An unmeasured desire for life

Inverted Commas 3: The modern world viewed from Earthsea

‘Nature is not unnatural. This is not a righting of the balance, but an upsetting of it. There is only one creature who can do that […] by an unmeasured desire for life.’

Sparrowhawk is speaking of humans, in Ursula Le Guin’s wonderfully immersive Earthsea fantasy The Farthest Shore (1973). And, as in all great fantasy, what he has to say — what she has to say — is as apposite to our own lives as it was in Earthsea.

‘ When we crave power over life — endless wealth, unassailable safety, immortality — then desire becomes greed. And if knowledge allies itself to that greed, then comes evil. Then the balance of the world is swayed, and ruin weighs heavy in the scale.’

“An unmeasured desire for life.” This isn’t a bad thing, surely? We almost all desire life, unless that life is unbearable. “Unmeasured” means boundless, without limits, and we all know individuals whose love of life is immense, almost exemplary in its generosity.

And yet there is a another, negative set of meanings that go with “unmeasured”. Lavish — unrestrained — intemperate. Meanings that suggest a taking of more than one’s fair share, an overweaning selfishness, a carelessness of one’s fellow humans and their needs and wants.

Do I need to labour this quote’s relevance to what is going on now, now as I write this, now as you read it? I’m guessing not: it is all too obvious.

But do we fall prey to despair? I hope not: as long as there are people who know that our desire for life should be a measured one and who understand that righting of the balance is imperative, then only can we start to reverse the seeming inevitability that evil men and their actions will prevail.

As Le Guin comments, “There is a certain bleakness in finding hope where one expected certainty.” But better hope than despair: remember what remained when the evils of Pandora’s box — that false gift that vindictive Zeus gave to Epimetheus — were released into the world.

And, as a wise child wrote, where there is hope there is life. We mustn’t let hope be snuffed out.

12 thoughts on “An unmeasured desire for life

  1. A great and timely post, Chris! I believe the unmeasured desire for life is an inherently human trait – and learning to master it is an inherently human endeavor 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore is a powerful metaphor, even a chilling foretelling of what seems to be happening now in the world: global warming, climate change, the poisoning of the earth and the oceans, mass extinctions, human populations increasing almost exponentially — it all speaks of a balance upset.

      And into it all many humans seem to have no answer but to look towards fascism and the mob for solutions. Le Guin’s fiction speaks truth but if those who make decisions don’t read where will they find those truths?

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      1. She was not the only one to speak those truths – there were many other, sometimes more clearly heard, sometimes more obscure. The problem, I believe, is that these truths are hard – both in accepting and in acting upon – especially for people living in the “now”. It would mean we as mankind have to take responsibility for the state of the world. And responsibility seems more and more something most people want to escape from.

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        1. Cannot disagree with any of this, Ola. I know many of us aren’t perfect when it comes to behaviour, but it’s now very hard to credit that so many are not just imperfect but so skewed in their thinking that I can barely discern a common humanity in them. And that’s virtually as bad as them scapegoating the rest of us.

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    1. Thank you, Phyllis. Time spent with communities, such as the Amish, that treasure balance in all things is never wasted. We recently spent a weekend on a neurodiversity conference during which we experienced and learned how going through different stages of process in creative crafts (like pottery, woodworking, leatherwork and so on) allowed us not only insights and skills but also understanding of the importance of context and cooperation. These in turn helped induce peace of mind, respect for nature and its materials, and a sense of oneness with fellow beings.


  2. That’s why our natural desire for life must pass through death, go through a reversal and turn inside out, lest it lead to its own destruction. We must be baptized in selflessness to find our true selves.

    As always, LeGuin has the perfect way to formulate these things and put them into story-pictures. Looking forward to our readalong of the whole series.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Le Guin makes exactly your first point in a chapter I’ve just reread, Lory: without death there cannot be new life; and a quest for immortality leads ultimately to a negation of what we understand by life.

      I hope to have finished most of the six Earthsea volumes before the official readalong, so that I can give informed consideration to Le Guin’s themes and narratives. Lizzie and I are firming up preparations for Witch Week right now! 🙂

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  3. I’m glad you think we’re “firming up” plans for Witch Week, Chris. To me, these seem still nebulous and inchoate — but I am beginning to discern the edges.

    LeGuin’s Earthsea series goes well with Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, which is also about controlling our “unmeasured desire for life”. I don’t know if Babbitt was as influenced by the Tao as LeGuin was, but the basic idea is there: death is a part of life, and it’s the only thing that makes life sweet. If we thought it was unending, we’d waste it (the way we waste water and other natural resources).

    I’d also recommend Denton Little’s Deathdate (by Lance Rubin), about a world in which, through required genetic testing, everyone knows the exact date (but not the means) of their death. (And of course the government is invested in ensuring there are no slip-ups.) As Dr. Johnson once said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”


    1. That Johnson quote provides a much-needed jolt, Lizzie,especially with the imminent approach of Witch Week: I’ve just emailed you about this. With The Farthest Shore still in my mind I’ve also ordered the Babbitt, a short read it said in the accompanying reviews.

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