Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

Encouraged by a comment of Adam Roberts' on my last post, I'm going to write more about the Ursula Le Guin short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. Here's a link to the full text of it, for as long as that lasts.

It's a difficult short story for me to look back at. On the one hand, it's an artistic and moral failure -- one that I recognized, instinctively and angrily, the first time that I read it as a young teen. On the other hand, it deals with the aesthetic and moral issues that I've been concerned with my whole life. Therefore, it stands as a particular sort of symbol, not only a personal one, but also for an American left that has largely been a failure at articulating the very same problems over the period since the mid-70s.

1. Bland utopias

"Yet I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians."

That's what Le Guin tells-not-shows us. But what does she actually show us? The first paragraphs of the story show people, in theory, but they are people statically going about their roles, sprinkled with authorially desperate adjectives that try to spice them up just like the scenery. Then Le Guin tells us that she is struggling to describe happiness, and brings us through a number of attempts. Coyly, against what she calls her own puritanical thoughts, she tells us that if we like we can imagine these people having sex and drugs. (Therefore prefiguring pretty much all of Iain Banks.) Is there any human contact in the sex described? No.

"Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger, who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas--at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh."

In other words, for these semi-divine already half in ecstasy souffles, who you are and who they are doesn't matter in the least. You consume them, just like food, and there isn't any person-to-person contact at all, no like or dislike, no relationship however brief, no growth.

Does anyone say anything to anyone else in Omelas at all? Well, there is one direct quote (other than the words of the child, which I'll get to later.) "Quiet, quiet, there my beauty, my hope..." -- That is said to who, a lover? No, a horse. The only human speech of these great people is said to a horse, before a race. A race which is prepared for, but which never occurs in our sight, because everything is static.

Le Guin refers to this very problem:

"The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe happy man, nor make any celebration of joy. How can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naive and happy children--though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! But I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you."

But she can't. Why can't she? Well, in part this is a general problem, one which the left has struggled with for a long time. How can you describe utopia without making it sound boring and lifeless? In that sense, it's a universal problem. And the more-or-less acknowledged failure of the artist is also universal. It's what I call the problem of Demiurgy, the consciousness -- especially within science fiction, in which the world needs to be built as well as the people -- that the creator must work within human limitations, must be in some sense a failure. (Here Le Guin prefigures China Mieville, who would like to describe life after the socialist revolution but who really can't, since he feels that you can only describe it after you've lived through the transformation of it, and who must therefore freeze his revolution in The Iron Council and kill the scapegoat character who froze it.)

But Le Guin has her own particular problems. After the bit about sex, she writes: "One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt." Really? None at all? That's a picture of inhumanity, of people without a core human emotion. And of course there is guilt in Omelas; the entire story ends up being about guilt. But perhaps she means merely sexual guilt. Still, though, it just doesn't work: every relationship, since we are mortal, means less attention paid to some other relationship. Even in utopia, there is going to be the guilty feeling that in being with someone you're ignoring someone else. To speak nothing of those people who wouldn't be, even in utopia, quite as vanilla as all that. Le Guin has a particular failure here as well as a general one.

2. The Ones Who

The second half of the story is about the abused child whose existence in some way permits the existence of the city of happiness. And here's where the authorial lies pile up really quickly. In essence, I think that this whole section comes down to flattery: self-flattery of the author smoothed over and made attractive through flattery of the reader.

The child is maximally sentimental. Its only speech is "'I will be good, ' it says. 'Please let me out. I will be good!'" This child can't curse its captors, in fact, it cant' really say much at all, as Le Guin closes down anything else with "It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect." It speaks less and less often, she tells us.

How do people react to this simplified figure of pity? They get disgusted, angry; they feel shocked and helpless. Then they rationalize it away -- with a particularly bad rationalization that I won't bother to quote -- since doing anything for the child would magically destroy the happiness of Omelas. And therefore their frustrated sympathy makes them compassionate, makes possible the nobility of everything else that they do.

That might be an interesting ending for this story. Those people are so disagreeable, aren't they? And they are us, of course, minus the bit about the nobility. Because if you're allowed to see the child as plural rather than singular, and as adult as well as childish, this is a story about the middle class and its dependence on the many others who make possible their lives.

But no. There are individual heroes in this story. They take action. They are the only ones who do anything, in fact.

"At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."

Perhaps, re-reading this, the story would not work after all without this lie. Because this is the ultimate fantasy, isn't it? Just walk away! The people walking away may not know where they are going -- the author certainly doesn't -- but they are clearly better than any of the people whose happiness is dependent on those horrible rationalizations about their scapegoat.

What else is noteworthy about them? They are alone. They are "the ones who". They don't have a revolution, or an uprising, or even a communication with any other person. They just individually vanish from society.

Le Guin offers this fantasy to the reader -- these are the only active people in the story, and therefore invite reader identification. So of course the reader would be one of them. The reader would be one of the virtuous, risk-taking people who walk away from boring happy lives that are based on exploitation, even though they don't know where they're going. In this Le Guin echoes a whole host of bohemian fantasies that the children of the middle class hold. And as the author offering this to them, Le Guin is making herself something wonderful, giving her readers a momentary feeling of wonder and escape. Not being an authorial failure at all, right?

This short story, with its central lie, really does hold something important about our time. Le Guin wrote, in part, in reaction to a "Golden Age" of SF that I now find pretty much unreadable. She's one of SF's best writers, and some of her work is undoubtedly going to survive. But some of it is going to join what it reacted to as works that can no longer really be read.

Update: a similar read here, as linked to from here. One of the things that I didn't make clear is how Omelas stays with you. Or of course I made that clear, with this post and the last, still arguing with a short story read decades ago. It's worth arguing with: so many short stories are not.


  1. I would like this read by three the universtiy...with film sequence before or in the background. Saundra Dubow Azmitia

  2. Thanks, Saudra. I assume that you meant the comment to go with the poem below, not with this short story review. But why three people? Two I could see, of course.

  3. We read this story in class, not the full version, but the edited. I thought that it was really a metaphor more than anything else. It was a symbol for how in life, many people exploit others knowingly for their own personal happiness. The end, when the people walk away from Omelas is a symbol for all the little heros in todays society, the ones who treat others with repsect and live a life of mediocrity so that everyone is treated equally.