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.