I liken LeGuin’s essay “Is Gender Necessary” to a scientific rationale statement, and I was particularly interested in her explanation of novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, as a thought-experiment that is essentially inexplicable and, even more specifically, one that is untranslatable. This very thought appears in the novel, as Genly describes his ignorance of their terminology and practices of Gethen:
I began to think that an inept and undefinable alien should not demand reasons from the prime minister of a kingdom, above all when he does not and perhaps never will understand the foundations of power and the working for government in that kingdom. No doubt this was all a matter of shifgrethor — prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen. And if it was I would not understand it. (14)
This moment in the text reminds me of how, when you learn another language, there are going to be those terms that you learn where the translation into English completely detracts from the origins and implications of the term. I have experienced this when learning German, and this explanation of how language and culture are inextricably linked reminds me of how LeGuin’s novel is one that has no definitive translation. This ambiguity allows for the reader to interpret the text in any way that he or she pleases to, but LeGuin remains neutral by addressing the fact that even her interpretation of the novel has changed, and continues to change, through time.
“I like Illy and not just because he is a sort of tall cross between a spider monkey and a persian cat — though that is a handsome combo when you come to think of it. I like him for himself… But I ask you, how could an arrangement between Illy and me be anything but Platonic?” (Lieber 36).
I’m really rather fond of Illy’s presence in the story, as his feathery-tentacle-tickling communication methods and odd sayings are comforting in the way that he is described so concretely by Greta. As you can see in the aforementioned quote, Greta is completely honest in describing her disposition to other individuals in the story, and it is a testament to her character to understand how she could find a seven foot tall, fifty pound spider monkey persian cat “handsome,” and how her defense of her Platonic stance hints at an expectation for interspecies intimacy. Interestingly, if we were to make this a more domestic comparison, we could say that their relationship is comparative to a “gay best friend” (not my terminology — and I mean no offense to anyone) vs. lover type of deal, since Illy and Greta are not “simpatico” (36); but by doing this through a comparison of different species, I was taken aback by its outlandishness. In this way, humor in the story seems to work as an estrangement device, one that when translated into a domestic context would not seem as humorous, but would rather be very serious.
Also, I love the irony with the Platonic relationship considering the fact that apparently Plato is no more because of the operations that the soldiers are participating in.