Monday, February 21, 2011

A fixation that never lets go

I went to see the film Never Let Me Go a few days ago.  It's an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker-shortlisted novel of the same name, and tells the story of an alternate history of Britain, in which really only one solitary fact is different - namely that human cloning was developed in the 1950s, enabling scientists to bring children into the world for the sole purpose of harvesting their vital organs when they become adults.  Initially, no-one sees anything wrong with this, as the clones are not perceived as human.   By the time that crucial assumption no longer seems quite so well-founded, it's emotionally impossible for society to give up on the medical advances of the previous decades.  So nobody (including, crucially, the clones themselves) thinks too deeply about the ethical dilemmas, and the horror simply continues in a chillingly orderly fashion.

One thought that kept occurring to me as I was watching the film was that this blog's dearest chums - right-wing American "libertarians" - would probably imagine that they'd found something valuable in it to seize on for propaganda purposes.  With all the references to a "National Donor Programme", and the depiction of passive, indoctrinated victims calmly cooperating with their own slow-motion murders, it was bound to be just too tempting for some of our more excitable cousins to see the dark hand of European social democracy and our unspeakable "socialized health care system" at play in Ishiguro's vision.  And, sure enough, here's an excerpt from an article entitled 'Never Let Me Go: The Brave New World of National Socialized Medicine' -

 "In the new film Never Let Me Go, set at an eerie school in an alternate-reality England, a schoolmistress declares to her classroom of wide-eyed young charges: “The tide is not with forward thinking. It never is. No, the tide is with the entrenched mindset!” The children dutifully applaud.

It’s a marrow-chilling moment because the matter that has brought the educator (played by a devastatingly heartless Charlotte Rampling) to a venomous fury is any hint of “subversion,” as she calls it, that might undermine the school’s reason for existence. All of the children who study at the Hailsham school are clones, and they have no value except to become “donors” of vital organs — until, as young adults in their early twenties, they have no vital organs left. At this stage, they are told, their lives “will be complete.” The end...

In the scarily clinical language of Never Let Me Go, the place where you are required to go and give your life is a “completion center.” The policy of raising humans as though they were meat is, tidily, the “National Donor Program.” “Carers” are trusted but doomed individuals, themselves clones, who calmly lead others through the “donation” process, much like the Jewish “sonderkommandos” who were forced to aid Nazis in their death-camp atrocities.

If you had forgotten how much evil could be hidden behind such bland ideas, executed by such seemingly good-hearted people (a nurse at the “completion center” seems as personable as anyone you’re likely to meet in today’s health care maze), Never Let Me Go is a haunting, sometimes heartbreaking, reminder. In its quiet, literary way, it is bold enough to issue a challenge that we always call things by their proper names, and not accept the unacceptable simply because we are told that “science” or “progress” or “experts” deem that we must. As George Orwell put it, in “Politics and the English Language,” “political language … is designed to make laws sound truthful and murder respectable.” Of course politicians would rather say “consultations for end-of-life care” than “death panels.”"

I'm not sure the writer of this piece was entirely paying attention, because in fact Charlotte Rampling's character is actually one of the few people in the story - and this becomes even more clear in the novel - who does see something terribly wrong with what is happening, and to some extent tries to change it.  The authoritarian regime she presides over at the Hailsham school may be misguided (and in the book she ultimately concedes the possibility of that herself), but it comes about as a result of her attempts to square the impossible circle of, on the one hand, the authorities' insistence that the clones existed for one purpose only, and on the other, her own desire and that of her colleagues to at least provide the children with some kind of decent life within those terrifying confines.  A key part of her strategy is to 'shelter' the children from the full truth about their fate, and harmful though that may ultimately be in one sense, there certainly isn't the slightest hint in either the film or the novel that the many other clones brought up in much harsher conditions and confronted with the entire truth at an earlier stage are any more likely to rebel.  All of them are equally fixated with the idea of acting - as the last sentence of the novel drives home - just as they're "supposed to".  Never (or only once, very fleetingly) does it occur to them to question why they're supposed to be sacrificing their lives for others, or indeed why it should be for others to determine what they're supposed to be doing in the first place.

In truth, the real fascination of the story's premise is actually how deeply implausible it is.  Not because human beings aren't capable of collectively acting with such unimaginable selfishness and cruelty - there are plenty enough historical examples to leave us in no doubt on that score.  No, the logical problem with Never Let Me Go is that we're told at the end that virtually no-one is asking any questions about the morality of the 'donation programme' - and yet we know by then that the victims of that programme are at times allowed to move around in the outside world with a certain degree of freedom.  Driving cars, eating in motorway service stations, shopping at Woolworths.  In a nutshell, interacting with 'normal' people, and almost certainly 'connecting' with them occasionally.  The idea that it's possible in such a scenario that almost no-one at all would be grappling with their conscience doesn't ring true, and it doesn't tally with what history tells us either.  A crucial feature of the Holocaust, for instance, is that the civilian population of Germany were in the dark about exactly what was going on.  Many were content not to think about it too deeply, of course, but ultimately they didn't know, and that wasn't through chance.

I almost wonder if this implausibility serves a conscious purpose on the author's part - if we suspect that what we're dealing with must be an exaggerated form, or a kind of caricature, of something that might or already has happened, rather than something that could ever literally happen in precisely the way presented, it forces us to probe the moral questions more deeply and comprehensively.  Or at least it ought to, but that doesn't seem to be the case with this particular right-wing American reviewer.  There are a whole series of possible real-world concerns that Ishiguro could be interpreted as almost, but elusively not quite, getting at.  The treatment of the clones is eerily similar to our 'doublethink' in relation to animals, for instance - we adore them and value their lives in one context, but regard it as entirely appropriate to ruthlessly butcher and exploit them in another context.  Is that what we're meant to be thinking about?  A morality tale that specifically relates an example of man's inhumanity to man surely wouldn't have such a wide metaphorical locus.  Or could it be about what some people see as the industrial-scale 'murder' of unborn children and embryos?  A bit more convincing, but even if we were to accept for the sake of argument that such a 'crime' is happening, it's on a strictly 'out of sight, out of mind' basis, precisely the opposite of Ishiguro's premise.  Maybe we're being implored to think more carefully - as Margaret Atwood suggested in a review of the novel a few years ago - about the moral dilemmas raised by the new phenomenon of genetically-selected children being brought into the world to act as 'donors' for a sick sibling or another relative.  But these cases very rarely result in death or serious harm to the donor child, and certainly not intentionally.  And then there's what superficially seems like the most obvious explanation of all - that Ishiguro is warning about the potential consequences of medical advances yet to come.  But that doesn't entirely fit either - if anything, current advances in stem cell technology and regenerative medicine are moving us closer to the day when the concept of 'donation' (whether voluntary or compulsory) will either be rarer or completely redundant.

So in a sense Never Let Me Go is about all of these things and more, and yet simultaneously not really about any of them.  It's that enigma at the heart of the story-telling that actually makes it so disturbing and challenging, and trying to interpret it as a simplistic attack on "socialism" seems fairly risible.  What is unmistakable, though, is Ishiguro's exploration of the boundaries of what it means to be human, and the consequences for anyone who is considered less human, and less deserving than others.  Can American conservatives really consider themselves guilt-free on that score?  I'm not just talking about the historical legacy of slavery, but also its de facto modern reintroduction as a result of the mind-boggling rates of imprisonment, with over 1% of the adult population of the US being subject to total 'civic death' at any given time.  And that's before we even discuss the treatment of illegal immigrants - it seems for some, the meaning of being human is simply to have "the right papers".

Another fairly clear message of Ishiguro's novel is that the clones are so passive because they are desperately seeking what they've never had - approval and value in the eyes of others.  One of the main characters talks with pride about being "a good donor", for instance.  Well, it certainly struck me during my off/on debate with the American libertarians on gun rights that their individualist philisophy doesn't leave a lot of scope for meaningfully valuing the lives of others.  If you set foot on their property without permission, your life may well be instantly deemed forfeit.  You are at that moment - dare I say it - a bit less human than they are.

There's one other thing that popped into my head when I was watching the film.  One of the reasons you find yourself as a viewer being sucked into that fairly implausible world and believing in it is that, quite simply, you recognise it.  Strip away the little matter of the enforced organ donations, and what you're left with is the Britain we all grew up in, with the same fashions, technology, car number plates, etc, etc - there's no end of period detail.  It reminded me very much of the surreal experience of watching the infamous Protect and Survive series of public information films that were intended to be shown in the event of an imminent nuclear attack.  Although those films are part of our real and recent history, the 'narrative' of the voice-over relates to something unimaginably awful that never actually occurred. The utterly familiar and the terrifyingly alien holding hands, just as they do in Never Let Me Go. The similarity doesn't end there, though.  The language used in Protect and Survive seems primarily concerned with keeping people calm, obedient and above all else preoccupied while the impending horror unfolds - there's plenty of reference to 'normal-sounding' acts like "picking up a leaflet from your Post Office" and "helping your neighbours to put out a fire if you have time before the fallout warning".  A brazen attempt to normalise Armageddon, no less.  Now, just remind me - were right-wing militarists protesting against that deceit, or were they in fact its principal cheerleaders, in the name of 'defending freedom and democracy' at any price?  I'd suggest our American reviewer could urgently do with being reminded that the left have absolutely no monopoly on the Orwellian use of language.

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