Sunday, July 22, 2012

Never Let Me Go was devastating, and wonderful

Some ponderings.


(This post is on the film, not the book – I haven't yet had the pleasure of reading any of Kazuo Ishiguro's work. That should be fixed. Also, spoilers throughout. You probably don't want to read this unless you're already familiar with the story's plot.)

I watched this quietly, with headphones, on my own. Wow, what a film. It started out soft, slow, and understated, but I was a blubbering mess by the end. My first words, much to my roommate's mixed amusement and concern, were “auuuuuggghhhh! That was so teeerrrible!! And soo gooooood!” (as I honked my nose into a tissue). Carey Mulligan, especially, deserves recognition here for an astounding performance.

In the end, what makes Never Let Me Go quality science fiction is that it's far more than just a meditation on the injustice of a hypothetical society where human clones are raised and then killed for their vital organs. It seems to be saying something about all humanity, in general.

The story shows us that not only are Kathy, Ruth and Tommy truly human, but that, in a sense, they transcend the humanity of the people whose organs they were created to replace. They were not created with expectations of virtue. They were not created to be held accountable for the moral worth of their actions. How easy it would be, placed in that situation, for a person to become consumed by bitterness, despair, and hatred. They were created for the specific purpose of being used. They are victim to the ugliest kind of objectification imaginable. Society tells them that their only value lies in what their bodies can do. It has no place for their souls; it has no place for them as persons. What keeps them from letting everything go and sinking into moral depravity?

Near the beginning of the film, a teacher at Hailsham boarding school is moved to speak to her students frankly about the reality of their situation. (She is later fired for doing so.) “You have to know who you are, and what you are,” she says. “It's the only way to lead decent lives.”

Over the course of the film, our three protagonists do just that. They claim personhood for themselves, even though society will not grant it to them. But they also claim all the responsibility that comes along with personhood – the responsibility that this dystopian society has forgotten. They realize that being human comes with privileges and pleasures - such as the ability to foster dreams and fall in love – but that such privileges are meaningless unless accompanied by human decency. They know that where there is the ability to love, love becomes a responsibility.

And so they love: Tommy retains his sweet, considerate spirit. Ruth strives to right a serious wrong as she draws near to death; Kathy patiently forgives her. Kathy spends years of her life caring for declining donors, and, at the end of the film, having lost both her best friend and her lover, she accepts her own impending death-by-gradual-dissection with more grace and maturity than many people would accept a traffic jam, or a canceled TV program.

The great irony of the film lies in the fact that a scientifically advanced society, sick of disease and hungry for immortality, seeks perpetual health through the suffering and death of others. They want to achieve a kind of super-humanity, and yet they try to achieve it through a means so barbaric that it debases them.

And now consider this, a common theme that runs through all of Scripture and the writings of the saints, and has been resounded by a million other great minds throughout history besides: that suffering makes a person richer, wiser, stronger, more beautiful. Just as gold is refined through fire, the human person can only be brought to fullness and perfection through trial. In Never Let Me Go, supposedly sub-human clones accept the suffering that the “normal” humans of society have rejected. In doing so, they are the ones who become heroes; they truly become, in a sense, superhuman.

It is unclear what our characters (or even Ishiguro) might believe in regards to an afterlife. This tragic story could easily be redeemed by a reference to the heavenly home waiting for such tortured souls. But I think that this story is less about faith, and more about the choices that we make when faced with darkness and doubt. Will I give up, and live as though nothing matters? Or will I live beautifully, giving Beauty the benefit of the doubt?

Faced by the brevity of their lives, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy see the preciousness of time all the clearer. They strive to live well within the present moment – which, in the end, is all that any of us really have – and in doing so, they sanctify it.

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