I don’t read much fiction because I like what I read to be thought provoking, and I find good fiction to be too powerful in that regard. Instead of reading new fiction, I spend my time rethinking (and sometimes re-reading) some good pieces I’ve already read, often many years ago. It’s been twenty-five years since I first read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and I still ponder it regularly.
Since I was a big science fiction fan in the 70s, I probably read Ursula Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” when it was first published. I surely didn’t understand it then—I’m only beginning to wrestle with it now—but the central image has stuck with me. The image is taken from a short passage in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, sometimes called the scapegoat passage:
Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?
Le Guin imagines just such a society, a utopia founded on the suffering of an innocent victim. Her description of the sufferer is hard to read, in part because it is so detached and clinical.
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is.
The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes — the child has no understanding of time or interval — sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked; the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good, ” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.
But there’s a reason for the detachment—it mirrors the detachment of the citizens of Omelas, who have come to grips with the need for the victim to suffer so:
They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.
Le Guin is an anarchist, or at least a popularizer of anarchist ideas. I think she’s right that there is an intolerable, unconscionable sickness at the very heart of most institutions. For those who sign up for those institutions, some don’t reflect at all on the sickness, some rationalize it away, and a perceptive but cold-hearted few do the math and conclude that the benefits outweigh any qualms they might have about their source.
I’ve thought a lot about Le Guin’s parable as I’ve read through the recent outpouring of stories about abuse of authority in the church. And I remember that her story is called “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas,” and that the title characters aren’t mentioned until the very last paragraph:
At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and 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.
“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.” There lies the problem. It is difficult to leave when you can’t even imagine the destination, or even know for sure there is one. “But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.” I think they do know where they are going—they are going away from Omelas, an unredeemable place.