"Klara and the Sun": On Friendship and Being Seen
On Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel, the existence of the soul, and what makes for a great friendship.
I speak with my aunt far more often than I used to, now that she is no longer alive. When she was here, with us in the material sense that makes modern thinkers comfortable when considering existence, she and I talked with each other often, at length, and about an ever-widening range of topics. Given that I (wherever I was in the world) could connect with her (wherever she was in the world) with the ease of thumbing the FaceTime app on my phone, and all we needed to ensure a conversation was to line up our timetables and time zones, I would go a few weeks or months without saying much to her until the next videocall. Now that there are no videocalls, no “next time I hear from her”, I tell her what I am thinking a few times every few days; in spite of her corporeal absence, she is no less responsive.
I am hesitant to describe the words that originate in my mind and which I ventriloquise into a mental representation of my beloved aunt as her “speaking” to me. It feels like reverse plagiarism, a fraud against one who cannot object. I suppose this is a problem with literalising the metaphysical and concretising the abstract; if I understand that the aunt I shared with my family and mutual friends is not actually speaking in these dialogues, then there is no problem, any more than when an author voices his character’s thoughts. The person on the page and the person in my head exist separately from the so-called “real people” running around reality. That said, while they are separate they are not entirely separable. My aunt in my head never recites neo-Nazi slogans – the figure of her that I create is constrained by the facts of the person it is modelled on.
Why do I carry on these monologues dressed up as dialogues? As with any facet of human existence, the reasons are multifarious: these silent conversations are salves against the loss of an important friend; they are second-rate but not ineffectual substitutes for conversations I used to enjoy; they offer the pleasures of being creative. Fundamentally, they satisfy a continuing need to see myself as others might see me. I am borrowing my aunt’s vantage point to examine my life, to interrogate a newly-formed belief or a choice to be made. This different lens is not only a way of circling the metaphysical object, like a camera capturing a sculpture all the way round; this lens is also bent to the curve of different values, each viewpoint offering an alternative judgment on what is seen.
I do this with the living too. When I lack the opportunity for an actual conversation with my father, I imagine pitting my left-leaning instincts against the scorn and scepticism of his conservative values. These conversations allow me to shed some of the self to view who I am through other eyes, and to improve on the person I see.
There are questions – is my career worthwhile? How do I reduce my environmental impact? Do I believe in feminism? – and there are Big Questions. These are returned to innumerable times, by thinkers from wildly diverse backgrounds, yielding a multitude of possible answers: What makes anything meaningful on the human scale, or on a cosmic scale? What is this moment’s place in history? One of the most fraught and fought over, repeatedly rephrased and posed to each era to trouble it in its quiet moments in the dark, reappears in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Klara and the Sun. Here is how he asks the question:
“Do you believe in the human heart? [...] I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think that there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?”
The speaker in the novel is addressing the titular Klara, an AF or Artificial Friend. She is conscious technology housed in a robotic body, purchased by a well-off mother for her sick – possibly dying – daughter, Josie. The hidden question at the core of the abstracted query is this: If Klara is able to “learn” Josie well enough, to replicate her character and mimic her convincingly, would she truly “become” Josie – or would some ineffable spark always be missing? If I were able to replicate my aunt fully enough in our imagined conversations, would she truly be “alive” again in some sense, absent a body but present in every other meaningful way? Or is there something as irreplaceable as it is near-impossible to define, some divine breath or spirit, a soul, a poetic heart, without which each person is merely something like Klara – conscious, interactive, complex, but disqualified from being, in Nietzsche’s phrasing, “all too human”?
In his review of Ishiguro’s novel, Edmund Gordon writes that “Ishiguro is much less a novelist of ideas than he is a virtuoso of mood music”. This is usually true of his books, but here in Klara, it is only strictly true if we draw a line between ideas and feelings. This is, in general, a productive distinction, but Ishiguro creatively blurs this line and allows thoughts to bleed into emotions, the heart to power the mind. To take one example: Klara is referred to as an AF. This is so unignorably close to the term we normally use when considering this type of technology (AI) that the F seems defiant, making itself noticed by design. Ishiguro is not interested in the relationship between intelligence and humanity; the salient feature of these robots is their ability to befriend us, their utility as companions.
Throughout the novel, Klara’s “remarkable” observational skills separate her from other AFs and distinguish her as a singular being. Yes, such observational ability is a matter of logic and processing, but it is used not in the expected manner of making rational calculations, but in making her a more intimate friend to young Josie. Her emotional value matters more than her computational abilities.
Sight is at the centre of Klara and the Sun, including the many ways we see and are seen. Much is made of the way that Klara’s visual field is divided into ever-changing combinations of boxes, into which squares of what she can see are arranged. Klara’s personal mythology, an “AF superstition”, involves the pseudo-deification of the sun, which is like the Son in which C S Lewis believed – because it is both seen and is the light by which everything else is seen. However, it is what Klara notices of what she sees that distinguishes her. Before accepting Klara in the role of her daughter’s friend, Josie’s mother subjects Klara to a test: She must demonstrate how attentively she has observed Josie by accurately mimicking her walk and other behaviours. Having demonstrated great proficiency in this task, it becomes Klara’s duty to watch over Josie, to learn her “tells” that indicate poor health, to cast a watchful eye over her when others cannot. Seeing is the foundation of their friendship.
It is the poet David Whyte’s belief that the greatest friendships are made of seeing each other, truthfully and in all lights, the best and the worst. In Consolations, Whyte peers into the concept of Friendship and finds that “the ultimate touchstone of friendship is witness”. What elevates a jovial bond to the transcendent nature of a true friendship is “the privilege of having been seen by someone, and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another”. The central insight he comes to is deeper than mere observation:
“Friendship not only helps us to see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us ... All friendships, of any length, are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness.”
Forgiveness is a doorway to a new self, to the possibility of someone we might become, to better versions of who we currently are. By granting us forgiveness, a friend frees us from the stricture of believing that our trespasses are as much as we can be, that we cannot grow beyond our sins. Freed by forgiveness, we flourish beyond who we were.
By seeking forgiveness, in prostrating ourselves not before a friend’s vanity or ego but before their wisdom and humanity, we step humbly down from the pedestal of pride that leads nowhere, and so find better routes forward. We free ourselves from the constraining illusion that we could never be someone who could hurt another in the way we have. We see the shadow in ourselves, but in our friends we see the light that casts it, and we are granted the choice to remain in darkness or to seek the sun.
By granting forgiveness, we embody and enact true friendship. As David Whyte points out, we serve our friends best “not through critique, but through addressing the better part of them ... thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves”.
What is Klara’s response to the question of whether there exists some numinous light in each person, ineffable and inimitable, that cannot be replicated? Her initial response is to observe Josie as closely as she can and seek out some latent soul-like quality. Her operational assumption is that a person “might be like a house with many rooms”, but that even the most labyrinthine mansion is ultimately finite. “Of course,” Klara concedes, “a human heart is bound to be complex. But it must be limited ... There’ll be an end to what there is to learn.”
If this is, in fact, the case, we have one more reason to be glad of our humanity, to be thankful that we do not possess the boundless capabilities of Artificial Intelligence. The poetic heart is so complex – its many outreaching arteries entwined with those of other hearts and creating exponential “strange loops” that form entirely new relations all the time – that we in our finite condition will never be able to know everything to the end. It is our inability to see in totality that gifts us with mystery; we are blessed with not knowing. How sad, how empty and final, how hollowing out of meaning it would be to have no more questions. I can never fully know another person, though I will enjoy the lifelong endeavour to know them as fully as I might.
By the end of the novel and the end of Klara’s looking, she has discovered an unexpected alternative response to the question of the human heart. Referencing a scientist who had searched and failed to find anything “special inside Josie that couldn’t be continued”, Klara expresses her own new conviction:
“I believe now he was searching in the wrong place. There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.”
Rather than being unified, singular, and contained within the individual, the soul is plural, cumulative, and scattered across the other people we meet and for whom we also carry a fragment of who they are. We are each the safekeeping of pieces of each other. The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty puts it most concisely: “I borrow myself from others.” This speaks to what might be the most fundamental human paradox, our ouroboros relationship between self and other, between the individual and the community. Each of us is contingent upon others, each individual dependent on the group, and the group itself does not exist without its constituent individuals.
None of us will ever know all of the parts that make up another person – all of the thoughts, deeds, beliefs, traits and quirks, and their whole history – but the fragment of them we keep is invaluable and deserves safeguarding. This, in the end, is the responsibility I carry alongside the joy of continuing the conversation with my absent aunt, as it is for all of my friendships – to carry forward the part of her and of everyone I love that lives in me.
Dedicated to Sara Jennings
• Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro (2021)
• Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche (1878)
• Faith in the Bildungs-robot, Edmund Gordon in “The Times Literary Supplement” (2021)
• Consolations, David Whyte (2014)
• Signs, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1960)