One of the founding myths of contemporary intellectual culture is the idea that, denied the consolation of religion and confronted by a universe both devoid of meaning and over-burdened with choices, humanity now finds itself in a world that has become disenchanted. As Max Weber puts it:
The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ”disenchantment of the world.” Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental.
The term ‘disenchantment of the world’ is not in fact Weber’s but that of Friedrich Schiller whose critical writings — including Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) — can be seen as attempts to come to terms with his feeling of being somehow out of step with the world and more in tune with the by-gone age of classical Greece. An age which:
Displaced humanity, and recast it on a magnified scale in the glorious circle of its gods; but it did this not by dissecting human nature, but by giving it fresh combinations, for the whole of human nature was represented in each of the gods.
With characteristic insight, Gabriel Josipovici suggests in Whatever Happened to Modernism? (2010) that this sense of displacement flows not from a fundamental change in the nature of the world or of man’s relation to it, but from a sense of romantic nostalgia.
This sense of somehow having arrived too late, of having lost for ever something that was once a common possession, is a, if not the, key Romantic concern.
This sense of detachment from the world and yearning after a time when life had meaning is elegantly articulated by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s new book All Things Shining – Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (2011). In an early chapter, Dreyfus and Kelly compare the affairs of Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857)) with the adulterous affair of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini in Dante’s Inferno. Whereas Flaubert depicts Emma’s betrayal of her witless husband in a way that can continue to command our sympathies, Dante depicts adultery as a form of moral incontinence:
The medieval couple knew that it was wrong to engage in an adulterous affair – there was no question about it; unfortunately, they couldn’t resist the sinful passion of lust.
The medieval couple lived their lives within religion’s enchanted bubble of certainty and, as a result, they knew that they were doing wrong whereas Charles and Emma Bovary, living in the modern disenchanted world, lack a basic moral infrastructure. In fact, despite her shallow tastes, emotional remoteness and infidelity, Charles comes to the point of admiring his unfaithful wife for her betrayal.
Dreyfus and Kelly’s account of Dante’s psychology is above reproach. It is lucid. It is elegant. It is comprehensive. However, the psychological model underpinning Dante’s characterisation is profoundly alien to our modern eyes. If Paolo and Francesca were so sure as to the ‘right thing’ to do, why did they act otherwise? And, more importantly, how did they act otherwise? Dreyfus and Kelly speak of the couple as suffering from what ancient philosophers called akrasia or weakness of the will, but they do not delve deeply into the psychology of akrasia and the ways in which a mindset characterised by moral certainty and a tendency to akrasia might differ from a modern one. Indeed, as modern disenchanted readers we find it easy to empathise with Charles Bovary’s refusal to condemn his wife because, like him, we have trouble choosing which moral framework to apply to her actions. Should we judge her by the standards of Christianity? Or should we be understanding of the fact that she was trapped in a loveless marriage to a dull and unambitious man? This inability to choose between frameworks is, according to Dreyfus and Kelly, the defining characteristic of our modern disenchanted state:
This sense of certainty is rare in the contemporary world. Indeed, modern life can seem to be defined by its opposite. An unrelenting flow of choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and most of us could admit to find ourselves at least occasionally wavering.
But what is this “wavering” if not akrasia repackaged in existentialist livery? Dante may claim that Paolo and Francesca knew that they were doing wrong but their actions suggest a degree of uncertainty as to whether or not ‘the right thing to do’ was actually the right thing to do in that particular situation. It is my contention that, far from being a modern invention, existential anguish and lack of certainty are fundamental to the human condition. They are necessary by-products of the way in which human consciousness engages with the world. As John Gray puts it in Straw Dogs (2002):
When we are on the point of acting, we cannot predict what we are about to do. Yet when we look back we may see our decision as a step on a path on which we were already bound. We see our thoughts sometimes as events that happen to us, and sometimes as our acts. Our feeling of freedom comes about through switching between these two angles of vision. Free will is a trick of perspective.
While we may not possess free will, our consciousness is such that we cannot help but see ourselves as free. This perception of limitless freedom and responsibility for making choices creates a sense of existential vertigo as we struggle to come to terms with the fact that we could have acted differently and yet did not. This sense of existential vertigo is omnipresent in contemporary intellectual culture because all systems of value are now open to scrutiny, but even if our culture did not tolerate dissent or ‘shopping around’ for values, we would still feel that lack of certainty. We would still feel that lack of meaning. We would still desperately try to latch on to any system that would help our conscious minds make sense of our actions.
Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) explores both the universality of existential anguish and the universality of the need for consolatory myths. Deploying science fictional tropes to create a world in which people’s lives have both a meaning and a purpose, Never Let Me Go suggests that the lost certainty lamented by Romantics is nothing more than another myth concocted as a remedy to our innate sense of alienation from the world.
Never Let Me Go is set in an alternate version of Britain where human cloning has come to form an integral part of healthcare provision. However, while this strategic decision to embrace cloning has resulted in an impressive extension of human lifespans it has also lead to the creation of a vast underclass of humans created to serve as living organ banks.
The first half of the film takes place in and around an institution referred to as Hailsham. Hailsham presents itself as a traditional British boarding school complete with neat grey uniforms, spartan dormitories, field sports and singing at assembly. However, much like the allegorical school of womanhood in Lucille Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004), Hailsham’s lessons are somewhat unusual. Indeed, rather than learning maths and English, the children at Hailsham split their time between sport, art and roleplaying. Though clearly being instructed according to some plan, the students are manifestly not being prepared for positions in human society. Initially we are not told what this position is but then a teacher (who is immediately dismissed for her crimes) spells it out: these children have been bred to serve as organ donors. Upon reaching adulthood, they will have their vital organs harvested one at a time until their bodies can no longer sustain themselves and they die. This is their purpose in life. Their ‘schooling’ is simply preparation for a life in which they will be expected to keep themselves healthy and occasionally interact with ‘real’ humans. Their lives, though short and brutal, will have meaning. They are expected to become ‘good donors’ who will stay alive long enough to allow multiple harvestings or ‘good carers’ who will spend years helping their fellow clones to cope with the donation process before eventually becoming donors themselves. While the film mentions debates as to the morality of cloning, it is made abundantly clear that these debates are all in the past. The clones simply do not have any choice in the matter, their lives are planned out and the moral values governing their existence are absolute. Like medieval peasants, the clones live within the comforting embrace of certainty. Indeed, some clones do seem to gain a degree of consolation from this certainty.
And yet… despite their lives having meaning and their choices enjoying a sense of certainty that is, according to Dreyfus and Kelly, so rare in the modern world, the clones still create and seek out new myths. Myths that deprive them of certainty whilst offering little in the way of consolation. Myths born of that sense of existential vertigo that is part of what makes us human.
The capacity of the clones to create their own myths is established in an early scene when a ball is hit over the school fence. Puzzled by their refusal to climb over such a small fence, an observer asks the children why they did not retrieve the ball. To this, the students reply that they have heard rumours of children who hopped the fence only to be brutally murdered or allowed to starve to death. When questioned as to where they might have heard these things, the kids respond that everyone knows them to be true.
These myths initially serve to fill in the gaps in the children’s understanding of the world. For example, while they know that they are not allowed to leave school grounds, they do not know why and so, in order to justify their obedience to the rules, they invent plausible myths that explain their actions and make sense of the world. Similarly, when a French lady appears and begins to collect up the children’s artwork in order to put it in a gallery, the kids begin to speculate as to what the purpose of this gallery might be. As the kids get older and come to know more about their place in the world, the need to create myths in order to make sense of the world recedes but the need to create myths remains. Indeed, the gallery serves as a sort of transition point between different forms of mything.
Never Let Me Go follows three clones from childhood to their donations (‘completion’ in the film’s euphemistic language). The film’s main protagonist is Kathy H (Carey Mulligan), a character who is socially withdrawn, intuitive and intelligent. These qualities make her the ideal vantage point from which to look into the world of the clones. Her status as a social outsider provides her with a sense of detachment that mirrors our own while her analytical personality provides us with insight into both the nature of the clones’ existence and how it feels to be a clone. As our viewpoint character, Kathy also commands our sympathies, especially when she is dealing with the far less self-aware but far more extroverted Ruth (Keira Knightley). Initially presenting itself as friendship, Ruth and Kathy’s relationship more closely resembles the elegant tortoise and hare taxonomy explored by Anita Brookner in Hotel du Lac (1985). More confident, more out-going and fundamentally more interested in the social world, Ruth comes to use Kathy as a means of grounding her fragile sense of self. When Kathy falls in love with Tommy, Ruth seduces him out of jealousy. When Tommy turns to Kathy in order to share his innermost thoughts, Ruth suggests that Tommy was secretly mocking her all along. When Kathy expresses puzzlement at Ruth’s tendency to imitate characters she sees on TV, Ruth suggests that it is Kathy who has it all wrong and that it is Kathy who is lacking in basic humanity. Ruth is a person who needs both an audience and a fall guy and Kathy seems only too happy to play both roles.
While Never Let Me Go is a film that examines the large-scale question of man’s sense of place in the universe, its dramatic currency is human relationships and the ups and downs in the clones’ relationships provide the film with most of its plot. However, despite depicting a society in which human beings are farmed for their organs and where love affairs are doomed from the start, Never Let Me Go never allows itself to tip over into melodrama. Shot with a muted palate and frequently featuring wintry beaches and out-of-season seaside towns, the film’s dulled visuals reflect an unspoken acceptance on the part of the clones that one should not rage against the injustices of the world… Moments of terrifying mental cruelty are met with solitary tears catching the light as they slide down cheeks. Tantrums invariably take place off-screen but are overheard through walls and car doors that muffle the sound but do little to blot out the anger. Death is met not with defiance but with packets of chocolate biscuits. In this respect, Never Let Me Go provides an interesting stylistic counterpoint to Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love (2009).
Indeed, while both films deal in melodramatic subject matter, Guadagnino’s film draws much of its power from his willingness to allow love to reshape the characters’ worlds moving them from the dark and claustrophobic interiors of a house built on a loveless marriage to the sun-drenched blissed-out wonder of a day spent in the arms of a loved one. Both Never Let Me Go and I Am Love operate within the same stylistic and thematic register, but Never Let Me Go works against the grain. Its muted visuals suggest that, far from being a force in the world, tragic love and soulful suffering are things that simply do not matter. They are just ways of passing the time as we wait for death.
At Hailsham, the children are encouraged to collect tokens that can be exchanged for goods every time the school gets a delivery. Presented by the staff as mana from heaven, these goods are little more than old cast-off toys, clothes and pieces of technology no doubt collected by various charitable bodies for the sake of the children. However, despite the objects having no real value, the children whip themselves into a frenzy at the thought of getting their hands on them. A delicious parody of our consumerist excesses, this process of token collection is but one of the ways in which the clones amuse themselves given that they do not work, or study, or do anything aside from hanging around and waiting to be harvested.
One of the best scenes in the film occurs when the three Hailsham students arrive at the cottages they live in as young adults. Confronted with an American sitcom filled with terrible one-liners and canned laughter, the Hailsham kids are clearly puzzled. What purpose does this thing serve? Then, as the older couples begin the laugh and snuggle together as they watch, the Hailsham kids start to do likewise. Evidently, laughing at rubbish TV is the done thing. It is how you pass the time before death.
Between collecting tokens, watching TV and taking inane day trips to horrible seaside towns, the clones engage in relationships as a way of passing the time until they are sent off to live in cities where they will wait to be harvested. Just as the ins and outs of these relationships dominate the plot, so too do they come to dominate the lives of the clones. In fact, these relationships even come to take on a distinctly religious quality as myths start to form around the idea that a couple that is truly in love might be allowed to defer their first donations in order to spend more time together. Much like the rumours of brutal murder that kept the children away from the fences at Hailsham, these myths come from nowhere and yet find purchase in the minds of clones facing donation. That such myths arise in the first place is not particularly surprising given the doomed nature of a clone’s existence. What is surprising is the way in which the clones engage with these myths.
When the idea of a deferral is first introduced, it is done so by an older couple who claim that a couple from Hailsham had managed to secure a deferral by proving that they were in love. However, given that they come from Hailsham and have never heard any talk of deferrals, the Hailsham kids never quite buy into the myth. Tommy prides himself on being a ‘good donor’ and Kathy prides herself on being a ‘good carer’. Despite the wretchedness of their existence, both clones have found peace in the moral code handed down to them by a (presumably) governmental administration that is just as conspicuous by its absence as God. However, when Ruth hands Kathy an address and suggests that she and Tommy were always in love, Kathy and Tommy sacrifice their certainty for the myth of a deferral. When they are told that no such system exists, Tommy throws the first tantrum he has thrown since childhood. Despite having certainty and happiness living the life of a clone, he threw it all away for a myth and now he has nothing. Kathy, on the other hand, is far more accepting. The film ends with her about to start her own donations. Looking out over a field, she imagines what it would be like if Tommy were to appear and walk towards her. But she knows that this is a fantasy and that such fantasies are dangerous and so she only thinks about it for a little bit.
By using such science fictional tropes as clones and alternative histories, Never Let Me Go constructs a universe with all the moral certainty of medieval Europe. The lives of Tommy and Kathy have meaning and this meaning is not only obvious to them, it also provides them with a good deal of consolation in the face of a level of institutionalised cruelty that would humble the Nazis (Kathy’s role as a carer is eerily reminiscent of that of the infamous Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners who aided the killing process during the Holocaust). However, despite possessing a level of moral certainty that is pretty much non-existent in our culture, the pair follow Paolo and Francesca in failing to do the right thing. The question we must ask of Ishiguro is the same we have to ask of Dante: Why?
Canto V of the Inferno describes the lustful lovers as “the sinners who make their reason/Bond thrall under the yoke of their lust”. Victims of the so-called Sin of the Leopard, Paolo and Francesca are presented as weak and morally incontinent but where does this weakness lie? Tommy and Kathy do not simply fall into self-deception, they actively embrace it. They will themselves to believe in the possibility of deferrals despite suspecting that it is nothing but an empty promise and when the emptiness of this promise reveals itself in full both Tommy and Kathy express their anger at themselves. Tommy rages at the night and Kathy simply steps back and warns herself that too much fantasy is a bad thing. The weakness of Paolo and Francesca as well as Tommy and Kathy lies in a moment of terrible freedom. Knowing full well what the correct path of action is supposed to be, the couples experience a terrible sense of vertigo at the prospect of their own freedom. Looking forward they cannot predict how they will act and, looking back, they realise that they could have acted otherwise and so, the carefully crafted certainty of their moral universe shatters beneath the hammer blow of human cognition. Even when we know with absolute certainty what it is that we should do, we cannot help but feel the terrible freedom that comes from the impression that we could have acted otherwise.
There has never been a golden age in which humanity had a place in the world. There has never been a time when human life had meaning. Our modern lives are filled with choices and temptations but even if our culture forbade all but a single path through life we would still feel horribly uncertain and terrifyingly free.