Language”. That essay provided two of my favorite Orwell quotes, we quote one across the political spectrum and the other not so much. Each deal with clarity of thought. The popular one is:

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Less popular, but relevant to our moment in time is:

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable”

To get an idea of how true this second statement is, consider he wrote it in 1946. In 1944 we had the oldest instance of a Democrat calling a Republican presidential candidate a fascist as reported by the New York Times. The entire text was previously available, but the New York Times now requires payment for more than the headline and the first paragraph.

I would also point out that one of the overlooked idiocies of 2020 was a leftist arguing on Twitter that Orwell was a fascist.

Writing 500 words only to learn I was wrong is one of the two substantial rewards of blogging. In writing an essay on a schedule, every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, in my case I am forced to clarify my thoughts. I am also forced to stop when something new enters my thoughts and decide if it is worth clarifying. Now that I invested thought in yin dystopias, I suspect they will appear again here, just not in the form I intended despite having the core of two essays in my head. The core of both was wrong. The writings that will take their place will be better because I tried to write them and learned they were wrong.

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  1. BobtheRegisterredFool BobtheRegisterredFool

    Glad to see you still working.

    I’ve been having some difficulties navigating my own projects, and haven’t much new thought to share.

    • Glad to see you still reading. It does seem once you’re off on your projects it’s hard to get back, but I’m learning it is true small successes build momentum.

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