This is day Sixteen of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.
The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pendants 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.
—– Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
I have been a big fan of Ursula K Le Guin for a long, long time. In high school, in the 70’s, I read The Left Hand of Darkness – which introduced me to the idea of Science Fiction as literature and as social comment.
In 1980, I was sitting around the house one lazy afternoon and happened to check out PBS. They showed a production of Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven – which blew me away. I was living in Hutchinson, Kansas and considering a move to Dallas. I recognized a lot of Dallas landmarks in the film. The odd thing is that because of some rights problems with a bit of music the movie was never shown again for decades and the master copy was destroyed – only recently has it resurfaced.
So today we link to a short work of Le Guin. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas is a moral parable about a difficult question. Is it worth the happiness of a society if it depends on the utter suffering of one innocent? This theme is addressed in The Brother’s Karamazov and Le Guin herself spells out an essay that William James wrote on the subject.
Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?
—-William James, The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life
The story goes beyond the question, though. After all, the title isn’t The Utopia of Omelas, or The Guilt of Omelas… it’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. The ones that walk away – how and why are they different? Where do they go? Do they regret their decision? Are they better than the rest? Would they say they were? Would you say they were?
Would you walk away?
Oh, by the way… Omelas? It’s SALEM Oregon backward. Ursula K Le Guin saw it on a road sign in a car mirror. I guess she saw it as she was leaving.
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.
—- Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
The PBS Lathe of Heaven from 1980. If you live in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, you will recognize some local landmarks – some of them not here any more.