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Gendering War in The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness explores a world populated by ambisexuals: humanoids that are each male and female. On the planet Winter, people are androgynous except when in kemmer, essentially translated as ‘in heat.’ Their sexual cycle runs around 28 days, like the female menstrual cycle. For around 21 days, the people are both and neither sex. Once in kemmer, their sex is determined mutually with their partner. They become masculine or feminine for the length of a menstrual period: about five days. This ability to switch sex, to be both male and female, makes Winter a planet without war.

The novel poses the idea of war as purely masculine through the notes of an early “Investigator,” Ong Tot Oppong. As one of the first otherworldly visitors to Winter, Ong hypothesizes about the warless planet. She thinks it might have been an experiment by more advanced peoples to eliminate large-scale aggression and killing. Ong wonders if these supposed genetic engineers, “consider war to be a purely masculine displacement-activity, a vast Rape, and therefore in their experiment eliminate the masculinity that rapes and the femininity that is raped” (96). Here war is defined as a male activity—penetrating and taking by force with phallic instruments. The absence of the masculine drive that fuels war creates peace. Whether the engineer was a human or god, the question of sexuality remains: why make ambisexual creatures? If not a purpose, an effect of ambisexuality is a peace the planet enjoys.

The protagonist of the novel, Genly Ai—a human explorer that comes after Ong—witnesses a religious ceremony that involves a female with a sword, a potentially warlike figure. A special group on Winter practices “foretelling,” or answering questions about the future. At the end of the ceremony, Genly sees that “there was no moonlight only darkness, and in the center of all darkness Faxe: the Weaver: a woman, a woman dressed in light. The light was silver, the silver was armor, an armored woman with a sword” (65). The ambisexual Faxe becomes a woman to Foretell; the act of prophecy is feminine. Yet, the woman who sees the future appropriates phallic power: holds a sword. This figure recalls many female knights, like Queen Elizabeth I at Tilbury and the medieval character Silence. Feminine knighthood offers not only male power, but also the ability to sheath the sword, to set aside the masculinity. Ambisexuals, like Faxe, are able to sheath their phallic instruments. The ability to be both male and female in this vision-state as well as in the rest of life keeps the people of Winter from warmongering.

Unlike the ambisexuals, Genly cannot sheath his sword; masculine war-hunger among humans may stem from the weakness of an organ that is permanently external. An ambisexual friend of Genly—Estraven—notes the nakedness of the penis. He writes that Genly has “a frailty about him. He is all unprotected, exposed, vulnerable, even to his sexual organ, which he must always carry outside himself” (227). For Estraven and Faxe, the penis is only revealed during some periods of kemmer; humans like Genly who are continually unsheathed seem frail. The development of other more powerful phallic objects, like swords and guns, is one way of compensating for the delicate nature of the penis, especially the flaccid penis. Virility is proven through the phallic rape of war; swords penetrate while the organ itself lies under armor. Ambisexuals do not feel the vulnerability that Estraven senses in Genly; they do not use war to showcase their phallic power.

Ambisexuals are embodiments of both sides of dichotomies—they are both the sword and the sheath. Peace comes from this completeness, this sense of unity rather than difference. The religious group that the Foretellers are a part of, the Handdarata, is focused on wholeness rather than duality. This concept is articulated in Le Guin’s title, taken from a lay from the Handdarata: “Light is the left hand of darkness / and darkness the right hand of light. / Two are one, life and death, lying / together like lovers in kemmer, / like hands joined together, / like the end and the way” (233).

Marjorie Jensen recently graduated with her MFA from Mills College. She is an educator, writer, and editor.

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