Can Art Save? Liberal Humanism, Empathy, and the “Use” of Creativity — Part III

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Sneha Mantri //

This is the last in a 3-part series examining the “usefulness” of creativity through the lens of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go. Part 1 contextualized the students’ art as a manifestation of Romantic tropes; Part 2  took on the climactic, Gothic confrontation between the students and their former headmistress. This final section “goes meta,” examining the impact that the novel itself has on its reader.

As a novel, as a work of art, Never Let Me Go does engender empathy.  The confrontation at the novel’s climax works because, by the end of the novel, the reader is allied with Tommy and Kathy.  To use the language of the novel, we recognize, without ever seeing a piece of their artwork, that they have souls.  Shameem Black notes ways in which Ishiguro’s technique “appear[s] to bolster the ideals of liberal humanist art and liberal humanist empathy” (790).  These include Kathy’s use of the second person address, which simultaneously “implicates us in the world of the novel” (Black 791) and “assert[s] fundamental likeness between teller and listener” (Black 791).  The students’ visual art, in liberal humanist tradition, was displayed at “special exhibitions” (Ishiguro 261) to “all sorts of famous people” (Ishiguro 262) who felt ultimately threatened by the possibility of a “generation of created children who’d take their place in society” (Ishiguro 264).  As applied by Miss Emily and Madame, liberal humanism “cultivate[s] narrow self-interest rather than altruistic obligation” (794).  In contrast to the group dynamic of exhibited paintings, however, Ishiguro’s artistic convention of the second person address creates an intimate duality between narrator and reader.  Ishiguro may be positing here a fundamental difference in the ability of visual and narrative art to develop empathy.

The difference between the two art forms is that narrative allows direct entry into the inner state of another person.  Ishiguro demonstrates that this ability to access inner state is the key to developing empathy.  We as readers empathize with the students in the novel because, by seeing their world through their eyes, we come to see how much they care for each other.  Kathy’s long tenure as carer, “almost exactly twelve years” (Ishiguro 3), is not surprising.  From the very beginning of the novel, Kathy has attended to the inner states of others, which she describes as “a kind of instinct” (Ishiguro 3).  For instance, when the donor assigned to her care wants to hear about Hailsham, Kathy realizes that he wanted to “remember Hailsham, just like it had been his own childhood” (Ishiguro 5).  Her conversation with the donor, like her conversation with the reader, allows “the line [to] blur between what were [her] memories and what were his” (Ishiguro 6).  That is, empathy arises from the narrative itself.

Kathy, a deeply empathetic narrator, is able to enter the inner states of nearly every major character in the novel.  When Tommy flies into a rage on the playing field, it is Kathy who “know[s] his feelings for the polo shirt” (Ishiguro 11) he spatters with mud.  Even when she discovers Ruth’s lie about receiving a gift from one of the guardians, Kathy “saw how upset Ruth was” (Ishiguro 60) and cannot complete her plan to confront Ruth directly.  When the students graduate from Hailsham and move to the Cottages, Kathy understands that their desire to cling together arises from the fact that they are “unable quite to let each other go” (Ishiguro 120).  During the first confrontation with Madame, Kathy is “keenly tuned in to picking up [Madame’s] response” (Ishiguro 35).  Even with her antagonists, then, Kathy retains her fundamental ability to feel what others’ feel.

Kathy is even able to empathize with art itself.  When listening to her favorite song, Kathy imagines a woman who, like Kathy herself, is infertile but has a baby by a “sort of miracle” (Ishiguro 70).  Kathy even “sway[s] about slowly in time to the song, holding an imaginary baby” (Ishiguro 71), mirroring the movement of the imagined woman singing the song.  Her love for her rather banal, mass-produced song arises because she connects with the song on an individual level, inventing a narrative that has meaning for her.  These intimate moments of connection demonstrate the deep connection Kathy makes with herself and those around her.

Though Black reads the students’ cloned status as reducing them to merely “simulacra” (801), they are more than “automatic and mechanized” (788) because they demonstrate an ability to enter the inner life of others, even when that inner life surprises them.  Because Ishiguro’s narrator is so adept at applying this theory of mind, we as readers are drawn along into a world of connection and “a new aesthetics of empathy for a post-humanist age” (Black 801).  It is Kathy’s ability to connect with others that creates our ability to care for her.

As an artistic work, then, Never Let Me Go criticizes the liberal humanist position of art-as-empathy even as it encourages the development of empathy through the attentive nature of its narrator.  As clones, the protagonists are copies, yet they demonstrate empathy more profoundly than the originals of Madame and Miss Emily.  By the end of the novel, the reader, too, has learned to empathize with Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth rather than the inhumane society that has condemned them to “completion.”  Ishiguro achieves this goal through a number of artistic conventions, including the use of Gothic tropes, the second person address, and dream states.  Ultimately, it is Kathy’s ability to connect with those around her, developed through these artistic conventions of narrative, that allows us to understand her capacity for empathy and thus to recognize her as human.  Like nineteenth century liberal humanists, Ishiguro, as a novelist, relies on the ability of artistic endeavors to generate empathy.  However, Ishiguro demonstrates that the internal intimacy of narrative, rather than the outward display of painting, allows the reader to access the inner state of the character and thus to empathize.  Thus, Ishiguro’s post-humanist aesthetic of empathy focuses on intimate individual connections as the only way in which art can save.

Works Cited

Black, Shameem.  “Ishiguro’s Inhuman Aesthetics.”  Modern Fiction Studies (2009) 55.4: 785-807.

Ishiguro, Kazuo.  Never Let Me Go.  New York: Vintage International, 2005.

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