There’s a 1920s film clip, available on YouTube, of George Bernard Shaw jauntily arguing that anyone who can’t explain his cost to society should not be allowed to live in it. Said the celebrated playwright: “[I]f you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself.”
Few speak of this side to Shaw; his fame and influence even cause many to excuse it. They’d rather have Shaw and a lie about him than Shaw as he really was. Because it’s thought somehow impossible to acknowledge his artistic influence, even to admire his plays, and also to admit his revolting views.
Instead, we are counseled to consider “context” and scolded for being judgmental. The causes are many on such issues, we are told, the effects hazy and uncertain. To understand the situation truly, you have to see both sides—or so goes the caution. Don’t oversimplify.
I am now responding to that position with profanity that I cannot type here. But if we were playing hangman, my response would consist of blunt words, four-letters long and of Germanic origin.
How do you argue for your right to be? How do you justify your right to exist? If called to account for your worth, isn’t it only a matter of time before you fail some panel’s test? If not now, when hale and hearty, then at some point, when not? And what of those who are never hale and hearty? What of those who can’t make a defense?
A great modern writer who does not shy away from real causes and clear effects is Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-born Englishman whose celebrated works include The Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled.
In the former, the main character spends what he believes is a worthy life in service of what he trusts is a great man. But when the man turns out not to be great, he is made to wonder if there is any comfort in a job well done if the job is not done for that which is “well.”
In the latter, Ishiguro’s strange masterpiece set in a Kafkaesque European city, the nameless protagonist is disoriented, looking for what he should do, what he was brought there to achieve. He keeps losing track of his purpose, but also his task—a distinction that from the outside we come to see is unreal. Purpose and task are not separated—steps one, two, and three of any task are all just another way of saying “this is my job, this is what I was put here to do, to be.”
But when it comes to existence, there is so great a conflation that the task of living and the right to it are one and the same. There is a reflexivity to living—it entitles itself, without need for further question—without challenge to it. Who is Shaw, or any academic or scientist or politician or panel sitter, to ask anyone to explain his cost? The comatose hydrocephaloid’s beating heart is his answer, and it shatters any niggling balance sheet that the pencil-stinking bureaucrat dares to sum.
But Ishiguro’s work that features the question of causes most resolutely is his novel Never Let Me Go. It has been dramatized recently in a remarkably faithful and satisfying film that deserves to be considered one of the best-realized dystopias in modern times.
For in this work, a different take on the subject is employed. Here, people are used for their worth, not made to account for it. Certain individuals are designed for their benefit to society and exploited for their contributions; the vampiric metaphor here is all too real. What particular people are—that they are—is of no consequence in this world. All that matters about them is that they can contribute, again and again, to the point that they are depleted and summarily discarded. The images in the film version are so precisely perfect—so powerful in capturing dishonor done to the living—a dishonor horrifically ironic in that it is committed to give life to a ruling class—that particular expressions/gestures are as poignant, and devastating, as any I’ve witnessed.
Here is utilitarianism’s dual-edged malice: You’re either inconvenient for the plans I have laid, or I need you only in order to fulfill them. Both are a deadly posture to take towards another human being: Clearing some out of the way, using others as a means to make it. Under this scheme, lives are either an obstacle or a tool, but never deserving in their own right, without need to ask leave of anyone.
If I am only as good as my use, then my use, however beastly, becomes paramount. I can have time to exist as long as I provide some worth to those more powerful than I am. And as Ishiguro shows in a chilling way, that use always has its rhetoric. It has a legion of apologists. Theirs is the progressive approach, after all; it’s the way of the future. We won’t go back to the dark ages, as one of the characters says.
Euphemisms are employed to make the whole thing more palatable, competing compassions used to make the whole thing relative, indoctrinations utilized to make the whole thing unassailable, irreproachable—even by the victims, who regulate themselves because they know no other way—until at some point we all become hardened, inured, entrenched.
People don’t bother with ethics when years of excuses palliate their consciences, or after a choice once made becomes too horrible to repent. Such a thing calls for a bravery few have; to admit what you’ve done is too bitter; better to live with the euphemism, with the much-supplied rhetoric. There’s lots and lots of it; you won’t go wanting; it’s always handy—for “context,” for the “larger view,” so as not to be “simple.”
And after that, it’s just a matter of tidiness. Keep it all out of sight. What you can’t see won’t hurt you. Not you, at any rate.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.