I teach college English, which means that I spend a lot of time telling people not to write papers about “the human condition.” The human condition, I tell my students, is vague. What about the human condition are you interested in? I ask. Bodies? Money? Desire? Work? Power? These are things that we could make arguments about. The human condition is not. I give my students a handout of writing tips, a series of “dos and don’ts” I’ve honed over the course of a decade in college classrooms. Many of the “don’ts” regard specificity. Don’t write about society. Be more specific. Don’t tell me about gender norms. Be more specific. Don’t write about the human condition. Be more specific.
I hold to these rules tightly; I think they are good rules, and they certainly lead to more exacting student writing. But when I read that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature last week, my first thought was: Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize because he writes about the human condition.
When I teach his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, I have to break some rules.
For the uninitiated, Never Let Me Go is a novel about a group of young people who are also clones. These clones will grow up and begin to donate their organs in their late teens and twenties and then they will die slow, orchestrated deaths; their bodies will be used to save the lives of others. The clones have been created by a vast government program and there is no escape from it. Never Let Me Go is not a story of rebellion.
The novel is narrated by Kath, who is a carer, which means quite literally that she cares emotionally for other clones going through the donation process. In the first paragraph of the novel, Kath tells us that she’s about to wrap up her work as a carer, that she soon will become a donor. When the novel begins, we don’t quite know what this means. We find out everything very slowly. I have stated the premise of the book more clearly and explicitly than Ishiguro ever does.
Kath is what some people might call an unreliable narrator, but I prefer to think of her as clueless instead. Like the butler of Ishiguro’s earlier novel Remains of the Day, Kath never quite comprehends what’s going on around her, or what’s happening to her. In the parlance of the book, she’s been “told and not told” about her fate. Ishiguro reveals information slowly; the word “clone” doesn’t appear until more than halfway through the novel, and Kath speaks in the euphemisms of the donation program. To die, for example, is to “complete.”
Never Let Me Go is fantastic for developing students’ close reading skills; I start off teaching the novel by close reading its first paragraph with my class for a long time, longer than should be possible. The book is a teacher’s dream: there is almost too much to talk about. We discuss narration and epistemology (how do we know what we know in this book?), genre (is the book science fiction? A crime novel? A bildungsroman?) We can talk Foucault and surveillance, biopolitics, medical ethics, aesthetics, education, gender, sex: this book has everything, which is why I can—and do—fit it onto so many syllabi.
But I also teach this book because it gets under my students’ skin. They tell me this after class, in evaluations, in emails years later, but I can also see it in their faces in my classroom. Never Let Me Go gets to them because it gets them. The narrator is young and confused and sad: so are a lot of college students. Sure, the book is about a massive government program that raises children for slaughter, but so much of the book, a good 80% of it, I’d venture, is about daily childhood and teenage life: alliances between friends, art projects, soccer games, awkward sex ed classes, writing essays, falling in love. There are hazy and obscure threats from the adult world, which the clones feel but don’t quite understand. The clones feel powerless, they know that death is coming—kind of—and yet they live their lives anyway.
In this, the clones are just like us.
Whenever I teach Never Let Me Go, there’s a moment, almost always on the final day of class on the novel, when my students get demonstrably frustrated with Kath and the other clones. They ask: where is their anger? Why don’t they rebel? Why do they passively accept their deaths? Why don’t they do something? (The most the clones try, and fail to do is temporarily defer—not circumvent—their donations.) I, summoning something in myself that I don’t usually summon, pause and then intone: why don’t you rebel? Where is your anger? Why do you passively accept your deaths?
I have taught this book many times, and I know how to orchestrate this moment. I lean forward in my chair. You guys know you’re going to die, too, right? Why don’t you do something?
Sometimes my students are silent, but sometimes they start arguing with me about details that I frankly don’t care about in this particular moment. The clones will die sooner than we will (will they? What do you know that I don’t?) We’re not oppressed by governments restricting what we do with other bodies (It’s never a woman who says this.) We can go round and round, and I will always have an answer.
You are going to die and there’s nothing you can do about it, I tell them. It’s the human condition.
I usually resist such theatricality in my teaching. I prefer not to lecture, I prefer to sit while teaching, I prefer to disperse my power in the classroom and for my authority to hang loose. I like group work and student-led discussions. I’ve read my Freire and I’ve read my hooks. But when this moment comes, and it always does, I love to hold onto it, to hear myself speak, to see my effect on my students, to be the one to tell them that they’re going to die. I can be authoritative in this moment because I have no doubts, no lack of confidence, no moment of wondering what this critic or that professor from grad school would have to say about how I read Ishiguro. Our mortality is not up for debate. This is a wild, obscene heft. And I get to share it.
Sometimes I let the moment hang in the air; sometimes, I undercut myself with a joke about how we’re not supposed to talk about the human condition in my class, but I’m the teacher, so just this once. Maggie Nelson, talking about suspect moments in her own teaching, writes in The Argonauts: “I’m not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep.”
I’m not saying that this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep, and that its pleasures are deep for me and for my students. After weeks or months of student-centered teaching practices, of answering questions with more questions, of writing “be more specific” in the margins of their papers, there is pleasure for all of us when I pause, look them in the eyes, and tell them, straightforwardly, that they’re going to do die. It is an uncritical moment in a class founded in criticality, and I sense their pleasure in it. I think they sense mine as well.
Never Let Me Go teaches us that we’re all going to die but we go to class and read our books and write our essays anyway, and sometimes, we get to take deep pleasure in all of it. It’s the human condition.
Jacquelyn Ardam teaches at Colby College and usually writes about alphabet books. She tweets @jaxwendy.