Posts Tagged ‘Ursula K Le Guin’

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Class 8: Walking away…?

November 26, 2020
Map of the island, Utopia.

Illustration for the 1516 first edition of Thomas More’s Utopia.

Talking about Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The One’s Who Walk Away From Omelas always brings some surprises and new ways of looking at the world and ourselves. We began, as usual, by considering the context and the time in which the story was written, the US in the early 1970s: The Vietnam war is in full flight; the Civil Rights movement remains active with demonstrations and race riots; the Watergate Crisis leads to Nixon’s resignation; terrorist activity in pursuit of political goals emerges around the world; the cold war between the US and Soviet Union is raging quietly; the oil crisis leads to severe shortages of petrol in the West; flower power and the hippie lifestyle were presented as idealistic anti-violence alternatives to post-war society norms. In sum, the apparently idyllic sixties were over and a new realisation around the challenges of global society was about to dawn on the Western world.

The opening of Le Guin’s story is clearly drawn from the hippie movement and festivals such as Woodstock in 1969. The Eden-like city of Omelas and its surrounding hinterland is presented as a form of Utopia. However, our contemporary familiarity with perfect places in fiction (since Thomas More’s publication of Utopia in 1516) has led to it becoming a trope – we are immediately suspicious: alert to the revelation of a flaw in this seeming idyll.

The form of the story is also interesting to explore more deeply. While clearly allegorical the narrative is open to many interpretations. Is it describing contemporary society? Perhaps it is a retelling of the Adam and Eve mythology? Maybe the fundamental paradox of the human condition is at the heart of the story? Le Guin shifts the perspective of the narrative from third person to first person throughout. She also ‘breaks the fourth wall’ by addressing the reader directly on several occasions; disrupting the illusion by suggesting that the story might become more believable through the introduction of the dark twist:

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.

The story also has some bold philosophical propositions weaved into the text. It is never clear if they are held by Le Guin herself, or merely the narrator… just as it is never clear what the relationship between author and narrator might be. Is Le Guin proposing fundamental truths about human nature and society?

Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.

Her fiction was influenced by cultural anthology, feminism and Eastern spiritual philosophy and explored gender and sexuality (The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969), political systems (The Dispossessed, 1974) and moral development. The final twist in this story presents a stark moral dilemma which Le Guin characterises in the decision of some citizens to walk away from the land of plenty.

We wondered if we were presented with the choice would be stay or go. Would our complacency and moral ambiguity lead us to accept the justifications for keeping the child in the cellar or would we have the courage to walk away? It is interesting to note that the option of remaining in Omelas and seeking change seems to be ruled out in the story but, does that mean it is ruled out for us in our lives?

Ultimately, it may be that the purpose of the story is to have us consider our own personal responsibilities as members of the human race.

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Class 8: Walking away…?

November 21, 2019

Guest speaker Glenn Loughran (aka Feilimy) led the discussion about Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas in this week’s class. Due to travel commitments John was not able to attend so there is no summary but you can read about the discussion last semester for some insight into the topics that emerged.

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Class 9: Walking away…?

April 11, 2019

Unfortunately, the low attendance at class continues this week.

Glenn Loughran joined us today in the guise of Feilimy. John didn’t recognise his avatar and ejected him from the classroom when he first arrived! But we soon settled down, identified those who could use voice and those who, like robadamson travelling on a bus and using the less-than-reliable-wifi signal, would be relying solely on text chat. John introduced Glenn, course chair for the BA Visual Art delivered in Sherkin Island, and attending today from Ecuador, where he is delivering a course, presenting papers at conferences and working on a collaborative research project looking at the idea of islands with Universidad de las Artes. As there was one student whose voice was not working at all John said he would provide a text chat commentary this week.

Glenn suggested that the discussion begin with your ideas about the text and to start off looking at the first half of the story. What is it about? What kind of society does it present?

The responses suggested it was a perfect place, a utopian community, it didn’t have kings or leaders – all are equal, without hierarchy where everyone is happy. Glenn referred to the origin of the Utopian concept from Thomas More’s novel published in 1516. He asked who you think the narrator might be? What is the narrator’s relationship with the community? It was agreed that the narrator’s is an external voice providing, in the first half, a positive yet clinical and objective description. The community is in harmony with nature and has no need or desire for anything but the simplest technology.

Then Glenn asked us to think about the second part of the story. It seems to describe a democracy rather than a utopia: a democracy that is built on the suffering of a child in order to provide happiness and comfort to the rest of the community. Your response was unequivocal: the place now seemed unfair, more dystopian than utopian and reminded you of our world; its wealth reliant on the suffering of the innocent, often children; the rich exploiting the poor. It reminded you of class conflict, racial inequality, exploitation of the developing world by the developed.

Glenn spoke of an island he visited in Ecuador this week and showed us some photos. In the last 15 years rising sea levels are beginning to have a noticeable impact. Buildings are being washed out to sea and the island is slowly disappearing. It is a real example of climate change. The tragedy for those in the region is the inaction of the rest of the world. The idea that we in the West have the opportunity to watch this happening so that we can confirm climate change as a reality before deciding to do something about it is described in Wishful sinking: Disappearing island, climate refugees and cosmopolitan experimentation.

The sinking island off the coast of Ecuador visited by Glenn.

Buildings are being washed out to sea.

A bridge to somewhere…?

Returning to our short story Glenn asked if it is the right thing to do, to walk away from Omelas? Your answers included: yes, because living at the expense of others is not right; reforming the society would disrupt its utopian nature; the community’s happiness must be sacrificed for the good of the suffering child; this is a philosophical question rather than a real one; we have a duty to take part in this discussion and question our privileges.

We concluded by suggesting that the text challenges us to face up to what we actually know and to consider an ethical response. It is about deciding on a course of action for our own lives – knowing that the right thing to do may be difficult. We also considered the story in the context of SL and virtual worlds in general. Do they offer an escape from an unpleasant reality? There are many movies, such as Ready Player One, that support this notion. But, what does it take to maintain a virtual world and can it ever be a replacement for RL? How does our visit to Virtual Ability Island inform our thinking in that space?

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