Planet of Introverts

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

The wonderful Ursula Le Guin (87), the multiple Hugo Award-winning fantasy and science fiction writer, Library of Congress “Living Legend,” and cat owner, has released her complete Hainish novels and stories are collected in a two-volume Library of America edition, Hain being a fictional planet, oldest culture in the Ekumen and supposedly the ultimate source of most intelligent life in the planets of the Ekumen (including Earth). One story in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle is “Solitude,” described by Le Guin:

The final story, “Solitude,” takes an even more radical view of personhood. Having been an introvert all my life in a society that adores extraversion, I felt it was time to speak up for myself and my people, to imagine for us a society where loners are the norm and the gregarious and self-advertising are the oddballs, the misfits. I invented a peculiar social arrangement involving an extreme kind of gender segregation, only tenuously connected to the extra/introversion theme. My fear of the ongoing human catastrophe of unlimited growth, imagery of the ruinous aftermath of overpopulation and mindless exploitation, which has haunted much of my science fiction for forty years or more, is very clear in the story. All the same, I ended up feeling quite at home on poor, impoverished Soro, a world without crowds, teams, or armies, where everybody is an oddball and a misfit.

Introverts have been having a bit of a moment since Susan Cain’s best-selling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, was published in 2012. My favorite explanation of introversion comes in graphic form, and explains that “introverted people make their own energy. And rather than taking it from others give it on social contact. This means that they naturally find most interaction exhausting and need time to recharge.” (One contrasts the extroverted athlete, say, who “feeds off” the energy of others.) Cain gives the outward marks of introversion: “People who prefer quieter, more minimally stimulating environments.” By either of these two complementary definitions, Le Guin has imagined a whole planetary culture of such persons.

“Solitude,” then, has a unique take on two concepts of interest to NC readers, especially currently; I refer to politics, and class.

First, politics. From Ursula Le Guin, The Birthday of the World, “Solitude” (2002), pages 122 et seq. The story is told from the point of view of an anthopologists daughter, sent by the Ekumen to write a report on the people of Soro. The daughter:

The First Observer had been quite right: there was no way for a grown woman to know how to make her soul. Mother couldn’t go listen to another mother sing. It would have been too strange. The aunts all knew she hadn’t been brought up well, and some of them taught her a good deal without her realizing it. They had decided that her mother must have been irresponsible and had gone on scouting instead of settling in an auntring, so that her daughter didn’t get educated properly. That’s why even the most aloof of the aunts always let me listen with their children, so that I could become an educated person. But of course they couldn’t ask another adult into their houses.

Which seems quite natural to me! I rarely invited other adults into the house. (“Person” will be important later.) More:

Mother never got it right, not really. How could she, trying to learn it after she’s grown up, and after she’d always lived with magicians?

And “magic” (124):

… an art or power that violates natural law. It was hard for Mother to understand that some persons truly consider most human relationships unnatural; that marriage, for example, or government, can be seen as an evil spell woven by sorcerers. It is hard for her people to believe magic.

And the definition of magic (133 and 134); Mother and daughter discuss technology versus magic in the context of a Sorovian myth:

“My dear,” [she said] “the explanation of an uncomprehended technology as magic is primitivism. It’s not a criticism, merely a description.”

“But technology isn’t magic,” I said.

Yes, it is, in their minds; look at the story you just recorded. Before-Time sorcerers who could fly in the air and undersea and undeground in magic boxes!”

“In metal boxes,” I corrected.

“In other words, airplanes, tunnels, submarines; a lost technology explained as supernatural.”

“The boxes weren’t magic,” I said. “The people were. They were sorcerers. They used their power to get power over other persons. To live rightly a person has to stay away from magic.”

For “power over” read “energy from,” and you can see that Le Guin has constructed an extreme version of a culture optimized for introverts (according to the first definition given). Now, I don’t advocate for living as the Sorovians do, but I do feel the Le Guin’s strange perspective is bracing and thought-provoking: Imagine a world where our entire political economy — including alternatives to it implicit within it, like socialism — is conceived of as taboo! Or where cultural practices, like rhetoric, or negotiation, or “entertainment,” are categorized as violations of the natural order! To live rightly a person has to stay away from magic…

Next, class (123):

When I told her the stories of the Before Time that Aunt Sadne and Aunt Noyit told their daughters and me, she often heard the wrong things in them. I told her about the People, and she said: “Those are the ancestors of the people here now.” When I said “There aren’t any people here now,” she didn’t understand. “There are persons here now,” I said, but she still didn’t understand.

(The “Before Time” is the period before Sorovian civilization collapsed.) And when the Mother decides to leave Soro, taking the daughter (and the son) with her (135):

“It’s time, past time, that we all got back to our own people. All of us.”

“I have no people,” I said. “I don’t belong to people. I am trying to be a person. Why do you want to take me away from my soul? You want me to do magic! I won’t. I won’t do magic. I won’t speak your language. I won’t go with you!

My mother was still not listening…

Now, when I think of the concept class, I think of a set, and a set membership function to determine who or what is a member of that set. For example, the working class (the set) is composed of people, persons who work for wages (the set membership function[1]). The daughter regards treating persons as people — that is, applying a set membership function to them, and in particular herself — as magic (!). And when you think about the reasons our society classifies people, it’s hard not to see classification — for example, a “I-A” classification meant “available for military service” in the Vietnam War — through the daughter’s eyes as “power over,” therefore magic. After all, who invents and controls the classifications and applies the set membership functions?

Is Soro a “classless society”? You’ll have to read the story to find out; I’m not so sure.[2] However, once again, Le Guin’s fiction provides a bracing perspective not found elsewhere. Is it possible to be a person without belonging to people, or a people? Personally, I doubt it. Our ability, indeed desire, to classify would never have arisen in nature had it not been adaptive; we even project order where there is no order[3]. Nevertheless, food for thought over the weekend!


[1] Apply multiple set membership functions to people, look for the overlaps between the resulting sets, and you have Venn diagrams of intersectionality). Sets can be fuzzy.

[2] It may be so for women, but not for men.

[3] Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2:

HAMLET Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

POLONIUS By th’ mass, and ’tis like a camel indeed.

HAMLET Methinks it is like a weasel.

POLONIUS It is backed like a weasel.

HAMLET Or like a whale.

POLONIUS Very like a whale.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Wukchumni

    When I go on a hike and don’t see another one of us the whole way, there and back, I call it a “perfect game”.

    Had one earlier in the month, walked to the Mosquito Lakes (9 miles roundtrip) and back with a friend in the National Park~

  2. Lee Robertson

    The greatest magic and most destructive power is the power of the latent contents of the unconscious mind to call its self by our name.

  3. Steve H.

    I risk irrelevance, yet you quoted Hamlet, thus Stoppard on magic:

    Carr: An artist is the magician put among men to gratify — capriciously — their urge for immortality. The temples are built and brought down around him, continuously and contiguously, from Troy to the fields of Flanders. If there is any meaning in any of it, it is in what survives as art, yes even in the celebration of tyrants, yes even in the celebration of nonentities.

    : and classifying words:

    But that does not make you an artist. An artist is someone who is gifted in some way that enables him to do something more or less well which can only be done badly or not at all by someone who is not thus gifted. If there is any point in using language at all it is that a word is taken to stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or ideas. I might claim to be able to fly . . . Lo, I say, I am flying. But you are not propelling yourself about while suspended in the air, someone may point out. Ah no, I reply, that is no longer considered the proper concern of people who can fly. In fact, it is frowned upon. Nowadays, a flyer never leaves the ground and wouldn’t know how. I see, says my somewhat baffled interlocutor, so when you say you can fly you are using the word in a purely private sense. I see I have made myself clear, I say. Then, says this chap in some relief, you cannot actually fly after all? On the contrary, I say, I have just told you I can. Don’t you see my dear Tristan you are simply asking me to accept the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean; but I do not accept it.

  4. Lunker Walleye

    Lambert, Thank you for this. Ursula Le Guin’s writings are now at the top of the reading list. I have read the Cain book you referenced at the recommendation of an introverted friend.

    Many of my associates who are artists, poets and teachers are introverts. Every time I find out an admirable person is an “I”, it makes me proud to be in the same group.

    Several years ago, another introvert and I attended a two-day Jungian workshop in Evanston for “INFP’s” (introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceptive personality functions).

    Friends are very important but the “hamster ball of personal space” is becoming less penetrable with age. Methods of preferred communication are e-mail, texting and snail-mail. The greatest source of energy for me is art — today I have several small collages covering a table. Film, poetry, language. music and researching the internet are quite stimulating. The dreaded invitation to a “party” comes too frequently.

  5. Jim

    Lambert stated “Our ability indeed desire to classify would never had arisen in nature had it not been adaptive, we even project order where there is no order.”

    I read his comment as a questioning of the empiricist project.

    I would argue that Hobbes and Hume came to similar conclusions. For Hobbes and Hume there is a necessary recourse to nominalism, since the data (external and internal stimuli) that are received and processed by the senses must always be grouped and categorized through the application of names and labels before they can become usable as potential building blocs of knowledge.

    In addition, these categories (for example, class, money, camel, weasel, whale) have a type of future-oriented function as tools for potentially classifying currently unavailable and possibly unimagined streams of experience which are not contemporary or retrospective.

    This seems to suggest that there is always a margin of uncertainty hovering over the body of statements that we take to be true at any given point in our lives.

    It further suggests that our contemporary descriptions are wagers and posits concerning the future shape of reality–which reveals the usually disguised prescriptiveness of our descriptions.

  6. Oregoncharles

    LeGuin is herself the daughter of an anthropologist. Her father, Alfred L. Kroeber, was a very important American anthropologist.

    I don’t know whether he took her on fieldwork, but that background is clearly an inspiration for the Hainish cycle and much of her work.

  7. charles 2

    This author would answer with a resounding NO to your question :

    money quote :
    “Our intelligence resides not in individual brains but in the collective mind. To function, individuals rely not only on knowledge stored within our skulls but also on knowledge stored elsewhere: in our bodies, in the environment, and especially in other people. When you put it all together, human thought is incredibly impressive. But it is a product of a community, not of any individual alone.”

    1. Laughingsong

      As a (mostly) introverted person, I very much agree, but us introverts need to be able to control the interaction and intake. At least that’s how I try to function. It’s a fine balance; to identify situations or events that one thinks they can get all the way through the experience. This year I am going to my high school reunion- because it’s only 4 hours long!

      Even though I enjoy going to functions and events of all kinds at the library, concert hall, parks, etc., that broaden my experience and knowledge, I often can’t wait to get home. I’m not one for “going out after”. I need to return to quiet and digest.

      I am rather glad to read that there are others like me. Extroverts are everywhere and by definition easy to find. They do seem to garner a lot of admiration and attention, also by definition. But it’s hard to tell how many introverts are out there, because . . . Well, because they’re not “out there”, they’re in.

      I just noticed something as I wrote….Even as an introvert myself, I call other introverts “they” even though I myself am one. Things that make you go “hmmm” . . .

  8. JCC

    Coincidentally I received the Library of America catalog this week and ordered the two volume set (along with the two Ross McDonald collections I don’t yet have). I’m not familiar with Le Guin and the description looked very interesting, looking forward to reading them all.

    It’s a great catalog of some great books, just in time for preparing my Christmas Gift list.

  9. Mike G

    Imagine for us a society where loners are the norm and the gregarious and self-advertising are the oddballs, the misfits.

    Have you spent any time in Finland?

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      From The Official Travel Guide of Finland (seems to be a convention bureau site):

      If you’ve ever met a Finn, chances are they’ve mentioned the reserved nature of their countrymen. Be not afraid – we’re not taciturn brutes. Finns are talkative and hospitable, but the myth of the withdrawn Finn is still alive and well inside Finland. And Finns, with their self-deprecating wit, will be the first to let foreigners in on it. An example of a Finnish joke: “An introverted Finn looks at his shoes when talking to you; an extroverted Finn looks at your shoes”.

    2. jrs

      yea such societies probably exist, they just aren’t the U.S..

      U.S. people test as more extroverted on average, which is mostly ironic and unsatisfying as well, in a society that really doesn’t provide what extroverts need either. Oh the ideal person in the U.S. according to U.S.ian values is an extrovert, but U.S. society doesn’t easily provide the high degree of novelty and lots of social interaction with strangers etc. that extroverts crave either. Not when everyone over 30 at least is stuck at boring routine jobs with long solitary car commutes to lonely single family abodes.

  10. ChrisPacific

    Thanks for the heads up – I’ll keep an eye out for these.

    Here is one of my favorite Le Guin quotes, from the intro to The Left Hand of Darkness:

    Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!

    1. salvo

      maybe because telling the truth in a society is often only possible in fiction, as the fictional context proves to be a kind protective suit to bear the truth

  11. IHateBanks

    Just saw this article! I was away at my cabin, by myself, with books and rocking chairs for a few days. No ‘puter allowed! Except when I went to the local pub to hold court, meet new people, laugh too loud, watch a team, etc. I enjoyed both immensely.

    I am either confused, or well balanced. Never could decide which.

    A trip to the tip jar is in order for reminding me of LeGuin’s work. Read a lot of it back in the 70’s and 80’s.

    1. Scramjett

      That sounds like a fantastic vacation to me! I’d go with well balanced but the key is how you felt after coming back from the pub. If you were exhausted, you’re an introvert, if you were energized, you were an extrovert. If you were neither, then you’re probably a solid balance between the two.

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