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The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas
What would your utopia look like?
Maybe you’re sitting on a Caribbean beach with the sun beating down on your face and a tropical drink with an umbrella poking out over the rim in your hand. Maybe you’d be hiking up a mountain in the Rockies. Maybe you’d be having Sunday dinner with your family. The generalities of utopia for many of us may look similar; however, when we get into the details, no two utopian experiences would be the same.
Maybe some of you tanning yourselves on the beach would be listening to Bob Marley, while others would prefer the unadulterated sound of the waves. Perhaps some hikers don bucket hats to prevent the sun from beating down on your SPF 100 faces, while others would prefer to don a skullcap because you’re hiking in 6” of snow. And for you Sunday dinner havers, maybe some of you are having steak, while others are vegetarians and enjoying roasted vegetables (I’m not judging you…but I am).
Of course, there are infinite iterations of this thought experiment, but you get the point.
Humans have been examining the concept of utopia nearly since we became bipeds.
We don’t even get 1,000 words into the Bible before it starts describing what the Garden of Eden, the utopia of Adam and Eve, looks like. We go directly from the creation of all reality to the description of the best possible existence.
But who of us would want to live in THAT utopia? They don’t even have clothes, much less a house, electricity, air conditioning, or an iPhone. And, spoiler alert, they can’t keep the garden because G-d curses them for their desire for knowledge.
“Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
18 Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field.
19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.”
Is G-d punishing Adam and Eve or just pointing out the curse of knowledge? I’m not a theologian and don’t claim to have the answer, but certainly, in one way or another, knowledge is the curse.
Another more recent story meditates on the concept of “knowledge as a curse”; the short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by famed science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin.
In the story, LeGuin begins by describing the Eden-like society of Omelas:
With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The ringing of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved.
Some were decorous: old people in long stiff robes of mauve and gray, grave master workmen, quiet, merry women carrying their babies and chatting as they walked. In other streets the music beat faster, a shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession was a dance. Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows' crossing flights over the music and the singing.
If the Bible had been more generous in its description of Eden, it might have read something like this:
Far off to the north and west the mountains stood up half encircling Omelas on her bay. The air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky. There was just enough wind to make the banners that marked the racecourse snap and flutter now and then. In the silence of the broad green meadows one could hear the music winding throughout the city streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful faint sweetness of the air from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out into the great joyous clanging of the bells.
How flawless is Omelas? It has so embodied earthly perfection that even the equine species attained their Eden, “[t]he horses were no gear at all but a halter without bit.”
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As magnificent as the Omelas panorama seems, the people’s happiness so matches its grandeur that LeGuin is at a loss for words to describe it.
How can I tellyou 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.
Maybe the question occurred to you, what leader has created all of this, and how do we get them to run in the 2024 presidential election? Alas, there was no king, no high priest, or any other hierarchy of a discernable kind. The civilization simply…was.
There was even a drug called “drooz,” but it’s not habit-forming, and according to LeGuin, “I don't think many of them need to take drooz.”
Before you check Google for the airport code for Omelas to book your flight, you must be warned that there’s a catch. Isn’t there always a catch?
We learn that in the one and only Omelas, there is one room, in one of the houses, in the basement (who would have thought these houses had basements?) which doesn't fit with the feng shui, shall we say, of the rest of the paradise. This room is “three paces long and two wide” and has a locked door with no windows and nearly no light. It has foul-smelling mops, a dilapidated bucket, and a dirt floor within its coffin-like confines.
And a child.
The child is malnourished and “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.” The only time the child has visitors is when its food and water bowls are filled, and even then, it is kicked by its room service attendant. The child “…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.”
The child, who, at one time in their life, lived with its mother in the sunshine, pathetically calls out, “I will be good…Please let me out. I will be good.” However, it is a rule that a kind word may never be spoken to the child.
The people of Omelas are not blameless; they all know it exists, but also know that their civilization depends on the misery of this child:
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[…]They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms.
Since we can’t imagine a reason to treat a human being this way, much less an innocent child, it is natural to assume the child produces something valuable for Omelas. However, LeGuin explains, “…there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. [emphasis added].”
If Omelas didn’t keep forced laborers, then it seems the child just…was. The child’s only purpose is to remain wretched so that the rest of the Omelaeans can remain content in their luxury. And most of them are satisfied with this arrangement because LeGuin explains that “[o]ne thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.”
How can there be no guilt when all of society knows that their el-dorado is dependent on this injustice? Recall that the story isn’t actually about Omelas at all, but rather, the ones who walk away…
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…
Do you still want that plane ticket to Omelas to try out their sweet drooz? No?
What if I told you that you already live in Omelas?
Think back to whatever your vision of utopia was at the start of my post. Did you have an iPhone on the beach? Who made the hat you wore while you were hiking? Did the family dinner house have solar panels? Have you ever considered how many things we interact with daily have the nameless, tragic, basement-dwelling Omleas child behind them?
No, our basement dwellers aren’t put in a dank cellar simply for the point of having them in a dank cellar, but for our purposes, they might as well have been.
Read an early post of mine about the Chinese slave labor behind so much of our technology and clothing…
How about the mines in The Congo, which employ child slave labor to extract the lithium-ion battery dependant mineral cobalt?
Or how about the slave labor that goes into producing the clothing you may be wearing as you read this piece and judge the people of Omelas?
The sad reality is that we are all Omelans and don’t even get the utopia out of it.