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Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Horse Camp”

November 20, 2013

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As a writer of flash fiction, I admire short prose that takes risks with traditional plotting and character development. Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Horse Camp” is slightly longer than today’s usual word limit for flash (of one thousand), yet it still packs one weird punch of a premise that never gets resolved.

Is this a story about girls or horses? Or girls as horses? Or horses as girls?

Here’s the final paragraph, with the American cream of Le Guin’s magnificent style trotting at twenty hands high:

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You get the idea. Le Guin brings to crisis that odd cultural fusion of girls and horses, of girls as horses.  That’s as far as our assurances go. Everything else we can say about the story is left up to speculation, and if you didn’t know already, speculation is but the stream Le Guin goes a-fishin’ in. It’s her wheelhouse. Her name is on the wheel in gold filigree script. One of her most acclaimed novels, in fact, takes up a similar premise with an alien race that experiences gender fluidly.

lefthandIn “Horse Camp” Le Guin is up to similar shenanigans with identity. Still, it never fails to amaze me how quickly readers fall into a familiar game with Le Guin’s SciFi, musing over fringe ambiguities and never really looking the point of the thought experiment full in the face.

To be sure, I am astonished by the sheer energy of some fans of fantasy and SciFi to be able to intellectualize the allegories of their favorite stories, while yet worrying over the internal logic of the fantasy. How exactly did Darth Vader become Luke’s father? How exactly do they mine the anti-matter that fuels the Enterprise?

Le Guin’s story is designed to antagonize such thinking. It wants us to fall into its rabbit hole so that we can’t tell the girls from the horses. But it does so with an ostensible social mission: anyone in Western culture who’s ever been a girl or grown up around one or watched one grow up knows well the intersection of girls of a certain age and the equine fantasy-obsession that transfixes them.

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Bruno Bettleheim wrote this in his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1975).  p. 56-57:

  “Many girls of an older age group are deeply involved with horses; they play with toy horses and spin elaborate fantasies around them.  When they get older and have the opportunity, their lives seem to rotate around real horses, which they take excellent care of and seem inseparable from. Psychoanalytic investigation has revealed that overinvolvement in and with horses can stand for many different emotional needs which the girl is trying to satisfy.  For example, by controlling this powerful animal she can come to feel that she is controlling the male, or the sexually animalistic, within herself.  Imagine what it would do to a girl’s enjoyment of riding, to her self-respect, if she were made conscious of this desire which she is acting out in riding.  She would be devastated -robbed of a harmless and enjoyable sublimation, and reduced in her own eyes to a bad person.  At the same time, she would be hard-pressed to find an equally suitable outlet for such inner pressures, and therefore might not be able to master them”.

As a committed feminist, Le Guin would likely cringe at some of the phrasings and assumptions in Bettelheim’s excerpt. I can imagine people who feel themselves only to have a passing interest in feminist politics taking issue with a concept of the girl having her inner male mastered–for that inner male must be what we refer to as the non-gendered normative human, right? Wrong Bruno. Wrong. Just ask Ursula. There can be many ways of imagining an interior that doesn’t cleave to traditional binaric paradigms of man-woman, human-animal, master-submissive, sublimated play-shaming exposure.

By her own admission, Le Guin’s vision is metaphoric and theoretical:

“At its best — when its practitioners take it seriously — [science fiction] … is a new integrative effort, a way of enabling the contemporary, scientific, individualistic consciousness to achieve the collective creative power of myth, to cope with thunder and suffering by aesthetic, integrative means.”

This is the power of myth to Le Guin–to bypass through integration the kind of “thunder and suffering” that myopic visions of the world impose upon those who take seriously the creative and the collective. A powerful new paradigm that we could include among the binaries that Le Guin seeks to break is that of the individual versus the collective, or which plays out between those acting as singular agents and those who act in the name of collaboration–for collectivities rather than for themselves as individuals.

But let’s not forget the triumph of the young individual girl or horse (or horsegirl) who finally learns to walk and run on her own two or four feet or hooves.

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Movement is political.

To start is to hazard freedom and, in gaining it–to bypass the sad surveillance of cultural stricture.

4 Comments
  1. Movement is political. To start is to hazard freedom, and in gaining it–to bypass the sad surveillance of cultural stricture.
    – wow – loved this post.

  2. Michael Andreoni permalink

    I don’t know the feminist perspective on le Guin’s “Wizard Of Earth-Sea” trilogy, which, except for the second novel, has few female characters, but it’s ripping good.

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