18 January 2013

Cloud Atlas, or What is Reality?

I'm not gonna lie. David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is a difficult book for me to understand, and even more difficult to write about.  I don't struggle in this way very often.  Now, it could be the book, or my head all muddled still from various winter maladies necessitating lots of prescription medication.  Three cheers for albuterol!

Extremely philosophical and complex, but worth it.

Cloud Atlas is a series of six nested stories - each one linked to the previous... and the subsequent.  Taking place in the mid-19th century, with various stops along the way, ending (or pausing midway, depending on how you think about it) in a post-apocalytic era several hundred years hence.  Each story stops partway through itself beforing launching into the next.  And then they all collapse back again.  It's like paper dolls - all folded up - and then expanding.... and then collapsing back on themselves. Or two mirrors looking at each other, into infinity.  Or Matryoshka dolls. Or Mise-en-abyme.

Each tale is about power and control: colonial whites over native peoples.  Big corporations over the individuals who expose the truth.  Society's warehousing of the elderly.  Genuine humans over clones. 

Cloud Atlas is a climb from the past to the present and into the future. Zenith. The view from the top. Then a climb back down to the present, and back to the past.  Everything is connected.

One of the most difficult themes it tries to unpack is "real" history versus "virtual" history:
The workings of the actual past + the virtual past may be illustrated by an event well known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic.  The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish + the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave.  Yet a virtual sinking of the Titanic, created from reworked memories, papers, hearsay, fiction - in short, belief - grows ever "truer."  The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficut to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.  The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of the will.  Power seeks + is the right to "landscape" the virtual past. (He who pays the historian calls the tune.) (p. 392-393)
Consider: what is more "real" to you?  Thinking about the actual sinking of the Titanic... (an event that happened before all of us existed) or watching James Cameron's Titanic?  Which causes more emotion in you?  Which hits closer to home?  Which one makes you cry?  What is "real"-ness?

Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ explores this "real" versus "virtual" reality.  As he is hanging on the cross, Satan offers Jesus the choice to not die by the Crucifixion, but instead to live out an ordinary life.  He chooses the ordinary life, with marriage, a family, growing old.  Much later in this alternate life, he chances upon Paul preaching about a Risen Christ, the Savior.  This not-crucified-Jesus protests to Paul that he is none of those things... that it never happened... he never died, and never rose.  And Paul replies,

You see, you don't know how much people need God. You don't know how happy He can make them. He can make them happy to do anything. Make them happy to die, and they'll die, all for the sake of Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God. The Messiah. Not you. Not for your sake. You know, I'm glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you. My Jesus is much more important and much more powerful [emphasis mine]. 
In this alternate reality, Jesus of Nazareth the myth is the only story, but it has a tremendous power nonetheless, because others are caught up in Paul's faith. He believes it so MUCH, it must be TRUE!  Even today, I have heard theologians discuss that St. Paul's development and expansion of the message of Christianity, his impact on the development of actual Christianity, the way it took hold, especially among Gentiles, is nearly equal to the ministry of Christ himself.

I know, I sound like a heretic.  Stay with me.

Notice: spoiler alert!

Sonmi-451, the "fabricant" (clone) in Nea So Copros (futuristic Korea), ultimately is not the messiah she appears to be.  She is a cog in the wheel, colluding with the power structure, Unanimity, to "generate the show trial of the decade." (p. 348)  When asked why Sonmi would cooperate in such a conspiracy, she responds,
We see a game beyond the endgame.  I refer to my Declarations [her manifesto], Archivist.  Media has flooded Nea So Copros with my Catechisms.  Every schoolchild in corpocracy knows my twelve "blasphemies" now.  My guards tell me there is even talk of a statewide "Vigilance Day" against fabricants [clones] who show signs of the Declarations.  My ideas have been reproduced a billionfold. (p. 349) 
Hundreds of years after the "life" of Sonmi, she is worshipped as a goddess and savior.

Be careful of the truth you choose to believe as gospel.

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