If there is one thing the study of literature and philosophy has taught me, it is the importance of not shying away from difficult truths and conversations about them. If something disturbs you, probe into it. Maybe it represents something morally reprehensible. How do you come by this judgment? Is your notion of values only a function of the way you have been socialized within a particular paradigm, or does it arise from something more fundamental, say, an innate sense of common humanity and dignity? Maybe it offends you because it holds up a mirror to your world or personhood, and you don’t like what you see. Ask why. Ask what you’re going to do about it. Avoiding these questions and the discussions about them for fear of ruffling feathers or unsettling sedimented mindsets only allows diseased thinking and attitudes to ferment and fester—and in the worst case, to quietly persist, until they kill. By refusing to engage with contentious topics, you refuse to critically interrogate and expand your own thinking. In any case, discussion shouldn’t be about mere intellectual display or imposition. It’s not meant to complicate, but hopefully to clarify matters presented to the understanding.
We read or tell stories to make sense of ourselves and the world, to make sense of our place in the world–What is it all for? What may I reasonably expect? How do I react to situations? How should I relate to other people? Stories help us interrogate the things that we usually take for granted, or that we “automatically” take as truth, but which are actually functions of the way we have been socialized. Stories behoove us to go beyond our subjectivity–our own limited vision, worldview, past, and conditions–by presenting things in a different light or from another perspective, and offering experiences we may not otherwise encounter, thus fostering open-mindedness and empathy.
Last week, I discussed Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” with my Intro to Lit class. It was this story that introduced me to Le Guin, and eventually led me to write my thesis on her work. What I like about Le Guin aside from her elegant, affecting prose style, is her engagement with real-world, human concerns, philosophical problems and political struggles, even as she transplants them into imagined universes or non-human entities. The story of Omelas—a utopian society—presents an ethical conundrum: if the joy, wellbeing, and safety of the entire community depended on the utter privation and misery of one child, would the members of that society be justified in accepting and keeping this system—to sacrifice the happiness of one for that of thousands, as it were?
The story is subtitled “Variations on a theme by William James,” the American psychologist and philosopher. In “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” James asserts the impossibility of the moral philosopher’s supposed task of formulating an ideal ethical system to constitute and govern a moral community. Not only is the philosopher’s judgment of what is moral and ideal shaped by his own subjective experiences, beliefs, and values—and therefore may not be universalized—but also that the ethical philosophy of a community is unstable, constantly shifting according to the ethical choices each member of that community makes. Though individuals may have an innate moral sense, and a society a set of moral laws, people can still choose not to behave in accordance with their moral intuition or society’s rules.
The people of Omelas, however, are a fatalistic (or faithful) lot. They believe in the truth of the (seemingly supernatural) bargain, and in the necessity of the child’s subjugation that they may continue to live in their prosperous, happy way. And yet it is the full knowledge and acceptance of the bargain that lends pathos to what could otherwise be considered mindless happiness—they appreciate life, their relationships, and the world more deeply, because they know that they do not enjoy them without great cost. The child is a constant reminder that they are not free.
My students and I had different interpretations of the ones who walk away, the citizens who cannot stomach the system, and therefore decide to leave, quietly and on their own, the city of Omelas to venture into the dark unknown—to choose annihilation over complicity. What good is their leaving, I asked, when it will neither change the system nor liberate the child? Isn’t defection in this situation an act of selfishness or cowardice? On the contrary, some students said, their leaving is an act of selfless bravery—to silence the aberrant self so that civilization may go on is much like the child’s sacrifice. We had quite a lively discussion about it. The story saddened them, they said, but they liked it.
Thanks to the gloomy weather and some psychosomatic distress, I finished reading David Lodge’s novel Thinks…, about a philandering cognitive scientist and a widowed novelist negotiating their differing opinions about the nature of consciousness and related concepts (the self, reality, perception, qualia, language, metaphysics, etc.), as well as their illicit attraction to each other. The prose and story are rather dry (I found the plot banal and, for Lodge, relatively humorless), but the novel sometimes reads like an introduction to the philosophy of mind, and proves riveting on the level of ideas. If I had all the time in the world, I’d study the philosophies of mind and language and the insights they present about subjectivity and consciousness, and relate them to literature. They say “qualia”—the particular quality of our subjective experiences of the world—remain a mystery to cognitive scientists, who have not come up with a sufficient scientific narrative to account for such phenomena. Was it Nagel who originated the idea that our experience of the world cannot be divorced from the way we are? Like, no matter how much knowledge we accumulate about a bat’s biological systems and instincts, we can never know how it is to be a bat, because we are constituted differently. And it’s not just a biological, species thing. No matter how much I think I “know” another person, I can never know how s/he experiences the world, because one’s perceptions are filtered by one’s subjectivity, which another does not have access to. In that sense, I cannot really know anyone.
And yet it is the nature—no, not the nature, but the qualities—of subjectivity and consciousness that contemporary literature (like all the other arts, I suppose) takes as its central “problem,” doesn’t it? Literary texts as thought problems—how are we constituted, why do we act the way we do, what reactions may we be expected to present in the face of certain situations—leading to insight about human nature. The “knowledge” literature offers may not be considered “real” (because it is not scientific), yet it loses none of its value for that.
A literary exercise in the representation of qualia:
The folds of her flesh disgust her. The paunch protruding beneath her heavy breasts and the rippling blubber of her thighs, the sad, sagging flaps of her upper arms—she has stopped looking into mirrors because she is mortified at the sight of her body. She can no longer look herself in the eye when she says, today I will bike for five miles, because she knows she won’t. There will be emails to send (there are always emails to send), documents to file, reports to write, and sleep debt to pay. The rain falls heavy in the mornings and evenings to and from work, and the bed calls out to her, to unfurl the sheets and lie down, down. It’s a feat to refuse what comes so easily. The crispy fried chicken wings and mashed potatoes over the brown rice with sautéed mushrooms and broccoli to save a buck and a half, the mugs of sweet coffee and cookies to power through sleepless nights slogging over some freelance assignment or other, the after-dinner drinks and grub because it would be unsociable to say “no.” She used to be so good at contest, so adept at projecting implacability, but she has grown soft, soft as the pillow of fat announcing her belly.
I think about the kind of narratives we tell ourselves, and our tendency to take subjective experience for objective truth.