Iryna Sirota-Basso is a high school English teacher, pursuing her Doctor of Liberal Studies degree at Georgetown University. Born in Odessa, Ukraine, she graduated from Odessa State University in 1997 with a MA in English Literature. Iryna taught for eight years in Ukraine, and since 2007 has been a member of the English Department at the Academy of the Holy Cross, Kensington, MD. In her doctoral thesis, Iryna is going to explore a transition from a postmodern towards the post-postmodern worldview in Russian and Ukrainian culture.
Mortality and Art: Why Do We Create?
Study of Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go
Iryna Sirota-Basso, Georgetown University
In his 1947 essay “Why Write?” Jean-Paul Sartre expresses his views on the reasons humans create: "One of the chief motives of artistic creation is certainly the need of feeling that we are essential in relationship to the world." Desire to understand self, make sense of the world, find one’s place in it, have a transformative impact, and build connections with others - all of these motivations spur the human need to create. And in his poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider” Walt Whitman confesses that just like a spider, weaving his web in the “vacant vast surrounding,” launching forth “filament, filament, filament, out of itself,” he creates poetry to explore the “measureless oceans of space,” to fill the void with meaning, to discover the unknown, to find his understanding reader, to build connections with the world, “ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,” forming bridges, throwing “gossamer threads” till they “catch somewhere.”
But why do humans so universally need to know themselves and connect with others? Literature, philosophy, and art often suggest that the reasons people are searching for the answers to those questions and the reasons for creating are in close connection with humanity’s recognition of its mortality. Moreover, one of the fundamental philosophical questions is how does knowing one’s mortality affect one’s choices, motivations, and interest in creating?
In his novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami’s teenage character May Kasahara wonders if death is in fact a main motivator for humans to act, ask important questions, bother themselves with the issues of philosophy, ethics, and art: “If people lived forever – if they never got any older – if they could just go on living in this world never dying, always healthy – do you think they’d bother to think hard about things? Philosophy, psychology, logic. Religion. Literature…”
A Japanese-born British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro in his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, and a Russian-born European-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov in his 1935 novel Invitation to a Beheading, each explicitly consider the relationship between creativity and mortality. Both authors create multilayered parables that can be read on a few different levels and viewed as complex philosophical meditations on frailty of human nature. Ishiguro’s characters Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth are using art to make sense of their identities and confront their mortality. Nabokov’s character Cincinnatus C. fears the unknown date of his execution, while worrying that he won’t have enough time to finish his writing and communicate something really important to that unknown and distant, yet understanding and likeminded reader. Both novels convey that creating connections between self and the world through art, searching for one’s identity and place, telling one’s story, making one’s existence bearable, filling it with meaning, yearning to leave a legacy – all of these reasons for creation are closely connected with humanity’s recognition of its mortality.
Both authors respond to the possible interpretations of their novels simply as science fictional works that comment on the social and political issues of the day. In his 2005 interview to The Guardian, Ishiguro explains that although his main characters are clones, and one of the novel’s significant themes is a warning against the dangers of cloning, the interpretations of the novel should not be limited to it. What he is really interested in his characters is “how are they trying to find their place in the world and make sense of their lives? To what extent can they transcend their fate? As time starts to run out, what are the things that really matter? Most of the things that concern them concern us all, but with them it is concentrated into this relatively short period of time.”  Similarly, anticipating that his Invitation to a Beheading could be perceived by the readers as an indictment of specific political regimes, Nabokov himself comments in the foreword to the 1959 English translation of his novel, “I composed the Russian original exactly a quarter of a century ago in Berlin, some fifteen years after escaping from the Bolshevist regime, and just before the Nazi regime reached its full volume of welcome. The question of whether or not my seeing both in terms of one dull beastly farce had any effect on the book, should concern the good reader as little as it does me.” Rising beyond the socio-political agenda of the day, both novels explore timeless and universal philosophical questions of human existence, including struggles of individuals to face the notion of their mortality.
Ishiguro poses multiple questions about the effects knowledge of one’s mortality has on a person. The principal of Hailsham Ms. Emily’s philosophy is not to reveal to the students the whole truth about their inevitable mortality. She believes that if they knew, they'd think everything in Hailsham and afterwards is pointless, and wouldn't listen to their guardians. However, one of the guardians Ms. Lucy holds the opposite view - if students knew the whole truth about how short their lives were going to be, they'd treasure every moment and live their lives more thoughtfully. Later on, when Tommy is hit with the sudden harsh realization of his inevitable and fast approaching death and separation from Kathy, he decides that Ms. Lucy was right and it would have been better to be told the whole truth honestly and from the start. But Kathy is not so sure, as their blissful ignorance bought the students a relatively happy and secure childhood, created those warm memories that they have been holding on to for the rest of their lives, gave them a chance to create their own journeys and fill them with their own meaning, even if the final destination was predetermined. Just like the “collections” they had back in Hailsham filled their rooms with unique and one-of-a-kind possessions, creating their sense of identity in otherwise sterile, cold, and institutionalized environment.
* * *
The protagonist of Invitation to a Beheading, Cincinnatus C. shares Tommy’s attitude toward his fate – he wants to know when exactly his life will end. Writing in his jail cell, he is paralyzed with his fear of execution, but most importantly with the fear of the unknown date when it’s supposed to take place. In this bizarre, warped world everyone, except him, seems to know the date of Cincinnatus’s upcoming execution, and refuses to divulge this information. Unlike Ms. Emily in Never Let Me Go, who believes she acts in the best interest of her students and protects them from the knowledge she thinks would harm them, the world around Cincinnatus does not care to show mercy or sympathy to him, at least from Cincinnatus’s perspective, as they deem him a dangerous criminal for his crime of “gnostical turpitude”. Not knowing when his last hour might come, tormented by the unknown, Cincinnatus is struggling to express himself in writing and shares with his unknown but trusted reader that “the torture comes when you say to yourself, ‘Yesterday there would have been enough time’ – and again you think, ‘If only I had begun yesterday…’”
Similarly to the characters of these novels, most of us learn at a fairly young age the concept of human mortality, but if we really understood as children how short life is going to be, if we realized it just as clearly as we do when we get much older, would we live our lives more thoughtfully, avoid mistakes, make different choices? Would it benefit us if we knew the exact time and place of our death right from the beginning? Or would we lose something very important from the experience of living if that information were available to us in advance? And how would that knowledge affect our desire to create?
Characters of both novels live in condensed, confined spaces and circumstances, all of which could be metaphorically interpreted as symbols of human temporary existence on Earth – government assigned boarding schools and orphanages, cramped and rundown quarters and tenements that don’t belong to them, and institutions where they are placed involuntarily. Both Ishiguro and Nabokov express the transient nature of human existence through the settings that house the characters temporarily and disappear or crumble over time. Whether they enjoy, despise or feel indifferent toward their surroundings, the characters can’t see the world beyond them or envision their life elsewhere. When they grow up, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth feel nostalgic about Hailsham and the Cottages, locations of their childhood and youth, and tolerate the apartments, hospitals, and recovery centers, where they are destined to live as adult clones. Cincinnatus C. from his very first days never belongs, never fits in with the environments where he is placed, assigned, and transferred – an orphanage, a toy factory, a kindergarten, and finally a prison. In the end, Hailsham disappears never to be found and Cincinnatus’s prison falls apart with the whole fake world that he leaves behind.
Ishiguro metaphorically describes every stage of human life through a certain location where Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth are placed for every period of their existence. In Hailsham (their childhood) they feel safe, secure, and if not loved, then taken good care of; in the Cottages (youth, college years) they are disoriented, hopeful, scared, excited and burdened by the freedom they are not used to; in the apartments they inhabit while working as “carers’” (adulthood) Tommy, and Ruth become frustrated and disillusioned and Kathy adjusts and tries to make the best of her life; and finally, donating their organs in the hospitals and recovery centers (older age), they get tired and resolved about their ultimate fate. Just as people are transitioning from one stage of life to the next, the clones receive each location for a temporary use and it’s taken away from them in due time. All along the characters know that as clones, their purpose is to donate organs and “complete” after the fourth donation. But despite this knowledge, the clones in Never Let Me Go spend their whole lives searching for their identities, place in the world, meaning behind their existence, trying to establish connections with others and change their fates. Their persistent quest parallels the lives and struggles of humans – just like Ishiguro’s characters, we keep searching for answers, because knowing one’s purpose and assigned destination is not the same as knowing oneself.
Nabokov’s Cincinnatus C., an opaque writer in the bizarre world of transparent philistines, also goes through stages of life lodging in the temporary tenements assigned to him by the state. However, unlike Ishiguro’s characters, he knows his identity and spends his whole life trying to hide it from those around him. In his transparent world it is punishable by law to be opaque, and Cincinnatus lives his life pretending, wearing masks, trying his best to fit in. But the world always suspects – in the orphanage, the toy factory, the kindergarten where he is assigned to teach, and finally he is caught, sentenced to death, and sent to prison to wait for the execution date. The novel takes place in Cincinnatus’s prison cell where he remembers his past, deals with his guards, lawyers, and executioners with almost identical names and faces, struggles to find out the exact day of his execution, and hopelessly dreams of an escape, which is just as impossible as the “deferral” Tommy and Kathy are hoping for – there are no deferrals from death and no way to escape it. But unlike Ishiguro’s characters who accept their fate in the end, Cincinnatus when faced with his execution, wills away and destroys the world of his tormentors, walking away to join “beings akin to him,” thus the end of the novel is left open to the readers’ interpretation.
Both authors metaphorically trace the transient nature of human lives in the world where characters are placed temporarily and not by their will, left to their own devices and confronted with the horrors and the joys of life, struggling to make sense of their own existence and the world around them, knowing that all of this will inevitably come to an end. This realization of one’s mortality urges the characters to create in order to make sense of their lives, as well as establish meaningful connections with others through the process of artistic creation.
Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth are trying to find their identity and place in the world through creating art. In fact, all Hailsham students are encouraged to create for "the Gallery" and in the process of creation, they compete, strive to improve, see their works through the eyes of Madame who makes the art selections - is it good enough for the Gallery? - and look down on those who refuse to play the game. Reflecting on her childhood, Kathy recalls that “a lot of the time, how you were regarded at Hailsham, how much you were liked and respected, had to do with how good you were at ‘creating.’” She explains that each other’s art was their only means “to build up a collection of personal possessions,” and each of them desperately needed to create a unique identity that would stand out in their otherwise institutionalized pre-set lives. “Being dependent on each other to produce stuff that might become your private treasures – that’s bound to do things to your relationships.”
While Hailsham students are developing their identities through their artwork, those identities are limited by the ultimate goal they have - be recognized and acknowledged, get something they've created in the metaphorical museum. The goal is all too familiar to the readers for many of whom the sense of identity is defined by their achievements in various chosen fields, where they measure themselves against the success of the peers, and the commonly agreed upon institutions of recognition and awards are their undisputable "galleries." Human sense of self-worth, perception of whether we amounted to anything in life is pre-set for us and commonly agreed upon. Just like in the novel, where the students perpetuated their own stories about the Gallery and created the system of relationships and hierarchy based on one's success of getting his work in the gallery, we also create, agree upon, and self-impose the measures of success, through the lens of which we view our achievements in life.
Tommy is the only one who refuses to play the game. Maybe because he is told at an early age he is not good at it, maybe because he senses the falsehood and insincerity behind it. Later Kathy speculates that "maybe he always knew." She thinks the reason for his temper tantrums in childhood and teenage years and refusal “to be creative” is that he’s been always aware of the fakeness of the constructed reality they lived and could see the horror of donations and early death beyond it.
However, later in life, Tommy redefines his understanding of creativity and comes up with his own terms and his own distinct style. After moving to the Cottages, Tommy discovers his talent and starts creating not to impress peers and adults, but to express what he feels, to find his own humanity, to tell his own story, to make his existence bearable, to fill it with meaning. Tommy draws tiny “fantastical creatures,” which “for all their metallic features” have something sweet, even vulnerable about each of them” and he worries “how they are going to protect themselves, or be able to reach and fetch things.” Later he shows his work to Kathy and comes up with a purpose for his art that is just as false as what other students used to believe in back in Hailsham - to get it in the Gallery. Only now he has a new addition to this goal - to get a temporary deferral from donations through revealing one’s soul to Madame.
Tommy takes this path of false hope with Kathy, because they find each other, and desperately want to believe that their love is exceptional and can buy them more time together. As Tommy starts drawing with the purpose of getting his art in the Gallery, Kathy notices that his art is not as good any more as it used to be at first in the Cottages. “Tommy’s drawings weren’t as fresh now…. Something was definitely gone, and they looked labored, almost like they’d been copied.” His creativity is more stifled, forced, a pale copy of his original work, because he is creating for the wrong reason, not just to express himself, or tell a story, but to get his works in the Gallery. Of course the irony is that even his best and most authentic art later can't buy him an extra day or even an hour of life with Kathy. The ending of Ishiguro’s novel is heartbreaking and devastating, as the readers are reminded about their own inevitable mortality and separation from the loved ones. None of our accomplishments can buy us a single day of a “deferral”; however, genuine creations can fill our lives with meaning and joy.
While Ishiguro’s novel focuses on the struggles we face on different stages of our lives, leaving, to a large degree, the society outside the parentheses of an individual’s internal conflict, Nabokov’s Cincinnatus is in a permanent inherent conflict with those around him. Just like Tommy, Cincinnatus C. in Nabokov's novel has always seen the fake "transparent" world around him for what it is - a poorly acted play with crudely made props - and refuses to take part in it. He seems “pitch-black to others, as though he had been cut out of a cord-size block of night,” he is “opaque” and finds them “limited and translucent.” The conflict is so fundamental, that Cincinnatus is sentenced to death, as he refuses to “admit the error of his ways, admit that he is fond of the same things as [all other members of society] – for example, turtle soup for the first course.”
In this way, the novel can be read as a metaphorical story of a relationship between the artist and his oppressive totalitarian, bureaucratic, and aggressively philistine society. Although in the foreword to the novel Nabokov himself states that “the good reader” should not limit his interpretation of it to an indictment of specific political regimes, the theme of a conflict between an individual and an oppressive society undoubtedly exists in the novel. One can speculate whether the crude world around Cincinnatus described with Nabokov’s brutal satirical vision, mocks the Bolshevik Russia the author’s family escaped from in 1917 and the worst aspects of bourgeois societies Nabokov encounters and criticizes in Europe. Perhaps the author condemns not a few specific, but all oppressive, suffocating societies in the world. In this interpretation the ending of the novel can be either viewed as Cincinnatus’s execution or as his metaphorical emigration, an option akin to death for the emigrants of that era. Cincinnatus is executed for his crime of individuality and uniqueness in the society where everyone is required to be the same.
While in Ishiguro’s novel all characters in the end meet their predetermined death, the ending of Nabokov’s complex multilayered parable is left open to multiple interpretations – “how will it turn out… which will it be? A beheading or a tryst?” wonders about his last moment Cincinnatus. In one interpretation, the prison and all of Cincinnatus’s tormentors could be perceived as figments of his imagination, in which case it would be clear why during his execution, he asks himself “Why am I here?”, gets up, slowly descends from the platform and walks away, while the platform collapses, and his jailors and executioner become “many times smaller,” “everything is coming apart,” “two-dimensional trees” are “ripping the mesh of the sky,” and Cincinnatus makes his way towards “beings akin to him.” This interpretation would suggest a conflict between the artist and the world, the lonely “imprisonment” of a creative soul surrounded by “transparent” simpletons and philistines, who “speak a different language” and are incapable of understanding the artist’s “opacity.” It would be a story with a happy end, where the main character does not die, but wakes up from a nightmare. However, other details Nabokov scatters in the text, suggest that there could be another interpretation of the novel’s ending where after the life of struggles and an inherent conflict with the outside world, the protagonist meets his predetermined death. “The shadow of [the executioner’s] swing running along the boards'” after which Cincinnatus experiences the clarity that he’s never known before, “at first almost painful,” the pale librarian on the steps “doubled up, vomiting” – all of these details point at the fact that the execution most likely takes place or, in other words, Cincinnatus’s life ends and his soul departs to join other beings “akin to him.”
The philosophical message of Invitation to a Beheading in all its complexity through timeless and universal themes of a relationship between the individual and society conveys the struggles of an individual to be understood, to connect with kindred spirits, to defend oneself from obtrusive advances of those he does not want to associate with, the realization of one’s self and one’s inevitable mortality, fear of death and desire to know when and where it will happen, and most importantly the role one’s art plays in the process of defining and expressing oneself, establishing connections with likeminded individuals, and leaving a mark on the world. The fundamental conflict between Cincinnatus and his immediate philistine surroundings as well as his realization of his imminent death, spurs his need to find a kindred spirit, someone who living in a different time and/or place, will understand and connect with him, a likeminded reader, “a being akin to him.” And Cincinnatus is seeking this connection through his writing. In this way, Invitation to a Beheading explores an individual’s need to create, while facing one’s mortality. Being afraid that he might run out of time, pouring his stream of consciousness on paper, constantly digressing, and losing his train of thought, Cincinnatus writes frantically, trying to convey his feelings, yet struggling to express them in words on paper. He never feels satisfied with what he’s written, and, ironically, only decides he is ready to write something of value when his time runs out and his executioner arrives to take him away. Cincinnatus hopes that “some day someone would read it and would suddenly feel just as if he had awakened for the first time in a strange country,” this writing would “make him suddenly burst into tears of joy, his eyes would melt, and, after he experiences this, the world will seem to him cleaner, fresher.” In his agony, Cincinnatus creates an intimate and emotionally vulnerable but disjoined diary, addressed to the reader who will one day make sense of it all and empathize with the author’s pain. Nabokov conveys the challenges an artist faces, trying to express himself to his readers, “ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,” flinging “gossamer threads” till they “catch somewhere.”
The readers can almost physically feel Cincinnatus’s fear of death and longing for freedom through the symbols of the spider and the moth. The fake spider is placed in Cincinnatus’s cell, at times looks very real and is even fed by the jailors, however turns out to be “crudely but cleverly made” with “a round plush body with twitching legs made of springs.” The spider is compared to Cincinnatus’s simpleminded, materialistic, unfaithful, and cruel wife Marthe, who devours his soul just like the spider seems to be devouring flies, before Cincinnatus realizes that the creature is fake. On the other hand, the moth is real and alive, a “splendid insect” with heavy “visionary wings” that seem to outbalance its body, with “gentle firmness” and “unyielding gentleness” that seem to fascinate Cincinnatus. He feels a connection with the moth that his jailors are afraid of and knows that after he is gone, the moth will fly away in the open window. The moth, like Cincinnatus’s soul will be free, whether the execution takes place in reality or is Cincinnatus’s dream. He will connect with beings “akin to him” through his writing that will reveal his soul to a likeminded reader one day. Interpreting Invitation to a Beheading as a meditation on life and struggles of an individual, attempting to defy death through creating and connecting with other individuals, one can appreciate the philosophical complexity of the themes developed in this novel. In his foreword, Nabokov himself describes his novel as “a violin in a void” and expresses the hope that just like Cincinnatus’s writings, Invitation to a Beheading will find its kindred reader, even though many might turn away from it, “I know a few readers who will jump up, ruffling their hair.”
So why do people create if they know that even the best art cannot buy them another minute of life and no accomplishments of the greatest men in the world can ever secure them "a deferral" from death? Murakami’s naïve yet insightful teenage character May Kasahara, answers her own question about the effect knowing one’s mortality has on an individual – “people have to think seriously about what it means for them to be alive here and now because they know they are going to die sometime. Who would think about what it means to be alive if they were just going to go on living forever? So we need death to make us evolve. Death is this huge, bright thing, and the bigger and brighter it is, the more we have to drive ourselves crazy thinking about things.”
Ishiguro and Nabokov explore in their respective novels multiple aspects of human identity and convey the idea of mortality being a motivator for human need to create. Addressing in his essay the fundamental question “Why does one write?” Sartre focuses on the importance of the relationship between the writer and the reader, the connection the text builds between them. Ishiguro’s and Nabokov’s novels also attempt to answer, offering their take on the subject. These two authors suggest that we create our most genuine, delicate, beautiful works, not despite our knowledge of mortality, but because of it. Tommy for a short period creates just for himself, and that is his best art, according to Kathy. Cincinnatus writes for that kindred spirit out there beyond the fake world where he is imprisoned. We produce that "filament" out of our souls to connect with the world, to fill the void, to create meaning, to prolong life through our creations. As Sartre puts it, “with every word I utter, I involve myself a little more in the world, and by the same token I emerge from it a little more, since I go beyond it toward the "future. Something will stay after we are gone, something will disappear, but what really matters is to keep searching, connecting, filling our lives with meaning before we "complete".
1 Sartre, Jean-Paul. “What Is Writing?”. Essays in Existentialism. (New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1993), 303.
2 Whitman, Walt. “A Noiseless Patient Spider”. Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. n. d. Lines 3-10. (Accessed Jan. 17, 2014).
3 Murakami, Haruki. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Trans. Jay Rubin. (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 258.
4 Ishiguro, Kazuo. “Interview with Nicholas Wroe”. The Guardian. Unlimited Book Review.19 Feb. 2005. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/feb/19/fiction.kazuoishiguro> (Accessed Jan. 18, 2014).
5 Nabokov, Vladimir. Invitation to a Beheading. Trans. Dmitri Nabokov. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 5.
6 Ibid., 52.
7 Ibid., 223.
8 Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), 16.
9 Ibid. ,16.
10 Ibid., 188.
11 Ibid., 241.
12 Nabokov, Vladimir. Invitation to a Beheading. Trans. Dmitri Nabokov. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 25, 26.
13 Ibid., 154.
14 Ibid., 5.
15 Ibid., 67.
16 Ibid., 222, 223.
17 Ibid., 222, 223.
18 Ibid., 51, 52.
19 Whitman, Walt. “A Noiseless Patient Spider”. Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. n. d. Lines 8-10. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174741> (Accessed Jan. 17, 2014).
20 Nabokov, Vladimir. Invitation to a Beheading. Trans. Dmitri Nabokov. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 210.
21 Ibid., 204, 206.
22 Ibid., 8.
23 Murakami, Haruki. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Trans. Jay Rubin. (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 228.
24 Sartre, Jean-Paul. “What Is Writing?”. Essays in Existentialism. (New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1993), 320.
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