BASS 2019: Ursula K. Le Guin, “Pity and Shame” from Tin House #76

Tin House art

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her esteemed 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, “I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” And what a fierce truth our Portland neighbor told, right up until her journey’s end. Whenever we had the great fortune to publish her, we would take page proofs up the hill to her house, where she would chuckle at our foolishness over tea. In this issue we present a last, long short story, “Pity and Shame,” which is filled with her trademark inventiveness and dark humor….She will be deeply missed. Luckily for all of us, her words and spirit live on.

Tin House Editor’s intro to Issue 76

In his Introduction to this edition of BASS, Anthony Doerr praises the ability of this story to “embrace dual protagonists as well as any short stories I can remember reading.” After the epigraph that precedes the story itself, we see one of the protagonists through the eyes of the other. This becomes something of a theme, as each sees the other quite differently than the other sees themselves, and that view has consequences for both the viewer and the viewed. That sounds a bit garbled, but think of it in terms of the observer effect of physics: to observe a phenomenon changes that phenomenon. In physics, this only has a significant effect with very small things or extremely accurate measurements, but it’s more obvious in real life when it’s people who are observing and observed.

Let’s start with William Cowper, a mine engineer. The time period of the story is uncertain, but it’s somewhere post-Gold-Rush and pre-automobile in a small California town. Cowper was severely injured when a mine he was inspecting caved in.

There was a black rectangle in front of him. Just black, just there. Light around it, so it was like a hole in the light. It didn’t move. At the same time he saw it, a rhythm began to beat in his head like a hammer. It was made of words.
I, fed with judgment
The black rectangle was right in front of him but he couldn’t tell how large it was, how close or far. There was a great pressure on him, paralyzing and sickening him, holding him so he couldn’t move. He couldn’t get away from the black rectangle. It was there in front of him. It was all there was. The words beat at him. He tried to cry out for help. There was nobody to help him.
to receive a sentence
to re CEIVE a SEN tence
WORSE than a BI ram’s

Whether he opened his eyes or shut them there was the black space, the bright glare around it, and the words in the terrible rhythm.
The timbers creaked, he saw the glimmer on them overhead. He tried to cling to that because it was before the judgment, before the sentence, but they were gone, there was dirt in his mouth and the words beating, beating him down.
I, fed with JUDG ment
in a FLESH ly TOMB

Complete story available online at Tin House

This is the poetry of William Cowper, 18th century British poet, no relation to our Cowper. We eventually find out that our Cowper, as a teenager, had been orphaned, and another relative ran off with whatever inheritance should have been his. A lawyer untangling the mess became his mentor and sent him to mining school. When Cowper graduated, his mentor presented him with a book of Cowper’s poetry, which includes “Lines Written During a Period of Insanity,” the epigraph and the poem Cowper thinks of as he is trapped in the rubble.

I confess, the story of Abiram was new to me; I’d assumed it was an alternate spelling of Abraham until the story directed me to Numbers 16, where the God of Love has the earth swallow up those in the Exodus who start complaining to Moses (yes, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but they still end up dead). Now Cowper imagines himself “in a fleshly tomb” after being swallowed by the mine. Later, he will see a black rectangle of a Bible on a table, and recall the sensation of being crushed in the mine.

He is rescued and brought to Rae Brown’s home. She’s had her own troubles: a man who took her away, at age eighteen, from her dead-end life where everyone regarded her as the daughter of a slut. Turns out, he wasn’t exactly reliable, and when this boarder/patient shows up, Petey takes off. This similarity between her situation, and Cowper’s at a similar age, is unmistakable.

The local doctor shows Rae how to care for the still unconscious Cowper – “….this man was so broken, so beaten, he had been treated so rough that for a while you couldn’t see him for his injuries.” And here is where we get introduced to the pity and the shame.

First, the pity.

It didn’t sound like much, but when you came to the edge between life and death where he was, and she with him, she saw how strong pity was, how deep it went. She’d loved making love with Petey, back when they ran off together, the wanting and fulfilling. It had made everything else unimportant. But the ache of tenderness she felt for her patient did just the opposite, it made things more important. What she and Pete had had was like a bonfire that went up in a blaze. This was like a lamp that let you see what was there.

And then, the shame, when she admits out loud that she and Petey were never married:

In the kitchen she stood there for a while and felt her face burn red hot. Going around announcing her name, as if being Rae Brown was something to be proud of. It didn’t make any difference if she wasn’t ashamed. Other people were. They were ashamed for her, of her, that she lived among them. They blushed for her. Their shame was on her, a weight, a load she couldn’t get out from under.

Shame pushes her inward; pity extends her outward. Shame changes the observed; pity overwhelms, outshines shame, changes the observer, and through the outstretched hand, the observed. Which brings us to another Cowper poem, which is introduced late in the story: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Maybe you need to get crushed in a cave-in, be lost to your family, to find your way to a better life. The twelve step folks call it hitting bottom.

I had a few hurdles to appreciation of this story. One was my immediate reaction to the word “pity”. It’s a word with a long history in literary discourse, going all the way back to Aristotle, who expounded on pity and fear in tragedy as a means to catharsis, emotional cleansing. I happen to have just run into Aristotle’s Poetics in, of all places, the OCW on Don Quixote that I’m running through, so maybe it was just in the front of my mind at an opportune moment. I went looking for something that would break it down in simpler terms than the Stanford encyclopedia, and found it at the IEP, not as prestigious but a lot easier to understand for those of us who aren’t PhDs. I think I also found the root of my discontent with this story: pity abounds, but there is no fear. Maybe the fear is meant to issue from shame. Who among us doesn’t fear being called out, shamed.

The article also goes into some depth about the difference between condescending pity, and tragic pity. We can pity Cowper because we can see ourselves in his place. Our pity for Rae is harder, since it’s easier to feel superior to her. Something happened to Cowper; Rae did something that brought about her shame. I have to wonder if this is a male/female divide, since Rae had few options, and Cowper did see signs the mine was unsafe and kept going. In any case, the term pity carries a lot of baggage; I’m pretty sure Le Guin intended it that way.

I also found William Cowper, the poet, to be an interesting figure, thanks to a Slate article by Robert Pinsky. And by interesting, I mean a little crazy, actually committed at one point. One surprise for me is that he wrote one of the most grotesque hymns in Christendom: “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” Christianity revels in blood imagery, but this first verse is more explicitly anatomical than most.

Jake Weber’s post also shows some barriers to his appreciation of the story – and in true Workshop Heretic form, he elucidates them clearly – but keeps due respect for Le Guin’s highly regarded body of work. I’ve never read Le Guin. As a salute – or an apology – to this story, I may add her to next summer’s free-reading list. So, to experienced Le Guin readers: what book would you pick as the best place to start, and why?