The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction – Ursula Le Guin quote

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? So you get up and go to the damned soggy oat patch in the rain, and wouldn’t it be a good thing if you had something to put Baby Oo Oo in so that you could pick the oats with both hands? A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. A recipient.

The first cultural device was probably a recipient. . . . Many theorizers feel that the earliest cultural inventions must have been a container to hold gathered products and some kind of sling or net carrier.

So says Elizabeth Fisher in Women’s Creation (McGraw-Hill, 1975). But no, this cannot be. Where is that wonderful, big, long, hard thing, a bone, I believe, that the Ape Man first bashed somebody with in the movie and then, grunting with ecstasy at having achieved the first proper murder, flung up into the sky, and whirling there it became a space ship thrusting its way into the cosmos to fertilize it and produce at the end of the movie a lovely fetus, a boy of course, drifting around the Milky Way without (oddly enough) any womb, any matrix at all? I don’t know. I don’t even care. I’m not telling that story. We’ve heard it, we’ve all heard all about all the sticks and spears and swords, the things to bash and poke and hit with, the long, hard things, but we have not heard about the thing to put things in, the container for the thing contained. That is a new story. That is news.

And yet old. Before–once you think about it, surely long before–the weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool; long before the useful knife and ax; right along with the indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger–for what’s the rise of digging up a lot of potatoes if you have nothing to lug the ones you can’t eat home in–with or before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home. It makes sense to me. I am an adherent of what Fisher calls the Carrier Bag Theory of human evolution.

Ursula Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” in Dancing At The Edge of the World.

Available as webpage here and as a pdf here.

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3 thoughts on “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction – Ursula Le Guin quote

  1. Here is my favorite quote by Le Guin- it’s from her novel The Dispossessed, but I cam across it again in Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future- which I think you would love.

    “It is a box-Urras is a box, a package with all the beautiful wrapping and the blue sky and meadows and forests and great cities. And you open up the box and what is inside? A black cellar full of dust, and a dead man”.

    • Thanks for that, Rick. Beautiful quote. Yeah, I have that Jameson. It’s functioning as a kind of reading list for me. Put me on to The Lathe of Heaven, where I came across the following: “In bed, they made love. Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”

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