A review of A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Given my recent readings, it is easy to see why I was attracted to A Wizard Of Earthsea. Earthsea itself is a world in which the small islands on which humans live are forever at risk of being engulfed back into the sea, like in Arendt and Jappe. Individuals are navigating on it with ethics they don’t really understand, ignore, and fall into pride and hate, like in Lagant. The potentially dark and unfathomably dangerous magic based on the true name of things evoked semiotics, Victor Klemperer and the study of totalitarian language. But it is also a fantasy world, as easy to walk through as it is to play Skyrim, and a coming-of-age novel about a young boy destined to be the greatest wizard ever, as simple (but not as simplistic) as Harry Potter.

The universe of Earthsea wizardry is clearly sexist: wizards are men, obviously, women can be village witches with limited powers, no grasp of what really matters, even if they can become quite powerful like when they marry a lord. Well at least it is also a world in which most people are Black, the ones that are savage looters in dire need of civilization are not though. So it is not all annoying. Still, especially since it is something written for teenagers, it loses a couple of stars for this.

But in the end, the main fight in this book is not between human civilization and the original sea, or good and evil, but has a lot more to do with classic representations of mental health. For example:

Now began a bad time. When he dreamed of the shadow or so much as thought of it, he felt always the same cold dread: sense and power drained out of him, leaving him stypid and astray. He raged at his cowardice, but that did no good. He sought for some protection, but there was none: the thing was not flesh, not alive, not spirit, unnamed, having no being but what he himself had given it — a terrible power outside the laws of the sunlit world.

This fantasy representation of mental distress is also what makes a monster such as the gebbeth, a human emptied of its substance, entirely taken over by these undefined forces, and the fight against it so terrifying, and what gives this book its real value. It makes for a gripping tale for anyone who ever thought they were losing their minds or could not run from nor face their own demons (that is, anyone at all, probably).

Translation: The Difficulty Of Being An Anarchist, by Christian Lagant

Noir & Rouge n°17 (January/February 1961)

The Difficulty Of Being An Anarchist

By Christian Lagant

“We are not presenting a grand-sounding manifesto because we do not believe in revealed and immutable Bibles. We believe it to be more realistic, more constructive and also… more Anarchist to be perpetually devising an ideological bulletin in which and through which our doctrine, our positions, our attitude in the current historical struggle will be made.” As I was tidying an old collection of “Noir et Rouge” (we sometimes have to tidy things, Anarchy being the highest form of order and all that…) I absent-mindedly leafed through the first issue of our journal and this except from the editorial page reminded me that almost 5 years have passe since these lines were published. This always makes us think. And also, it gives us an occasion to “refocus” and go back to some general ideas of Anarchism, routine and the small struggles of everyday life, or on the contrary the sudden advent of major events and their “grand objectives” brutally revealed each time, at the risk of masking the clear and simple principles which remain, more than ever, our ideal.

Actually, through these weeks, these months, these years gone by, we are still interested by the same problem: the consciousness reached by men (sic) against the State and Society. And as Anarchism seems to us the only way to reach this consciousness, we are led to go and see how Anarchism and the Anarchists are doing. I will say later why I underscore the difference between those to terms. But, right now, let’s admit that if there is nothing to be proud of, there is no special reason to fall into despair either. In 5 years, the ideas which are dear to us have not seen any powerful movement crystallize around them, that is true, but they have not either lost their ground and keep, on the contrary, making their way slowly, patiently and that is for us, Anarchists, the whole problem: to keep going on. Not that our life be especially dangerous (we no longer throw bombs as our fathers (sic) used to) or especially hard-work (our “active” militantism sometimes leaves space for some leisure…) but it is precisely this morose aspect, without panache, obstinate of the Anarchists of our time which can seem hard to withstand, for some. There is also this difficulty to maintain ourselves on a side where we know there are only few comrades of struggle. And it is not always easy to be a militant, when there are few of us! Because to the material hindrances, resulting from the work done, done by too little groups of comrades, you often have to add, sometimes more accutely, the moral hindrances, this struggle with ourselves, in a word, the difficulty of being an Anarchist.

Let’s not take these last words tragically: to be worthy of the ideas for which we fight does not mean having the aura of any secular saint, no. It is both smaller and greater, simpler and more complicated than this. That is why we need a few “markers” along the way. And, really, this article has no other ambition than to present a few thoughts on a short experience. This will not be an “ideological study”, but just a way to remind us of a few principles, these principles “so clear and simple” that we sometimes forget they exist, to our greatest demise.

Even the word “principles” is a big word. We would like to tell the kid who is coming to our ideas, and it is him (sic) I have in mind as I write this, we would like and we should be able to tell him (sic): “You see, we have a few ‘knacks’ to pass on to you, you’ll see what they are worth. Try them, tell us what you think, and if they’re okay, pass them on to others…” Yes, our libertarian principles are so simple that we could almost use the phrase (vulgar, I must say) “to get the knack” when we talk about someone assimilating them. But as it does not sound serious, let’s get back to the good old principles.

The difficulty of being an Anarchist is then, among other things, this difficulty to live our lives patiently without exuberance. To put back, as a famous fable-writer said, 100 times our work on the loom, and that drives me back to the editorial from our first issue I quoted at the start of this article. To know as well that there are few of us, yes, that anarchists will still remain (and for a while) these “hedgehogs” of resistance, planted in the middle of a continuously-dying Society which still endures…

Will this realisation of our role as a “minority”, which is true of all Anarchists whatever their organization, mean some sort of resignation on our part, a systematic and tired refusal to expand our ideas, to extend the libertarian movement? Of course not, quite the contrary, by shrugging off any excessive illusions, it will make us aware of the precise work that we all have to accomplish. They will maybe avoid the “temperature monitoring sheet” aspect of some of our efforts: periods of abatement following false enthusiasms and of which we can rework together the most classic process, those we know best.

Sometimes, the temperature is low, too low, we feel like we are not going anywhere, that we “can’t do it” with so few of us, so many obstacles and the formidable state apparatus (and it is true that if we have this false vision of the problem considered as a test of strength, we might have little hope!) and we soon lose hope, which can lead to giving up.

Or it’s the opposite, the temperature is high, too high even. We are full of energy and give our 100%, it is a time of “all for the Movement” and we have a worrying tendency to see any progress in the organization in which we work as an advance for the idea of Anarchism in itself (it is from living this deformation for myself that I can speak of it; because there is no point in making excuses for ourselves after the fact, to invent a past irreprochable and without mistakes, instead of signaling them to the younger, the new comrades, so that at least our faults can be of some use); when in an unchecked will for “action”, we think we advance further, the more we burn ourselves out. And some day, having realised that the Revolution has not started because we had, the day before, sold 5 extra newspapers, pasted 10 extra posters or had 20 extra people at a meeting, our eyes suddenly open and the relentless militant, brutally sobered up, realizes his actual situation. And when I say “actual”, that’s not even true: the higher we were, the fastest the fall and at that moment everything is minimized, turned to ridicule, by a sickened individual who often disappears without a trace…

Fortunately, you don’t have to go through such experiences to acquire a vision let’s say… simpler of things! Also, why not accept the idea that our Anarchist attitude to the difficulties of militant life must not be frentic or bitter, but serene? But if this serenity is part of our principles, let’s not forget it is only a principle for action, the latter only being valid if it is accompanied by the “principle of principles”, this old word which makes some smirk but which we make the constatation that it remains more than ever the “golden rule” of Anarchist militant life: ETHICS.

Let’s reassure our reader: I will not try to dismantle or explain to him the magistral book which Piotr Kropotkin wrote on this issue, this work forms a whole and no-one needs commentaries, or interpretations. We only have to have read it and meditated in peace. But we are in 1961 and if our doctrine still exists and is even quite often confirmed by events, the libertarian movement does not have, on the other hand, the radiation and power that we could expect from individuals and organisations lead by an idea so right. And how many among us, I wonder, have often asked: “How can it be that a doctrine that everything shows it is the only valid one, humanly speaking, does not spread faster throughout the world and does not have more adepts and defenders?” That’s when, obviously, we can be led to the following or rather, complimentary, question: “Would Anarchism not only be a nice idea, yet impractical in real life? Isn’t Anarchism also a social doctrine, therefore can be realised and is viable on the organisational level?”

We can all see the danger of questions ask as absolutes because the problem is there: it is true, the libertarian movement is weak and seems paltry on a global scale. But on top of the fact that we need to be patient and courageous, as I’ve already said, and that we risk to remain ‘small’ for a long time, in numbers anyway, there is a point we should never forget: our ethics.

Of course, it seems childish and some might be surprised or amused of what seems like rediscovering Columbus’ egg, fair enough. But, after all, it is often the most obvious things we tend not to mention, when we don’t simply and purely forget them! They can however sometimes be of great service, and to consider our morals will lead us to this simple idea that there is both a doctrine, a rule to live by: Anarchism, and men (sic): the Anarchists. There is where resides the difference I mentioned at the start of this article and maybe also a certain explanation of our difficulties. This is obviously only an opinion, and can be largely debated, attacked, controversed in the upcoming issues of “Noir et Rouge”.

It is difficult to talk about ‘morals’, it supposes first on the part of the writer an exemplary life as regards to ethics (which is not my case, and why I am interested by this issue!) and the theme itself smells a bit of academia which can seem out-of-touch of the events as we live them. Maybe. But if we have, personally, discussed for years about more ‘concrete’ issues, and more precisely about an issue like organisation, if we have lived what we discussed, I think we have the right (if not the duty) to point out what we thought was most characteristic, and to an extent, essential.

If we sometimes ask all these questions about Anarchism, maybe we should accept that it is not our theory that is the problem, as it is more than ever valid, but ourselves: in a word, are Anarchists up to the task of Anarchism? That is the question.

To say that, as far as I am concerned, I have not always been worthy of our doctrine will certainly not surprise the reader, but I want to add a few precisions. Above all, I do not want to imply that all Anarchists are suffering from looser ethics (how medical it sounds!) and there are, fortunately, enough comrades whose life is in itself an example and a comfort. It has to be noted, by the way, that these comrades are often very simple men (and women), they are the most “dull”, the less “brilliant”, but they put their actions where their ideas are and those are our real guides, in the exemplary sense of the word.

Guides? Of course they do not go around saying “follow me”! But their life is itself an affirmation of their Anarchism and we want to be more like them, nothing more. I have personally known some of these companions (and I still do) and their quiet braveness, their sense of solidarity, their ability never to react or behave like arseholes have made as much, if not more to comfort me and make me believe in Libertarian ideals than all the pretty speeches heard in pretty meetings…

Because they were not Anarchists because they had a membership card; they were not Anarchists because they mastered the art of rousing speeches, the kind we make in front of audiences, too often speechless and full of admiration, and the great principles of which are forgotten a couple of hours later, when our “moment of militantism” is gone; they were not Anarchists because they thought to be the “elite” of the Movement, and those among them that had read more than most did not feel the need to remind everyone of their erudition all the time, they did not despise the comrades who had less intellectual capacities or education or, worse, did not consider them with this pitiful condescension which is the badge of honour of our ridiculous Précieuses, because, of course, Anarchism also has some…

They were not Anarchists for quarter of an hour or one day a week, they were Anarchists all the time and felt no need to shout it from rooftops, to write about it continuously, to be believed. And thanks to those people, Anarchism is our certitude.

But we do not all look like the comrades I have just mentioned, and it might be because they are not the crushing majority among Libertarians that we have so much trouble spreading our ideas!

We have already mentioned that to apply Libertarian ethics to our lives did not mean however to turn into Salvation Army members or silly Scouts looking for their daily “good deed”, but we tend to forget a few little principles, not that hard to live by and the application of which would not make us heroes or martyrs. Among these, we could mention as one of the top ones rigour.

Brr! Rigour, what a program! Let’s not be over-dramatic but let’s recognize that us, Anarchists, have a tendency to be more and more rigourous… towards others and less and less when inspecting ourselves! We relentlessly denounce the faults, evils, defaults (etc.) of Society, very good, but do we tend to be better men and women, more worthy of what we are fighting for? And what is the point of making no indulgence for others while making excuses for ourselves? Rigour? It is in reality not all that terrible, but it is that profound honesty which consists in seeing ourselves as we truly are, to do what we have pledged to do, to be a comrade on whom people can count, whom people trust.

This small refrain on rigour will seem quite light in the face of very important issues. We have often talked about organisation, and we will debate it some more, because it is a big issue and deserves as many studies and examinations as possible. But, how could we build an okay Anarchist organisation if its members which form it do not present this rigour, these morals which we have been talking about? We can elaborate any plan imaginable, bang our heads against them to perfect and improve them, even create an organisation which works perfectly and call it Anarchist. But there’s nothing we can do, if the militants of this organisation (even a few of them sometimes!) do not act really as Anarchists, if they do not have these ethics which are more important than any outside quality, the organisation will be all you want, but not Anarchist.

A rather recent example reminds us that even though it is good to give our best to our organisation, it must not become a supreme goal, at the detriment of human qualities and of its militants: in their fury to create an “efficient” Libertarian Communist Federation, some manage to forget they were Anarchists and should behave as such, which on top of everything gave a superb opportunity to the detractors of Libertarian communism to say that it inevitably led to neo-bolchevism, by the way! But the opposite danger is also foreseeable: when we abandon our morals (yes, morals!) and gain the great satisfaction of being a “leader”, listened to and with a small court around us, it can lead to the division into minuscule “parishes”, the brilliant conductors of which viciously attack each other in all fraternity, obviously…

These deviations show us all the difficulty of being an Anarchist. There are many other aspects of this question. These will be the object of a series of reflexions in an upcoming issue of “Black and Red” and we will draw some conclusion together.

Pixie-bashing is woman-bashing

I first became involved with the formalized concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in a comedy YouTube video my friends were sharing. I thought to myself ‘O dear, woman-hating is really everywhere’. In this video men could unload their Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriends to a special care hospital designed for them. Disturbing and tasteless. A bit later, I realised they were not sharing this video to fuel their disgust for it, but they seemed to find the video either funny or at least cathartic for some kind of hatred for Manic Pixie Dream Girls they shared.

At first, I thought it was ridiculous to think about it, because the films revolving around MPDG are generally terrible. And I ended up watching a lot of them. Power to the people who punish bad cinema. MPDG are sickening, they belong to the exact same category as Doctor Patch and Forrest Gump.

Using a trope such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is lazy and terrible writing, and they are annoyingly often the ‘muse’ of a male character (although not always), like is justly pointed out in the Feminist Frequency video.

The terrible lazy writing aspect is that the male character is entirely bland. MPDG movies are films written for women and the man is 1. cute 2. full of love to give. In Elizabethtown, Garden State and My Sassy Girl, he has just lost a relative and needs some good old mothering.

Is it sexist? Well, women’s role is not to help men through mourning, and MPDG does appeal to the part of women which sees themselves as caregivers. But then again, picture of kittens appeal to that side of us as well, and I do not find them sexist.

The truth is, the male ‘lead’ is as irrelevant as he is bland. The grief he wallows in is not what the film is about, it is the background for the MPDG’s charming quirkiness. The Elizabethtown girl has a terrible, boring job, an estranged boyfriend she does not love and is terribly lonely, the Garden State girl has mental health issues, in My Sassy Girl, she is herself dealing with grief, addiction and mental health issues. They are not exactly post-feminist ideals of strong independent women juggling careers, luxury consumerism and trophy boyfriends.

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When I looked at the origin of the concept of MPDG, I started thinking there was a point in attacking it after all. I do not understand how people could rally behind an idea that is born from the fantasy of violence against women. When I said they were in the same category as Forrest Gump and Doctor Patch, I was anticipating this point. A lot of characters are terribly annoying. Jar-Jar Binkses are everywhere. What the creator of the concept of MPDG did though, is to take out a subsection of these annoying characters from bad movies on gender lines and on grounds of their hyper-femininity, and made them the annoying characters towards which we can direct our anger at bad cinema. I think that is sexist:

“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family. As for me, well, let’s just say I’m not going to propose to Dunst’s psychotically chipper waitress in the sky any time soon.”

As a concept, the MPDG only makes sense if you count in our cultural propensity to fantasize about hurting women. The male ‘lead’ gets off lightly, but the MPDG is so annoying she has got to die. Ideally suffer a lot first. Or you know what, we could just lock them up in a mental hospital.

I am not saying hyper-femininity or child-like femininity are not annoying. I am generally annoyed by people with baby voices, a lot of people are. A lot of people are annoyed at camp men and wish they would ‘tone it down’. A lot of people cannot be bothered putting the extra effort in to understand a non-native English speaker, or just someone with a thick accent. Some people think American accents sound stupid. Some people cannot stand the way people from certain other races smell. Some people cannot be bothered learning that not all people from a different race look the same. That is true, but we need to be better than that. As long as they are women who feel most comfortable with their baby voices and their dainty clothes, portraying them in film will not be a sexist thing to do.

In many reviews about MPDG films, strangling is the preferred way of killing them, as their being annoying is associated with the noises they make. They do not speak, they chirp, they nag, their voices are too damn high-pitched. They are too needy, but they are also too independent.

500 Days of Summer is a film about a boy being rejected by a woman. It has strong sexist undertones, but not because of the female character who rejects the male lead and refuses to feel bad about it. In a film like Sweet November, the female character conducts a meaningful relationship with a man under her own terms, breaks it off when she wants to, without reason, as per previous agreement. The male character is confused and ends up finding out why she broke up: the female character is terminally ill and she cannot project herself in a long-term relationship. He confronts her about this and she maintains that these were the boundaries they had agreed on, that she has every right to stand by them and that she did not have any duty to disclose her illness. It’s a bad movie for other reasons, but that all story-arch is pretty good. Once analysed through the MPDG spectrum though, the female character is just another quirky misfit girl who is only interesting because of the influence she has on the hero, and, in the second case, is so disposable that she is conveniently terminally-ill.

Is this element of analysis helping feminism? Or is it making all female characters suspect. Not good enough. As some reviewers have noted, maybe to avoid being accused of sexism, films should just do away with the female annoying sidekick altogether, it would be much easier than to write a better script.

But the whole discussion of the MPDG avoids an issue altogether in those films, and that is the representation of women and mental illness in films. There is a pretty old cultural idea that being a woman is a mental illness. See Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly, or Suddenly, Last Summer for depiction of insane women.

On the one hand, mental health is an issue that concerns a very large number of women. Statistics on anti-depressant prescriptions are frightening. And, a bit like the depiction of homosexual characters for a long time, there is the idea that any kind of depiction is good. Being able to see in a film a woman suffering from mental health (AND who does not hack anyone into pieces) is pretty amazing. On the other, like gay side-kicks helping their straight friends with their love-life, the MPDG’s (who almost always explicitly has some mental health condition or another, that is the ‘Manic’ part of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl) idiosyncracies (or symptoms) are charming and help the main character see life differently. There is no darkness attached to it, a bit like romanticized homeless ‘free’ people teaching rich people that there is more to life than work and money.

This representation of mental illness is not healthy by a long shot, but neither is the one proposed by anti-MPDG reviews. They demand independent post-feminist superwomen juggling careers and trophy boyfriends. Those barely functional Manic Pixie Dream Girls should just be locked back in the mental home where they belong.

And that is why I think we need to scrutinize our art and culture, but I think the phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ should be banned from our vocabulary. It is a lazy trendy concept that does not help study or change the depiction of women or mental health in films. Thankfully, like many concepts which do not lead to fruitful analyses, it has already mostly disappeared on its own.