Thursday, 17 February 2011

Cloning and Never Let Me Go

Spoiler Alert

Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 Booker prize nominated novel, Never Let Me Go, has just been made into a film. The book is a subtle meditation on what it means to be a person. The film adaptation, while not able to match the philosophical nuances of the book, approaches the complex subject matter with visual and narrative restraint. The book is a classic. The film is worth catching.

Never Let Me Go is the story of a love-triangle between Kathy, Tommy and Ruth (played in the film by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley) which goes back to their school days at Hailsham. On the surface, the students of Hailsham are well groomed, well behaved and appear to have a charmed public school life. Yet, there are tell-tale signs that this institution has more disturbing intentions. There is a neurotic emphasis on the health of the children. Smoking behind the bike sheds is a mortal sin. There are apocryphal tales of the violent things that have happened to students who escaped beyond the school boundaries. The natural, unaffected joy that children bring to a school is absent here and replaced with an atmosphere of impending despair. Play is manufactured. Creativity is a social experiment. Hailsham is an educational limbo.

It transpires that the children at Hailsham are clones and are waiting to be used as adult organ donors. This is their sole purpose in life. The functional purpose that society has decided for them. They have been created to act as nothing more than biological spare part machines. Yet, of course, these clones are not robots, they have souls and they can love. These are the distinguishing features of a person. We are present to ourselves in self-conscious autonomy, yet we only possess ourselves fully when we give ourselves to the dynamism of love. This is not a passing pleasure or emotion, but the very meaning of our being alive, an awakening of our sense of being. All love is self-surrender and self-fulfillment.

Kathy, Tommy and Ruth have heard a rumour that love can defer their fate. Couples who can prove they are in love will be given some extra years before they must start donating their organs. But the threesome also realise themselves as persons when they fall in and out of love with each other. This is the primal and first of all impulses in the heart of being. Love is the intuitive sense that we are not to be instrumentalised but that each person has an obscure, living depth that must not be manipulated or destroyed.

Never Let Me Go never succumbs to sci-fi sensationalism. Both the novel and film are beautifully understated and this adds to the moral chill factor and sense of tragedy. It is the passive acceptance of cloning – both by those cloned and those involved in the process – and the lack of ethical debate that gives Never Let Me Go an authentic tone. The medical police state is unquestioningly accepted(except by one brave teacher who is quickly removed from Hailsham and branded a “subversive”). There is a passive resignation that this is how it is meant to be and that the proposed medical benefits outweigh the invasive manipulation and destruction of human life.

All this feels real and possible because we recognise (consciously or unconsciously) that the abuse of the person is happening in our own time. In 2000, Pope John Paul II addressed the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society where he highlighted the dangers of creating human life as though it were a medical product:

...methods that fail to respect the dignity and value of the person must always be avoided. I am thinking in particular of attempts at human cloning with a view to obtaining organs for transplants: these techniques, insofar as they involve the manipluation and destruction of human embryos, are not morally acceptable, even when the proposed end is good in itself.

Since that warning, the destruction of persons who are intrinsically valuable in themselves has become a routine part of contemporary culture. This has happened without us barely noticing. Not science fiction but reality. Now that is really frightening.


  1. All love is self-surrender and self-fulfilment. ?

    No it is not! Not in my life.

    You may have to convince your self of that, in order to satisfy your perspective. Having surrendered myself in love for others, love as a response of/from/ others fulfils my life.

  2. I agree, John, that the reciprocity of love is an essential element of the dynamism of love. The most common we experience love. However, I would also argue that the act of loving self-surrender (even when there is little or no chance of that love being returned, for example, with one's enemies) is also an act of self-fulfiment and self- realization.

  3. Yes it is, but still this is not All love.

    We can only freely give love in self surrender or self-realisation, (to ones enemies or love with no return) because we are replenished and nourished by the most common reciprocal exchange of love. Or at base because of hope or reconciliation.

    When we are impoverished or under nourished in that common reciprocal love, it becomes very difficult to continuously give, unlike the ease of loving and the joy of being kind when we feel loved and love in abundance, then the well is endlessly replenished.

  4. Another tragic film. I recently saw the film conspiracy of silence as well, your 5th paragraph could ring true for both films.


  5. The non reciprocal Love of self realisation and self-surrender is equal to the deepest Love we continue to feel for a loved one after they have died and after we have finished grieving. It is a peaceful self satisfying happy Love that flows beyond the portal of all earthy senses and lays ever constant and wholesome in the core of our being.

  6. I have just seen the film.
    "All love IS self-surrender and self-fulfilment".

    Yours humbly

  7. Got it!

    We can not love if we do not surrender ourselves,
    We can not be fulfilled if we do not love!

  8. I have just read the book, how terribly tragic. Ishiguro's creative expertise, at allowing us to be witness to Kathy's unemotional observation of the three friends lives, is enough to make reading it an almost personal experience. Their homemade 'love' with all its disappointed expectations, running parallel to the coldness and austerity of the Hailsham childhood. The forced unreal cottage life with its questionable social mores. The soul less experimental sexual encounters and unfeeling promiscuity, whilst desperately wanting them to experience the beauty of truly deep unexplainable love, and the unchallenged accepted clinical completions all made for a warmth which only resided in an over bearing sadness. The characters yes all had souls, and did self-realise but we were somehow ambivalently both exposed to, and deprived of the sacredness of each life. Tragic. Chilling.

  9. I believe you are mistaken Fr Martin and you John,
    "All love is self-surrender and self-fulfillment."
    In a little exercise I swapped the word love for happiness and I would agree. Then I swapped the word love for God, and I did not. Love, as God can not be reduced to such a sentence. God is Love. God is omnipresent. We can not be fulfilled by self alone.