in memory of Ursula K. LeGuin

I first came across science fiction in the 50s when studying in America. Came across those inexpensive SF magazines and paper back books with appealing covers enjoyed by a relatively small circle of readers. They offered conjecture as to the future; a future in which technology would offer solutions to many of the hardships associated with sustaining material existence. And they seemed to ask what would concern us in the era that seemed then to be just around the corner. What would have to be dealt with when we were freed of our day to day burdens that were then such a large part of maintaining our existence.

D581_246

Ursula K. LeGuin started publishing after I had left America, but she continued in the tradition of those writers and thinkers of the 50s and 60s. She challenged us to change our thinking as to the purpose and the content of human life. In her honor, I would like to re-examine one of her classic stories; a story translated to Hebrew and published in the newspaper here after she passed away a little more than a week ago. The story is called, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. It can be downloaded for free from the internet.

D1160_2599

It’s a short story which presents a version of Utopia. It describes a small city. No emphasis is put on technological inventions. Because the people there live simply. But she stresses, the people themselves are not simple. They are sophisticated and intelligent. They are happy. They have no king and no army. They have no cars because they don’t need them. There is music and sporting competition. She describes a festival, the first day of summer, and it is joyful. The one negative aspect of this utopia is an idiot child who is kept in a dirty basement, all alone and neglected. Her description of the conditions of this child’s living space are dismal and repulsive. But the young are taught that this is what has to be. That the happy lives they live are dependent on the misery of this one child.

She also tells of the those who leave the city. She doesn’t tell us much about them. Just that they leave. They leave alone, and we don’t know where they go. They seem sure of themselves. There is the suggestion in the story that they leave because they cannot bear to live in a city where even one person is treated so cruelly. It is of that I wish to speak, the people who walk away from Omelas.

D1157_040

I have written in the past about my experience in kibbutz. I wanted to try living there after I had studied a bit about communism and socialism, and thought this would be an opportunity to see if the theories could be realized in real life. At the time, the Soviet Union was a cruel dictatorship, and I didn’t want to believe that this was the inevitable outcome of establishing a communist society. While on kibbutz, I fell in love with the society. But I also saw its faults. I left because my dear wife just didn’t appreciate this ideal as I did. I don’t regret that I have lived the rest of my life back here in Jerusalem. I consider myself blessed. Still the experience has stayed with me.

D1157_037

My example of the paradox of ‘life in utopia’ is less dramatic than the story of Omelas. My work was being part of a team there that grew bananas. There was a fellow on the team that used to bum cigarettes off of me. As members of the commune, we both had all of our needs supplied. “to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities”. Once a week, I would find as many packs as I used to smoke then, in the same compartment where my newly laundered clothes would be delivered. No charge. Yet day after day, sometimes saying he had run out, and most often just asking if I had a spare cig’, he would ask for one of mine. I never asked him why. But I wondered. Could be he was trying to stop smoking… or was it his way of making friendly contact? No big deal, but it made me a bit uncomfortable.

D1157_051

Often, what makes everyone happy, will make someone unhappy. Everyone wants to listen to music, but one fellow prefers silence. Everyone wants a nice green lawn in front of his home, but one fellow wants the grass to grow wild, to grow knee high around his house. Sometimes the happiness of the majority can be like a poke in the eye of a small minority. That’s the way it is among people. Even the best society can’t be perfect because human beings aren’t perfect. And no matter how good, there will always be someone looking for the faults; unhappy because of the imperfections. We’re not all built the same way, neither physically, emotionally or mentally. Ask yourselves, is it possible to build a society, even with no expenses spared… even with great consideration and respect towards all… in which one person won’t stand up and yell, “you’re all a bunch of happy idiots”? And isn’t that person an unhappy individual?

Advertisements

39 responses to “in memory of Ursula K. LeGuin

  1. I know people who are contradictory for the sake of being contradictory, and they are not happy people. I confess that I have fallen into that category on more than one occasion. Fortunately, I’ve learned to change, but it was a choice I make. I also know people who can only be “happy” if someone else is miserable; they have this idea that there is only so much to go around, and if they have more then they’re better off. Fascinating exploration.

    • By the time we start taking part in adult life, we have a developed personality. Some of it is a reaction to experiences we’ve had. Some is the product of education, and the influence of environment, and quite a bit, I believe, is inherited. We keep learning, and we’re able to make choices. But often we’re directed by feelings that we don’t know where they’re coming from. So it’s only after we start really studying our situation and coming to terms with ourselves, that we can aspire to change. Any society, regardless of how enlightened, must ultimately find a way to deal with unusual individuals. It does seem to me that modern western society is making an appreciable effort to deal with those unusual personal exceptions. Thanks for the comment, Judy

  2. You remind me that it is often too easy to complain about the way things are in our communities, and to forget to be thankful for all the very good things we have at our disposal. You’ve also reminded me that Ursula Le Guin has long been on my ‘to read’ book list. Interesting that she grew up in a household amid much anthropological discussion, from her own father and other academics, and so from early on was aware of different ways of living.

    • It is hard even to compare building something complex to complaints about it. Think of an automobile for instance; the amount of work in design, the amount of mathematics that has to be employed on every level of creating the car… worrying about aerodynamics, the reduction of fuel per kilometer, the power of the engine, safety factors, the comfort of seats, the ease of opening doors and windows, the effort to reduce its susceptibility to erosion, cooling heating. It would take at least a day to study all the different factors that go into making an automobile. And we take them for granted. And lets not even get to complaining about them. How easy it is to destroy them totally. Destruction is easy. Complaints are still easier. Thanks for the comment, Tish.

  3. I would rather start out as an unhappy individual with all my faculties intact , because that leaves the possibility of changing into a happy individual wide open … while “happy idiots” are just that … am I not right not, friend Shimon? … Love, cat.

    • In theory, or as a personal preference, you might be right, cat. But the truth is that those who have suffered in their childhood usually spend a large part of their life just trying to overcome the original trauma. The kibbutz tried a revolutionary method to try and guarantee the welfare of children, but after some 50 years of the experiment, most members voted against separate children’s housing. designing a successful society is one of the biggest challenges around. As for happy idiots, isn’t that better than unhappy idiots? Always good to trade ideas with you, cat.

  4. I don’t believe there will ever be a perfect society here on earth. To be truly happy, people need the freedom to choose. I’m actually quite glad that we are all individuals with different likes and tastes and hope we never have a society where everyone is alike. How boring!

    • Hi there Bev. One of the things I liked about this story, was that LeGuin insisted that the people in this utopian village were not simple. That they were sophisticated and individuals. The same is true for the kibbutz where I lived for a couple of years. I would say that the people living there were on the whole more diverse and complicated than the average in the city. I’d agree with you, that it is impossible to build a perfect society because human beings are not perfect. I agree that freedom is very important. But the truth is, that in most societies, people have pretty limited choices, within a small wedge of freedom. It is much easier to identify slavery than it is to identify freedom. There are those who believe that freedom is the right to choose between an i-phone and a galaxy.

  5. I was fascinated reading this, you really drew me in. I was most disappointed when it ended. Ah yes, people are not perfect, not one of us, so it is impossible to create a permanent Utopia, we are all unique and individual with different needs as you pointed out.
    I loved this story, the neglected child stands for so much in society, now, and throughout history, just because 99.99% of people accept something, doesn’t make it right, and the small % who disagree walk away from those ideals, just like those in the story who left the city. I did like those wood carvings, and wonderful standing stones.xxx

    • I remember that I wrote two articles on my experiences in kibbutz. Maybe it was on the UK blog back when… In any case, I might dig them up again, Dina. The subject of a truly enlightened society has fascinated me all my life. I agree with you that 99% doesn’t make something right, but it seems to me that we can’t invalidate a society just because a minority is unsatisfied or protests. The more we try to be gracious to minorities, the more we realize how frail the society as a whole. Here in Israel, for the past few months, invalids have been demanding the minimum was guaranteed to them because of their handicap. In the beginning I sided with them. It should be noted that long before this project started, very large amounts of money were dedicated to compensation, rehabilitation, special vehicles, tools, medicine, and high tech services for these handicapped people. But after being promised that their maintenance allowance would be increased in stages, yet they saw that they still didn’t get the minimum wage, they progressed to blocking traffic in vital intersections and making life miserable for other citizens. As I learned more about the problem, I realized that my gut reaction has been too emotional. There is a vital balance in human affairs, and we have to be very careful when we initiate changes.

  6. Very true reflections. It’s difficult enough to know what would make ourselves happy (sometimes we toil and work hard to get something and once we have it, we realize it was not really what we expected it to be), let aside everybody else. Thanks, Shimon

    • I agree, Olga. Happiness is one of the most difficult aims, despite the fact that it has been the object of our desires from the beginning of history. We plan for happiness, and then it evades us. But still, all of us have known it, at one time or another…

  7. A friend of mine grew up on a kibbutz- Gesher Haziv- but left after getting married as she had enough of it. Too much closeness and loss of individuality she felt. She did not want her daughter to grow up as she did. A relative lived on a kibbutz from from its inception after the war until her death 5 years ago- she could not imagine another way of life. Perhaps one’s nature has alot to do with it. Perfection? Unlikely, happiness? yes, it can be achieved

    • We have to keep in mind that even at their height, the kibbutzniks were a small minority in here in Israel. I believe to this day that it was/is the finest social system ever developed. But unfortunately, it did not last long. The kibbutz movement is already in stages of disintegration. One of the big problems was that the first generation chose to commit itself to that life style. Those born on the kibbutz received a ready made paradise, and rebelled. Not everyone, of course, but it started the descent. As a person who experienced that life style, I can tell you, Lisa, that too much closeness is a problem for some. But I never noticed a loss of individuality. Let’s hope for happiness in any case.

  8. You are a beautiful writer Shimon. You give of yourself.

    As you say, utopia, however that is defined, will not suit everybody. Was the Kibbutz life you experienced the same as the very early Kibbutz movement of the WW2 post war era? There are those who moved away feeling the early movement deprived them of nuclear family experience in their formative years, which adversely affected their adult lives. A misery formed in utopia, rather like the neglected child of LeGuin’s story. It does not appear to me though, that it was one needed to support the structure. It appears to have evolved out of it, the unintended consequence, as so many things are.

    Is group conformity a reason to deny what could be a delusional state; is it good enough reason to support that state of being if it maintains some kind of group stability?

    It is fortuitous we are all different and that in the societies we live, we are allowed to be.

    Lots to think about.

    • In answer to your question, menhir, yes, my kibbutz experience was according to the type that was well heard of after WWII. But that was not the early version. Kibbutzim were started before WWI, and became a viable choice with 3 different life styles available on the communes between the two world wars. I first started visiting kibbutzim in the early sixties, and actually lived on one a decade later. We had children at the time, and the children lived in a separate children’s house. We ate in a communal dining room, and shared all facilities according to a standard of equality. There was no nuclear family. I have heard all the arguments against kibbutz, but I still feel it offered a better life than the standard solutions. But there were also some in-between possibilities (moshav shitufi, for instance) that offered variations.

      What I was trying to say in this post, was not that a utopia defined would not suit everybody, but that the world as a whole can not suit everybody, including a utopia. I believe that in any society, there is always the odd man out, and sometimes a large portion of society is used and manipulated for the sake of those ‘well to do’ folks, and that is even worse. There are people born with birth defects, idiocy, and autism who are expected to be happy just to be allowed to live. So I felt that the example given by LeGuin was exaggerated to give an unrealistic impression. The people who leave Omelas would have walked out on any social order, had they not become insensitive by exposure to the vast injustice usually founding any society. Even in what we call a free and happy society, there are those who are unhappy. In every society there is murderer, rape, and perverts. I did not find that there was more conformism in kibbutz than there was in Jerusalem or in Zurich. What I did find was that the balance between freedom and a high moral standard was more successful than any I found in other societies where I lived and visited. The people there were all different. The conformity was to an economic standard. But I do believe that belonging to such a society has to be a product of free choice. That choice was hardest for those who were born there, and whose families were committed to the rules of the kibbutz.

      Thank you very much for the questions you raised, menhir. The subject is close to my heart, and I think the discussion could go on for quite a while.

  9. I was only disappointed because it didn’t go on longer. You had me, a captive audience.xxx

    • I can understand your disappointment, Dina. The subject has always fascinated me, and there is so much to think about, and learn from. As a young man, I felt very frustrated by the examples found in those countries that fell under the influence of the Soviet Union, as well as what was going on in the ‘free world’. Now in old age, the issue has become more academic for me. But I keep hoping that someday in the future people will find a method to bring the maximum freedom and economic security to the vast majority of their society.

  10. Utopia in this world is not possible. Free people with plentiful choices can provide opportunities to the less fortunate in society if they have a common moral compass to live by. We all chase happiness our entire lives from the early age when we first realized our mortality. This knowledge unique to the human experience makes us different than any other living creature we share the earth with. Utopia was lost in the Garden of Eden, but hope exists in the future, we call faith.

    • If we try to reach a perfect ideal in the establishment of Utopia, then I have to agree with you. It’s impossible because human beings are not perfect. I agree with you too, John. on the importance of a common moral compass. The greatest problem, as I see it, is the balance between individual freedom, and the common understanding of morality. The US was founded on the highest standards of freedom and equality, and still slavery was not outlawed until almost 100 years later. I know that my personal faith will never be adopted by the majority. But I do hope we’ll find the way to live in communities where respect and freedom will be afforded to all (or almost all).

  11. Hi Shimon. A thought provoking piece this time. FIrst…I wonder if you have heard over there of the husb and wife who kept 13 children in a basement and some chained to beds. Unusual wide range of ages. A teenage girl excaped and found a phone and reported it, and now it’s public. Very unusual. One can imagine one person going psych bad but a pair is unique. And then Secondly…I have been trained most of my life to look for anomalies…abnormals in any and every human condition. Not necessarily to fix it but to lead it to health by what ever means necessary. I had a bad day yesterday. I turned 80. 🙂
    Be well Shimon.

    • Congratulations on reaching 80, Bob. It’s no mean trick to survive eighty years in this world. And though I consider luck as part of the equation, you have to have your wits about you to last. And even if we’re left with diminished capacities, being alive is a wondrous experience that I gratefully acknowledge.

      The story of the crazy parents with the 13 children is devastating. For me, it’s an indication of just how alienated we are from one another in contemporary society. We had a case her in Jerusalem a few years ago, where a number of parents were discovered giving extreme corporal punishments to their children in a deviant educational method, inspired by a crazy fanatic rabbi. Such things can happen. But in a society where there is greater integration and co-operative activities between neighbors, such deviant behavior is less likely to occur, and will be discovered quicker. Personally, it is difficult to accept that I have no answer to madness.

  12. I’ve been through a science fiction phase back in the day, Shimon, but never had the urge to read Ursula LeGuin. I think now I’ll have to give it a go. Literature is littered with utopian worlds. No matter how some people long for it, human beings aren’t capable of creating any sort of utopia. Not enough to save us from ourselves. You’re right, Shimon, we’re not all built that way.

    • I have to say, Mary, that it’s hard for me to recommend books, and even harder to recommend Science Fiction. Most of the fine writers, produced works that were a product of a certain context. I read works that were written 50 years ago, a hundred and hundreds of years ago, and almost always I have to make allowances for the beliefs, conventions and knowledge of those thinkers who lived in other places and other times than ours. Right now I am reading Wendell Berry, and I am greatly moved by his writing. But I know it’s a matter of taste, and that a lot of people might not find him as inspiring as I do. When I compare our lives in the ‘free world’ today to the lives of people living in comfortable societies 500 years ago, it does seem that what we have now could be called Utopia. But no matter how good we have it, we’ll always wonder and consider how the world could be still better. And it seems to me we have a long way to go.

  13. Good morning Shimon. Thank you for this excellent post. Ursula Le Guin was indeed a fascinating writer and seemed to understand the human condition very well. I haven’t read this book, but I will. I often think that Governments should be given master classes on ‘human nature’ because it seems to me that there is a lacking of understanding on this subject. Those that have – for the most part, don’t want to be bothered with those who don’t have…..and for those who stand up and say ‘I don’t like this’ – it is better for those who have – to shut them up.
    I do enjoy science fiction and remember very well the predictions of three day weeks and no more paper needed etc….and of course the reverse has happened. People are working much longer hours and the endless reams of paper necessary to manoeuvre in this world seems to grow and grow.

    Enjoy a lovely weekend. Janet 🙂

    • Your comment on the three day week, really made me smile, Janet. Because I have read so many incorrect predictions of the future, and so many worries about what didn’t ever happen. In a journal published in England towards the end of the 19th century, one of the predictions was that with the increase of population and transportation in the city of London, it would become impossible to move around town because of the quantity of horse dung in the streets. Of course I remember the 3 day week, and even more worries about what people would do when all work would be done by machines or robots. It turns out that technology can change our environment radically. After thousands of years we have the light of day at night, and indoor toilets, but mankind doesn’t really change so quickly. Thanks so much for your good wishes. xxx

      • Interestingly, a big survey has just been published here in the UK (although anyone who has travelled our roads by car doesn’t need an expensive survey!) to say that British roads are some of the most congested in the world and one area of London apparently is the most congested in Europe. Somehow we have fit 70 million people (and counting) on this tiny island – and all the cars that go with that number. It’s crazy. I am so fortunate to live in an area where I can walk to all the shops I need – train station two mins away and 24/7 buses, however, this place is unusual. Even with that, if I have to be somewhere at a certain time, I always give myself much longer than should be necessary, just in case….and usually I was right to do that. I am so pleased I haven’t driven since I left the States 24 years ago…..now the big thing is that electric cars are coming in…and so people are fearful of buying petrol cars because they know it wont be too long before they are out of mode….and so it goes. On that note have beautiful day with the lovely Nechama. Janet xxx

        • One of the advantages of internet, and communication between countries and continents, Janet, is that we can compare notes. And as you were saying, interesting… especially since we get the same sort of news, only they tell us that we are the most crowded, most traffic jammed… etc. What I can tell you is that you were way ahead of me in giving up driving. I only stopped about two years ago, but then I was amazed at what a relief it gave me. Not that I don’t miss the independence of being able to go anywhere on my own steam. But being in traffic jams, and wasting time looking for parking was painful. I will convey your good wishes to Nechama. xxx

          • I have never regretted giving up driving. For the past 24 years I have lived my life in such a way that I didn’t need a car. I could use public transportation and in a pinch a taxi….but for the most part this is not necessary – oh and then of course there is walking which I love. 🙂

  14. Dear Shimon, though I am not an avid reader of sci-fi, I enjoyed some of Ursula Le Guin’s writings. There is a prescience to such books that I find unnerving (the present is unnerving enough).
    I struggle with the concept that one person needs to be dissatisfied for others to be happy, for presuming that an individual’s happiness is not contingent upon harming another person or property, can’t we have enough emotional largesse to permit different interpretations of joy?
    As the U.S. continues to move into polarized positions of extremes that allow for no blurred edges, I wonder more frequently about permissions and forgiveness. And how righteous indignation can be mistaken for being right.
    There is no pat ending to my comments, I fear. My wish is that no one suffer so that others may thrive, that we embrace our ability to compromise and celebrate our commonalities in stead of seeking to negate it. Shabbat Shalom, Shimon …

    • I agree with you Mimi, that the present is unnerving enough. And like you, I don’t believe that anyone has to be unhappy for anyone else to be happy. Yes, it’s in our interest to be flexible in considering others’ desire for happiness. But the terrible and depressing reality of our world is that every society has to deal with deviants, rapists and murderers, and we haven’t yet found a cure for madness. I have often thought that righteous indignation is itself a form of madness, and is terrible close to self righteousness. Extremism is very common, and often seems logical or justified until it becomes a threat to all. Your comment speaks of the very things that have bothered me about society all my life. I still have the hope though, that eventually mankind will find the way to build a society that offers freedom and respect to all. Have a very good week.

  15. In my experience we mirror what we hold inside of ourselves. So if there is disappointment, anger, bitterness, emotional pain, sadness inside, then these will be mirrored into life, no matter what the environment. We create our lives from within. Hugs and much love flowing to you dear Shimon and for a very thought provoking post, as always. Xx

    • Yes, Jane… what you say is painful and true. We carry with us those reactions to the blows we have received, the wounds and disappointments, and then mirror them back at the world around us… it’s one of the levels of karma… and so much work to overcome. Thank you for your sweet words; sending you too my best wishes. xx

  16. I’ve never been drawn to science fiction, and realized only as the tributes poured in for Leguin that I never have read any of her work. Still, this story intrigued me, and certainly is worth pondering. The role of the isolated and miserable child in maintaining the happiness of others is more than fiction. There are some in this country who seem to believe that the maintenance of a permanent underclass is necessary for them to maintain political power. It’s not quite the same dynamic, and yet, metaphorically, there clearly is a relationship.

    As for Utopia: it never has existed, and I’m sure it never will. Perfect equality among people — whether of goods, talents, or personal disposition — simply isn’t possible. My grandmother used to say, rather cryptically, “There’s nobody here but us chickens.” Eventually, I came to understand it was her way of saying, “The world is what it is, and imperfect as we are, we have to find ways to live in it.” If we find a way that suits us, then blessed are we.

    • It seems to me that the story was really meant to be a parable. Even in the story itself, she offers us the possibility to change one or more of the details… so it’s meant to challenge us with the question of whether we could justify our happiness knowing that it was available only at the expense of this victim. To me, the victim is exaggerated. She didn’t have to make it a child. After all, children grow up after a while, and we are to understand that this person is going to stay in that room. And the room didn’t have to be so disgusting. But she really wanted to drive the point home. The question then, is can I be happy knowing that my happiness is dependant on another’s unhappiness. But this question raises its reverse. Should I never be happy knowing that someone else is suffering? Because there will always be some suffering. And sometimes, when suffering, the happiness and light headed joy of others just emphasizes our pain. I think that those that you mention; those that believe we need an underclass, will soon be disillusioned of this prejudice. With widespread literacy, and the technological means for all to express themselves and learn the thoughts of one another, I do believe that there will be a leveling out of classes. And as for Utopia, I see it as a relative thing. I still remember the old Jews of my childhood talking about America, and they called it the golden state.

      As for your grandmothers comment, the way I remember that old story, a fellow hears a noise in his henhouse, and figures someone is trying to rob him. He calls, come on out. There is no answer. So he yells, I heard something, you come on out. To which the intruder answers, “There’s nobody here but us chickens.” I felt that the message was that when you try to cover something up, you’ll end up giving away your secret. But I go along completely with your last sentence, and I do appreciate my blessings.

  17. Innocence is bliss can be an inspiration, someone asking ‘spare a cigarette’ when we all are in the same boat can be annoying. Death of Ursula is news to me. Must find her, so I leave…for now

    • Hi there Perpetua. Ursula hasn’t really left us, because she left us with a lot of her tales and thoughts… but yes, she’s gone. And yes, innocence is bliss, but there are those who say it with a mocking smile. Always good to hear from you.

  18. Did you find an ideal brand of socialism? An unhappy childhood can mark you throughout the rest of your life. NZ is undetaking an enquiry into abuse of children in state care from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. Physical, sexual and psychological. I have joined that enquiry. I was in state care for 13 years – from 4 yrs to 17 yrs. I’ll receive a copy of my records in a few weeks. I was like a mushroom for years – kept in foster care away from my family, apart from one elder brother whose foster mother was a sister of my foster mother – after about 14 years my mother returned to NZ and demanded I return to her and her new family. It was actually a disaster. She had basically given her original family of five children to the state.

    • I do believe that the kibbutz is an ideal version of socialism. But there are many other variations that work as well. I was very sorry Peter, to hear of your suffering as a child. I had an unhappy childhood myself, and it has left me with scars that stayed with me. But I was also very lucky in that life kept on getting better for me. I do hope that you’re enjoying your life these days, and wish for you that life keeps improving. Thank you very much for your comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s