Book Review: Repulsion as Metaphor in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Met Go

Never Let Me Go
    Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go has recently been released as a film, due out in theaters today. I am anxious about the film because I want to see how the adaptation treats the theme of repulsion, which is my interest in the novel. Ishiguro describes a world where humans have become obsessed with extending one's lifespan. To reach this goal, humans have created a subset of human beings, manufactured in test tubes to serve as body farms for organ tissues. The novel is ostensibly a science-fiction narrative about clones used for organ harvesting in an alternative, but possible dystopic posthuman future in Britain in the late 1990s. Humans, because of the rapid advance of biotechnology, have developed an industry by which cloned human beings are manufactured as “gifts” to stave off death.  These “beings” then, can be picked off when needed — a lung here, skin graft or a heart, there.
    Ishiguro uses the controversial topic of human clone harvesting as a metaphor, or metonymic thinking, to think about “repulsion”: or the ways in which a “species” is not considered to be “on the inside” of the human/animal divide; that which is relegated to the order of animal, i.e., without a soul, without humanity, a means to an end.  The clone is a metaphor for that which is heterogeneous and different from constructed, labeled homogeneous humanity.
    Marked by this difference and used as a means to an end, the clone is like the slave sold as an object on the trading block or the prisoner exploited in a concentration camp. Did the citizens of Germany’s Third Reich not consider that the soap they used to wash their bodies came from human body fat or that the gold they used to cap their teeth once belonged to another human being? Did Colonial missionaries to the New World consider Native Americans as having souls like them? No. In the same way, the society in Ishiguro’s dystopic novel chooses not to consider that the transplanted leg or heart comes from another human being, albeit a manufactured human being.
     Never Let Me Go cashes in on the plot of a gross ethical deficit in an ill society rather than beneficent largesse. In this society, people choose to defer humanity to the clone indefinitely and choose not to think about the clones as being like them. The clone is other to the "human." "Human," here, meaning the humans with hegemony. The clones are raised and mature away from the ruling human population. Education and training occur in small outposts across the country and in living facilities. People prefer to believe that “organs appeared from nowhere, or, at most they grew in a kind of vacuum” (262). In a conversation with their former teachers, the novel's protagonists, Kathy and Tommy, beg for a reprieve from their curtailed life by announcing they are in love. In the hope of being granted an exemption from forfeiting their lives via a declaration of the most human of emotions, love, the teachers confess to Kathy and Tommy that there are no exemptions. By not choosing to acknowledge the clone’s emotional life, or their humanity, people “convinced themselves you [the clones] weren’t really like us. That you were less than human, so it didn’t matter” (263).
     The “speciesist” attitude, is basically a hubris that claims “my ‘kind’ is better than your ‘kind’” (7). The clone, then, is termed automata, or as property, or as a second-class citizen.  It is an ‘it.’ It is a thing to be exchanged. It is not able to choose. It cannot choose to give. It can only be “taken from.” The clone does not share the same ontological status as the human born “naturally.” Phrases such as having a “body and a soul,” “inherent value,” or the “dignity of the human person,” obviously underscore the same thing: the language expresses how we make distinctions between what we consider to be “human” from what we consider to be animal, for example, or a stone, or the cruel ways we treat members of our own species, especially when we do not consider them to be in the same species. So the ontological distinction of a body ensouled is licensure to grant a certain set of Homo sapiens as superior than the rest of the sentient creatures that inhabit this planet.
    While, the word “soul,” (in Greek psyche), literally means life-force, or that which animates a living being, the word soul, has taken on a heightened, hegemonic, meaning in our understanding of what it means to be human. Especially since the Enlightenment, what we call Western Civilization, has created man in its own image. We consider ourselves as human beings, crafted with a rational and superior soul, able to determine the measure of things, or as Protagoras put it so succinctly, “Man is the measure of all things.”. This humanistic view was taken to new levels with Renée Descartes, in his Meditations, when he granted the cogito (the “I think”) the ability to discern the existence of God, the world and the self. The animal, for Descartes, does not have the status of the cogito; it cannot think; it cannot have clear and distinct ideas so it is not imbued with the same mind as the human rational soul, it is, Descartes says, a “mechanical automata.” So, in this view, that which does not have a rational capacity is not in fact human, and is not imbued with the same inherent value or dignity of the human person.

Madame’s First Repulsion
    Kathy and Tommy were taught as children at a special school, different from most of the schools designed to educate clones. The school's charter was to convince the world that clones are human — that they did matter. Teachers selected examples of Tommy and Kathy's art and their poetry as proof that they had souls. Or to put it more bluntly, to prove that the clones had souls at all (260). Miss Emily, the headmistress, enforces a policy of shelter and protection, even though her young charges’ final end will be harsh. The philosophy of the school is to give the students the best life possible. But, the students at Hailsham are never outright told who they are and what their ultimate purpose is. At some level, they know they are different. They are told and they are not told (84).  Their substandard status is hinted at and alluded to, but their “special status” is cloaked in a veil of numinous language that is meant to serve as a metonym for their otherwise speciesist treatment.
    The Hailsham section of the novel could be read like a normal boarding school narrative.  There are the usual fights and awkward jealousies and crushes.  Kathy’s school days are not dissimilar from any young girl growing up away from home. The students are encouraged to produce art and to encourage one another in their talents. At intervals throughout the year, a character named by the students as Madame arrives at the school to choose the best pieces for her “gallery.”  Also, the students are given an opportunity to select special gifts that Madame has brought. In one scene, Madame arrives at the school on her usual visit. She is horrified when a group of the students come rushing to her car in the hopes that she has brought them something special.
    Kathy H., the narrator, and autobiographer (the first clone autobiography — enough to prove her humanity!) talks about how they had all waited for Madame’s arrival. When they spot her coming towards the school in her grey suit and briefcase, they rush out and she comes to a stiff halt. The students stop and say, “Excuse me, Miss.”  Naturally, a person would be scared to have a group of restless children rushing your way. Though, Kathy remembers the way Madame looked at the children. She does not shriek but she seems to suppress the shudder she is feeling. “Madame was afraid of us,” Kathy remembers, “But she was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders” (35).
    Madame repels at the touch of the children because she has created a division between her and them. The clones are "other" by virtue of species, not of race or creed. Madame makes a species distinction, tantamount to the distinctions made about the human and the primate, the human and the cow, the human and the lab rat. The day Kathy H. experiences Madame’s repulsion for the first time is when she realizes a feeling of otherness from “the people outside” (36). Kathy recognizes that there is an outside world and there is an inside world. There is a world that is averted to her existence, and there is a world in which she belongs.
    At the school, the guardians, as the teachers are called, are committed to protect the students from the harshness of the outside world. The same world that will ultimately use their body parts. The school operates on an egregious fallacy of non-contradiction that Kathy and her classmates are both human and not human at the same time. The school attempts the impossible: to treat them as "human" vis-a-vis a world that will use them as human body bags. Miss Emily attempts to challenge a specieist worldview, namely that if the clone is not considered human then she is not considered a part of the human species, so she can be treated in the same manner that we treat any other species that is deemed less superior than human beings. But, in the end, the challenge is built on a false premise, that the world will grant a universal reprieve and cease its production of living, walking, human body parts.

Not Quite Human?  
    Kathy H. always felt that she and the rest of the students she grew up with, were different.  It is as if even at a young age, even when no one told her outright who she was and what she was meant to be used for, she was told and not told.

“Thinking back now, I can see we were just at that age when we knew a few things about ourselves — about who we were, how we were different from our guardians, from the people outside — but hadn’t yet understood what any of it meant” (36).
    The cold intuition that Kathy feels about how Madam saw her like a spider takes on a horrifying significance in terms of radical otherness: the clone body is ultimately not a human body. When Tommy gets a gash on his elbow, the nurse Crow Face puts him in a cast. Like a boy showing off his war wounds, he gladly exhibits to his classmates how his skin has not yet reattached itself, “you could see bits of skin starting to bond, and soft red bits peeping up from underneath” (85). His classmates tease him that his skin can be zipped opened to remove his organs, so he better be careful when he goes to sleep at night. This schoolyard jest, reinforces, even in the banter of the clones themselves, that they are susceptible to being zipped open whenever someone wishes. They are not considered human. Tommy confides in Kathy that he is afraid that he will be unzipped at night, “They might deliberately do it so it comes undone in the night” (86).
     Even though Kathy and the other children tease Tommy and play off his wound as funny, there is the disturbing reality that hides behind the language of the incident. The fear that Tommy has about being unzipped is a fear that all of the students at Hailsham know at some level. The fear is underplayed by jest and schoolyard banter but the underlying horror is that their bodies will be opened like bags for the transplantation of their vital organs for the survival of someone else, another human being. At this stage in their life though, they are ashamed of their bodies, and like most adolescents, feel an incredible level of lack of knowledge about what will happen to them once they grow up. Their bodies are attached with an unspoken opprobrium that they themselves do not yet understand. The schoolyard jest is thus a metonym for how they are viewed, as zippable. To be zipped is to be dispensable.  Because to be zipped means you can be unzipped. The terror Madame feels is not a terror based in the children's otherness, but she realizes who they really are: disposables. The terror Tommy feels is authentic. He is terrified that Madame's repulsion is clearly that: the same repulsion one gets from foodstuffs left in the garbage for too long. The immediate reaction is to throw it out.

The Clones as “Gift”
    The word clone is hardly used in the novel — and if at all, the word is used near the end.  The clones are called students at Hailsham. When they grow up and move out to the communes, they physically are able to have their organs sliced from their bodies, and they are called “donors.”  The word, “donor,” is a Latin derivative for the word dona which means “gift.” The clones are manufactured to give their organs as “gifts” to another. There bodies are bio-factories. When a “donor” has an organ transplant, it is called a “donation.”  If one of them irreversibly loses sentience or goes brain dead during “donation” it is called “completion.”
    Obviously there is a disturbing undertow to this this language.  If those who have been replicated for the use of their organs are to be called “donors” then it means that they are the ones who give gifts.  For Derrida, in an essay on generosity and time, he argues that authentic generosity is giving that is spontaneous, unaware of itself as giving.  If you recognize the gift as a gift then the gift-act itself, in the simple act of identifying it, seems to be destroyed (Derrida 172).  If one is aware of a gift as gift-giving, then it ceases to be gift and is merely a transaction.  The very appearance of gift “... annuls it as gift, transforming the apparition into a phantom and the operation into a simulacrum” (172).  A gift, for Derrida, is not calculated to achieve for me anything else beside the phenomenal moment in which the gift is given.  Generosity should not be fraught with anxiety.  For Derrida the gift-event rests in the tension between the giver and the recipient of the gift.
    In the event of true giving, there is supposed to be, for Derrida, a non-awareness of myself as giving gift.  Conditions of the gift are: forgetfulness, nonappearance, nonphenomenonality, nonperception, nonkeeping (173). The gift is not something that can be thought about and planned and bartered or exchanged.  This non-awareness, or this non-phenomenonality of the gift does not hold the gift for itself as a commodity or as a possession.  Gifts are not Christmas transactions.  In these examples one is supposed to give a gift.  A “thank you,” if said, takes away from the gift something that is given in spontaneity and nullifies the gift.  Consciousness of the mercantile quality of exchanging goods, “... ‘generous’ or ‘grateful’ consciousness is only the phenomenon of a calculation and the ruse of an economy” (173).
    The clones are made constantly aware, from the dull awareness of children, to the more acute awareness of who they are as adults, of what they are supposed to be: a forced transaction, an exchange of their own life for the life of someone else.  Their name as donor, then, is a misnomer.  For the clone, the entirety of life is supposed to be given up in this way; so in a sense, what the clone is forced to do, is to be completely given up, in the most radical and total way.  The donor, the one who gives up their body for the life of another person, actually, is the most generous. But the generosity is not given in kind.  For gift-gifting to be authentic, it has to be done among our own kind.  If the clone is not of our “kind” then we can choose to not consider it as gift.  The word generous itself, actually comes from the Greek word for kind, or belonging to one’s own race.10  Humans, apparently are only capable of being generous to their own kind.  If we do not consider the clone to be of our kind then we place it on the outside, not the inside.  In the heterogeneity of “giving-space,” the clone represents that which is radically other, and placed outside of the dividing line of species and expelled.  The donor is emptied out.  The donor is nothing.  The donor is infinitely expelled.  The act of giving marks the donor not as gifted but as damned.
    This mark of false generosity is a nagging sense of disgust in a society that chooses to continue to deny giftedness to the donors.  This is why the humans who are harvesting the organs feel a deep set of repulsion and revulsion for the clones.  The clones are marked.  And in this mark they are set apart.  For the humans, when they see a clone walking down the street, are forced to see the clone as a walking bag of tissues and organs, a total, forced-giving.  The donor ceases to be gift and ceases to be able to choose to give.
    The clone is on the outside of what is considered human.  The clone is a “gift” in the etymological form, but in the ontological and the ethical realm, the clone is cast out.  Except for a place like Hailsham — which at the end of the novel ceases to be — this has been the entire project, to give back to the clones their capacity to be gift, not just as means to keep death at bay for otherwise normal humans.
    They are told to keep their bodies healthy and smoking is forbidden, but this not because anyone cares about their health, per se, but they care about the health of the clone’s organ.  Who would want a diseased lung?  They are told to practice safe sex (83).  And if they have sex with each other they should not spread venereal diseases.  They are not allowed to have children.  When Kathy fantasizes about having a baby of her own, singing along to a song called “Never Let Me Go” she is caught by Madame crooning to her pillow.  Kathy feels shame because she feels that Madame has read her mind, that she knows of her secret desire, or wish, to have a baby of her own.  Even though there is no way that Madame could read her mind.  But, what Kathy feels, at a deeper level, is that there is no reciprocity here for the clone.  She cannot even give life, having a child.  The clone gets nothing.  The clone has nothing.  No children.  No Mother.  No Father.  Even though the clone is the closest one can get to a human, the clone is nevertheless denied the status of truly human interaction and intimacy.  The clone is reassigned to the dogged, oftentimes cruel treatment we dole out to animals — or humans that are not considered human enough.  The clone is not an end in itself; she does not have authentic human freedom and the ability to live how she wishes.
     And what makes it even worse, is that the clones, at one point, have to take care of others as they go through their process of organ donation.  This phase in the life of the clone is called the “carer” phase and comes after their education but before they themselves start to donate.  Kathy H says about being a carer: “But it means a lot to me, being able to do my work well” (3).  From the moment Kathy H. opens her mouth to tell her own story, there is the sinking suspicion that she is trying desperately to convince herself and us — for she addresses the reader directly as “you” — that her life has not been lived in vain.  Actually, throughout the entire novel there is a quiet desperation in Kathy’s voice.  She has an intense need to prove herself as worthy.  Even though she knows she will be lead as a lamb to the slaughter, she desires fanatically for something she knows deep inside she can never have — namely, her humanity and her freedom.  As clones, destined to have their organs taken from their bodies and given away to someone else, they can never be anything except a means to an end.  To be human, it has been argued, is to be an end in one’s self.

The Last Meeting with Miss Emily and Madame 
    The last scene of revulsion in the novel is when Kathy and Tommy meet up with Madame and Miss Emily from Hailsham.  Kathy is Tommy’s carer at this point and Tommy is in his second donation.  Madame does not notice the two of them at first, and Kathy fears she is ignoring them.  When Kathy finally gets Madame’s attention she spins around in alarm, as if someone had thrown something at her.  Kathy sees in her eyes the same cold stare she felt when she was eight years old and Madame had given them that suppressed stare, holding back her revulsion as if they were spiders.  Now, years later, Madame sees them again, and not knowing exactly who they are, stiffens a bit — “as if a pair of large spiders was set to crawl towards her” (248).
    The revulsion continues.  Kathy and Ruth are invited inside Madame and Miss Emily’s home.  Kathy and Tommy have an ulterior motive.  They think that Madame can help them get a reprieve.  Among the clones there is a rumor that if a clone can prove that they have fallen in love, or some other, incontestable proof that they are human, then they can get a referral.  If they can prove that they have a soul — the very thing Hailsham was trying to prove — then maybe, just maybe they could be spared and given a normal life.  When they confess to Madame their wishes she tells them that there is no such thing as a deferral.  It is a fantasy.  There are no deferrals and there never was.
      The mean reality is that for Kathy and the rest of the clones in this novel, it does not matter how well she does her work.  Her trip to the chopping block will be the same.  She is a manufactured biotechnological “gifts” for other human beings.  The clones have some form of education.  They learn to take care of their bodies.  They learn to socialize with one another.  They learn the nature of their existence.  When they grow up they live in group homes, separate from other human beings.  At one point, when they decide to leave, they can become carers.
    The carer’s job is to go from one donation center to another, until the time is up for they themselves to become donors.  They give away their organs, like livers and kidneys until they “complete” — which means, they go unconscious.  And at this point, they cease to exist, but could still be left on a ventilator so other other organs can be harvested, like skin, eyes or hair. This is really horrifying because first reading the novel, it is possible to think of “completing” just as dying.  But, completing is not so clear cut as dying.  It brings up horrible fears people have had about being buried alive, or, being trapped in their bodies if they go unconscious.
    And in a cruel epilogue, Even Miss Emily, the champion of clone rights, confesses to Kathy and Tommy who have come to her and Madame for help, offers them only bare, hard facts.  Miss Emily, explains to them that when she was headmistress of Hailsham, she would look out of her window and watch the students play.  She confesses that she would “feel such revulsion” (269).  And, Madame, pitiful at their state, can only muster the words, “poor creatures.  What did we do to you?  With all our schemes and plans?” (254).  After telling them that there is nothing that they can do, the two former teachers politely dismiss their students because workers are coming to move a piece of furniture they are trying to sell.
    The novel ends with a marked sense of resignation.  The clones are marked as pariahs.  Like Susan Sontag mentions in a reflective vitriolic on how society misinterprets illness and misuses metaphors, she says that in every generation some disease, like Cancer or AIDS, has to be the metaphoric, stand-in plague and some group or people has to be blamed and cut off or the scapegoat for the disease.  The clones have been set off from the normal population, despite the quiet pleas of “never let me go.”  The metaphor of the clones as repulsion leaves the novel with an atmosphere of disconsolation and weariness.
    When the Gestapo would herd hundreds and hundreds of Jews from the Ghettos into cattle cars to ship them to their deaths, some of the captives protested, “But I am a German!  You can’t do this to me!”  But no one would listen.  Because it didn’t really matter.  He was thrown into the car with other fearful and tainted “others” who had to suffer and stew in their own urine and tears.  Even if he was German, a line had been drawn, and the line was irreversible and irrevocable.  If you were deemed clean, you did not have to be sent away to the death camps and you stood on one side of the divided line.  It would be a fearful thing, a repulsive thought, to have to be thrown into the cattle car with the rest of the tainted, marked ones — to cross over the line as marked.  So, if you were not one of them, you stepped away from the crowd.  If you were not marked as tainted by the Nazis, it was in your better interest to stand away and not notice what was going on than to acknowledge the abject horror of the scene
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  1. I have found this review extraordinarily helpful and insightful. I thank the author sharing this.


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