Gareth B. Matthews
Review of Leese Webster by Ursula K. LeGuin (New York: Atheneum, 1979). Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 3(2): 3.
Leese was a spider, born in the throne room of a deserted palace. Like every other member of her family (the “Webster” family) Leese knew, without having to learn, how to spin an elegant and efficient web of traditional design. She spun one, then another. Then, forsaking her heritage, she set out to produce webs of original design.
In her new creative freedom Leese began to weave designs like the leaves of flowers portrayed in the carpet of the throne room, even designs like the huntsmen, hounds and horns in a painting on the wall. No doubt her images were at least twice removed from reality. But were they pictures at all?
”An image is not a picture,” Wittgenstein tells us, ”but a picture can correspond to it.” (Philosophical Investigations #301) Perhaps, then, the designs in Leese’s webs were images, but not pictures.
Sometimes one can see flowers or hunters in the clouds, or in driftwood. Could a cloud depict a hunter? Could a piece of driftwood? What about a piece of driftwood that has been sanded, shellacked, mounted on a base and labeled “Hunter”? If the sanding, shellacking, mounting and labeling make a difference, what difference do they make? And suppose a cloud could be frozen in its most suggestive shape, and exhibited?
A visiting Webster, scornful of one of Leese’s fancy webs, asked, “Will it catch flies?” “Not very well,” admitted Leese; “the old pattern works better for that.” A little embarrassed at having to give such an answer, Leese set out to make her webs more efficient. After a time, she was able to make fancy webs that would catch flies quite as well as those in the traditional pattern. (of course, even good art can also be functional.)
One day cleaning women arrived. They came prepared to dust the webs away. But they, stopped, struck by the beauty of Leese’s tapestries. “Spiders can’t make pictures, dear,” said one, knowingly. Should the other have replied, “Yes, but they can make images?”
One cleaning woman ran off to tell the Authorities, who had the webs care fully encased in glass and put on exhibit. Did the encasing change the meta physical status of the webs? Suppose they were also labeled for exhibition? Would that have mattered?
With the webs safely preserved for posterity, the cleaning women returned to the task of cleaning up the throne room. In their dusting they dusted Leese right out of the window.
Leese was first devastated, then exhilarated, by her move to the out-of-doors. She found her new ”room” already “splendidly decorated” with leaves and flowers. But, hungry for a fly, she spun a web anyway. At dawn the next day she was distressed to see that her web was dotted with drops of water. Then, when the sunshine shone on her handiwork, she saw that this web, with its jewels of refracted light, was ”the most beautiful web I ever wove.”
Suppose it turned out that those male birds of a given species that produce the songs we find aesthetically most pleasing also stand the best chance of mating successfully.
And suppose that the female spiders of a given variety that spin webs we find most charming, live, on average, a longer life-even though they don’t catch more flies. Might we conclude that such data would establish that female birds of that species have an aesthetic sense, and that aesthetically gifted spiders lead more satisfying lives? Or do we know something about birds and spiders that would guarantee that such a reading of the data is fanciful and inappropriate?
And what about the remains of an ancient human civilization? Can we know that those beautiful bits of pottery belong, encased, in an art museum, before we know whether, in that ancient society, there was the intent to produce art? Or even the intent to depict leaves and flowers, or hamsters? “Well,” some one might say, ” at least it can be art for us.” And so also, perhaps, can the webs of Leese Webster.