Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Utopia Limited

Robert Owen's planned community of New Harmony, Indiana, as envisioned by F. Bate, 1838. Wikipedia.
Abstract David Brooks, "The Child in the Basement", January 13 2015:
Summarizes Ursula K. Le Guin's short work "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (1973), and proposes three interpretations of its allegorical import.
Spoiler alert: all three are fundamentally wrong, as fearless literary scholar David Brooks could easily have learned by checking the story's Wikipedia entry, which cites Le Guin's own account of what she meant.

With nothing he wants to write about or anybody wants to read about and a deadline looming, Brooks is delving into something like surrealist automatic writing here, with the old thought processes minimally engaged, so there's a good deal of purely Brooksological interest in the way it reveals the inner workings of his mind. Readers who are more interested in reality might not be able to bring themselves to care. Everybody should just read "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" if you've never done so—here's a good text and it's under seven pages and you'll never forget it—and feel free to skip my report. No, wait, I'm kidding—

The story opens with a vision of a summer festival in a perfectly happy society, the city of Omelas (backwards from the first six letters of "Salem, Oregon", seen in a car mirror, Le Guin says), but it's hardly a description: more brush strokes, bells, boats, horses, fabrics and smells, naked young people, seacoast and a ring of mountains, and instead of fully making it up the author turns to the reader for help—
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. 
Do you want government? Do you want cool technology? Do you want orgies, or extraordinary drugs? Whatevs, she'll describe it for you, but she won't commit. The only thing she'll really commit to is a detail that seems out of place and inexplicable: a single unhappy figure, locked in a basement somewhere, a mistreated, starved and imprisoned child, on whose misery the happiness of Omelas depends. Because the city's happiness isn't a consequence of its religion or its politics or its economics or its arts or its sexual freedom; Le Guin is unwilling to describe all these facets because they don't really matter to the story.

The city's happiness depends on the child by some magical logic; it sucks up all the unhappiness the city can produce as a lightning rod sucks up lightning, leaving the citizens untouched. It's a scapegoat, as described by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov (via Gypsy Scholar):
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 says, and I can easily believe her, that she wasn't thinking of this passage when she wrote the story, she hadn't read any Dostoevsky for years, but she agrees it must have been her unconscious inspiration.)

Brooks's first two hypotheses come in a left-right pair, of course: the story is a critique of capitalism, the story is a critique of utilitarian utopianism.
In one reading this is a parable about exploitation. According to this reading, many of us live in societies whose prosperity depends on some faraway child in the basement.... In another reading, the story is a challenge to the utilitarian mind-set so prevalent today.
You see what he did there, by the way, with that "so prevalent"—turned the whole concept into its retroactionary inversion by suggesting that the socialist utopia is where we actually live, with our Big Government and industrial planning, and capitalism the real utopia of orderly prosperity we yearn for, though some benighted souls think it could hurt somebody.

The Marxist interpretation is obviously irrelevant to Le Guin's story because who capitalism exploits isn't one faraway child but the majority—the 99% in current thinking, at their vast range of different degrees, but especially the global poor and struggling, still a large majority of the world's population and at the least an enormous plurality in the US, and suffering not only far away but right in the "walkable" streets of New York that Brooks is so crazy about strolling around. It's leftist utilitarianism that proposes the greatest happiness for the greatest number as a social goal, with the implication that the program will inevitably lead to somebody unhappy with the distribution of goodness, that their number can never be reduced to zero. (Of course the sufferers could just be an aristocracy losing its ancestral lands and family silver, but they're such sensitive and well-educated people, they'd feel the loss so much more strongly than we peasants might.)

In this way interpretation 1 serves as a strawman for interpretation 2, to make it look as if capitalism is really the desirable alternative to utilitarian socialism. Since the latter can never work the number of the exploited all the way down to zero, let's just go back to exploiting more, so much more comfortable for me! Not directly saying it, but overthrowing socialism and leaving capitalism in the air, for you to fall back on without thinking about it (because if you thought about it it really wouldn't make any sense—"exercise and diet will never get me as thin as I want to be, so I think I'll just put on a hundred pounds instead"). That's the job Brooks is doing in the column for his hidden overlords, more or less out of habit.

But there's an important reason why Le Guin names her piece after characters who appear in it only as an apparent afterthought, to do something almost not described at all: the citizens who "walk away" after seeing the scapegoat child and disappear to a place she doesn't imagine and doesn't ask the reader to imagine at all:
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.
Brooks thinks he can see it better than she can:
They walk away from prosperity, and they make some radical commitment. They would rather work toward some inner purity.
But he's so wrong. It's not prosperity anyway, but undifferentiated happiness—the conditions of the story are not that Omelas needs to be especially prosperous but that it has to have the scapegoat. The story is a "psychomyth", not a program in political economy. And those who walk away are not in search of an "inner purity" but of a better society: the one on the opposite side from traditional capitalism where there's no exploitation at all. That's why Le Guin can't describe it or assert that it's even possible, but she can insist, and does, that it's worth thinking about. Even necessary.

But you know who's really longing for an inner purity? Brooksie!
In another reading, the whole city of Omelas is just different pieces of one person’s psychology, a person living in the busy modern world, and that person’s idealism and moral sensitivity is the shriveling child locked in the basement.
Partisanship aside, he really thinks Le Guin is writing about him, and his wonderfully refined nature, and what a really good person he would be if he wasn't so fucking busy working as somebody's snorting intellectual bulldog. Let that kid out, Davie!

IDF soldiers arresting suspected terrorist, September-October 2014. Image from Countercurrent News. Don't know what made me pick up on this image in particular. Yes I do.
My cher maître Driftglass can't be bothered, for the pretty good reason that he's already done the job (science fiction and conservatism) so well more than once that he could hardly do it again without repeating himself. How well? Check out the links he provides today.

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