For want of a plain road
Bewilderment, belonging, and the ones who walk away
But the world refuses to be governed badly. —Aristotle, Metaphysics XII.
In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin tells of a utopian city whose peace and prosperity depend on the sustained suffering of a single child. Imprisoned in a basement, this child has no interaction with other human beings, except for when their bowl is filled “with a bit of corn meal and grease” once a day. Visitors are forbidden even to speak a kind word. “(I)f it were to be cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing,” the narrator allows; but “in that hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would whither and be destroyed.”
After seeing the child for themselves, many weep, rage, or brood for a time. Most settle into acceptance. Occasionally, however, a visitor “does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all,” Le Guin writes—
These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates…. they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Omelas, and those who walk away. “They seem to know where they are going,” Le Guin concludes. But what are they walking toward?
Le Guin attributed her theme to a William James essay, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891), where James imagines a society in which “millions (are) kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture.” Such an arrangement might be appealing from a utilitarian point of view, James allows. Yet we react to it as something “hideous.” This sense of hideousness wells up from beyond our own pains and pleasures, which might otherwise lead us to accept the bargain. “A vast number of our moral perceptions also are certainly of this secondary and brain-born kind,” James suggests. “They deal with directly felt fitnesses between things, and often fly in the teeth of all the prepossessions of habit and presumptions of utility.”
For James, however, the story of the lost and lonely-tortured soul is little more than throwaway thought experiment. His concern is with the larger realm of moral uncertainty into which we find ourselves thrown. He sets the stage with a breathtaking assertion: “There can be no final Truth in Ethics,” he suggests, “until the last man has had his experience and said his say.” I’m struck by how much James’s moral system here seems like a simulation—as if it were a computer program designed for the procedural generation of moral systems. Even God must wait until the program has run its course to learn the results.
And thus into my clumsy meditations on Omelas flies Hervé Le Tellier’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel, The Anomaly, recently released in an English translation by Adriana Hunter. Its story concerns the touchdown of a jetliner that is the exact duplicate—down to passengers and crew—of one that already landed on schedule, three months before. Inevitably, the planes’ co-dopplegängers meet: “It’s so disturbing,” one reflects on confronting his second self. “Neither … is the one in the mirror. Nothing is familiar anymore, the inverted features make this other … a stranger, hostile.”
Le Tellier’s novel is an exploration of the Simulation Hypothesis: a piece of skeptical philosophy that calls the nature of reality into question by suggesting that we exist within a computer simulation. Whether the “anomaly” of the planes is a glitch, or a test, is left to be determined; some of Le Tellier’s characters walk toward the anomaly, and some walk away. All respond feelingly, however, finding their way to murder and evasion, acceptance and love. Whether inside a program or not, they’re also irreducibly persons, who make claims, and feel the press of obligation—for whom there are stakes. I recall the argument of Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, in their strange, dated, but quietly astonishing book about artificial intelligence: that a lack of stakes is what prevents us from taking AI personhood seriously.
As James suggests, such stakes weave us into a moral ecology. “The moment we take a steady look at the question,” James asserts, “we see not only that without a claim actually made by some concrete person there can be no obligation, but that there is some obligation wherever there is a claim. Claim and obligation are, in other words, coextensive terms; they cover each other exactly.”
James’s essay might be said to marshal the tools of skeptical philosophy against itself. When it comes to simulation, my own skepticism is more intuitive. First, it’s implausible; “civilizations” might be simulable, but it’s actually not at all clear that General Relativity is. But more impulsively, I wonder why any sufficiently advanced technical society would want to simulate this—the realm of the human, this peculiar province of intersubjective possibility—with such fidelity? There is so much more at work in the world—so much matter that matters, which the professors of simulation treat as set dressing and sleight-of-hand. “It goes wrong,” as the late Barry Lopez said, “when the world outside the self is no longer the companion but the servant.”
Barry Lopez might also have suggested that the ecology of claim and obligation extends into more-than-human realms. I turn here to another recent French book: In the Eye of the Wild, anthropologist Nastassja Martin’s account of the violent meeting she had with a bear while doing fieldwork among the Even people of eastern Russia. Healing from grievous wounds, she finds herself dreaming of the bear that mauled her—and sensing that, deep in its forests, the bear dreams of her as well. The attack has attuned her to a “potency … that’s external to people, an intention unrelated to humanity,” she writes. “There is also the basic sense that we live in a world in which we all observe each other, listen to each other; we remember, give to, and take from one another; there is attention paid every day to lives other than our own.” She records in her notebook the vision of “those eyes that pierce right through…. flashes that recall what the body’s already lost of the shared presence of other creatures.” She continues—
As alone they lose their way, so alone they cut themselves off, and so alone they forget. Their eyes’ meeting saves them from themselves by projecting them into the alterity of the being that looks back. Their eyes’ meeting keeps them alive.
Martin has become a medka, half-human, half-bear, an Even friend tells her; she now “lives between worlds.” This experience, I want to say, is hard to reduce to simulation narratives. Her animism transcends the parochial boundaries of the Simulation Hypothesis. Instead of mere simulation, perhaps, we might call it intersimulation: more-than-human selves versioning one another. In the eyes of the bear, the walker, the forest, claim meets obligation, welling up as a question: am I to be the one who suffers for you?
Where are they going, the ones who walk away from Omelas? I think of Samuel Johnson’s definition of “bewilderment”: being lost in pathless places, for want of a plain road. We walk to find each other, and in each other ourselves.