Incredibly, I've Lived In Chico, CA 8 Years Now.


The Ones Who Walk Away

03/21/2012 22:40

 

I would have missed the excitement about The Hunger Games if I had not inherited an eleven-year-old stepson, Max, who told me all about it after we’d seen The Lorax together.

 I am a rather tired and still somewhat anxious mother who is trying desperately to avoid over involvement in my adult children’s lives, let alone another little boy’s who is not, technically speaking, my child. But Max is a good kid, and when he told me he was reading the book, I agreed to read it along with him.

In the most basic terms, the book-soon-to-be-released movie offers readers a post-Apocolyptic world where most people are hungry and downtrodden, and live in 12 separate districts.  A cultural ritual exists whereby children are chosen through lottery within each district, one per area, to hunt and fight one another until everyone is dead except the victor. It’ll be pretty easy to access the details on the web if you are interested.

Philosophically it’s intriguing, but honestly, if I have a hankering to read about masses of the financially and emotionally downtrodden who are mysteriously reliant upon a ritual that involves our children killing one another, I will turn on the news.

A far better story, a short one with more powerful moralistic tones, is Ursula LeGuin’s great tale that I have appended below.  I violate no copyright here—it’s all over the web -  The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.

Many will walk away from reading it here. I truly understand.  As I re-read the story I find myself relating a little differently than in 1973, when it first appeared. I don’t feel as much like moralizing over it, or discussing its premise with a bunch of students. World wearier now, I let it sit and mull it over personally.

The comment I am about to make comes as a bit of a non sequitor, but here it is anyway.

I liked my old, wealthier, experience-laden life well enough. It’s been a great life and I am grateful for it all.  But this one suits me too, because in some small ways, I and others on my fabulous team get to help “the kid” who is all of ours…or might have been. It’s never enough, but every day, it’s a little something.

 

The Ones Who Walk Away from 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 rigging 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

grey, 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.

 

All the processions wound towards the north side of the city,

where on the great water-meadow called the Green Fields boys and girls, naked in the

bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive

horses before the race. The horses wore no gear at all but a halter without bit. Their

manes were braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green. They flared their nostrils

and pranced and boasted to one another; they were vastly excited, the horse being the

only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own. 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 through the city

streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful faint sweetness of the air

that from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out into the great

joyous clanging of the bells.

 

Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?

They were not simple folk, you see, though they were happy. But we do not say the

words of cheer much any more. All smiles have become archaic. Given a description

such as this one tends to make certain assumptions. Given a description such as this

one tends to look next for the King, mounted on a splendid stallion and surrounded by

his noble knights, or perhaps in a golden litter borne by great-muscled slaves. But there

was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians. I do

not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few.

As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock

exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb. Yet I repeat that these

were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. They were

not less complex than us. 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 a

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. Omelas

sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time.

Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise

to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all. For instance, how about technology? I

think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows

from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just

discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what

is destructive. In the middle category, however--that of the unnecessary but

undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc.--they could perfectly well have

central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices

not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold.

Or they could have none of that; it doesn't matter. As you like it. I incline to think that

people from towns up and down the coast have been coming in to Omelas during the

last days before the Festival on very fast little trains and double-decked trams, and that

the train station of Omelas is actually the handsomest building in town, though plainer

than the magnificent Farmers' Market. But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far

strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please

add an orgy.

 

 If an orgy would help, don't hesitate. 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

soufflés to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh. Let them join the

processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of desire

be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these

delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing I know there is none of in

Omelas is guilt.

 

But what else should there be? I thought at first there were not drugs,

but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may

perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to

the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions

at last of the very arcana and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the

pleasure of sex beyond belief; and it is not habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think

there ought to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of

victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do without

soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do;

it is fearful and it is trivial. A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous

triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest

in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world's summer: this is what

swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life. I

really don't think many of them need to take drooz.

 

Most of the procession have reached the Green Fields by now. A marvelous smell of

cooking goes forth from the red and blue tents of the provisioners. The faces of small

children are amiably sticky; in the benign grey beard of a man a couple of crumbs of rich

pastry are entangled. The youths and girls have mounted their horses and are

beginning to group around the starting line of the course. An old women, small, fat, and

laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men wear her flowers in

their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a

wooden flute. People pause to listen, and they smile, but they do not speak to him, for

he never ceases playing and never sees them, his dark eyes wholly rapt in the sweet,

thin magic of the tune.

 

He finishes, and slowly lowers his hands holding the wooden flute.

As if that little private silence were the signal, all at once a trumpet sounds from the

pavilion near the starting line: imperious, melancholy, piercing. The horses rear on their

slender legs, and some of them neigh in answer. Sober-faced, the young riders stroke

the horses' necks and soothe them, whispering, "Quiet, quiet, there my beauty, my

hope...." They begin to form in rank along the starting line. The crowds along the

racecourse are like a field of grass and flowers in the wind. The Festival of Summer has

begun.

 

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe

one more thing.

 

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.

 

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.

 

This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever

they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are

young people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No

matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are

always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought

themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the

explanations. 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. To exchange all the goodness and grace of

every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of

thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the

walls indeed.

 

The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the

child.

 

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen

the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But

as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would

not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt,

but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid

too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane

treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to

protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the

bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to

accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance

of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives.

 

Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not

free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its

existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their

music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle

with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling in the dark,

the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in

their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.

Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible? But there is one more thing to

tell, and this is quite incredible.

 

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.

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