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Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas as an allegory for addiction and recovery
On November 5, 2016 I left Omelas, walking ahead into the darkness. And I haven’t been back. I still don’t know what my destination is, but, as is intimated in Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, I do seem to know where I’m going — at least for the time being.
Allow me to explain. November 4, 2016 was the last time I consumed an alcoholic beverage. Many alcoholic beverages in fact. It was a weekend away from home with my wife’s rock band in a shabby hotel room in Rocky Mountain House, a decidedly tired-looking town in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. On the morning of November 5 as we were packing our belongings and getting ready for the journey back to Edmonton, I took stock of the previous evening, scanned the constellation of empty cans and bottles that lay strewn about the room, and came to a singular, inescapable conclusion — I am not capable of drinking in moderation, and I have to stop. Forever.
I left Rocky Mountain House, and in doing so I left behind the crutch of alcohol. And I have not looked back since, and have no intention of looking back.
The year-and-a-bit since my wholesale embrace of sobriety has been a period of intense introspection for me. My overall mood has vacillated from out-of-control (mostly self-directed) anger to bliss to utter despair, emotional extremes that I had long used alcohol to temper and steer in (what I thought were) less self-destructive and more constructive directions. I attended all of two (or was it three?) Alcoholics Anonymous meetings but quickly realized that no amount of good vibes and camaraderie therein could make me overlook the inescapable religious undertones and the immovable dogmatism of the program, which seemed to reinforce the centrality of alcohol in the conversation at every moment in much the same way that fire-and-brimstone preachers reinforce the ubiquity of demons. I wanted to find a new place of comfort and ease, one in which I would have friendship and support but not be reminded at every turn of what I was trying to get out of my system. I wanted to reinvent myself. I took to long-distance running and meditation. I wrote like a maniac. I prayed atheistic prayers in no particular direction.
I’m still moving. But I still don’t know where I’m going, and the journey still feels deeply solitary.
The other question central to my recovery process was an examination of what exactly alcohol had represented for me, and what it was that I was walking away from. I had at that point been a regular drinker for over two decades — more than half my life. It felt like an inescapable part of who I was. I was the annoying beer snob who could talk at great lengths about obscure craft brews. I knew my way around a wine menu. But above all, I loved the intoxication. I loved that moment when I would get home from a hard day of work (or even just an ordinary day of pretty much anything), crack open that first beer, take those first few sips and then feel that cascade of relief. There was a beauty in it which I still struggle to describe. It was a perfect waterfall of release. It was a brief splash of heaven amid an ugly world.
I miss it. I miss the beautiful feeling of release from it all. But just like any other addiction, alcoholism is its own dystopian world, and one that, like all great dystopian works of fiction, is a dreamscape built upon a nightmare with the usual curvilinear skyscrapers and flying cars in its upper reaches and the inevitable subterranean hellscapes that make the palatial upper levels possible.
So if alcoholism is a dystopia, what brand of dystopia is it?
First a caveat — I can only speak from my own subjective experience. Addiction is about as subjective a human experience as can be had, and it seems safe to say that no two experiences of dependency are exactly alike. But for what it’s worth, here’s my literary take on my own two-decade-long relationship with alcohol.
Shall we compare dystopias?
If one were to liken it to a dystopian work of fiction, it would most definitely not be the nightmarish coercion of George Orwell’s 1984. No doubt there are some addictions that legitimately feel that way, but the world dreamed up by Orwell in the aftermath of World War II stands out for its lack of anything legitimately enjoyable. There’s order, but apart from that there’s nothing nice about the world of 1984. It’s pure coercion. My relationship with alcohol, by contrast, never felt coerced. I was in that world because I wanted to be, because I enjoyed the intoxication, and while much of that was underpinned by fear, it didn’t feel like fear at any given moment of inebriation.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World hits somewhat closer to the mark. A work ahead of its time in innumerable ways, Huxley’s 1931 novel presaged both the emerging world of gene therapy and our very real modern-day problem of media addiction and mind control, and stitches it together into a terrifying world that is all the more terrifying because its inhabitants are none the wiser to their true state of affairs. But still, the Brave New World parallel doesn’t quite work for me. While I was clearly being manipulated by an outside force, it’s not like I didn’t know the substance was in the mix and exerting control over me. Alcohol was the proverbial elephant in the room and a reality that became increasingly difficult to ignore. It was never the soma of World State. It was never a mystery.
No, my addiction was a totally different breed of dystopia, as I discovered when I finally got around to reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s legendary short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.
[Caution: Literary Spoilers Ahead]
If you haven’t read Le Guin’s masterful 1973 short story, you have likely heard of its premise, or at least something along its lines. Omelas, we are told, is a city of almost unimaginable beauty and completely unbridled personal freedom and bliss. We are told that it is at once ultramodern and edenic and replete with free love and public nudity — I don’t know quite what this would look like but I’m imagining some sort of crazy collision between main street Harajuku and Oregon Country Fair (or perhaps Vancouver’s Wreck Beach). In her characteristically uncluttered and efficient prose, Le Guin takes great pains to assuage the reader’s natural skepticism. There is, we’re told, no coercive governance or law enforcement, no hierarchy, and no religious stricture. It is the world John Lennon had imagined out loud two years previous — the perfect civilizational engine for the pursuit of happiness.
There is, however, a catch — and a doozy of one at that. (At this point if you haven’t read the story and don’t want it spoiled, you might want to skip ahead a paragraph or two.) It turns out that in order for Omelatian society to continue functioning in this state of perfectly calibrated bliss, a single child must be held prisoner in a dark, dank cellar, kept in a state of continual starvation and physical neglect, and completely deprived of any form of happiness or human contact. The child is described as appearing to be around age six but more like age ten, feeble-minded, and with a protruding belly and limbs shrunken from malnutrition. The child, we are told, once upon a time used to beg to be let out of its dungeon, but anymore does nothing but make pathetic whining noises.
How the mechanics of this child’s torture and torment translate into the smooth operation of the society around it is never explained. Is there some sort of thermodynamic exchange that converts the child’s tormented inner experience into fuel for the engines of Omelas’ continued sublimity? How long has this unfortunate kid — who in the story is said to have once known kindness — been oppressed in this hideous way? How did Omelan society function prior to the child’s incarceration? Also, the story begs the question of what would have to happen once this miserable wretch is eventually freed from its suffering through the mercy of sweet death. Will another unfortunate child be unceremoniously plucked from amid the merry throng of the Summer Festival and thrown into the same basement as a replacement?
How such a system might actually be administered in reality is even less imaginable than the society itself, but to quibble about such matters is beside the point. Le Guin’s tale reads clearly as an allegory, at once very much of its time (think of the hippie communes of Le Guin’s native Oregon of the early seventies juxtaposed with the images of the starving children in war and typhoon-ravaged Bangladesh and bomb-blighted Cambodia that filled the TV screens of the time) and perfectly timeless.
It’s as blunt a literary allegory as can be imagined, and one that’s been pressed into service by numerous literary critics and other commentators to characterize various aspects of the human experience. Most frequently, it seems, readers interpret the story as an analogy for the inequalities that continue to plague our world, wherein the “utopia” of Omelas is said to represent the rich western world while the suffering child in the basement represents the global south, or even the very literal child labour that produces the goods we take for granted. Others have taken a more abstract, philosophical view of the story, suggesting an allegory for the impossibility of pleasure without pain, hope without despair, or paradise without purgatory — the ubiquitous yin-yang equilibrium.
I for one am not a fan of either of these interpretations. The first one, as obvious as it seems at first blush, doesn’t hold water for me for several reasons. For one, if only one child had to suffer to produce all the iPhones and cheap T-shirts of the first world, our current system might not seem so indefensible, but in reality there are millions of children forced to languish in metaphorical filthy basements so that we can enjoy the rich pickings of our high-caste existence. We’re not given any sense of how populous Omelas is, but regardless of its scale the city’s population is vastly larger than that of the dark basement, which is precisely one. The math doesn’t work. In addition, while life in the so-called first world is clearly better calibrated for happiness than life in most of the developing world, scarcely anybody would argue that life in the rich world is an experience of pure bliss. Even for the most privileged among us, joy and bliss are fleeting.
Lastly, while poverty and abject misery continue to plague vast segments of our world, it is also worth bearing in mind that in real terms extreme poverty continues to recede around the globe. Today roughly ten per cent of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, down from around 90 per cent at the dawn of the 20th century, and in real terms poverty rates continue to drop around the globe. While it remains to be seen if a viable global civilization in which all seven billion of us can be guaranteed adequate nutrition, lodging, education, and personal safety, we are clearly slowly moving in that direction, and it seems there is no longer any cause for thinking that abject misery on the part of some is a necessary condition for comfortable living for others. Granted, the global population living in extreme poverty was around three times the current number at the time The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas was written, but even then the total proportion of people living in such conditions had begun its near-steady decline.
As for the second metaphor, not only is it a thoroughly depressing worldview, but it also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, largely for the same reasons as the first doesn’t. Obscene wealth might be contingent on at least relative suffering on the part of others, but surely happiness is not. If it were, how is one to explain the vast reservoirs of happiness that have been successfully accessed by saints, sages, and gurus for millennia, with many doing so in conditions that more closely resembled those endured by the child in the basement than those enjoyed by the denizens of Omelas. After all, solitary confinement, which is essentially what we’re talking about in this story, is precisely the voluntary state that facilitated many Buddhist adepts’ enlightenment. Perhaps more responsibility could be placed at the feet of the child in the basement, who perhaps could have used its time a bit more valuably in pursuit of meditative release and a sense of bliss just as real as that enjoyed by the naked sun-kissed revelers upstairs. But that would be callous victim blaming, I suppose.
No, that interpretation of the story doesn’t work for me either. What did click for me immediately was this: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas is one of the most perfectly articulated allegories for addiction and recovery I’ve ever come across. Here’s why.
First, there is the euphoria. The citizens of Omelas are clearly, to use the proper clinical term, high as fuck. There’s no other way to describe it. Whether it’s that somebody put MDMA in the town’s water supply or that their bread is leavened with psychedelic fungus, it’s clear that everybody other than the child is in a state of pharmacological enhancement. It’s always the Summer Festival. It’s always that glorious afternoon at the nude beach, with threesomes, foursomes, and other meat-mergers spontaneously erupting under the shade of cherry trees and every other stupidly enjoyable thing manifesting like junk mail and iTunes updates. This is not normal contentment. This is every single moment of ecstasy you’ve ever experienced compressed into the density of neutron star matter and delivered on a tab of LSD, or something. Even the possibility of sadness or stress or moderately unpleasant distraction seems to have been removed.
If you’ve ever been addicted to a substance, you know what this feels like — at least as a split-second momentary release. All day you’ve looked forward to that after-work drink. You pop the cork off that bottle of wine or twist off the cap of that first beer. You pour yourself a glass. You take that first sip. And then you feel the crap of the world dissolve. Everything is OK, provided you keep at it. You need to keep engineering the circumstance of your own liberation from stress by taking sip after sip, gulp after gulp. Like the Summer Festival in Omelas, you never want that feeling to stop. You keep going until something disrupts it, and then the search for liberation goes on. A map of Omelas would presumably correspond with a map of the brain’s dopamine pathways, with the rays of dawn streaming through them like happy-happy-happy chemicals doing the brain dance to Whiskytown.
Second, there is the suffering. The child in the basement lives within every addict. The child in the basement is the addict’s deep-seated self-loathing. It is the engine of the addictive process, a perpetual motion machine of self-abuse that spearheads, feeds, and nurtures the addiction. In this sense the analogy works perfectly, albeit with a twist. In the story it is implied that the utopian existence enjoyed by the citizens of Omelas requires that this one child suffer. For the addict, it is the child in the basement that is essentially in charge of the whole process, and it is the child that requires that the idyllic world of Omelas continues to operate unabated. In other words, the child could leave if it had the wherewithal to do so, but it doesn’t because it is completely locked into its cycle of self-abuse.
Third, there is the reckoning. In the story, the narrator explains that the citizens of Omelas are, when they reach an appropriate age, told about the conditions that allow for their continued bliss. Many in fact elect to visit the child, but do so under strict orders that not a single positive or kind thing be said to it. And then they leave, and are left to decide how to cope with the weight of this knowledge. Most, it would seem, ultimately bottle it up and come to some sort of equanimity, understanding it to be a necessary precondition for their continued feeling of safety and enjoyment of life. Like all addicts, they become expert liars, because the truth underlying every aspect of their life is too ugly to confront. They become expert obfuscators and distorters of the truth. They become experts at perpetual distraction. Sound familiar?
Lastly, for some at least there is the escape, the melancholy of departure, and the fear of the unknown world beyond the town gates. In the haunting final paragraph of Le Guin’s story, the narrator describes the process whereby every so often one of Omelas’ citizens simply disappears, typically after a confrontation with the child in the basement.
“Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains,” says the narrator.
“They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. 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.”
Such is the journey of every recovering addict. Eventually the suffering of the child in the basement becomes too much to bear, and within a few days or a week or however long they build up the inner resolve to leave the safety of the city of happiness, once the reality underpinning it becomes impossible to ignore. But an addict’s decision to walk away from their metaphorical Omelas is a solidary and deeply disruptive one. One’s life invariably changes dramatically, and often in unpleasant ways. Friendships frequently fall away. Even relationships with family members can change dramatically. Once familiar and comforting haunts fade into the shadows. Life becomes an eclipse of itself. More often than not, the journey out of Omelas is a deeply lonely one, and without the usual mood-altering self-medication on hand, one is left to battle one’s demons singlehandedly — hence the enduring popularity of Alcoholics Anonymous and other such social gatherings, which, in spite of their well-publicized problems, at least provide some psychological support for these lonely refugees.
But the kid’s still there, right?
This leads to one final aspect of this allegory. While this is not explicitly stated in the story, it is clear that the act of leaving Omelas, while in a sense a laudable act, in practical terms does nothing to alleviate the suffering of the child in the basement. The child is still there festering in its own excrement, softly wailing to nobody in particular, and it would seem no amount of depopulation of the town is going to fix this situation. Even though any one of these travellers can at least seek solace in the fact that they are no longer personally benefitting from the child’s suffering, the suffering is still taking place. One could easily argue from a utilitarian standpoint that given that the child’s suffering is a permanent (or seemingly permanent) condition, one might as well enjoy the uninterrupted bliss that is there to be enjoyed as opposed to the solidary and precarious existence that lies outside the city walls.
The recovering addict finds him or herself in a similar situation. For them, the child in the basement predates the chemical dependency, and as such removing the dependency does not in itself do the suffering child any good. And while again I certainly wouldn’t presume to speak for every former or current addict, I can certainly attest to this reality. My first year of sobriety was anything but blissful or euphoric. Once I realized I no longer had the crutch of alcohol to fall back on, my emotional landscape grew increasingly unstable. The depression and anxiety with which I have battled my entire life filled the rearview mirror like never before. My angry outbursts became altogether angrier and more outbursty. While my physical health improved considerably (much as a result of my becoming an obsessive long-distance runner), from a psychological standpoint there appeared to be very little to recommend about being sober. I was lonelier, angrier, and altogether more unpleasant to be around, and the relationships that had survived my quit were sorely tested. The AA community calls this the phenomenon of the “dry drunk.” I just call it mental illness.
That said, removing the rose-coloured glasses of the city of happiness allowed me to begin to come to terms with the various dark, shit-infested basements of my life. Every day I try to clean out a new corner, string up a new lightbulb, and help nurse the emaciated wretch shivering in the dark back to health. Leaving Omelas hasn’t in itself done anything to fix the situation, but it did, if nothing else, allow me to take stock of the situation and perhaps call for backup. The road out of Omelas is still a lonely one and I am still at a loss to describe the destination, even though I — with the right set of eyes at least — feel like I know where I’m going, and the child is still in the basement, albeit perhaps a slightly less unhygienic, better illuminated, and less oppressive basement than it was before. But even now I don’t feel I can count on a happy ending for the kid. The kid has to fix itself, and no amount of abstinence from alcohol or any other dependence-forming substance can do this on its own.
All I know for sure is that I can’t live in the old world anymore. And that’s why I get up every morning and continue my trek, and with each passing day put a few more miles between myself and Omelas. Maybe I’ll see you out there in the mysterious beyond.
For a great discussion on dystopian fiction, check out the December 12 episode of the Very Bad Wizards podcast by Tamler Sommers and David Pizarro, which touches on some of the same aspects of the Omelas tale discussed in this essay. Always illuminating and highly entertaining stuff!