Thinking a Way Out

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?

During those same discussions on the theme of apocalypse, the story that came to my mind again and again was Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (1877). You should read it. It begins: “I am a ridiculous person. Now they call me a madman.” The narrator has long been aware of how ridiculous he is in others’ eyes. But eventually, he says, “I gave up caring about anything, and all the problems disappeared.” On a miserably cold evening, after an especially vapid gathering with friends, he looks up and sees a star, and it gives him an idea. “I decided to kill myself that night.” On his way home he encounters a rain-soaked young girl who begs him to help her mother. He stamps his foot and yells at her, continuing on his way.

Back at his flat he sits with a revolver on the table in front of him, and falls asleep. He dreams of flying into space, carried by a mysterious being toward that fateful star, and arriving at a place that looks just like Earth, but is more like Omelas. “They lived just in such a paradise as that in which, according to all the legends of mankind, our first parents lived before they sinned; the only difference was that all this earth was the same paradise.” Yet in the course of the dream, which spans thousands of years, “it ended in my corrupting them all! How it could come to pass I do not know.… I only know that I was the cause of their sin and downfall. Like a vile trichina, like a germ of the plague infecting whole kingdoms, so I contaminated all this earth, so happy and sinless before my coming.”

The narrator wakes up at home, the revolver still in front of him on the table. But he is not the same. “For I have seen the truth,” he writes. “I have seen and I know that people can be beautiful and happy without losing the power of living on earth. I will not and cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of mankind. And it is just this faith of mine that they laugh at.” He resolves to go on preaching this paradise he has seen in the dream. The story ends: “The consciousness of life is higher than life, the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness—that is what one must contend against. And I shall. If only everyone wants it, it can be arranged at once. And I tracked down that little girl . . . and I shall go on and on!”

This story has long troubled me. It returns and returns, relevant to everything. The ridiculous man troubles me. It’s how the magnitude of the corrupt idea dwarfs the scale of his action: the belief that “consciousness of life is higher than life” can only be countered by tracking down a little girl and preaching. “If only everyone wants it, it can be arranged at once.”

It was a dream, they say, delirium, hallucination. Oh! As if that mattered! Suppose that this paradise will never come to pass (that I understand), yet I shall go on preaching it. And yet how simple it is: in one day, in one hour everything could be arranged at once!

It’s as if universal salvation were a thought problem, and to solve it requires dropping the whole world into the dream of the ridiculous man.

Recently I read a senior honors thesis on the British social liberal L.T. Hobhouse (1864–1929). In a book he wrote after the Great War, The Metaphysical Theory of the State: A Criticism (1918), Hobhouse appears as a fulcrum between Dostoevsky and Le Guin. Like the ridiculous man, he insists, “The answer, whatever it be, must rest on this truth, that the higher ethics and the deeper religion do not come to destroy the simplest rights and duties of neighbor to neighbour, but to fulfill and extend them.” And like the ones who walk away from Omelas, he insists that “there must be no slave buried alive beneath the corner stone. Or rather, the fabric is no building, but a tissue of living, thinking, feeling beings, of whom everyone is ‘an end and not a means merely,’ and the value of the whole is marred if it requires the suffering of any single element.”

Reading this, I thought of hsing, “an admonition expressed through an array of parables.” I began to see Hobhouse’s “fabric” as such an array, the parable of a distant utopia, and the parable of the miserable innocent walled into utopia’s foundation. Hobhouse, in “response to a stimulus” (likely the Boer War and the Great War, the student explains), changes the metaphor: “the fabric is no building, but a tissue of living, thinking, feeling beings,” he concludes. For if you view the social project as a building, the visible above-ground must be supported by an invisible below-ground. Whereas if you view the project as fabric, the structure of interdependence is different. A great edifice may need a deep and dark basement to stand strong, but the threads of a fabric exist as “an end and not a means merely,” and if one is knotted or frayed, the “value of the whole is marred.”

Hobhouse has found a better metaphor, one that reframes the problem. But he does not have an answer. And he is “vague and confused,” just like the ridiculous man, serving up a lumpy hsing-stew of metaphors: the building, the fabric, living beings…

He, too, sees the solitary, innocent sufferer as both a material worldly problem and a thought problem, one that must be addressed by both saving the child and changing the way we think. Hobhouse writes: “the true progress of political thought lies in the cultivation of imaginative power. It insists on going back from the large generality, the sounding abstraction, the imposing institution, to the human factors which it covers.” In other words, the antidote to vision is imagination, although the two are extremely close relatives, if not identical twins.

These writers all understood what it means to think in abstractions, to think one’s way into complacency or terminal despair, to corrupt the world with poisonous ideas. The power of a state of mind to obfuscate, debase, and destroy was all too clear to them. Yet they were of two minds, for they also knew that a way out must be thinkable before it can be found.

With special thanks to Emily Roche, Giulio Salvati, Lexi Lerner, Jack Makari, and John Palattella.