BWBC 28: This and That

Albert Kahn photo from 1914

There’s a lot going on in the world and every week it feels like there’s more of it. 

Sometimes I feel like it may not the best time to ramble about fiction. But, we’re all leaning into self-care, and some more than others. Putting out these (near-) weekly blog post makes me feel some accomplishment. Is it selfish of me to foist that upon you? Maybe. Certainly I think so in the gloom of whatever negativity gets its clutches on me, but at those times I know better than to trust my thoughts or take them seriously. If I did I know I’d be more miserable.

This week we have two stories, both classics but one more so than the other.

First up, the lesser classic: 

“The Bureau d’Exchange de Maux” by Edward Plunkett Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany AKA Lord Dunsany 

This one felt like a Twilight Zone episode, and who knows, maybe it is. 

Somewhere on a shady street in Paris there is a store and in that store sits the most evil man. This man operates a peculiar sort of stock exchange where one person can exchange their evil for another’s. Too many children got you down? Why not exchange that with someone who’s down because they have none? Fear losing all your money? Why not exchange that fear with someone who fears making more money? 

People come to the exchange pay their dues, and the evil man matches clients together. The narrator has stumbled into the place and at first is an observer. But after awhile the concept of the place pulls him in. He wants to know how it works and decides to test the place by getting rid of some inconsequential evil, his fear of boats. He exchanges this with a man who’s afraid of elevators and the narrator goes away thinking he got the better of the deal. Of course when he gets back to the hotel, his new fear hits him hard and he realizes he’s doomed himself to a life of always taking the stairs. The next day he goes back to the Bureau to see if he can cancel the exchange, but when he reaches the street the store’s not there. It’s like it never existed at all. The end. 

I won’t lie. I like Lord Dunsany, especially when he works in this contemporary weird mode, as opposed to his mythic Orientalist. You can give it a read here.  

Next is our classic story, a philosophical tale that I’m sure you all know.

“Those Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin

I will confess that at uncharitable moments I’ve viewed this story as “The Cold Equations” for the woke. If you’re not familiar with “The Cold Equations”, you can read the Wikipedia page here. It’s the type of story lauded for its adherence to a grim hard techno-objectivism and is as contrived as any other moral fairy tale. Omelas has some of that, except Le Guin’s more honest in what she’s doing. She tells us at the start that she isn’t writing a story, but writing a thought experiment dressed up as a story. And as the one in charge of the experiment she is tilting the field against us, the reader. 

Omelas is a beautiful place and we come to it on the first day of its summer festival. In every way it is utopian and delightful with Le Guin pointing out that it has none of the usual utopian corniness. And so paragraph after paragraph we wander Omelas and admire all that it offers and we see the games and delights, and Le Guin lets us enjoy all that, until she decides that Omelas needs a taint for us to believe it is real. And the taint is where the moral puzzle rests. 

In some building’s dark basement there is a child who lives abused and uncared for. All adults in Omelas know the child is there and all know if the child wasn’t there the utopia could not exist, and if it wasn’t this child it would likely have to be another, possibly even one of the beautiful ones we saw in the earlier paragraphs. Everyone knows the child is there. But some, those who walk away, see the child and can’t afterwards return to their idyllic existence in Omelas. In time they abandon utopia and leave to find a better place.

Unlike “The Cold Equations”, Le Guin doesn’t present her moral puzzle as a story. (Nor is she working with an editor that seems particularly set on having the sentimental teenage girl die.) Le Guin builds her moral puzzle in every paragraph, putting the pieces together just so. It’s a good read and a testament to Le Guin’s craft. When we get to the dark basement, she depicts the taint in Omelas in very clear terms. There is no way to negotiate with this evil. It simply is. And Le Guin gives us only two potential outs: do we live in Omelas, enjoying all it has to offer while knowing the only way it can exist is by gross cruelty or do we abandon it and walk away?

Most everyone likes to think they would walk away from Omelas, but would you still, if it meant you’d likely die from starvation on some mountain slope? Le Guin leaves unsaid any mention of the walkers’ fate. She doesn’t tell us there’s a better place, only that there’s a place more unimaginable than Omelas, and it’s one she can’t describe. My take is that those who walk away from Omelas die, but their rejection of Omelas is what makes that place change. 

But here I am negotiating with a contrived moral puzzle. The most interesting moral puzzle is how to live when every place is Omelas, only of a differing shades. In that situation is it even possible to walk away?

Put your solution in the comments below. 

Next week? 

Everyone’s favorite two-fisted pulp action superstar: Franz Kafka! 

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