Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Wind's Twelve Quarters - Ursula Le Guin

I have been wanting to read Ursula Le Guin's collection of short stories, The Wind's Twelve Quarters for some time because it contains two stories set in Earthsea, but also because I have heard quite a bit about the story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (Variations on a theme by William James), which Le Guin, in the introduction, calls a psychomyth. If you're unfamiliar with Le Guin's story, you may want to use the link above to read it before you go any further.

"The central idea of this psychomyth, the scapegoat," writes Le Guin, "turns up in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, and several people have asked me, rather suspiciously, why I gave the credit to William James. The fact is, I haven't been able to re-read Dostoyevsky, much as I loved him, since I was twenty-five, and I'd simply forgotten he used the idea. But when I met it in James' The Moral Philosoper and the Moral Life, it was with a shock of recognition." Le Guin hit upon the name of the town on reading a road sign for Salem, Oregon, backwards. She says that people ask her "Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?" and she answers "From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?"

In this story, Omelas is a utopian city of joy and happiness, whose inhabitants are intelligent, refined and cultured. Everything about Omelas is pleasing, except for the secret of its happiness: the good fortune of Omelas requires that a single child be kept in filth, misery and darkness, and that all the citizens are told of this when they come of age. Many are very upset by the information, but they reason away their pain at the news, and in time they forget about the child's presence in their city. But some citizens cannot, and they are the ones who walk away from Omelas.

I had heard from various quarters that this was a very moving story, and I was not misinformed. It is also, of course, very thought-provoking.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

The story is can also be taken as an argument against consequentialist ethics, I suppose.