Author Ursula Le Guin sure is sharp and punchy for an old lady. She'd probably hate my saying that, because she's also a feminist. But listening to her talk about her short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas at rontoms last night was a pure joy, and not in the "go spend time with your granny" sense. The free event was organized by the Oregon Council for the Humanities, which could have charged big bucks and filled a bigger venue, although there was something pleasingly Parisian Salon about cramming such a small space with citizens eager to hear a luminary expound on "morality and self deception." Some even had to listen through open windows from out on the sidewalk.
The roots of the Omelas story can be traced to philosopher William James and Dostoyevsky, said Le Guin. And the title, literally, from "reading a road sign backwards." Salem, Oregon! Last night Le Guin re-told a short version of the story, reflected on it, and took questions along with PSU philosophy professor Lani Roberts. The most frustrating thing about having written the story for Le Guin, it seems, is that people want to change its premise all the time—that a city of happy people must depend on the suffering of an isolated child. "But you can't do that," said Le Guin. "That's the deal." Le Guin also described the child in the story as like the proverbial "turd in the punchbowl," a phrase I'm hereby stealing for future use. Here's video:
Roberts also talked provocatively about the way people lie to themselves to justify negative behavior in life. There's "flipping the telescope," where we see our positive deeds as universal and minimize the bad, then there's comparing ourselves to others who have done worse—"at least I'm not Dick Cheney," chimed in Le Guin—or comparing ourselves to successful people who have also done wrong. What can I say? I do all of those things. But I'm still a wonderful person. And hey: At least I don't talk about turds in punchbowls while others are eating, like Ursula Le Guin.
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