A Walk in the Clouds of Cloud Atlas, Part 2

The film version of Cloud Atlas—directed by Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola Run) and the Wachowski siblings of The Matrix fame—has a scene that does not appear in the novel, featuring Hugo Weaving as Boardman Mephi of the Corpocracy, played with the same insouciant malevolence Weaving brought to the Agent Smith role in The Matrix. Mephi tells Sonmi 451, “The problem you create is a political one.” Her “thoughts terrify the whole of Unanimity,” and thus she must be summarily “excised,” the term “canceled” apparently having fallen into disuse in this future dystopia, though the logic is identical with our “unanimities” today.

The moral-political teaching as it appears in the six disparate story lines of Cloud Atlas is impossible to summarize at any reasonable length. But it is not necessary. Despite their different timelines, circumstances, characters, literary genre, and plot, all six are the same story on the level of thought.

It suffices to summarize the moral-political arc of the full novel with Adam Ewing, the character who begins and ends the book and summarizes its teaching in the final installment of his journal. Confronting the prospect of barbarism overtaking civilization (and his specific experience of nearly falling victim to a seemingly civilized man who turns out to be a homicidal maniac) that runs throughout the novel summons to mind John Stuart Mill’s observation in On Liberty that the process of ascending from barbarism to civilization is not irreversible:

If civilisation has got the better of barbarism when barbarism had the world to itself, it is too much to profess to be afraid lest barbarism, after having been fairly got under, should revive and conquer civilisation. A civilisation that can thus succumb to its vanquished enemy, must first have become so degenerate, that neither its appointed priests and teachers, nor anybody else, has the capacity, or will take the trouble, to stand up for it.

The final entry in Ewing’s journal notes: “Scholars discern motions in history & formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises & falls of civilizations. My belief runs contrary however. To wit: history admits no rules; only outcomes. What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.”

Each of the six stories involves involuntary servitude or violent domination of some kind, leading up to the other half of Ewing’s tale, where he makes arrangements in the South Pacific to expand trade from island slave plantations. A cynical European expat tells him early on that “If there is no God west of the Horn, why there’s none of your constitution’s All men are created equal neither, Mr. Ewing.” The final scene of the book finds Ewing, back in a paneled San Francisco drawing room and having survived the attempted homicide against him with the help of “a self-freed slave,” reversing course and announcing his decision to move east and join the Abolitionist cause. This aspect of the book’s message reminds of Jefferson’s famous line:

The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view, the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others.

Ewing chooses virtue and the path of justice, which he asserts as a matter of belief, but admits “I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real.” The suggestion that constitutional government the best possible answer we’ve ever come up with for the profound problems vividly portrayed in Cloud Atlas would land with a thud in a literary work of this grand sweep (though Mitchell does invite this observation with Ewing’s line, "The nation-state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions”). The mood of Cloud Atlas, which as noted references Solzhenitsyn several times, is closer to Solzhenitsyn’s remark in his Nobel Prize speech: “Who else but writers shall condemn their incompetent rulers . . . Lies can prevail against much in this world, but never against art.” Cloud Atlas certainly qualifies as high art, of the kind Dostoevsky had in mind with his statement that “Beauty will save the world.” Cloud Atlas is an extraordinarily beautiful novel.

Equally beautiful is the three-hour film version released in 2012. It is amazing that anyone would back a film version (several financial backers backed out along the way). The movie bombed at the box office when it came out in 2012, but perhaps like the original Blade Runner, another poor performer on initial release, Cloud Atlas will yet be recognized for the masterpiece it is. (Curious fact: the five-minute trailer on YouTube shown above has drawn 22 million views, far more than ever saw the movie in a theater.)

Like any film adaptation of a complicated story, the filmmakers had to compress and modify the novel in significant ways. There was no way the film could follow the book as written. It would make no sense. And as a practical matter, casting top actors for roles in six separate stories would have been prohibitively expensive. So the filmmakers chose not only to interweave all six stories at a pace that can be hard to follow at times, but decided to cast the actors in the different lead parts of all six stories.

You have to pay close attention to spot the actors in the whirling, shifting story lines. Hugh Grant’s heavy makeup and prosthetics in one scene makes him look like James Caan. Halle Berry’s main role is an investigative reporter in the 1970s thriller-mystery sequence, but she also plays a German-Jewish woman in another story, and is completely unrecognizable in a third story in the minor role as an elderly Asian male doctor. Korean actress Doona Bae plays the pivotal character Sonmi 451, but also portrays a Hispanic woman in the 1973 sequence, and Adam Ewing’s American wife in the closing scene. Several male actors briefly play female roles (Hugo Weaving makes a convincing Nurse Ratched figure).

This casting scheme led to predictable complaints from some of the usual identity grievance groups, chiefly about white actors playing Asian roles (James D’Arcy, Jim Sturgess, Grant, Weaving), showing the unerring and clueless instinct of the stupidly politicized for missing the point of mixing the races in the story lines. This technique of having the same actors appear in all six stories transforms the overall effect and adds a filament of continuity and unity that would have been impossible with separately cast actors.

What is coincidence or happenstance in the book becomes reincarnation and karma in the movie. Rather than reincarnation, though, it can still be seen as Nietzsche's "eternal recurrence" of human types, despite widely different historical settings and circumstances (again an anti-historicist point that rejects the malleability of human nature). Grant and Weaving play the widest spread of characters—all of them evil, reminding us that some human types are always irredeemable. Tom Hanks’s character range is mixed as are all human beings: an cold-blooded murderer in one, a murderous street thug in another, an earnest do-gooder in the third, a coward turned hero in another, and the sage narrator of the whole story at the end. Hanks’s odyssey reminds us that the capacity for good and evil runs through every human heart, and thus exalts the centrality of choice over all the determinist axioms of modern times.

Like the book, the film rewards patience and demands close (and definitely repeat) viewing. Timothy Cavendish, the central character of the third story, tries to overcome the natural suspicion of such a complicated structure at the opening of the film version. Admitting “a disdain for flashbacks and flash-forwards, and all such tricksy gimmicks, I believe that if you dear reader can extend your patience for just a moment, there is a method to this tale of madness.” A careful reader and attentive moviegoer will be amply rewarded.

And even if the book, as usual, is superior to the film, here and there the film—in many ways, a gloss on the novel, giving Mitchell's book its own karmic recurrence—adds an original touch that captures its essence with the succinctness film requires. At the end of Sonmi 451’s “interview” right before her execution, which she accepts with the equanimity of Katow at the end of Malraux’s Man’s Fate, the Archivist asks his final question: “And what if no one believes this ‘truth’?”

Sonmi looks knowingly at the plainly shaken Archivist (superbly acted through thick prosthetics by James D’Arcy), and answers: “Someone already does.”

I do.

A Walk in the Clouds of Cloud Atlas, Part 1

I read very little contemporary fiction, on the view that there isn’t time, given the classic literature I still haven’t read, not to mention the torrent of current non-fiction I try to follow. Still less am I inclined to read any contemporary fiction that might be colorably considered “postmodern.”

So why would I read David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, especially after trying, on airplane flight several years ago, to watch the confusing and borderline incoherent movie based on the book? What’s going on here? Is this some kind of wacky reincarnation story? An overcooked Eastern mystic “everything-is-connected-to-everything-else” pastiche? Did Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, Hallie Berry, Hugo Weaving, and the rest of the all-star cast get six separate salaries for the six different parts they each played? (The movie’s budget was north of $100 million.)

But here I was a few weeks back, reading Michael Walsh’s concluding chapter to his edited collection Against the Great Reset: Eighteen Theses Contra the New World Order, and came across this:

So entrenched is “transgressive” art that the creative community now bears more than a little resemblance to the sham battles between Union and Unanimity in the “Orison of Somni 451” chapters of David Mitchell’s brilliant 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas. Even those who think they are rebels in fact are being manipulated by government power designed to present the illusion of debate, disagreement and, when necessary, outright rebellion.

Michael added in a helpful footnote:

The 2012 film adaptation defensibly omits this final realization on Sonmi’s part. The audience has become so invested in her parlous slavery, dramatic escape, heroic defiance, and her tragic death would have negated the movie’s overall tone and message.

As it happens, Michael Walsh is not the only Michael who has told me I should read Cloud Atlas. Michael Shellenberger has been saying the same thing to me for several years.

David Mitchell.

So I duly sat down and read it. The Committee of Esteemed Michaels are right: Cloud Atlas is a work of genius, though it does require some careful attention and effort by the reader, similar to James Joyce. I think it has a chance to become the Moby Dick of our age, likely read with interest a century from now and beyond. Moreover I think it is a profoundly small-"c" conservative book, explicitly rejecting the background noise of so-called “progressivism”—the twin pillars of historicism and nihilism—and defending natural right, though this is possibly no purpose of the author. Rather, like all great art, it is an imaginative mirror of nature, in this telling once again “red in tooth and claw.”

The novel comprises six separate stories and timelines spread over five centuries, each with a distinct story genre and prose style, making for an initially jarring reading experience. The first four stories feel familiar because they all belong to the recognizable past or present. The first is a Herman Melville-style ocean-going explorer’s yarn set in 1849 (there are distinct echoes of Typee and Omoo); the second is an interwar take on a striving classical composer whose eventual suicide reminds slightly of Stefan Zweig of The World of Yesterday; the third a Chandleresque thriller-suspense mystery set in 1970s San Francisco; the fourth a comic farce about a slovenly, disreputable London publisher whose later fictionalized film account of his involuntary institutionalization set in 2012 becomes an unlikely bridge to the distant future—a suggestion that it is not necessarily “classic” literature or philosophy that can command consciousness.

The last two stories are set in far distant time—one a dystopian sci-fi tale set in “New Seoul,” Korea, 200 years from now, in which genetically engineered humans known as “fabricants” exist as a brainwashed slave class to serve the materialist needs and desires of “natural” born “pure bloods.” The regime type is self-consciously known as the “Corpocracy,” guided by the ideology of “The Unanimity.” This section reads more vividly amidst our increasingly conformist universities of today, and especially in the aftermath of our recent Covid regime. (The “Corpocracy” of New Seoul is a “bio-state” complete with “DNA sniffers” to detect social deviance through biological markers.)

The prophet of rebellion is fabricant Sonmi 451 (the number surely an homage to Ray Bradbury). She is being interrogated about her views just prior to her execution by an “Archivist” who represents the Unanimity—an homage to Winston Smith’s interrogator O’Brien in 1984 just as “The Unanimity” parallels Big Brother. The Archivist asks Sonmi for “her version of the truth,” to which Sonmi replies: “Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths.” Try saying this on a college campus today, and watch how fast you are cancelled. The bedrock principle of the novel is the metaphysical freedom of the human mind and the importance of individual choice. It implicitly rejects all modern ideologies of a historical dialectic, the easy progressivism of “the right side of history,” and the concomitant leftist materialism that individual choice has no effect amidst the larger forces determining our future. Our universe is not simply random, reduced to matter in motion.

Sonmi 451 ( Doona Bae).

In the film version Sonmi goes on to explain: “’You can maintain power over people as long as you give them something. Rob a man of everything, and that man will no longer be in your power.’” The Archivist knows the reference: “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 20th-century philosopher, complete works banned by Unanimity. How do you know about him?” One of her seditious thoughts: “No matter if we are born in a tank or a womb, we are all pureblood. We must all fight, and if necessary die, to teach people the truth.” Just as Lincoln might have put it to Douglas—or at a futuristic Gettysburg.

The final story line in the chronology, though appearing as a complete, standalone central chapter of the book (all the other story lines come in two separate installments), is set in the distant future, and written in a made-up, oral tradition language that takes a while for the reader to grasp. What would Leo Strauss make of this placement and the linguistic equivalent of a “new mode and order” of storytelling?

It features a post-apocalyptic scene set some centuries after the “Corpocracy” has somehow ended—whether through war or revolution is left vague, though Sonmi’s manifesto had some important role in it, like Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet Union. But there was “The Fall” (apparently a global nuclear war whose contamination threatens the survival of the human race, but clearly redolent of the original Fall of Man of the Old Testament), leaving a handful of primitive survivors on the big island of Hawaii. These survivors are split between a peaceful agrarian and pietistic clan who follow the dimly understood teachings of the prophet Sonmi, and a barbaric, cannibalistic tribe they preys on the former in the most violent and gruesome ways. This is a callback to the opening story of novel set in 1849, where the seafaring American lawyer Adam Ewing observes two indigenous South Pacific tribes of similarly contrasting impulses, with the warlike tribe slaughtering the peaceful tribe. Ewing writes in his diary: “What moral to draw? Peace, though beloved of our Lord, is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbors share your conscience.”

But somewhere in this distant post-apocalyptic world of the central story there are a handful of technologically advanced survivors too, who periodically travel to the island on their fusion-powered ships for some mysterious purpose only slowly disclosed. In other words, barbarism in the state of nature remains a fundamental prospect no matter the state of technology or “progress.” No sentimental Rousseau to be found in this grand sweep of several centuries.

Many readers, and especially viewers of the film version that differs from the book in significant ways (as film adaptations must do), primarily take away a theme of reincarnation or the unity of the soul over time. But even if the filmmakers saw it this way, the rich moral-political teaching is more central to the book, and it survives in the film version. That so many readers and viewers miss this is another indicator of the mis-education of our time. This will be the subject of the second installment tomorrow.