Category Archives: Psychology

The Dangers of Utilitarianism in “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. Le Guin

[Spoilers: There are gigantic spoilers in every version of reality this post is a part of.]

“What comes is acceptable.”

When Ursula K. Le Guin died earlier this year, I knew that I wanted to read one of her novels this year. Then, I stumbled across the trailer for the documentary, The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, several weeks ago. (This link will take you to the website with the trailer and other information.) Seeing the preview inspired me to go on a search for a book by Le Guin that I hadn’t read before. Every time I’ve read her books, they’ve transformed me in some way. This time, I selected The Lathe of Heaven to read. I tore through it in just a few hours.

The book was highly critical of people, and even institutions, that think they know best for other people. The protagonist, George Orr, has dreams that can alter reality. And he gets paired with a psychiatrist who wants to “help” people—in the aggregate.  It’s a scathing look at utilitarianism. If you have to crush the one in front of you to help the “many,” then maybe you are losing your way.

In fact, the protagonist is feeling particularly lost in one of the realities because his love interest has been “unwritten.” He’s in an antique store and interacts with one of the aliens that he dreamed into existence (or maybe they existed all along?) “‘Is there any way to control iahklu, to make it go the way it…ought to go?’” The alien gives him a gift of a Beatles album, specifically a single of “With a Little Help from my Friends?”He eventually falls asleep listening to the lyrics: “’Do you need anybody? I need somebody to love,’” and “’I get by, with a little help, with a little help, from my friends.’”

When he awakens, the woman he loves is there, although she is different than the previous iteration that he knew. In the end, the therapist tries to hook himself up to the dream machine instead of Orr, thinking that he could change reality better than Orr because he was “superior.” (He critiques Orr repeatedly for not wanting to interfere, for being apathetic.) And he nearly destroys everything. Orr acts at the one point it was entirely necessary to act and stops the machine. As a side note, Orr doesn’t think of the psychiatrist as an evil man. He was a good man whose mistake was thinking that he could fix everything and that he knew the solution.

This novel felt like a love letter to love itself and friendship. The danger lies from grandiosity, from losing sight of the small things, which, in the end, are everything.



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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Psychology, Sociology

A Return to U.S. classics: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

This year, as I’ve reduced my participation in social media and blog writing, I’ve increased and changed the focus of my reading. I established this blog to mainly talk about science fiction and fantasy books with a sociological imagination. However, I’ve found that my reading habits have shifted some this year. My interests have always waxed and waned so I’m sure that I’ll return to reading science fiction and fantasy again. (In fact, I did read one piece of fantasy, an incomplete work by J. R. R. Tolkien where he started an epic, Arthurian poem using alliterative verse. It was fascinating. I want to learn more about Old English and a have a desire to reread The Lord of the Rings again.)

First, I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Ernest Hemingway looks at the impacts of World War I without having the characters directly discuss or even think about the war much. Reading this allowed me to think about how when traumatic events happen, they may impact people so much that they no longer talk about the event. They may actively try to avoid thinking about it while still facing the direct and indirect effects of said event. In turn, this attempt at trying to ignore the pain may intensify problems like alcoholism or risk-taking.

Then, I had stumbled across Eudora Welty’s photography at our local art museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art. The ethereal nature of the photography, much set in southern states, spoke to me in a way that made me curious about her writing. I decided to read The Optimist’s Daughter since it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. The book was psychologically powerful and impacted my thinking about the past, memories, and letting go.

On a recommendation, the next book I read was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It really seems to be an human soul locked in novel form. It took me a month to read it since I was busy at work. But it was worth it.  It truly is a masterpiece. He was writing about the upheaval occurring in the United States around the time of World War I, with a primary focus on the Salinas Valley in California. (This book was helpful for me, as I can relate to themes of rapid social change inspired by changes in technology and globalization.)

The extremely short version of what the book expands on is the idea that human beings have a choice to be good or evil. It isn’t all destiny, biology (nature), or even culture (nurture). The characters debate a section in the Book of Genesis  related to the Cain and Able story, particularly the meaning of the Hebrew word, “Timshel,” in different translations of the Bible. The characters explore meaning of this story and word together across time, deciding that “Timshel” means, “Thou mayest.”  Individuals have a choice. They also discuss how Cain was marked not to be harmed, despite the terrible, murderous act he committed.

Also, some lessons that I found embedded in the book were: (1) humans deserve the truth of things, even when it may hurt them, (2) people should be trying to see the truth of situations, other people, and themselves, even when painful, (3) words have power to transform people, and (4) people (and horses) deserve to get names to live up to. We should hope for the best but be prepared to see what is. Many of the characters do not see themselves or others clearly, and it leads many of them into dire situations or even death. The surviving characters at the end, on the other hand, grapple with the problematic aspects of their personalities and delusions. When thoughtful people get together to discuss their problems, it makes them better. In the middle of the book, Lee says:

But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe.  It is always attacked and never destroyed—because ‘Thou mayest.’ (302).

I particularly really liked one line of dialogue: “‘And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good, is that it?” (583) Finally, as I was reading, I wondered what Steinbeck would make of fake news sites and people intentionally misleading other people and what kind of treatment he’d give it.

Now, I’m reading sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s new book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest on how new technologies are changing social movements and our lives.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Classics, Psychology, Sociology, Technology

James Turrell’s Skyspace and Perception

[This post is a bit different than my usual posts. No spoilers!]

When my spouse and I visited the Henry Art Gallery at University of Washington, I was overwhelmed by the experience of the Skyspace designed by James Turrell. This video links to information about the installation. Later in the day, I returned alone, and the Skyspace was empty. As I looked through the aperture in the roof, shaped a bit like an egg, I fell into a meditative state, not entirely dissimilar to walking a labyrinth. It was amazing: pleasantly warm with an azure sky above. I realized that our minds are similar to this installation. The installation limits (or focuses) our perceptions on a small sliver of the sky.

Although I could hear the occasional cries of seagulls, they only flew over the visible area twice. I started to ponder the different senses and how there might be other experiences that we miss because of our filters as human beings, a common question of people generally and philosophers. An example of this I’ve seen repeatedly is about the different vision perceptions of other animals, or even other humans.  According to this blog post, mantis shrimp are amazing and are being researched in terms of their eyes, which perceive the world quite differently than our eyes.

This applies, too, to how we allow for our fears and anxieties to limit our experiences in other ways.  I’m terrified of heights, but I had an opportunity to hike a trail at Mount Rainier a couple of days ago.  While I was up there, I started to think about how I don’t want my “perception filter” to be limited by fear.

Also, my somewhat spotty meditation practice over the past ten years helped.  I’ve done walking meditations so instead of being afraid as I saw a long trail on the side of a mountain, I decided to focus more more of my attention on my feet and where I was walking one moment at the time. I was essentially limiting my perceptions intentionally, just like looking at the roof in the Skyspace to be able to follow my party. (The views of Mount Rainier were some of the best I’ve ever experienced and definitely worth it.) I know that both psychologists and Buddhist practitioners spend a great deal of time pondering these issues than I ever will, but it was intriguing to see how it applied to my life.  James Turrell’s Skyspaces are all over the US and the world, and I want to visit more of them.

In terms of sociology, I think that this quote from Turrell’s website sums up how this relates:  “Turrell often cites the Parable of Plato’s Cave to introduce the notion that we are living in a reality of our own creation, subject to our human sensory limitations as well as contextual and cultural norms.” The cultural values and norms that we are taught shape what we expect to see and our perceptions.  The ideologies that we are taught contextualize what we are able to see, hear, think, feel, etc.  Although there is room for deviance, rebellion, and change, our formative experiences during socialization create the lens we happen to view the world from.  As always, I wonder how we can shape the cultural values in our societies for people’s wellbeing.

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Filed under Psychology, Sociology