The dark room

The Saturday Paper - - Letters & Editorial -

The story be­gins with a horse race, with boys and girls, pulling at their restive charges, naked in the morn­ing air. The course is marked by ban­ners, which flut­ter and snap in the breeze. Ev­ery­thing is cheer and sweet­ness. There is joy even in the clat­ter of bells.

The writer doesn’t trou­ble for specifics. She is happy for the reader to de­cide. Per­haps this is a city of sub­way trains and float­ing lights and fuel-free power. Per­haps not. Per­haps here the com­mon cold has been cured, or it hasn’t.

Ur­sula K. Le Guin says that some things are cer­tain in this city, which she calls Ome­las. The au­thor says there is no guilt. She says the peo­ple who live here are sin­gu­larly happy – happy above all else – but that does not make them sim­ple.

She says, if you wish, to imag­ine a fairy­tale or an orgy. She says to imag­ine naked­ness and tam­bourines and beloved chil­dren. There are no clergy and no sol­diers. Con­tent­ed­ness is gen­er­ous and the sense of tri­umph mag­nan­i­mous.

There is mu­sic and food. Le Guin de­scribes both in de­tail – a guide, should it help the reader to imag­ine. She does not know the laws of this so­ci­ety but she sus­pects there are few.

In the base­ment of an op­u­lent pub­lic build­ing, or per­haps un­der a pri­vate manor, there is a room with one locked door and no win­dow. The light is sec­ond-hand, spilling be­tween cracks. The floor is dirt and mop heads stand stiff in a bucket. The room is no larger than a closet.

“In the room a child is sit­ting,” Le Guin writes. “It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but ac­tu­ally is nearly ten.”

The child is en­fee­bled by abuse. It fears the mops. Oc­ca­sion­ally its door rat­tles and a per­son is there or sev­eral peo­ple and they beat the child. Oth­ers look with dis­gusted eyes. The child speaks less and less. Its body is with­ered with mal­nu­tri­tion. There are sores where it has sat in ex­cre­ment.

“They all know it is there, all the peo­ple of Ome­las,” Le Guin writes. “Some of them have come to see it, oth­ers are con­tent merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. 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.”

Le Guin writes that this is ex­plained to chil­dren in Ome­las when they are be­tween eight and 12. She says it is mostly the young who want to see the child and that when­ever they do, no mat­ter how pre­pared, they feel re­vul­sion and im­po­tence.

“But there is noth­ing they can do,” she writes. “If the child were brought up into the sun­light out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and com­forted, that would be a good thing in­deed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the pros­per­ity and beauty and de­light of Ome­las would wither and be de­stroyed. Those are the terms. To ex­change all the good­ness and grace of ev­ery life in Ome­las for that sin­gle, small im­prove­ment: to throw away the hap­pi­ness of thou­sands for the chance of the hap­pi­ness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls in­deed. The terms are strict and ab­so­lute; there may not even be a kind word spo­ken to the child.”

When this story was pub­lished in 1973, it was as a thought ex­per­i­ment. The idea of per­pet­ual suf­fer­ing, forced on a child for the ben­e­fit of an oth­er­wise be­nign so­ci­ety, of end­less de­ten­tion and ter­ri­ble de­pri­va­tion, was sci­ence fic­tion.

And yet here we are. Even as the chil­dren are slowly pulled from Nauru, Peter Dut­ton de­fends the Ome­las he has built. He re­fuses to ac­cept there are hu­man­i­tar­ian rea­sons for clos­ing the camps. He looks pride­ful at the dam­aged lives and warns that com­pas­sion is a pull fac­tor. He says only that the bolted room with its clot­ted mops is too expensive to keep.

Le Guin’s so­ci­ety is one with­out guilt. She imag­ined this would be nec­es­sary to sus­tain the hor­rors of her fic­tion, be­cause she could not imag­ine Peter Dut­ton or a coun­try that would, with all the fac­ul­ties of its

• con­science, still ac­cept such a com­pact.

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