“Our clear and simple language-games are not preparatory studies for a future regimentation of language—as it were first approximations, ignoring friction and air-resistance. The language-games are rather set up as objects of comparison which are meant to throw light on the facts of our language by way not only of similarities, but also of dissimilarities.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations I
“Homo sapiens, then, is neither a clearly defined species nor a substance; it is, rather, a machine or device for producing the recognition of the human…It is an optical machine constructed of a series of mirrors in which man, looking at himself, sees his own image always already deformed in the features of an ape.”
Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal
Humanism remains one of the few ideologies that appears to many like an unquestionable, natural phenomenon. Humanism depends on the category of the human, which in turn relies on disturbances along its fault lines to make shocking announcements of its presence. We cannot exactly draw these lines, but we feel them when the ground shakes. Mark Romanek’s movie, Never Let Me Go, presents such a seismic disturbance and it enhances the unquestionable naturalness of humanity by dissembling its questionable source beneath answers to other questions—all related to the nature of the human—that it poses retroactively. Busy seeking the questions to these answers, we more easily take for granted their precarious foundation.
From this perspective, the movie behaves a lot like Keira Knightley playing Ruth, beautiful and slight, creeping over us in the dark as we sit in bed, listening to the same tape of painfully sappy love songs, (“Darling, hold me, hold me, hold me, and never, never, never let me go…”) unsure of what they mean or why the tape was given to us. She and the movie hover before our faces and whisper terrible things, which we do not want to believe, until we cry. Romanek’s movie insists on answering our questions in this way, before we have even formed the question in our minds, whether we would have thought to ask for the answers or not. It’s a rhetorical effect, this insistent answering, that creates the illusion of anticipation, but the answering does as much work to cast the spectral form of the question in our minds as it does to respond to it. Accordingly, through the questions implied by the answers—implied like the suppressed subject, “You,” in the title—the movie draws out its moods.
One of the largest questions that the movie silently constructs asks whether our protagonists share humanity with the marginally represented people to whom they give their organs. Each critic who identifies this question tangles it in a web of other conditions and queries. For David Denby, “the central issues are: Are these kids human are not? Do they have souls?” And in Rogert Ebert’s estimation, “essentially it asks, how do you live with the knowledge that you are not considered a human being but simply a consumer resource?” Ebert goes on to consider that “if their masters can believe they can love, they would believe they are human. Two of the requirements for a being with a soul in Thomist philosophy are free will, and the ability to love.”
The movie intimates the question of the soul implicitly and explicitly numerous times. In the opening scene, the protagonist, Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), stands on one side of a pane of glass (an image repeated with Kathy and other characters throughout the movie) and watches a living body with a scar under his ribs—who we will later find out is named Tommy (Andrew Garfield)—get wheeled out for a medical procedure. In her soft-toned voiceover she soliloquizes, “We aren’t machines. In the end, it wears you down.” The line contains something of the irresoluteness that shrouds every answer in the movie. Kathy’s expression of weariness invokes Cartesian dualism, the controversial idea that among living things there are two types of substance: mechanical, material bodies that follow principles and immaterial souls that can act on bodies but are unprincipled and free. God crafted animals entirely out of the material, mechanical substance and set humans apart by giving them immaterial souls to pilot their material bodies. But trying to determine what is human and what is purely automata is just as fraught a question for Descartes as it is for our critics:
And yet what do I see from the window but hats and coats which may cover automatic machines? Yet I judge these to be men. And similarly solely by the faculty of judgment which rests in my mind, I comprehend that which I believed I saw with my eyes.
Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy
But when we look back at Kathy’s comment after seeing the entirety of the film, we have no reason to think she wants to call herself ensouled, or even human. We could just as easily take her phrase colloquially. She gets worn down and, despite what she says, so do machines.
The soul question continues throughout the movie. Tommy, Kathy, and Ruth all attend a school called Hailsham together. They go to class, play outside, and make art. In the scenes we witness, the children speculate about the purpose of “the gallery,” a place where, we suppose, the school displays their art. Kathy seems to fall in love with Tommy. Tommy gives Kathy a mixed tape and claims not to recognize any of the songs; rather, he got the tape for Kathy only because she has a tape player. Soon after, Ruth slips in and wins Tommy’s affections, leaving Kathy dejected and alone to make art inspired by her unrequited love. One day, they all learn that they are clones the school is raising for medical institutions, which will harvest their organs to help the sick and elderly until they die.
After they grow into young adulthood, the three of them move into a farmstead called “The Cottages,” where they smile at the gruff blue-collar men who bring them crates of food and refuse to acknowledge them emotionally. They learn of a rumor that if two clones can prove that they share true love, then the powers that be will grant them permission to defer their first organ “donation” for a couple of years. One day, when Tommy and Kathy go for a walk in the woods, Tommy considers the rumor: “That’s the whole thing about the art. It says what’s inside of you; it reveals your soul.” Unfortunately, Ruth and Tommy made very little art in their Hailsham days, so Tommy proposes that Kathy and he apply together. Kathy at first despises the idea and then later on accepts it after Tommy and Ruth (who is dying from a lack of organs) split up and Tommy claims he has loved Kathy all along. However, when the pair go to their old art teacher in hopes of applying for the deferral, they discover that the purpose of the gallery was not to reveal the contents of their souls, but rather to see if they had souls at all.
This moment, like others in Never Let Me Go, has the air of a revelation and none of the matter. It’s not so much that we have resolved the question of their having souls or not—we haven’t—instead we can only assume that society has deemed the question irrelevant, because they do not want to return to the “dark days” of disease.
And as for love, one of the Thomist conditions for having a soul, Tommy’s love for Kathy is, for some reason, one of the least questioned and conversely most questionable aspects of the movie. After Tommy and Ruth have both given away a few organs and Kathy has become a Carer (the name for a clone who defers their organ donations in order to attend to the emotional needs of their fellow clones as the doctors harvest their bodies) Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy sit on a beach and Ruth confesses that she never truly loved Tommy the way Kathy did. She seduced Tommy because she did not want to be alone. Ruth and Tommy had real love and she was envious. She deeply regrets what she did and attempts to apologize. But the deep elision in this scene is that there is no dependable evidence that Tommy ever held true feelings of love for Kathy. If he did, how was Ruth able to maintain his affections for so long? Does he not have a mind of his own? Just like the tape he gives Kathy, is he merely the degraded copy of what was once a voice bearing true emotions, barely conscious of his implied listener? And again we return to the question: does he have a soul? All we have left for him is a weak sense of his will to live, but that does not prove his humanity. Throw a rock at a lizard and it will scurry away. Swat a fly against a wall and it may continue to twitch its limbs. The character of his affection and the presence of a soul are implicated in the same shadowy inscrutability. What could Tommy possibly say to us now? What strange drawings of elephants, invoking memory and mourning, could he produce to prove his love and his humanity?
Moreover, why do reviewers like Ebert not notice the questionability of his love for Kathy? One reason may be that the movie immerses us in the yearning and, for some, the resentment that Kathy feels. We cannot help but sense that Kathy should be with Tommy, because we align with her. Not only is she the story-teller, our portal into the world, but she also frequently participates in voyeurism, our constant activity as audience members. Reminiscent of a primal scene, Kathy sees Ruth and Tommy having sex and desires to be in Ruth’s place. Eventually, overseeing Ruth’s destruction and sleeping with Tommy completes the Electral parallel.
Keira Knightley’s celebrity adds a finishing touch by invoking the specter of the conversation that accuses some women of envying Knightley’s slim figure and allegedly undeserved good roles opposite attractive male actors. Ruth’s sickly, anemic state just before Kathy’s short-lived romantic triumph in the final act seems to call on this antagonistic discussion, which also rumors that Knightley has an eating disorder. More broadly, the movie uses Knightley as an emblem of the way celebrity can evacuate a person’s subjecthood and render them an object of a powerful and occasionally scornful social discourse. Caught up in her celebrity discourse, we may watch Knightley/Ruth pass away on the operating table as doctors remove an organ from her dying body and the structure of intrinsic and extrinsic valences intersecting in the experience of watching the movie allows our emotions to range from apathy to satisfaction. The sense of horror we might feel in her death contends with the feeling that her dying is in some way judicious. The movie goer who permits this feeling reflects the largely spectral presence of the fictional society that condones the murder of the clones to extend their own lives.
But all of this is prestidigitation. These questions serve to distract us from the possibility (as opposed to the essence) of humanity. Scenes in the movie frequently lead us to ask “what is humanity?” but not “is there a humanity?” Like Descartes at his window, all our horror, indignation, and confusion in the movie derives from the fact that we want, peering at the movie screen, to judge Kathy, Ruth and Tommy to be human. We sense a violation when we witness the line of humanity drawn to exclude our protagonists. The obvious aberration from our typical humanistic world view, the placement of the human/non-human threshold far from a site where we ordinarily find it, causes us to focus on where the border should be, and to lose sight of considering whether it should be anywhere at all. The sense of violation heightens our awareness of the boundary and saves us the trouble of articulating humanity in a way that could call its naturalness into question. In this light, a movie that virtually never mentions the word human or humanity, properly considered, could show us to what extent the construct has eclipsed our consciousness.
Worse yet, Never Let Me Go coaxes us into a sort of humanism that is so narrow as to be unproductive or unhelpful. All our humanistic pathos falls around young, good-looking white people, who all speak the same language. The movie does a decent job of invoking class, but none of the other divisions that frequently trouble humanism in our world, such as race, ethnicity, religion, or language, seem to be at play in the movie’s counterfactual reality. We need only think of the tension around immigrants and non-white minorities in our country at the moment or observe the history of our own medical institutions for examples. We should not be surprised. Presenting phenotypically similar protagonists, whose aesthetic appeal greases the wheels for empathy, makes the violation of humanism all the more clearly felt. If we recognize that issues of creed, race, and language intersect with humanism and at the same time make it more difficult to represent it thoughtfully to a largely white American audience, then we must see the problem with humanism. The work of constantly having to construct and reconstruct a simple category of ethically relevant entities by drawing on the pre-existing pathos of the audience members who should accept it makes humanism more of a weight to be dragged than a catalyst for appropriate ethical actions.
Perhaps it is time to set humanism aside. But is there an ethical framework that can involve mutual respect and acknowledgement without having to constantly reproduce and reconsider what it means to be human? The movie does not ponder this question. Never Let Me Go may be a beautiful aesthetic work that draws on our humanistic ideologies and paints with the complex of anxieties and emotions that arise from them, but, in doing so, it passes over the value of humanism itself in silence.
Darling, hold me
Hold me, hold me
And never, never, never let me go
Darling, kiss me
Kiss me, kiss me
And never, never, never let me go
Lock my heart
Throw away the key
Fill my love with ecstacy
Bind my heart with your
And tell me no one
Could ever take my place
Darling, tell me
Tell me, tell me
And never, never, never