Eric Schliesser on Omelas and Ideology

by John Holbo on June 1, 2018


… the representation of Omelas shows how an ideology that is grounded in the truth, in a society in which philosophy and knowledge exist, is possible … Even so, I insist that their self-understanding is a form of ideology. By ‘ideology’ I mean (without pretending to have offered an analysis or to be at all precise) a discourse that (i) justifies a status quo – in which some are subjugated (made miserable, exploited, etc.) – and (ii) which prevents from conceiving alternatives to the status quo. Only (i) is necessary for something to be an ideology, but (ii) is an important function. This (i-ii) is precisely what happens when the children begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom.” What they say is (let’s stipulate) all true, but it ends up justifying continued misery for the child.

I’m interested because I wrote about this a while back. I’m not sure I like this semi-definition of ‘ideology’. I confess, I’ve really never thought about how ‘ideology’ can be usefully teased apart from error-implying notions like rationalization, bias, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, more neutral, but socially thicker terms like belief-system, value-system. (I am aware a great deal of ink has been spilled over ‘ideology’, over the years, yes. Just not by me.) One of the things that’s disturbing about Omelas is our strong suspicion that, even if the citizens are justified, they would keep on doing it even if they weren’t. Because they are human. But this is cross-cut by the fact that the Omelans do something that humans never would: namely, confront the facts squarely and honestly. Is ideology always psychic self-preservation from inconvenient facts? The Omelans, oddly, have no such mechanisms. Which makes the story surreal, which is satisfying. But perhaps inhumanly unhelpful as political parables go?



Eric Schliesser 06.01.18 at 2:04 pm

Thank you for your response, John. I have been much influenced by Kristie Dotson and other standpoint theorists (and maybe indirectly Frankfurt school and Foucault) in this respect: I am rather sensitive to circumstances in which truth itself can in some sense or another be ideological (if and only if it generates a form of status quo bias or status quo justification that leads to subordination). [I came to it in reflecting on method in economics, then seeing I was reinventing other people’s wheels.] So, I would argue it is important to decouple ideology from error, so that we can better diagnose ways in which the truth itself may be a weapon/source of subordination. This does not entail an embrace a rejection of truth (or some kind of postmodern post-truth), but it does require sensitivity to how honesty may also be a way to regulate psychic self-preservation or social organization that is, in some sense or another, implicated in injustice.


Neel Krishnaswami 06.01.18 at 2:47 pm

I was not convinced by either your reading or Schliesser’s.

When I read this story, it was in high school, and our teacher asked the class (as teachers do, when teaching this story) if we would walk away from Omelas or not. I told her that I would want to walk towards Omelas, because as described it is a society that oppresses way fewer people than our own does. She told me that such cynicism was unbecoming in one so young, which is a fair cop, honestly.

The reason my high-school teacher was right, is that the point Le Guin is illustrating is the same one that Adam Smith was driving at in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In it, Smith contrasts a European learning of the death of everyone in China in some natural disaster to the same European losing his little finger in an accident. In terms of real sorrow and disruption of emotional equilibrium, for most people the small accident would be dramatically worse than the huge catastrophe. However, if someone were offered the choice of killing everyone in China to avoid the loss of the finger, Smith thinks no one would do it: Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. It’s this mismatch between the selfishness of our emotional urges, and the power of moral reason that really animated Smith:

But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.

So in Le Guin’s story, the ones who walk away are the ones whose moral reason overcomes their self-love. The utilitarian angle is IMO a distraction. Omelas has to be nice, to give the conflict between pleasure and morality force, but the heart of the story is about this internal conflict — a conflict which a rational utility-maximizer, with its complete transitive preference relation, cannot feel. It’s also why the ones who walk away are never described: she’s hoping that the reader is one.


WLGR 06.01.18 at 4:29 pm

To the extent that Omelas is an idealized stand-in for the wealthy Global North, then yes it’s quite clear that the Omelans aren’t confronting the facts squarely and honestly, and the pathos they invest in the figure of the single child functions quite well as a form of psychic self-preservation from inconvenient facts. Unless the outside world in which Omelas exists is completely different from the capitalist world system we have today, a great deal more people than this child must also be suffering to make Omelas possible, largely outside its borders but quite probably inside them in the shadows as well. Metonymically condensing this suffering into the figure of the single pathetic child makes it much easier for the Omelans to rationalize it than if they were to directly confront the vast numbers of children who work in sweatshops stitching their stylish clothes, who dig in narrow mine shafts with their hands to extract coltan for their sleek gizmos, who harvest coffee beans for their caramel-vanilla triple frappucinos, who are burned out of their remote indigenous villages by Omelas-backed right-wing death squads to make way for greenfield FDI by Omelas-based multinationals (taxation of which helps in turn to fund the Omelans’ extensive public services) and on and on.

The key point of evasion in the Omelans’ ideology is their careful vagueness about precisely how the child’s suffering makes Omelas possible. The miserable conditions the child represents exist in the real world because of economic exploitation, the extraction of real material value from these people’s land and labor, which the Omelans’ rationalizations erase by hinging on precisely those aspects of the child’s condition (its numerical insignificance compared to the Omelan population, its being “too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy”) that would make it impractical for the child’s misery to be economically productive.


John Holbo 06.02.18 at 12:50 am

WLGR, “Unless the outside world in which Omelas exists is completely different from the capitalist world system we have today …”

Ah, there’s the rub. That’s like saying, “unless biology is completely different in this world, this Gregor guy just can’t have woken up as a giant beetle …” Which is true enough.

Neel, the case is the inverse of the China-Smith case. Suppose that, by cutting off the finger of some anonymous stranger in China, you could avert the deaths of many of those closest to you? I think your high school teacher may have been right about your cynicism being unbecoming in one so young! (But that doesn’t mean you weren’t right.)


JPL 06.02.18 at 3:30 am

On the narrow point about the “semi-definition” (I agree it is that), I always remember Frantz Fanon insisting that any revolutionary movement must have an ideology (in this case the movement for the removal of French (and all) colonial rule in Algeria and elsewhere, and also for the full understanding of Algerians (colonized) and French (metropole) alike, of the reasons for its ethical unacceptability); so I want a definition of the term that will allow this use of it as well as in the case of maintenance of the political status quo. I want to distinguish it from the term ‘political theory’, or ‘theory of government’, or ‘ethical theory of international conduct’, etc., in other words from the domain of critical political philosophy. ‘ideology’, then would refer to a logical structure of ideas and principles, but one belonging to the domain of practical politics: movements, mobilization of popular support, determination of which political groups have the opportunity to govern, etc. From a theoretical point of view, ideologies leave much to be desired (esp. wrt to consistency, etc.), but they need to offer the possibility of unifying the understanding of the people for whom they form a basis for political action. The questions of truth vs. error, resistance to change vs. need for change, ethical acceptability vs. unacceptability, etc., can be handled on the level of critique (of ideology).

On the question of the Omelas, I don’t see any attention paid to the need for a scientific explanation for the supposed necessity of continued cruelty toward the boy and the supposed obligation to violate the principle that one should never intentionally cause the unnecessary suffering of another person, esp. given the power differential, since if there is no rational determination of the necessary dependency between the boy’s continued suffering and the continued well being of the society there is no ethical justification for it. (It’s sort of like the case of torture.) You (as a member of that society) can’t just accept the mythical view of the dominating culture; you are required to pursue the possibility that there is no such dependency. Everybody should know that, but apparently we haven’t got there yet. (So that “ideology” of the Omelas can not be said to be “grounded in truth”, and I would say that their understanding of their situation is “mythical” (in the sense of Cassirer) rather than fully rational.)


WLGR 06.02.18 at 5:22 am

Sure, but it hardly seems like a stretch to assume that a work of literature is supposed to be saying something meaningful about the real world, especially for a story as thoroughly political as this one and an author as thoroughly political as Ursula Le Guin. Of all the positions anybody’s ever taken about Le Guin’s work, “she was being less blatantly political here than it might seem” is probably one of the less common ones.

The major difference between Omelas and (say) Scandinavia isn’t whether or not people confront the suffering of others — plenty of Scandinavians confront the existence of suffering in the Global South, and Le Guin explicitly says that plenty of Omelans never go to visit the child. The major difference is that at least in theory, the basic material relationship between Global Northern affluence and Global Southern misery is fairly clear (they suffer largely if not entirely because we exploit them) whereas the material relationship between Omelan affluence and the confined child’s misery is left deliberately vague and seems materially implausible. Like I said, this makes it all the more striking that the Omelans’ rationalizations hinge on precisely those aspects of the child’s condition that differentiate it from the real-world Global South, to such an extent that when people in the real-world Global North deploy rationalizations like those of the Omelans (“those Third Worlders aren’t mature enough to know what to do with their freedom even if we gave it to them!”) we shun it both because it’s disgusting racist apologia, and because it’s clearly factually inaccurate.

This could be the death of the author, but to me that’s Le Guin’s deeper point: the Omelans’ carefully constructed ritual of the child visitation is wrong not only because the child’s condition is unethical as such, but also because the entire pathos-laden ritual itself helps to obscure potentially skeptical Omelans’ analysis and understanding of the real material basis for their reliance on the suffering of others. At least in my headcanon, the ones who walk away are leaving to join their Third World comrades in helping foment a global revolution against Omelan imperialism.


John Holbo 06.02.18 at 5:35 am

“Sure, but it hardly seems like a stretch to assume that a work of literature is supposed to be saying something meaningful about the real world”

Are you saying that Kafka can’t be writing ‘about the real world’ if Gregor really turns into a bug?

I think you are reading the story that you figure ought to be in Le Guin, by rights, rather than the one that actually seems to be there on the page. (That’s cool with me, but I think it’s the death of the author, not Le Guin’s deeper point.)


Peter T 06.02.18 at 9:29 am

Neville Morley will probably tell me I am wrong, but the story chimes with some pre-modern attitudes:

– in Homer, Eumaeus, the swineherd of Ulysses is of princely birth, taken by pirates and sold into slavery. In Homeric and classical times, pretty much anyone could be taken and sold into slavery (including Diogenes the philosopher and – without ransom , Caesar -, so the general feeling was “sucks to be a slave, but it’s necessary”. Likewise I have read that Mayan aristocrats taken prisoner were kept in luxury until they were sacrificed. Again, eh well, sorry mate, but the general welfare requires…


shah8 06.02.18 at 6:16 pm

I really, really, empathize with the first part of the last para of WLGR’s excellent comment.

I’m going to go more with Eric Schlieser’s POV wrt to ideology, and I think that Holbo’s response here, talking about Omelan’s honesty is entirely wrong because he’s confusing a praxis with intention, as evidenced by a preference for more ‘neutral’ terms.

To me, the point is about *moral currency* and its exchange for rationalizations, representations and other such intellectual goods. Omelas, in part, runs on a moral economy. In this wealthy utopian city of Omelas, no less than in Mesoamerican or Andean city-states, all of that moral currency goes towards papering over the base psychological rendering of reality with what the people of that state thinks is good. As this representation flows through the citizens, they feel they have the moral currency to give life to rationalizing the darkness at the center of the city. A tax, so to speak, for all of that moral currency. That kiddie is the Omelan Central Bank of Goodness, issuing state debt for its citizens to use!

As the Omelan Central Banker, that kiddie can’t really be interacted with–the basic faith in the currency requires this. If kiddie talks about “hey, this how things really are, and this is how I really feel”, it’s going to feel like Grant Morrison violating that Forth Wall all over again, except instead of the individual comic book reader, it’s society as a whole, and hyperinflation of the moral economy probably would happen.

Soooo, anyone wanna stay in this local maxima? Il Gattopardo is showing at the movie theater! I mean, airconditioned room, popcorn, and soda, that’s really gotta beat meeting up with all of those lions, tigers, bears out there in the mountains!


John Holbo 06.02.18 at 10:54 pm

“talking about Omelan’s honesty is entirely wrong because he’s confusing a praxis with intention”

Do tell!


J-D 06.03.18 at 12:21 am

For what it’s worth–and I understand that it can’t be finally and comprehensively dispositive–Le Guin herself, in an introductory note for her story ‘The Day Before The Revolution’, as printed in her collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, where it appears immediately after ‘The One Who Walk Away From Omelas’, describes it as a story about one of those who walk away from Omelas.


John Holbo 06.03.18 at 1:58 am

“Le Guin herself, in an introductory note for her story ‘The Day Before The Revolution’, as printed in her collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, where it appears immediately after ‘The One Who Walk Away From Omelas’, describes it as a story about one of those who walk away from Omelas.”

That’s a great data point, isn’t it! I’ve been puzzling over that myself. The thing is: it’s not the case that “The Day Before The Revolution” really seems to be set in a world in which single-kid torture is this superfuel for societal well-being, if only you use it. So there’s that.


Phil 06.03.18 at 1:55 pm

In Marxian terms, an ideology is a set of ideas that reflect and/or serve the interests of the ruling class. Given the fact of ruling-class dominance, the respective ideology thus both justifies and naturalises the status quo (this is, after all, how the world works), serving something like Schliesser’s functions i and ii.

What could disqualify Omelas is not the truth of the citizens’ perception of the situation but the absence of class; the material reality of the class relation is substituted by magic. The problem with this isn’t the magic as such but the figure of the child; you can’t have a class relation, or even a good allegory for one, without classes. To me – I don’t know if anything like this was in Le Guin’s mind, or if that matters – this oddly reflects the Third Worldist bias of a lot of the Left, the more comfortable bien pensant parts of it especially; as if to say, there is a horribly exploited class at the bottom of the global pile, and as such there is a class struggle going on – but it’s not going on here, it’s not happening anywhere that we can get our hands on it.


Moz of Yarramulla 06.03.18 at 11:57 pm

There is also the point that meaning is as much in the mind of the reader as the writer. Ursala Le Guin may have intended to write about an otherworldly magic child in an impossibly perfect city (I don’t agree), but us readers are free to see it as an allegory for the treatment of slaves in our fishing boats and shoe factories, or the forced labourers in our prisons. The fact that those things are genuinely horrible even when camouflaged behind layers of marketing and platitudes makes the allegory powerful.

I was introduced to her work twice, once by science fiction fans and again by anarchists. Hearing about it again from ethicists claiming it’s only a fantasy that should be understood as irrevocably disjunct from the real world is less weird than I think it should be. The power of “what if we could” loses its magic when we can and we often do.

Jules Verne lost much of his power to grab the imagination once the machinery he was fascinated by became commonplace. “oooh, imagine if a man made a submarine”… from James Cameron to Peter Madsen there’s not a lot of novelty in that idea any more. There are also luxury yachts that cost more than a second hand ballistic missile submarine, making it possible that an oligarch somewhere owns one… it’s not fantasy any more.

So, Omelas as political allegory… what is it about, if not real world torture of slaves?


J-D 06.04.18 at 4:34 am

Moz of Yarramulla

There is also the point that meaning is as much in the mind of the reader as the writer.

I am reasonably confident of a recollection that Ursula Le Guin wrote somewhere about a story, once read, becoming a collaborative product of writer and reader, or something to that general effect, suggesting that she would have agreed with you on that point; not that the validity of the point depends on her agreement, but I find it interesting just the same.

In her introductory note to the story in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, she drew a connection with a passage she quoted from William James: he described a hypothetical scenario where the utopian happiness of millions is contingent on the lonely torture of one, and suggested that the scenario incites both an impulse to clutch at the happiness offered but also, despite that, a feeling that it would be hideous to enjoy it when deliberately accepted as the fruit of that bargain.

So I feel justified in saying that’s what the story’s about: how people react to the scenario of an offer of utopian happiness for a multitude in exchange for a life of lonely torture for one. The ones who walk away from Omelas are those who refuse any complicity, or appearance of complicity, in such a bargain.

The protagonist of ‘The Day Before The Revolution’ is an egalitarian revolutionary, an antagonist of all rulership and ownership; if she is one of those who walk away from Omelas, that means that the Omelas-style bargain can be discerned (and rejected) also in situations that involve no mystical or magical force but a more mundane connection between the happiness of some and the suffering of others. But her world is only a little described; how much similarity there is between it and our own (or between our world and Omelas) is, I think, something Le Guin would have suggested we need to work out for ourselves. Or so, at least, I imagine her.


WLGR 06.04.18 at 1:54 pm

that’s what the story’s about: how people react to the scenario of an offer of utopian happiness for a multitude in exchange for a life of lonely torture for one

This may be what’s being offered, but unless our level of analysis is too infantile to admit the possibility of basic literary devices like an unreliable narrator, it seems fairly clear that the offer (strongly implied to be part of an official perception-management strategy by the Omelan state) isn’t necessarily an honest presentation of what those who accept the offer are actually buying into. If anything, the subject of the story is the function of self-justifying propaganda in societies just like ours, which are built on utopian happiness for the few in exchange for a life of grinding misery for the multitude, but which only deign to confront this reality in the form of vague, half-elucidated, context-free anecdotes like the Omelans’ child-visitation ritual, carefully calibrated in such a way as to more easily enable the affluent few to disregard or excuse it.

I hadn’t realized before now that Le Guin herself explicitly described the founding of Anarres from The Dispossessed as a product of the ones who walk away from Omelas, implying that Omelas corresponds to the exploitative hypercapitalist society of A-Io. Any potential leftist doctrinal quibbles with Le Guin’s form of anarchism aside, this seems to indicate pretty clearly that my reading isn’t really “death of the author” at all, but more or less exactly the reading Le Guin intended.


J-D 06.05.18 at 6:08 am


… unless our level of analysis is too infantile to admit the possibility of basic literary devices like an unreliable narrator …

Well, infantile or not, I have no experience with literary analysis using the concept of an unreliable narrator–I don’t mean I haven’t heard of the device, because I have heard of it, but I’ve never myself attempted to apply it analytically.

Now that you suggest it, though: well, if the narrator of the story is unreliable, what possibilities does that suggest to me? First up I think of the possibility that nothing in the text is true and there isn’t even any such place as Omelas … but, perhaps not so strangely, that possibility had already occurred to me. Can I come up with anything more interesting, or at least more novel, than that?

The text of the story affirms that everything good about Omelas–happiness, beauty, tenderness, health, wisdom, skill, abundance, prosperity, delight, goodness, grace–is contingent on the abominable misery of the child. But the text of the story does not explain the link. The text affirms that some of the people of Omelas understand the connection and some do not, but it doesn’t offer an understanding of that connection to the reader. If I consider the possibility of an only partly reliable narration, I can imagine the possibility that there is no such connection, that to redeem the child from its misery will not destroy the happiness and prosperity of Omelas; considering that possibility, further questions occur to me. I wonder why anybody would invent that story if it’s not true; I also wonder why people would believe that story if it’s not true. Looked at from this perspective, the story might become partly about superstition, about people wantonly inflicting suffering because they sincerely believe in its necessity. I think about persecution of people alleged to be practitioners of witchcraft/sorcery. I also think of the description in Things Fall Apart of the missionary seeking a place to build his church and being offered one in supposedly accursed Evil Forest. Unaware of the superstition, he builds there, and when the curse fails to fall upon him the effect on the locals is confounding. The text of Le Guin’s story tells us nothing directly about why the ones who walk away from Omelas make no attempt to rescue the child, but I can imagine that they sincerely believe that to do so would destroy the happiness and prosperity of their fellows and shrink from that responsibility. That could only be the case, though, if they believed the story. Now I’m imagining an Omelas which is in need, not so much of the moral determination (however interpreted) of the ones who walk away from it in Le Guin’s story, but of a greater degree of intellectual scepticism.

Also, if a sceptic in Omelas might doubt whether the rescue of the child would really endanger all the well-being of the city, a sceptic might also doubt whether it was true that the child would benefit only marginally from being rescued. The idea that the child would not much good of its freedom, that it might even be made more wretched if it were removed from the only environment it knows, is described in the text of the story as something that the young people of Omelas come to realise; but if superstition is common enough, so is the phenomenon of people thinking they have come to realisations of harsh truths which aren’t in fact true. The text suggests that the idea that the child would benefit little if anything from being released helps to reconcile the people of Omelas to its condition; if I doubt the truth of that idea, I can imagine an Omelas in which people are reconciling their consciences by telling themselves, and each other, the thing they would like to believe is true, but which is not.

But if the ones who walk away from Omelas don’t believe in the official justifications of the child’s suffering, why don’t they rescue it?

There are folktales where daring to perform the terrible deed dreaded by all brings not the expected disaster but unforeseen triumph. So now I’m imagining the story of an Omelas where the rescue of the child brings a transfiguration of splendour to the whole city and to the child itself above all.

But I still don’t think that’s the story Le Guin wrote.


WLGR 06.05.18 at 2:08 pm

The way to understand the unreliable narrator isn’t to play some “what if everything is just completely made up” game, as if we’re Descartes with his demon; it’s to put our finger on the points of internal tension within the narrator’s perspective as they present it to us in-universe, and consider what unstated truths about the situation those contradictions might reveal if someone in-universe were to interrogate them more sharply than the narrator does. For example, what kind of institution is charged with enforcing the terms and conditions of this child-visitation ritual? Is it an educational institution, a police service, a Stasi-like political surveillance apparatus, or all of the above, and why does the narrator not consider it important to describe anything else about this institution’s role in the broader framework of Omelan society? Is the narrator as oblivious to this institution’s influence on Omelan culture as (for example) many Americans are oblivious to the CIA’s influence on US culture during the Cold War, or the Pentagon’s influence on US culture even today?

The point I’m getting at is that no matter what vague reservations Le Guin’s narrator may have about Omelas or what vague admiration for the ones who walk away, the narrator’s perspective is clearly that of someone who hasn’t yet walked away from Omelas themselves, and Le Guin deliberately cuts the narrative short before the point where it might incorporate the perspective of an Omelan who’s decided to walk away, or an Omelan domestic political dissident, or even (gasp!) a non-Omelan. To me this indicates that the subject of the story isn’t really the nature of Omelas but the nature of the Omelan ideological self-image, so expecting the narrator to present unflattering truths about Omelas objectively enough for serious political-philosophical analysis is as unrealistic as expecting a junior-high US history textbook to similarly present unflattering truths about the USA.


bianca steele 06.05.18 at 4:43 pm

I sometimes wonder if John Holbo is a crypto-platonist. (If this seems uncharitable or unfounded, see the end of this comment for an explanation.) Thus a story or poem, or any work of art, will state universal truths about the world. Thus this story states universal truths about the world. Thus this story, which says Omelas exists and tortures a single child, truly states that in our world, we torture a single child in order that we all should be perfectly happy.

You may object, “*I* am not perfectly happy, and moreover, I’m quite sure we aren’t such terrible people as to accept the bargain, much less to actually torture a child, and in any case you haven’t proved the child exists to my positivistic satisfaction,” but if so, you are missing the point, and you get an F (actually, no, I’m just going to stare at you fixedly until you become certain you are wrong).

(It occurs to me that I’ve lost track of who is narrating this comment. I’m going to think of it as a homage to Philip Roth (h/t Philip Lopate, I think).)

I’m going to admit that this is a plausible way of proceeding. There are some reasonable objections to be made. It presents itself as a naive and natural way of reading, but the frequency with which people object to its being the most obvious reading should indicate that it’s nothing of the sort. It doesn’t even contain within itself information to allow a reader to surmise why it should be seen as correct. It only makes sense if you know, in a general way, what Platonism is. If you’ve seen it being done before.*

As a theoretical justification for proceeding in this way, Platonism is flawed. It asserts that the kind of truth poems or stories or novels present is *that* kind of truth. The New Critics (and, IIRC, Harold Bloom on occasion) state that the Ideal Object we study when we read a poem is a Poem. Or it might be The Poem, or one of a handful of Genres, etc. Personally, I’m inclined when I read Le Guin to see the object of study as The Political Theory, or The Intellectual Circle, or maybe The Theory of Human Nature.

But none of these is really *obvious*, any more than the reading I attributed to John H. A more obvious reading, in my personal opinion, would be one that pointed out how the story makes us think about various things and opens the possibilities for linking the story to thoughts that don’t occur in the story itself, and therefore are going to be different for different people.

(Explanation, as promised above: I feel that Holbo’s rhetorical recessiveness probably permits a kind of “consensus of the room (or larger space)” to appear, and in this case, the space is an Internet in which a certain kind of person who reads and comments on a certain kind of blog, typically, finds himself moved towards a certain kind of “platonism.” Which I hope will ameliorate any possible insult.)

* The information the text contains within it, on this reading, is sufficiently only to tell a reader that if it doesn’t make sense, she is not an appropriate reader of the text.


bob mcmanus 06.05.18 at 9:42 pm

I keep remembering that Le Guin was an anthropologist’s anthropologist not a political scientist or ethicist. Whatever that might mean, I think it can include an attention to surfaces and the temporary suspension of disbelief and ethical judgement.

The girl sacrifice, isolated, limited in communication and ritually visited is not so unusual. She is the priestess miko sybill delphi ise. But unlike the usual path, outatown through the forest up the mountain to the shrine and the honoured and serviced abject, here we go down into a cellar to a starving unwilling urchin in rags? This reversal accidental?

This shoulda been noticed.


bianca steele 06.05.18 at 11:37 pm

Le Guin’s parents were both anthropologists, but “She received her B.A. (Phi Beta Kappa) in Renaissance French and Italian literature from Radcliffe College in 1951, and M.A. in French and Italian literature from Columbia University in 1952.”


J-D 06.06.18 at 12:59 am


… to put our finger on the points of internal tension within the narrator’s perspective …

It seems to me I’ve done that. To me there is evident an internal tension between the absolute certainty expressed in the text that the child’s rescue will entirely destroy the well-being of Omelas with little or no benefit to the child, and the absence from the text of any explanation either of how the rescue would make the destruction certain or of what makes the people of Omelas so certain these things are true. (I mean, it’s evident now; I didn’t think of these things when I read the story before, as far as I can recall, which makes me wonder why I didn’t and conclude that I probably wasn’t reading the story as carefully as I might have. To read a story with less than maximum attention is not a moral or intellectual failure; still, I feel I’ve learned a lesson.)

On the other hand, although the absence of information about governmental institutions feels like an omission (after all, the narrator does take the trouble to confirm there is no king), it’s not clear to me how it counts as an internal tension or contradiction.


bianca steele 06.06.18 at 2:45 pm

Le Guin’s big novels talk about their society’s political structures, but Omelas seems like more of a fable, and I think placelessness is more characteristic of her fiction. Omelas is different from most fables in two ways: the narrator is aware it’s only one place among many, and there is a narrator. At least twice—telling us what the people who visit the child believe and feel, and predicting that the reader will be surprised that anyone leaves—the narrator engages in mind-reading in a way that seems unreliable to me. (I’m also not sure how she knows that the visitation is the only time any dissent happens, or what its nature is. She doesn’t specify that it’s a free choice, either, though it seems to be.) We expect an old-fashioned narrator to be omniscient, and books like “Emotional Intelligence” promote the idea that it’s psychologically normal to intuit what other people are (or should be) thinking, but we generally assume that other people’s emotions are opaque to us. Certainly it will seem to many readers that people in a very unusual society probably don’t evaluate situations in the same way we do. It’s possible that to read Le
Guin I have to accept that she believed that social science teaches that all societies are mostly the same, but to me it seems like a stretch.


bob mcmanus 06.06.18 at 6:56 pm

Not even getting defensiveness about the anthropology in Le Guin, she wrote a late ethnographic study, just looking forward to reading about Ariosto and LHoD. Remembering something about Levi-Strauss or Propp and correspondence in WTQ, but probably wrong.

Last chapter in EP Thompson told the old story of the male skilled hand-loomer losing to machines and desperate competition and seeing his daughters be forced to go work in the mill. I may be obsessed, but by the eternal suffering of Madoka-kami, the theme of the sacrificing or sacrificed woman feels central to Japanese culture in so many maudlin variations, and may be the dirty secret of modernism. If you look for the martyrs, you will find them everywhere.

Who cares for Omelans and their reasons? The relationship that is interesting is between the sacrificed girl and the one-who-walks. After thinking of Le Guin’s anthropological inclinations, her Daoism, her abhorrence of revolution, her anarchism, I am not sure she isn’t saying that the “sacrificed girl” (specifically, it is a feminist story) isn’t necessary to civilization and it is best to walk from her suffering. And abandon reform and civilization. For Le Guin, with withdrawal to Anarres.

Is there ever any collective agency in Le Guin? Neoliberal.


bianca steele 06.06.18 at 8:02 pm

Bob, why are you sure the child is a girl? The mute boy who secretly operates the gears of the universe is a common enough theme in SF.


LFC 06.06.18 at 10:27 pm

It seems somewhat more natural, for lack of a better phrase, to read the scenario of the fable/story as a criticism of a version of utilitarianism than as a critique of exploitation of the poorest people in the global South, though I’m certainly not saying the latter reading is completely groundless; and see my postscript. (Note also the peculiar feature of the last few decades in which the extent of extreme poverty, though still very substantial, has been somewhat reduced at the same time that economic inequality within countries has soared.)

Someone not already committed to the view that extreme poverty is a result of exploitation probably would be more likely to take the fable in a narrower, more literal (if one likes) sense, as posing the question that the scenario most obviously poses, namely, can the “happiness” of a particular society, or its artistic and cultural achievements, in some way justify the extreme suffering of one person? I read the story quickly and don’t know much about LeGuin, but the references to Omelas’ art and culture as resting on this “sacrifice” suggest that she might have been wanting to raise, among other things, a question about how much one values art as opposed to other values, such as each person’s intrinsic worth/dignity.

P.s. Any Westerner or Northerner who has lived, either as a child or an adult, in what used to be called the Third World, or (even more likely, perhaps) who has traveled in a poor country either as a tourist or in some other capacity, has likely been confronted with dilemmas that, while not on all fours with the one in the fable, can nonetheless be troubling. The most obvious or pressing of these is probably how to deal with or respond to beggars that one encounters. For one politically self-conscious Northerner’s frank reflections on this kind of micro-dilemma, see the ‘diary’ portions of M. Harrington’s The Vast Majority about his trips to India and certain African countries in the ’70s. Very dated, obviously, but I doubt that the passage of time has rendered it altogether irrelevant.


J-D 06.07.18 at 1:08 am

bob mcmanus

Is there ever any collective agency in Le Guin?

Yes, there is. If a general strike doesn’t count as collective agency, what does? (Not that it’s the only example I could cite: this is the author who wrote, ‘Alone, no one wins freedom.’)


WLGR 06.07.18 at 3:58 pm

J-D, I agree that this point, about why the Omelans are so certain that this single child’s misery is the pivot on which their happiness depends, is a crucial internal tension in the narrative and I’ve also pointed it out upthread. The obvious answer is that the child is an abstract metaphorical stand-in for a great many other suffering people in the “real world” of Omelas, and the Omelans’ dogma reflects their tacit understanding that their happiness does depend on not probing the conditions surrounding this ritual too closely, from how the child actually guarantees Omelas’ prosperity to how the terms of the ritual itself are enforced. The way Le Guin’s otherwise omnipresent narrator nonetheless respects this shroud of vagueness just the way the Omelans themselves do (especially in contrast to her tendency throughout her other work to draw out as many and as detailed real-world political analogies as she can manage) is to me a sign that the most fundamental element of the story is this very shroud of vagueness itself.


WLGR 06.07.18 at 4:06 pm

LFC, there are many problems with the “declining global poverty” narrative and this isn’t really the best place to hash them out. (Here’s a decent starting point for those who don’t want to wade through enough literature in world-systems theory, dependency theory, unequal exchange theory, and so on to make the first few chapters of Capital, Vol. 1 look as light and readable as a Dr. Seuss hardback.) For the purposes of comparing our situation to Omelas, we can split the figure of the child into three hypothetical people with obvious real-world referents: a Vietnamese garment worker who stitched the shirt you’re wearing, a Chinese components assembler who put together the device on which you’re reading these words, and a Ugandan bean picker who harvested the coffee you drank this morning. You and I both know full well that these people’s lives are much harder than yours or mine, and if they all were to be paid enough for their labor that their lives could be more like yours or mine, your and my lives would become harder, at the very least because our clothes, smartphones, and coffee would become more expensive. And since justifying such states of affairs is one of the oldest and longest-standing pursuits in the tradition of liberal political philosophy, trying to abstract these issues away as narrow arguments about some nebulous utilitarian moral calculus doesn’t necessarily break free from the gravity of the real world as well as you seem to think it does, nor would a radical leftist author like Le Guin necessarily want it to.

It is interesting though that you bring up panhandling (far from just some exotic Third World phenomenon, incidentally) because ideological mirage in our view of the figure of the panhandler actually does make a good real-world analogue for the ideological mirage Le Guin depicts in the figure of the confined Omelan child — in the sense that metonymically condensing all Third World poverty down to some random street beggar in a Western expat district of New Delhi lets us all the more easily ignore other poor people like those I mention above, who differ from a panhandler in that the economic interdependence between their misery and the First World’s affluence is much more straightforward and direct, but who a First World tourist in a country like Vietnam, China, or Uganda is also much less likely to directly encounter in person.


LFC 06.07.18 at 9:33 pm

I intend to follow your links when I have time, which I don’t just at the moment. But I can say we prob. agree on at least one point, namely that the Vietnamese garment worker, Ugandan bean picker, and Chinese components assembler should be paid more than they are. I’m also aware of the (structural etc.) reasons that their wages are unlikely to rise to anywhere near First World levels, though I believe (could be wrong) that wages in some Chinese factories have been slowly going up.

Btw, dependency theory and world-systems theory in themselves do not, in my understanding, imply anything much in particular about the extent of absolute (or extreme) poverty; they do imply a lot about levels of relative poverty/affluence. And finally (for now), “metonymically condensing all Third World poverty down to some random street beggar in a Western expat district of New Delhi” is not what Harrington (himself quite heavily influenced by dependency theory) was doing, nor what I intended to do in bringing it up. For sure, the ordinary First World tourist in a poor country might engage in that “condensation,” but Harrington wasn’t an ordinary First World tourist.

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