Sunday, August 01, 2004

The Compass an' the Atlas

Well crap. I was already planning an essay on David Mitchell's work (see post from 7/30), but now I see an opening for another. I have yet to finish Cloud Atlas (damn you, Interpretation of Dreams!!!), but I just finished the pivotal chapter and, I must say, he does a wonderful job tying together everything he's trying to do. It'll be a treat as he now begins to unravel it all again. The first 60% of the book is strongly hinting at destiny and inevitability, as if to say, "Humanity is one a one-way course and there's nothing you can do about it." Well, what he actually does say is,

I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o' that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds.

I interpret this passage to hint at a sort of undeniable destiny. We, as humans don't know where the future is going and that we have no control over it. It's in the hands of god, or in this case, "Sonmi." The first part of the quote equates the human soul to clouds. It then details that humanity may not know where either clouds or souls are headed. But God does know, and that knowledge is what is here referred to as "the atlas o' clouds." Consider that an atlas is a form of knowledge of where physical geography is planned detailed. The locations in an atlas don't change and there is nothing anyone can do to alter the truth of an atlas without altering the geography of the earth along with it. We don't have that power. Now consider that Mitchell is suggesting in this passage the possibility that the course of clouds (and therefor souls) is already planned out and detailed in a factual manner in the same way an atlas details geographical features. In other words, there is a true destiny and it is inalterable. However, if that was really Mitchell's ultimate message, he could damn well end the book here.

Instead, I think he'll go on to deconstruct this sense of destiny in the book's second half. I'm basing this assumption purely as how it relates to themes present in his first novel, Ghostwritten, where the characters and stories intersect in an attempt to show that they way they touch and alter each other, ever so subtly, all contribute to ultimately shape the future in ways that are not at all obvious. Hence, he portrays a sense of destiny--or rather, you get the sense that events cannot come out differently than they end up given who these people are. Yet the end of Ghostwritten speaks strongly of choice and being able to shape the future for the good of mankind. Ultimately, Zookeeper learns that there are many divergent paths--he doesn't have to act in one way; his programming is not so hard and fast that it doesn't allow for decisions and choice, however strict and clear-cut the guidelines may have seemed initially.

I think Mitchell will go the same route in Cloud Atlas. As the characters' stories finish, I think we'll get from them something we did not get from their first half--that each and every character was able to shape his or her own destiny, and that human nature is not bound to the track that will lead them to "Sloosha's Crossing." As Mitchell puts it,

List'n, savages an' Civ'lizeds ain' divvied by tribes or b'liefs or mountain ranges, nay, ev'ry human is both, yay. Old Uns'd got the Smart o' gods but the savagery o' jackals an' that's what tripped the Fall.

Now that I look at this quote standing alone, it isn't quite as obvious what I mean as it is within the context of the story, so let me offer a brief explanation of what I think the quote is getting at. Simply put, there are two sides to human nature: civilized and savage. Each person has both natures within him/her, and it is the nature that he/she acts on that decides the course that person's life. Similarly, every individual culture has the same division within the identity of the culture. Some cultures lean more toward savagery and some more toward civilization depending on how the balance of that culture's members. Ultimately, this implies that humanity in general also has this dual nature, and whether humanity ends up being savage or civilized depends on the ratio of savery to civilization of the cultures that combine to make up the human race. So, though it may start with the personal choice of a single person, that one choice has the potential to affect all humanity. Now, Mitchell seems to show the future in Cloud Atlas as inevitable. Yet by speaking as he does in this passage, he's implying that though it may seem insignificant at the time, there really is choice in how the future will unfold, and each person is a part of that choice that humanity as a whole will eventually have to make.

This isn't meant to be a full-fledged essay, I'm not even done with the book. Rather, it should at least remind me in the future of a point I'd like to develop more thorougly.

To anyone who reads this, I apologize for subjecting you to what is really no more than an exercize to work out the thoughts I'm having on the subject before they disappear.


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