Uncertainty and Human Action in Fiction

4 August 2010 at 8:31 am 6 comments

| Peter Klein |

From Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness:

“The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion. . . . Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable — the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”

“That we shall die.”

“Yes. There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer. . . . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

The phrase “permanent, intolerable uncertainty” brings to mind Knight’s famous remark in Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit about the “the sheer brute fact that the results of human activity cannot be anticipated.”

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Entry filed under: - Klein -, Austrian Economics, Entrepreneurship, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

The Noir Institutional Economics Before They Were Famous

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Steven Handel  |  4 August 2010 at 10:25 am

    Nothing could more exemplify the truth!

  • 2. David Hoopes  |  4 August 2010 at 11:40 am

    I love that set of novels.

  • 3. Peter Klein  |  4 August 2010 at 12:29 pm

    But can you ever enjoy reading them again? Nothing like a quasi-academic discussion to ruin good, clean fun.

  • 4. David Hoopes  |  4 August 2010 at 3:13 pm

    I was just looking at “The Left Hand of Darkness” thinking it had been a while since I’d read it. I’ve re-read Chandler so much I’ll have to give that another five years at least.

  • 5. FC  |  5 August 2010 at 12:14 am

    Douglas Adams had a few things to say about uncertainty and public choice.

  • 6. Greg Rehmke  |  19 August 2010 at 7:02 pm

    I enjoyed reading LeGuin’s “The Lathe of Heaven” and enjoyed watching the movie.

    I read most of the science fiction books by Ursula K. Leguin. Her Earthsea Trilogy was captivating, as were others of her early anthopology-based science fiction novels. In 1980 a new book appeared titled Malafrena.

    Malafrena sounded like a mystical place and I assumed the novel would be science fiction or fantasy. Sinking deeper into the story, I kept expected a door to open to another world, or a ancient power to appear. After a time I walked through that door and was immersed in another world.

    In Malafrena, Itale Sorde grew up in the provinces learning to manage his father’s estate, but surrounded by his grandfather’s books. At seventeen, home from boarding school, he happens one evening to begin reading through old French newspapers his grandfather had saved, turning to the year 1790. LeGuin writes: “He held the French Revolution in his hands. He read the speech in which the orator called down the wrath of the people on the house of privilege, the speech that ended, “Vivro libre, ou mourir!”– Live free, or die. The yellow newsprint crumbled under the boy’s touch; his head was bowed over dry columns of words spoken to a lost Assembly by men over thirty years dead…

    “The speeches were full of rant, cant, and vanity; he saw that clearly enough. But they discussed freedom as a human need, like bread, like water. Itale got up and walked up and down the quiet little library, rubbing his head and staring blankly at the bookcases and the windows. Freedom was not a necessity, it was a danger, all the lawmakers of Europe had been saying that for a decade. Men were children, to be governed for their own good by the few who understood the science of government. What did this Frenchman Vergniaud mean by stating a choice–live free or die? Such choices are not offered to children. The words were spoken to men. They rang bald and strange; they lacked the logic of statements made in support of alliances, counter-alliances, censorships, repressions, reprisals…”

    Itale then goes off, in September of 1822, to attend college in the provincial capital. In college he meets others and joins Amiktiya, a secret society, “The drank a lot of wine… passed contraband books around, discussed revolutions in France, Naples, Piedmont, Spain, Greece, talked of constitutional monarchy, equality before the law, popular education, a free press, all without any clear idea of what they were getting at, where it all led. They were not supposed to talk, so they talked.” (p. 16)

    A dinner conversation is described with Itale and his father and uncle discussing the coming meeting of Estates, the first in thirty years. The uncle hopes for local control at least of taxes, “They might be able to do something about taxation at least. The Hungarian Diet’s won back control over their taxes from Vienna.” But Itale’s father answers “What if they did? Taxes won’t be decreased. Taxes are never decreased.” Itale replies “The money wouldn’t go to support a foreign police force, at any rate.”

    After college, it is time for Itale to return to his home in Malafrena. But instead he talks with his friends of going to Krasnoy, the capital, to fight, somehow, for freedom. “There must be men in the city who would welcome them and put them to work. There were said to be secret societies there, which corresponded with similar groups in Piedmont and Lombardy, Naples, Bohemia, Poland, German states: for through the territories and satellites of the Austrian Empire and even beyond, throughout Europe, stretched the silent network of liberalism, like the nervous system of a sleeping man. A restless sleep, feverish, full of dreams. … Itale went striding down the shady street like a summer whirlwind, his face hot, his coat open.” (p. 7). (from Malafrena by Ursula K. LeGuin).

    Malafrena is not about free-markets or libertarian ideas. As I recall LeGuin gives glimpses of horrific early industrialization and abuse of workers. Things were pretty terrible in the beginning of the industrial period for a lot of people. But they were better than available alternatives, including life on the farm. Otherwise people would have left industrial jobs and moved back to the countryside to work for their old aristocratic masters. Or at least thousands then streaming into cities throughout Europe–as they do in the underdeveloped world today–would have stayed home.

    –Greg Rehmke

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