Friday, June 26, 2009

The Scapegoat in Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ursula K. Le Guin, and William James?

(Image from Wikipedia)

In re-reading Dostoyevsky's greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, I came upon the 'scapegoat' passage quoted below not long after reading of the character Ivan Karamazov describing cases of abuse practiced upon children -- including that of a very young child 'punished' by having excrement smeared upon its face and in its mouth and being locked in a privy, where she beats her fist against her breast and cries out to God for help -- and shortly before reading of Ivan recounting his story of "The Grand Inquisitor":
Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature -- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance -- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? (Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, New York: Vintage, 1950, translated by Constance Garnett, page 291)
Although the word "scapegoat" does not appear here (and indeed surfaces only once in my English copy, on page 780), I instantly knew from where Ursula K. Le Guin had drawn the inspiration for her short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," which tells of a utopia mysteriously founded upon the suffering of one innocent young victim locked in a dark basement closet where it sits in its own filth, a 'scapegoat' somehow necessary, metaphysically, to the perfect lives of all the inhabitants of the city Omelas (although her story does not use the term "scapegoat"):
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is.

The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes -- the child has no understanding of time or interval -- sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked; the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother's voice, sometimes speaks. "I will be good, " it says. "Please let me out. I will be good!" They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, "eh-haa, eh-haa," and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. 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, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, edited by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006, pages 21-212)
One of my students a couple of years ago wrote on this story and argued that it was perhaps a critique of Christianity, for the story takes the problem of evil and intensifies it by implying that the suffering of the scapegoat Jesus cannot be justified by the perfect world to come in the eschaton precisely because that suffering is innocent. The student pointed out, of course, that a significant difference between the two cases is that in the New Testament, Jesus is presented as a willing victim. The student didn't know of Le Guin's source in Dostoyevsky, but he could have cited the response of Ivan's brother Aloysha:
"Brother," said Aloysha suddenly, with flashing eyes, "you said just now, is there a being in the whole world who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? But there is a Being and He can forgive everything, all and for all, because He gave His innocent blood for all and everything. You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice, and it is to Him they cry aloud, 'Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed!'" (Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, page 292)
Aloysha's point is that the willing victim can forgive and therefore justify. That might simply kick the metaphysical can further down the road, but let me take this blog entry in another direction. When I decided to look into this point today, I discovered that some folks at Wikipedia have already noted the connection between Le Guin and Dostoyevsky, for in the entry on "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," an editor notes that Le Guin gave a hint in an interview in which she told of seeing a road sign for Salem, Oregon in a car mirror (from which came "Omelas"):
"[… People ask me] 'Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?' From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?" (X. J. Kennedy, An Introduction to Fiction, Longman, 2004, page 274)
I haven't yet found this interview online -- though I recall reading somewhere about the road sign. Perhaps a reader can supply some link.

The Wikipedia entry also led me to a passage in an essay by William James, "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life," which was originally an address to the Yale Philosophical Club but was published in the International Journal of Ethics in April 1891 (although, again, the term "scapegoat" is not used):
"[I]f the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, . . . [would we not] immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?"
One might imagine that James had read Dostoyevsky's novel, but a mere decade had passed since the novel's Russian publication in 1880, so this is unlikely. Besides, the problem of evil posed in terms of innocent suffering has been posed before, so the similarity of James and Dostoyevsky in these two passages should not surprise us.

But are the three writers even thinking of a scapegoat's role in the problem of evil since none of them identify the suffering innocent one as a scapegoat? This would require some reflection on the meaning of scapegoat, and now that I consider it, a scapegoat seems rather a different creature -- similar in bearing the 'sins and impurity' of others but not a condition upon which a utopia is to be founded, and not even Jesus would seem to have been portrayed as a scapegoat (for a sacrificial victim is different).

But enough of that. I'll just note in closing that while the strictly logical problem of evil has been answered -- in the sense that an all-powerful, benevolent, omniscient deity might have a good reason for allowing evil even if we human beings remain ignorant of that reason -- our moral revulsion at concrete instances of innocent suffering might give some of us reason to balk at the conditions for taking even the initial step of faith.

Perhaps that was why "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" walked away from Omelas.

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At 8:41 AM, Blogger Teacher Leo said...

This is a powerful piece of writing, and you have certainly managed to articulate some of my musings on this subject.
Of course, in its simplest form this argument is used to justify torture (with the assumption of guilt on the part of the victim of torture) - if by torturing one terrorist we could save a thousand lives, it is right and moral to do so.
My answer to this has always been that lives bought at such cost are no better than the life lost, for they have been infected by that brutality, that accountants way of thinking that says a life can be measured in worth or not.

At 9:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Teacher Leo, thank you for your kind words. I suspect that the "powerful writing" is mostly what I've quoted from Dostoyevsky, Le Guin, and James rather than what I myself have written.

I hadn't thought of the analogy to torture, but that's an interesting parallel to consider. Both cases seem to be based on an ends-justifies-means ethic.

Thanks for the visit.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A somewhat similar situation in described in the gospel of John:

Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, what do we? for this man doeth many miracles.

If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him; and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.

And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all,

Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.

And this spake he not of himself; but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation;

And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.
(John 11:47-52), KJV.

Of course, the Bible teaches that the death of Christ was prophesied throughout the Bible, depicting him as the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, and that whosoever believes in him would have eternal life.

A far cry from the events described in your blog.


At 9:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Right, Uncle Cran, a sacrificial lamb is not the same as a scapegoat.

Moreover, the New Testament portrays Jesus as a willing victim who can forgive his afflictors, which answers part of the critique -- as Dostoyevsky would also seem to accept (so I'm not sure that "far cry" is entirely apt).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was aware of both Dostoyevsky's and your comments.
What I had in mind is the student's comment of "...perhaps a critique of Christianity by implying that the suffering of the scapegoat Jesus cannot be justified by the perfect world precisely because that suffering is innocent."

I thought the quote from the gospel of John would shed light on the purpose of the death of Christ for the sins of the world.


At 10:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That was the student's understanding of what Le Guin might have meant, but the student (a Christian) then noted the crucial difference, i.e., that Jesus is portrayed as a willing victim.

Perhaps my recounting of the student's reasoning was not clear.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't have a link, but I think the mention by Le Guin of the Salem sign was in the literature textbook, along with the story, which I had to read for a college class.

Maybe it's time for a sequel to that story; it could be called "Acirema."


At 3:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Cynthia, is Acirema comparable to Omelas? I've been gone a long time now, but the place looks less and less 'utopian' to me (especially recently, with all the prominent shootings). My wife and kids will be visiting the Ozarks soon, for a month, and can report back to me.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:03 PM, Anonymous UnAcademian said...

The employment of the scapegoat concept in The Brothers Karamazov, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," and the writings of William James are all discussed by LeGuin herself in what I believe is a commemtary contained in a collection of her stories, entitled "The Wind's Twelve Quarters." The piece also appears in the college textbook "The Story and Its Writer" by Ann Charters.

At 5:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the sources. I wasn't aware of them.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:29 AM, Blogger Dan Biezad said...

The work of Rene Girard ("The Scapegoat") proposes the scapegoat as an element of human sacrificial rites common to all archaic cultures. I probably cannot adequately explain his theory called "mimetics" properly, but to Girard these sacrificial rites were essential to contain and to limit the inherent violence in every human culture. The New Testament Passion narrative is not only a sacrificial rite in this common tradition, but also is a negation of all other sacrificial rites and cultural myths (such as the Oedipus Myth). The victim is innocent and the punishment is misunderstood and unjust when the myth is exposed and properly understood. As Jesus said, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." And so, the proper responses to scapegoating--responses possibly essential to our survival according to Girard---are to expose it in any of its more modern forms, and then to forgive.

At 7:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Mr. Biezad, for the reminder.

Jeffery Hodges

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