The Boundaries of Omelas

6 06 2012

I recently read Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”; it wasn’t new to me. The story had been summarized to me many times and it is the sort of story that summarizes easily since the plot is already quite compressed. If you haven’t read it, well, I won’t summarize it for you. Those are easy enough to find, as is the story itself. Since the story is already short, don’t read the summaries. Though easy to summarize, there is much to appreciate in LeGuin’s telling.

There a few ways to interpret the story, but most seem to boil down to the what-if variety: if you lived in Omelas, would you be one of the ones to walk away? That is a great question, no doubt. If you lived in a perfect society, if you knew that perfect society depended on the abject suffering of a single individual, would you stay in that perfect society? It’s the stuff ethics courses are made of, with each ethical model finding easy purchase. Your answer to LeGuin’s implied question becomes something of a Rorschach test of your ethical beliefs.

I don’t want to go that way. While there is value in taking that sort of Rorschach test, value in examining the answers you would give, that isn’t why I keep coming back to the story. I started to take that route, considering the question in tandem to reflecting on my life to date, to the sort of choices I have made and will make. Not long after setting down that road, a realization brought me up short: Omelas is unimaginable in any but the most superficial fashion.

LeGuin’s narrator posits the features of a society that seems ideal from her present understanding and makes that position clear to her readers, freely inviting them to imagine that perfection to their own tastes. At no point does the narrator examine the relationship that holds between those features, the sorts of things that would make the story imaginatively compelling.

By contrast, what the narrator does imagine fairly clearly is the suffering of the child. In clear detail, our narrator describes the way in which the child suffers in ways that most readers will have no trouble imagining. The kind of misery, the way in which manifests physically and emotionally in the child, the history of it, all appear vividly real.

The way in which this suffering fits into Omelas, though, is similarly just posited without being imagined. We have no way to understand why all the posited happiness depends on the suffering of the child, but are only told that it must be so.

The choice to stay or walkaway is similarly manipulated by positing rather than imagining. The narrator tells us that there are only two choices, that while someone in that society might think about freeing that child, in practice they would be unable to plunge there whole society into suffering for the sake of one physically and emotionally mutilated child who could barely appreciate such freedom.

Similarly, we are simply told that those who leave have some sense of direction, but that such a direction is utterly opaque and mysterious, leaving it to the reader to ‘imagine’ on their own. Again, notice the trick here. The narrator imagines very little, posits much, and subsequently asks the reader, explicitly and implicitly, to accept those posited details and ‘imagine’ the specifics for themselves.

That sort of invitation isn’t one to imagination, but to lazy fantasy. LeGuin’s narrator talks about leaving out drugs and sex, but not wanting to be ‘prudish’ includes extensive descriptions of the sexual and chemical proclivities of Omelas. That gesture at disavowal gives the narrator’s voice seriousness, even as they dwell on what is most ephemeral and blatantly pleasure-seeking.

The link of one image to the next is that characteristic of the sexual daydream or drugged haze, a fugue of sympathetic images that barely rise to the level of sequence, much less understanding. At best, it might rise to the level of dreaminess, in which the arranging of elements says more about the psyche of the arranger than the contents so arranged.

The renunciation of that image embodied in those who walk way is no less problematic. Their stoic calm, their sure direction, is fueled by a keen realization of the suffering behind their pleasures, but still turns away from that suffering. The empty clarity is the inverse of the dimly fantasized pleasure of Omelas and is inseparable from its terms.

The question it asks, do you stay in the perfect city with its hidden and suffering child or do you leave it, is a crap question premised on the sort of dull either/or games psychoanalysis and structuralism are so good at ferreting out of the human psyche. The question deliberately (perhaps the deliberateness of unconscious avoidance) ignores the one real, well-imagined thing in the whole story–the suffering of a child and the ways it can be eased in a handful of small ways.

The story’s question is a bit uglier than we might imagine. Do you:

(1) cling to the fantasy cobbled from remembered pleasures and dreams of what might have been if nothing that frustrated you existed, or,

(2) make a stoic gesture to renounce those fantasies without taking up anything else.

The one imaginable thing in that story, though, is the child. The child who suffers is the one anchor we have in the dream of pleasure and renunciation. The retarded, hurt, child, who wants out, who begs to be let out, who people come and look at, only to leave.

If you ask me to imagine Omelas, I can only imagine that child. The magical world half-dreamed by that sort of child would be Omelas, the people just the externalized image of that child’s confusion at having glimpsed something pleasant before the torture, their hope that their suffering secures some pleasure, somewhere, their hope that there are some people who would eschew those pleasures. The story is a permutation of the double-bind phenomenon.

LeGuin’s narrator introduces the child to the story in a chiding fashion, suggesting that it is through the child that readers might find the story more realistic, talking down to those who would need such a crutch to find the pleasure dream true. But we must chide that narrator for the way they suggest we imagine pleasure. The pleasure that we ought to imagine is not the pleasure dome, but that of the liberated child, with their small but real joys at the discovery of the sun, warmth, kindness, the successes they achieve when they are able to, often with great effort, see past the expectations that the abuse conditioned within them.

The problem, you see, is that we are capable of experiencing abject suffering in this life, but that we are incapable of experiencing anything akin to the pleasure and happiness LeGuin’s narrator posits as a counterpoint. If we are to think pleasure, to imagine pleasure, we do need to escape the endless repetition of the fantasy of suffering that the child of Omelas portrays, but we will unlikely be able to abandon it entirely because it, unlike perfected happiness, is a thing of this world. We can’t abandon that suffering child image, but we must embrace it, use it as means to navigate forward.

We don’t need to walk away from Omelas, we need to wake up from Omelas.

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28 11 2012
Story Talk: One Does Not Simply Walk Away from Omelas | write something worth reading

[…] I hope you enjoyed this series on this great story. If you’d like to read a different perspective, please check out the excellent posts over at The Jet Fuel Review Blog and The Light House. […]

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