Tuesday, August 23, 2011



What if a society were deeply aware of the sacred? How then would they live? How would they make decisions, how would they tend their households, how would they wield power?

It is difficult for us to imagine, for our society has almost wholly obliterated the recognition of the numinous, or the spiritual, from everyday life. Even those of us who work very hard to recognise the holiness of life often have to research and work on our own rituals and awareness, and must consciously remind ourselves over and over again to approach life as a sacred experience if our approach is not to fade away. It is not a common understanding of the nature of being; instead, it is something that a few of us struggle to do, largely without shared rites or rituals, and largely alone.

Yet this is a blip in human history. Most societies never separated the numinous from the everyday; they were one and the same, and life wasn't possible without the acknowledgement of the sacred. But without reading an anthropological text, it is difficult for us to get a feel for what such an approach to life feels like.

As an Anglo-Australian, this is a particular problem. As I understand it, the indigenous societies that modern Australia has swallowed up understood for the most part how to switch between the now and spiritual time, seeing life as a great confluence of daily and mythic existence. It is one of the great shames of modern Australia that we have not learned from the elders how to approach the land, the people and indeed all existence with a sacramental awareness; instead, we are more likely to learn about it from European sources.

As indeed, here. In her recent novel Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin has captured such a society. The story is set among the highly religious ancient Latins, well before the founding of Rome, and is the shadow side of The Aeneid: Lavinia is Aeneas's third wife, mentioned only briefly in Vergil's great poem and never given voice – until now.

Le Guin has imagined a full life for Lavinia, before, during and after her marriage to Aeneas. She is the daughter of the king of the Latins, and as such manages the king's household, both practically and in religious observances. She doesn't just go through the motions, however; Le Guin has depicted a highly pious creature who understands that she must do the right thing no matter its cost. Of marriageable age, she consults her family oracle, and while in the sacred place learns that she must marry a foreigner; other omens show that she will found a great city, although in doing so, she brings war to her people.

As a woman who understands that the pious person has no choice but to do what is right, she holds out against a host of suitors and her mother's demands until Aeneas the Trojan arrives.

Le Guin writes convincingly about a woman who knows the meaning of awe. Lavinia lives in constant awareness of the holiness of everyday life. All aspects of life are ordained with rites and rituals, observances to the powers which make life possible. Lavinia tends the hearth, the sacred fire; gathers salt from the father river Tiber; keeps the storehouses according to religious ritual; and understands that everything – from trees to field boundaries, from salt to spelt, from war to peace, from agriculture to every domestic act, are part of the great and sacred web of life.

Le Guin writes masterfully, too, of Lavinia's mountaintop experiences in the woods. Rituals at the site of the family oracle are both precise and mundane: prayers, a sacrifice, silence, and sleep. Much of the strength lies in what Le Guin chooses to leave out. There is awe; that is enough.

The reader is drawn into these experiences so that one emerges thinking, Why don't we give thanks for our store cupboards? Why don't we give thanks every time we are warmed by fire or given a cup of water or wine? Why don't we notice the spirits of the trees, the boundaries of woods and fields, the presence of our forefathers – and what sort of society would we be if we held all acts to be holy?


Like all Le Guin's books, Lavinia is not necessarily easy to finish. It doesn't charge towards a great heroic denouement, but this is deliberate. Many years ago the author put together a brilliant collection of essays in which she explained that she was trying to write as a woman, despite having learned to read and write in a man's world, particularly in the academy.

How, Le Guin wondered, does one write of the daily grinding of meal, the kids playing in the river, the sun coming up, the sun going down; how does one write without a hero dominating the narrative arc; how, perhaps, does one even dispense with the narrative arc altogether? It is a challenge she has set herself over decades; and in Lavinia, despite largely following the last six books of The Aeneid, she has shown herself up to the challenge.

Lavinia is a woman's narrative. It is not a story about getting married, although that is part of it. Nor does it end with any of the standard items: death, or babies, or a return home, although they are also part of it. Instead, Le Guin has charted a woman's life through the domestic tasks and religious observances that shape a woman's life. Large events still happen, of course, but they are seen through a woman's eyes: the competing of suitors, and how the silent king's daughter perceives their striving; the coming of war, and how a king's daughter observes the action from a high tower and tends the wounded. Yet the cleaning out of the store cupboards at the appointed time with the right prayers is as important to her as anything else, for without the blessings of the household powers, found in cupboards, meal, salt, and fire, all life would grind to a halt.

For readers who have grown up with the classic heroic narrative and its surging towards a great denouement, such an approach can make Le Guin's books difficult to finish. What, after all, is the point of reading a few more pages of how life goes on? And yet this is how life is for many of us: no great rush towards glory, just a steady keeping on keeping on. Le Guin writes beautifully of that keeping on as Lavinia matures from an intelligent young woman in full bloom, through the wisdom and power of middle age, into the dreaming of late old age. She finishes on a breathtaking vision of past and future woven together.

Lavinia is a stunning book, thought provoking, gracious, and graceful. I highly recommend it.

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