AUGUST 17, 2019
IN 1986, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a short, influential essay titled “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” In it, she introduced the anthropologist Elizabeth Fisher’s insight that “the first cultural device was probably a recipient,” such as a pouch, net, or bag, rather than some sort of implement of violence (i.e., the spear). Fisher’s observation has implications for how we understand and represent the evolution of human social structures, and how we might reenvision that history. Le Guin adapted Fisher’s insight about the essence of the carrying tool to argue for a similar reevaluation of fiction, from prehistoric myths and representations such as cave paintings, through the modern novel, to Le Guin’s own speculative fiction.
What Le Guin found compelling was the simplicity of Fisher’s idea. Noting that no less than 65 percent and possibly upward of 80 percent of the early hominid diet consisted of vegetables, Le Guin finds it reasonable to assume that the first tools we developed would have aided our work collecting more than we could eat in a single sitting:
If you haven’t got something to put it in, food will escape you — even something as uncombative and unresourceful as an oat. You put as many as you can into your stomach while they are handy, that being the primary container; but what about tomorrow morning when you wake up and it’s cold and raining and wouldn’t it be good to have just a few handfuls of oats to chew on and give little Oom to make her shut up, but how do you get more than one stomachful and one handful home?
No one can know unequivocally that a bag was the “first cultural device,” but it does make more sense than a spear. The ratio of energy expended finding berries to energy expended chasing down herd beasts is high. So why weren’t the cave paintings at Lascaux, to pick one famous example, full of figures carrying around bags full of oats and berries? In fact, the Lascaux complex has virtually no representation of flora. Instead, it is dominated by bulls and stags and horses.
Feeding humankind was deemed unworthy of recounting, which is how fiction comes into this. To the mind weaned on the tradition running from Homer to Michael Bay, stories about berry- and tuber-picking probably seem boring. As a screenwriter might ask, “Where’s the conflict?” In the place of such mundane details, we got, as Le Guin puts it, “the story that hid my humanity from me, the story the mammoth hunters told about bashing, thrusting, raping, killing, about the Hero.”
In Le Guin’s estimation, the story that we got did not describe the technological achievement that liberated humankind from vast amounts of labor, but rather the one that celebrated manly exertions with spears on the plains and steppes and savannas. And in fact, we don’t have to look far to see resonances of this second story today. Consider David Attenborough’s epic series The Life of Mammals, which ends in the Kalahari, following a San persistence hunt. Quite vividly, Attenborough enacts the myth we’ve told ourselves forever, in which a spear entering a kudu’s side guarantees our transition from hominids to human civilization, from our primate past to our present full humanness. Or consider Alejandro González Iñárritu’s multiple-Oscar–winning 2015 film The Revenant, only the latest in a long line of Western “primitivist” artworks in which going backward seems to provide the essential key to moving forward.
Though she doesn’t mention it by name, I can’t help but think of Le Guin responding to arguably the earliest heroic tale committed to words: The Epic of Gilgamesh, which the father and son Kent H. and Kevin H. Dixon have now faithfully reproduced in graphic novel form. The younger Dixon’s pen drawings are meticulous and expressive, and provide a neat link between the pre-writing that must have carried the story of Gilgamesh and his faithful companion Enkidu for generations before it was committed to words — possibly as early as 2700 BCE, and in the complete text no later than 1000 BCE in Mesopotamia by a priestly scribe named Sîn-lēqi-unninni.
Gilgamesh is a tale full of the types of characters and events that Le Guin acknowledged held no interest for her. With the wild man Enkidu, Gilgamesh goes around chopping down trees, slaying beasts, basking in the adulation of others, and pissing off the gods. There are no bag carriers and no everyday life to speak of. Gilgamesh is the earliest example we have of a written narrative that conflates humanity with masculine deeds. The epic demonstrates how early some were already construing masculine exploits as the “human condition.” It’s the oldest surviving version of the exclusionary story that left Le Guin “[w]anting to be human too.”
On the other hand, even Le Guin thought there were deeply important aspects to stories like The Epic of Gilgamesh. Speaking to the Guardian in 2005, she pointed out that fantasy writing can appear as if a dream, and that “the symbols seem to be near universal and accessible to all. They’re the same through the ages: we read the Epic of Gilgamesh and get it.”
In the Dixons’ version of the epic, the most interesting parts — which are also the ones where the artistic sweep is at its grandest — are the hallucinations, the fever dreams, and the otherworldly moments of the tale, when human beings find themselves at the whims of things greater than themselves. These are, crucially, things that one cannot vanquish with a spear thrust. In Tablet VII, for instance, Enkidu dreams of being dragged by Anzu, a lion-headed god, “to the House of Darkness, which has no exit, no traveler returns, there is no light for them; dust is their sustenance, clay their bread.”
Gilgamesh is a useful starting point for thinking about the so-called canonical works of Western literature and understanding what it was that Le Guin saw as both exclusionary and valuable about them. In Gilgamesh, we can locate the origins of a still-dominant story of how to be human.
Yet, the cracks in this canonical structure can also be traced to the moment Sîn-lēqi-unninni chose to record The Epic of Gilgamesh. For Le Guin, the modern analogy to the bag is the book, specifically the novel, which carries within it words, which in turn carry multiple, often contradictory meanings. The novel also defangs the hero:
[I]t’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.
That’s why I like novels: instead of heroes they have people in them.
One of the greatest practitioners of modern fiction, Franz Kafka, was exemplary at focusing on people, not heroes. It’s safe to say that you can’t really call any of his characters heroic. But there is something resonant and deeply memorable about them. Kafka’s writing exudes a desperate, dreamlike quality, in which nothing is exactly what it seems. Joseph K.’s predicament is real but also unreal. This Kafkaesque inversion of realism continues to resonate in the writing of Le Guin and Kazuo Ishiguro, among other authors. There is something real about their fiction, but it is impossible to grasp firmly.
Kafka, too, has been given the graphic treatment in Kafkaesque: Fourteen Stories — this time by the illustrator Peter Kuper, whose menacing portraits fit so well with Kafka’s mood. All 14 stories and parables in Kuper’s collection reside in the author’s collected works, and some of them are among his most recognizable: “In the Penal Colony,” “A Hunger Artist,” and “Before the Law.” Kuper’s black-and-white illustrations draw on the artistic milieu of Kafka’s era, such as Lynd Ward’s engravings and Winsor McCay’s cartoons. In the introduction, Kuper notes that he enlisted the help of a friend whose new translations retain the spare tone of Kafka’s stories.
Where it is difficult to see oneself in Gilgamesh, it is not difficult to place oneself within a Kafka story, even if you’ve never been turned into an ungeheuren Ungeziefer. This is the quality that Kuper so aptly emphasizes. In rendering Kafka’s stories, Kuper translates them into an imagery that evokes things Kafka may never have known of or considered. In “Before the Law,” for instance, Kuper depicts a black man, his clothes referencing the style of the Depression/Great Migration era, whose desire to be admitted before the law tantalizes him into a bureaucratic apparatus that offers no succor and from which he has no hope of escape. Kuper’s adaptation thereby concretizes the parable and makes it clear how it has outlived Kafka’s own time.
Similarly, in “Coal-Bucket Rider” Kuper reminds us that economic deprivation, no less than legal denial, is still very much at the heart of Western society. A down-on-his-luck man needs a little assistance to keep his home warm: “I must have coal or I will freeze to death. I will ride to the coal-seller, but he has grown deaf to ordinary pleas of poverty.” Urbanization and industrialization in Kafka’s own day meant great deprivation for many peasants turned off the land and forced to sell their labor in the cities. This has not changed, and if anything has been exacerbated by increased financialization and inequality. To walk down the avenues of Manhattan or the boulevards of Los Angeles today is to see, alongside the success of the elect, our persistent failures to ensure that people are clothed and fed and cared for. Kafkaesque’s bucket rider is resigned to “proving I have not a single grain of coal left.” He has to appear “like a starving beggar,” and even then, he is not assured that he will find relief.
Kuper’s art likewise adds significant new dimensions to Kafka’s stories. He gives expression and personality to characters from stories that sometimes take up no more than a paragraph in Kafka’s collected works. Kuper’s ability to express movement and expression is also notable, and Kafkaesque has the quality of being not simply an adaptation but an artistic object in its own right.
Regarding her own chosen form of speculative or science fiction, Le Guin warned that to make it about human triumph was to fall into the ancient trap of spears and heroism. One can see this most clearly in novels and films of human triumph over alien invaders, or our mastery of technology. Le Guin argued that it was best to avoid “the linear, progressive, Time’s-(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic,” and that by doing so writers might deploy their imaginative settings to reach a higher realism. Fiction in this mode would “keep even Man where he belongs.”
Le Guin’s warning also resonates in our real-life preference for technocratic solutions to the world’s ills. It’s currently easier to believe that human ingenuity and technical mastery can somehow address these ills than it is to conceive of social solutions to those problems. The rhetoric is that bringing wi-fi to farmers will solve uneven development by making us all knowledge workers; or that teaching black girls to code will eradicate racism; or that body cameras will end police brutality; or that geoengineering will mitigate, even reverse, environmental destruction. But this is beyond unrealistic. It’s the manifestation of the myth that only heroes (and people really do make heroes of the Elon Musks of the world) can deliver us from our benighted existence, when the solutions already stare us in the face. However, these solutions require that we exchange heroes for that nondescript bag of ideas meant to carry and provide for us all.