by Holly Case
About 1,500 years ago, the Chinese literary critic Liu Hsieh wrote The Literary Mind. It includes a section on metaphor—hsing—which he describes as “response to a stimulus.”
[W]hen we respond to stimuli, we formulate our ideas according to the subtle influences we receive…. the hsing is an admonition expressed through an array of parables.
I first came upon The Literary Mind some months ago and was immediately fascinated by Hsieh’s elucidation of hsing, but will confess to having had no idea what he meant, even after studying his examples. It remained in the back of my mind.
Some time after discovering Hsieh, I was having a series of intense discussions with a group of students on the theme of apocalypse. Again and again, two of them mentioned a story by Ursula K. Le Guin from 1973 called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Omelas, Omelas, Omelas.
Some weeks later, the word “Omelas” occurring to me in flashes, I printed out a copy of the story and read it. You should read it. Omelas is a mythical city where the mood is festive and everything and everyone appear in good form and spirits. The narrator begins by describing and defending how Omelas functions as a great festival of summer unfolds in the background. “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy?” the narrator asks the reader. “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.… In the room a child is sitting.… 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 and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.… 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.
Sometimes it happens that, after seeing the child, a person from Omelas sets out on a road that leads away from the city. And keeps walking. The story ends: “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.”
The story troubles me. It’s the leaving. What does leaving do for the child locked in the cellar? Read more »