In her brief and rather notorious story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin describes a beautiful, flourishing city that depends for its wealth and stability on the torture of a child. Everyone who lives in Omelas understands this cost, and some, unable to accept it, leave.
“Omelas” is a useful fable for understanding the ambient feeling of complicity we all have from time to time when we look out at the bewildering array of systems that (if we’re lucky) bring us convenience and prosperity but often bring others misery. Indeed, it’s not hard for me to rattle off a list of things that make my life slightly easier that make the lives of others substantially worse, right down to the computer I’m typing on. I remember that around 2010, when I read about the suicides taking place at factories making iPhones, I resolved that adopting new technologies probably wasn’t worth the moral cost. But by 2012 I owned an iPhone and a few years later a MacBook Air—because it was inconvenient not to. So much for my high-mindedness.
Of course, if I insisted on writing everything on a typewriter—keeping a perfectly good machine out of a landfill and not sending more money to Apple than I already have—and conducting all business through the post office, that would inconvenience people and have all manner of negative effects too. Perhaps the only way fully to “walk away” is to go off the grid and adopt some sort of zero-waste, zero-footprint lifestyle. Yet even then what good would I have really done? I would have purified myself, which is perhaps all anyone can reasonably expect to do. Or maybe not—after all, working in a factory making iPhones might not be my idea of a dream career, but isn’t it putting food on the table for the people who do it?
Thus “Omelas” says: You can individually “walk away” or you can accept that living in society comes with dirty hands. Faced with the dizzying degree of our interdependence, almost all of us accept the second option. Still, something about the story, this morality problem, bothers me. Why, of all the people who leave, have none of the ones who walked away from Omelas ever made the decision to carry off the child?
In her new nonfiction book The Second Body, Daisy Hildyard, a novelist with a background in the history of science, offers a fable of her own: Suppose everyone has two bodies, one being the body of his or her individual experience—this body, with its fingers, toes, interior life, and cheeseburger consumption—and the other being the body formed by the first body’s global interactions—the cows and the farmers that bring the cheeseburger, the workers who make our clothes, the trees cut down to make our buildings and paper. “Every living thing,” she writes,
has two bodies these days—you are flying into the atmosphere and back down to the ground right now, but you can’t feel it. You breathe something in, and what you breathe out is something else. . . . This second body is your own literal and physical biological existence—it is a version of you. It is not a concept, it is your own body. . . . Personally, I do not always find it easy to believe that I have two bodies.
Hildyard is committed to following where the second body will take her, but more often than not she reaches interesting dead ends. She interviews various people whose jobs involve nonhuman life—from a butcher to various scientists—and asks them questions about their work and how they think about living organisms. These conversations often conclude with her recognizing that she started in the wrong place, as when she tries to pry from a researcher some insight into genetics but instead is led to think about communication and imagination. Of another of her interviewees, Hildyard writes that “he spoke of learning as a process of realising his own mistakes.” The same could be said of Hildyard’s overall method in The Second Body.
Another way of understanding Hildyard’s project is that she wants to find some way of describing human actions and their effects that involves individuals but isn’t about them. She reads books on animal behavior and tries to apply the terms and categories of ethology to her friends. She also looks for patterns of behavior in literature. “When Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear die,” she notes dryly, “in spite of their nobility, they act like animals: they repeat themselves increasingly until they make funny sounds.”
Hildyard’s approach can sometimes lead to conclusions that feel a bit precious. In 600 years, according to one of her interviewees, people won’t really care if you were kind, if you helped others, fell in love, achieved your dreams or failed at them. The only legacy you’ll leave that will really affect them is whether or not you drove a car. What you did with that car will hardly matter. This brings to mind an essay I once read that stated:
‘What will survive of us is love,’ wrote Philip Larkin. Wrong. What will survive of us is plastic.
Of course, when we look back 600 years, we are interested not just in the detritus but by the things people did. It is hard to imagine the same won’t be true 600 years in the future. Then again, as somebody who sometimes is haunted by the idea of leaving in my wake a trail of plastic takeout containers, empty wine bottles, and angry chicken ghosts, I can’t say I don’t get it.
The real value of Hildyard’s second body approach is in rendering humans natural organisms by making us slightly uncanny. This is achieved in a variety of ways, perhaps most powerfully when Hildyard thinks about the effect of a massive flood of her own home, imagining the ways in which her house has become something for water to fill and creatures to explore. When the water level falls sufficiently that she can move back in, she finds the house is still not quite hers, in part because the flood caused her to consider the degree to which her house wasn’t entirely her own deliberate arrangement. (She imagines the teaspoons in their drawers slowly being picked up by the water and then pauses to note she has never consciously bought a teaspoon.)
Even without something as cataclysmic as a flood, this is still my own reaction when a living thing moves into my home uninvited. For a mouse, nothing in my apartment is what it is to me, except the food; my books and clothes and furniture are all just objects to be used, lived in, or hidden behind. The mouse doesn’t even really recognize me, certainly not in the way that it recognizes my dog. Hildyard’s second body approach, by incorporating everything human-caused that might have led a mouse into my apartment, helps me see the ways in which we are parts of environments and ecosystems, not simply the managers of them or parasitic on them.
On the other hand, Hildyard’s second body often seems like a creation solely of our misdeeds and consumption, as if we are only interconnected via the ways we harm each other. The unavoidable implication is that it would be best if we each reduced our second body to the smallest body possible—something at odds with the themes of connection that run throughout the book. If putting a kettle on for tea is, as Hildyard says, an act of global significance, one would expect this to ripple out in ways good as well as bad.
The reason environmental problems tend to induce such despair in conscientious people is precisely because they don’t really bend much for individual virtue, and because the recommendations handed down often seem to be variations on ‘erase yourself.’
It is interesting, too, that the person in her book who deals most directly with the animal world is a butcher and not (for instance) an animal trainer. Notably, pets and working animals are almost entirely absent from this book—someone recounts a dream of being a pet fox, and Hildyard makes a reference to hamsters, but that’s it. Just as a mouse provokes me to see my home differently, so too does my dog, who doesn’t understand why a couch is a place to sit but a coffee table isn’t. Might our relationships with the animals closest to us—ancient relationships of work, play, and companionship in which humans and animals have adapted to one another—offer some sort of path forward? It’s hard to say. But since Hildyard opens with an anecdote about caring for a sick, wild pigeon and makes clear that she wants to figure out how to have that sort of concrete relationship with the whole world, pets do seem like one path worth exploring.
This is not a plea for a feel-good book, one that imagines that every individual pursuing his or her individual fulfillment will somehow produce for the world a harmonious and successful whole without anyone ever planning this end. The reason environmental problems tend to induce such despair in conscientious people is precisely because they don’t really bend much for individual virtue, and because the recommendations handed down often seem to be variations on “erase yourself”: Have one fewer child, or none; don’t drive a car, or travel. But I wonder if we can think about the world as something we are all responsible for without simply exalting our own guilt; if we can accept interdependence without believing it comes at the cost of striving for goodness.
Much like “Omelas,” The Second Body pushes me to ask why we can only tell a story about how human connection with each other and with the rest of the world inevitably involves cruelty and exploitation; one in which moral ground can only be sought through individual purity. No one takes the child because it would mean the end of Omelas, and ending Omelas would introduce the people in that shining city to the idea of guilt. No one who walks away has the idea that perhaps an altogether different kind of city could be built. They simply want to extract themselves.
But of course, we don’t really have the option of extracting ourselves. Even if you took up residence in a spaceship far away, the world would still be the world, and people would still be stuck working with and developing interdependence. And while Hildyard finds a beautiful image in the extreme interdependence of bacteria, which become “fatally dependent on their neighbours,” on the human level, it’s slightly harder to imagine what this might look like. (Not that we really understand what it looks like to bacteria either.)
Hildyard’s notion of the second body is a dramatic way of making big, systemic problems concrete: Here’s how you are involved, or might be involved, in each thing happening in the world, a kind of environmental Laplace’s demon. Perhaps, as she suggests, there is nothing that happens that you aren’t a part of. But if we are to see how we all need each other, we need a story that goes further than talking about how we harm each other. The idea of my second body is a useful provocation. But I wish it could have been more than that.