The ones who walk away.

The following passage is an excerpt from Iain McGilchrist’s magnificent book ‘The Matter With Things’

Ursula Le Guin’s searing short story, ‘The ones who walk away from Omelas’, describes a city of extraordinary beauty, whose people lead lives of delight, great wholesomeness and vitality. They are a morally and politically sophisticated society, technologically not advanced, but living peacefully in a glorious and celebratory harmony with Nature, and with one another, without either rulers or slaves.

However, those who grow up there come to learn that there is a dark secret on which the very life of the community depends: a child who is kept prisoner in a lightless basement, where it leads a squalid and desperate existence:

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.

Some go to visit in order to confirm for themselves the truth; others prefer to rely on what they are told. Some are able to put out of mind what they have seen, and accept it as the necessary price to be paid for the welfare of the community at large. But some who go to visit are haunted by what they know; one day, sooner or later, they become the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Whither they walk we do not know; or whether they are fortunate in finding a place whose beauty and goodness is bought at a less costly price. LeGuin’s concluding words are equivocal:

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.

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