David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas”

2004

David Mitchell’s novel is probably the best thing I read all year. It was inspired by the interrupted narratives of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but completes all its stories in a nested cycle. This arrangement of narrative, like an onion sliced in half, seems to thematize a postmodern collapse of history and boundlessness of space, forcing us to move first from history to the present to the future, and then back again. Far from being a negative quality, however, Mitchell seems to explore this as a means of creating a story so large that even he, the author, cannot make all its pieces match up (vs. Nabokov). This reminds me of Auerbach on Woolf – the characters being beyond Woolf’s authorial scope, and I want to compare this to The Waves & The Golden Notebook as British novels in 6 voices.

The novel’s complex nuanced overlaps of the pages of the atlas Mitchell creates remind me of the opening critique of the hysterical realist novel by James Wood: Several of the main characters have the same distinctive birthmark, like a shooting star. Mitchell has said,

Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context..

Genealogy is also present throughout the text. Adam Ewing’s son Jackson edits the journals and is the person for whom Ewing wants to improve the world (he becomes an abolitionist). Luisa del Ray is rescued by her father’s friend. Zachry’s son ends the “Sloosha’s Crossin'” tale. Yet it is never a safe origin point, but rather a Foucauldian arrival point of results – it feels temporally lateral, and many  bonds are of affiliation rather than filiation, as in The Waves.

Another theme is the cloud atlas itself. Zachry ends his tale with “Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ the clouds” 308. Frobisher critiques Ewing’s journal for being too neatly structured (like Benito Cereno, but also Hawthorne’s birthmark theme?), but he doubts his own ‘gimmicky’ “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Luisa Rey receives the letters, but the novel she appears in is fictional in the world of Timothy Cavendish. His narration, later made into a film, is an actual film when Sonmi sees it. Finally, Zachry believes in Sonmi as a god, but his son watches her on the recovered orison and doesn’t understand her language – she is just “beaut’some, and she ‘mazes the littl’ uns an’ her murmin’s babbybie our babbits. Sit down a beat or two. Hold out your hands” 309. (A ‘babbit’ is an unthinking middle-class man, as in the title of Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 novel, the same year as Ulysses). This central “ending” questions the whole enterprise of narrative – it is both a force so powerful that it leads us to bind all these lives together, and something so fragile that time can erase its legibility completely.

The structure of Cloud Atlas:

1: Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1849 – American in Pacific Islands) – journal
2: Letters from Zedelghem (1931 – Englishman in Belgium) – epistolary
3: Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1975- American in LA) – detective novel
4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (2000 – Englishman in UK) – film script
5: An Orison of Sonmi-451 (2200? – clone in Korea) – interview
6: Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After (post-apocalyptic – islanders in Maui) – oral story
5: An Orison of Sonmi-451 – Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi; Zachry’s son’s children watch her orison.
4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish – Sonmi watches archived film version
3: Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery – Timothy Cavendish reads and critiques novel
2: Letters from Zedelghem – Sixsmith keeps them and Luisa Rey finds them
1: Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing – Frobisher finds in Ayrs’ library and figures out Henry’s plan (Melville)

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T.S. Eliot, “Tradition & the Individual Talent”

1921

Published in The Sacred Wood, this is probably Eliot’s most famous essay. In it he puts forth the argument for poetic “impersonality,” wherein the poet is the platinum in a refining catalytic reaction – he removes himself from the art he creates (think David Mitchell vs. Vladimir Nabokov?). In essence, though art itself does not get “better”- there is no teleological progression – it is nevertheless alchemical in that its material changes to suit its time. The model of disinterestedness is in the tradition of Kant and Flaubert as picked up in Joyce (the artist paring his fingernails). Some excerpts:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.

The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations. He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same.

Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

There remains to define this process of depersonalization and its relation to the sense of tradition. It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.

The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.

The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. But very few know when there is expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

Samuel Beckett, “Molloy,” “Endgame” & “Waiting for Godot”

MOLLOY, 1941/1953

Part of Beckett’s trilogy of novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, & The Unnameable), Molloy is split between two inner monologues, which are very similar. One is the wandering Molloy, who is living in his mother’s old room and waiting to die. He tells us he has arrived there by a long bicycle journey during which he killed a man in the woods. The second is Jacques Moran, a detective, who travels with his son Jacques to find Molloy. His son disappears and Moran returns home, where he begins using crutches (as Molloy does) and admits that “the voice told him to write the report.” The famous ending of the novel is: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining,” which is an assertion of madness, but also an meta-commentary on the capacities of fiction writing. It would be interesting to compare this to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – what the writer does and does not know, and how the reader might piece it together.

WAITING FOR GODOT, 1953

The play centers on Vladimir and Estragon, who stand waiting for a man named Godot on a road. They see Lucky (a slave “freed of expectations”) and Pozzo (whose name is a homonym for “crazy” in Italian) pass by and converse with them. If Stein foregrounds grammar in her experiments with language and repetition, Beckett works on them in speech – in the “dialogues” of his characters. Beckett’s plays engage an almost hysterical refusal of meaning and interpretation (as Estragon refuses to hear Vladimir’s dreams). A few memories persist in both plays, but the restrictive visual landscape of the sets and the flat refusal of regeneration (there are no women, or they are too old to procreate) discourage hope even as they incite the viewer to seek for ways out. It is thought to have had an especially strong influence on Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, whose title characters, according to Michael Billington, “are what Vladimir and Estragon would be in Elsinore.”

ENDGAME, 1957

Similar in structure to Waiting for Godot, Endgame uses a clock, rather than a road, to encourage its viewer to seek an arc or way out that is simply unavailable to the characters. The post-atomic landscape outside the high windows of the room inhabited by Clov, a servant who cannot sit, Hamm, a man who cannot see or stand, and Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, who have no legs and live in trashcans suggest a literal “leveling of the field” after modernism that would give on to the play of postmodern literature.

dir. Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner”

1982

Ridley Scott’s futuristic post-human adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is set in 2019 in Los Angeles. Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a “blade runner,” an assasin who is neither exactly vigilante nor part of the legal institutional framework, hired to kill “replicants” who have tried to return to Earth to live from the planet where they are slaves. As he falls in love with Rachel and tries to teach (program?) her about love even though he is supposed to kill her, the film leads us to question whether Deck himself, like Rachel, Pris, Zora, and Roy, is himself a replicant. The mixture of film noir and 1980s corporate culture with an imagined ‘future’ another 40 years hence (now almost the present!) suggests a concern not so much with the traditional noir anxiety about gender (though that is present as well), but humanity itself.

The “simulation city” of Scott’s imagination also has the dark, steamy fog and cramping light and space effects of film noir, where Rachel plays Joan Crawford to Dex’s Humphrey Bogart. It is carceral, hierarchized, and Foucauldian in its ‘futurism’ (not only in its surveillance, but in the brief lifespans of the “lower class” of replicants, which reminds me of what Foucault says about the bourgeois “cult of life” and trying to live forever). While the machines breathe and flicker like humans, naturalized, the humans are mechanical, robotic, unrecognizable in their humanity. The presentation of space renders the horizontality of LA as verticality, but often flatly – the opening scenes present the buildings as cutouts against the smog, the flying craft move in gridlike patterns (think of Deleuze & Guattari’s “striated space”), and the advertisements playing on the sides of high-rises are like the opening credits of Mad Men – massive plays on surface and the Jamesonian sublime (many of the products are real, too – like Coke). This LA has illegible foods and surfaces, saturated as it is with a melange of “Asian” cultures – bicycles, noodles, and characters from numerous Oriental languages.

The film engages intertextually with a wide range of other materials. As a reworking of Shelley’s Frankenstein, it at least materializes women (which that novel does not – Dr. Frankenstein throws the component female parts into the sea in a trunk). But it parallels the classic novel in presenting the rejected spawn of the scientist’s mind as “human” – returning in this case to beg for more life. His queer, campy brand of aestheticized violence and superhuman capabilities remind me of Omar in David Simon’s TV series The Wire, and like the gay murderer of Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, Scott provides another model for homosexual masculinity than effeteness. Many of the female characters are strikingly robotic and, in Pris’ case (Daryl Hannah as a sex slave), unintelligent, suggesting that men have “programmed” them that way, both literally and metaphorically. Like Pynchon’s Pierce Inverarity, who lives on “as a paranoia,” Tyrell’s death fails even to dent the monolith of social change is corporation has wrought.

It would be interesting to think about how the original ending of the film – with the unicorn sequence revealing Deck as a replicant and the fantasy of “driving away” into the country would act in conversation with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, an urban tale focused on the many nodes of city space, as well as its resistant fringes (the underbelly of the city, too). This “resolved” ending is more 50s, or 80s-conservativist, and the more ambiguous end of the origami unicorn and uncertain escape seem more 40s, or noir, in tone.

The film interests me in terms of surfaces in a number of ways. First, it challenges the status and even the value of memory as a source of depth, as it was in many modernist works. Like the “unicorn sequence” that suggests Deckard’s “memory” is false as well, all the replicants are “implanted” with memories from a computer database, which they believe to be their own, but which are fabrications. Deckard’s name also has the ring of Descartes, or “deck-of-cards” – you might connect this to the crisis of the cogito, ergo sum in the film or to Eliot’s The Waste Land and the shuffling of pieces in and out of persona. Pris and Roy’s insistence on styling themselves is a sort of queer-empowered surface rendering of Foucault’s ideas about self-fashioning. Roy speaks largely in song lyrics, and the cheesy, melodramatic flight of the dove at his death makes him (his body) into a work of art in a paradoxically humanizing mode. The replicants also squat in an empty building like artists as well. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go seems to have faith that art is redemptive, whereas that is a subject for contemplation and distress in Scott’s universe.

 

Jean-Francois Lyotard, “Postmodernism”

1979

Lyotard defines postmodernism as “incredulity towards meta-narratives” as knowledge is atomized among disciplines that no longer inform each other and “mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer principally narrative.” Instead we have “clouds” of colliding, heterogenous language games (think David Mitchell!). The subject, unjoined by continuity of meta-narrative, breaks into heterogenous moments of subjectivity, rather than a whole that can be assembled (as in modernism – think Woolf). The capital of this system is information in the form of the new; all else is discarded. With no unifying concept, aesthetic judgment becomes vital to “justice” for Lyotard, but it must be reflective, not determining – how our faculties interact with one another as we move between “the denotative, the prescriptive, the performative, the political, the cognitive, the artistic, etc.”

If for Kant the “aesthetic feeling” in the beautiful is the harmonious play of imagination and understanding, for Lyotard it is much more the feeling of disharmony that Kant locates in the sublime. Rather than reason and understanding battling through horror and awe, however, for Lyotard the “postmodern sublime”

“occurs when we are affected by a multitude of unpresentables without reference to reason as their unifying origin. Justice, then, would not be a definable rule, but an ability to move and judge among rules in their heterogeneity and multiplicity. In this respect, it would be more akin to the production of art than a moral judgment in Kant’s sense.”

“But where modern art presents the unpresentable as a missing content within a beautiful form, as in Marcel Proust, postmodern art, exemplified by James Joyce, puts forward the unpresentable by forgoing beautiful form itself, thus denying what Kant would call the consensus of taste. Furthermore, says Lyotard, a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern, for postmodernism is not modernism at its end but in its nascent state, that is, at the moment it attempts to present the unpresentable, “and this state is constant” (Lyotard 1984, 79). The postmodern, then, is a repetition of the modern as the “new,” and this means the ever-new demand for another repetition.”

Virginia Woolf: “The Waves”

1931

The Waves unfolds over 9 episodes corresponding to the time of day, from sunrise to night: 1) childhood, 2) adolescence, 3) young adulthood, 4) adulthood (dinner/voices blend), 5) adulthood (Percival falls from his horse and dies, solace in baby for Bernard, art for Rhoda), 6) maturity, 7) midlife (crisis), 8) old age (dinner/common experience) 9) old age (Bernard alone speaks – language as a fight against death, experience moving beyond language to the direct). (One could also think of this as 9 months of gestation, a womanly cycle of reproduction.) It is loosely constructed, much more than by plot, by the voices of the 6 central characters:

Bernardlanguage & loquaciousness, sees personality constructed by others, not snobby (Forster?)
Nevilleorder & beauty, artistic, gay, classics scholar, in love with Percival
Louisinsecurity & ambition, depressive “T. S. Eliot” figure, Australian, becomes seamy, has affair with Rhoda
Jinny physicality & beauty, dancer, free, sexual
Susan – intensity & attachment, in touch with Nature (farm), maternal, classical figure of femininity
Rhoda – dreamlike abstraction, depressive, split from ordinary life, “Woolfian” suicide

There are also 2 main peripheral characters:
Percival – the “popular boy” the others are friends with, representing monolithic, white, paternal, phallic, British, colonial masculinity and power, the book is at once an elegy to him and an exploration of nostalgia for something one never should have loved. Percival speaks only once, to say “No.”
Old /Dr. Crane – the boys’ headmaster. compare to Mr. Keasey in Ulysses? (Also “service for man who was drowned” – 78).  Perceived as a Kantian negative pleasure, like a tooth removed when he leaves the room (50), pontificating on literature (58).

Woolf herself wrote in her diary that the “playpoem” was not meant to be read as a novel with distinct characters so much as pseudocharacters enacting multiplicity or demonstrating collectivity, representing facets of human experience and thought before they are made into types, characters, or performances. Bernard writes,

“I wish then after this somnolence to sparkle, many-faceted under the light of my friends’ faces. I have been traversing the sunless territory of non-identity… With them I am many-sided. They retrieve me from darkness… I see Louis, stone-carved, sculpturesque; Neville, scissor-cutting, exact; Susan with eyes like lumps of crystal; Jinny dancing like a flame, febrile, hot, over dry earth; and Rhoda the nymph of the fountain always wet. These are fantastic pictures, these are figments… Yet they drum me alive” 117.

I read this novel as a meditation on language as a surface and a representation that nonetheless orders and constitutes experience.

Bernard: “we are not single, we are one… I have little aptitude for reflection. I require the concrete in everything. It is so only that I lay hands up on the world. A good phrase, however, seems to me to have an independent existence” (68).

Woolf begins with the image of the sea,

“indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it… the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually” (7).

She goes on to call it “a thin veil,” “the green surface,” and a “surface” on the same page. When, after the sunrise interlude, the characters speak for the first time, Bernard sees a ring, Susan sees a slab of pale yellow, Rhoda hears a chirp, Neville sees a globe, Jinny sees a crimson tassel, and Louis hears stamping. Interestingly, the two “depressive” characters hear, seemingly a more spiritual connection with their surroundings (Re: Kant on how we hear reason speaking to us), whereas the other four see, and the girls see in color (Re: Kant on how we see the beautiful, and especially the sublime, and how the beautiful is more about the bounded outline, whereas color is merely an accessory – see 85).

Bernard and Susan often mirror/repeat each other as ideal types of British masculinity and femininity? Rhoda and Louis are more antisocial and demonstrate the artist’s tendency. Finally, Jinny and Neville both buck gender stereotypes, queering the possibilities of performance (dance, sex, criticism) that they engage in. Percival, who does not speak, seems to represent a sort of Althusserian ISA – a patriarchy or power never seen, but always present and part of one’s self-awareness or self-policing. At the end of the novel, Bernard thinks,

“And now I ask, ‘Who am I?’ I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know. We sat here together. But now Percival is dead and Rhoda is dead; we are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no division between me and them. As I talked I felt, ‘I am you.’ This difference we make so much of, this identity we so feverishly cherish, was overcome… Here on my brow is the blow I got when Percival fell. Here on the nape of my neck is the kiss Jinny gave Louis. My eyes fill with Susan’s tears. I see far away, quivering like a gold thread, the pillar Rhoda saw, and feel the rush of the wind of her flight when she leapt” 289.

This picks up on Clarissa’s faceting and her sympathetic experience of Septimus’ death in Mrs. Dalloway. Bernard’s final thoughts of his being are wonderfully feminizing: “Immeasurably receptive, holding everything, trembling with fullness, yet clear, contained – so my being seems, now that desire urges it no more out and away… now that he is dead, the man I called ‘Bernard'” 291. The book ends with Bernard having to confront materiality again and heading out “like Percival,” as a youth against death, to write. The last line is The waves broke on the shore 297. If the other six are one, Percival is the troublesome mirror they all look into: a kind of national ideology, sometimes lovely and leading, sometimes violent and brutish.

The characters emphasize divergent subjectivity but similar diction and expression. Their perceptions unfold as the idea from Woolf’s essay “Modern Fiction” of recording atomized experience in the order in which it occurs. I would like to compare their 6 similar but separated voices to the 6 parts of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, all parts or forms of one Anna or the 6 different voices of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (who speak differently, but may all be the same psyche).

Surfaces:
The female body itself as a surface: Jinny after kissing Louis:

“Now I smell geraniums; I smell earth mould. I dance. I ripple. I am thrown over you like a net of light. I lie quivering flung over you” (13).

Louis on Rhoda: “Her shoulderblades meet across her back like the wings of a small butterfly” (22), like when he thinks “they skim the butterflies from the nodding tops of the flowers. They brush the surface of the world” (12).

Bernard: “rich and heavy sensations form on the roof of my mind; down showers the day” (26)/ “drop that forms on the roof of the soul in the evening is round, many-coloured” (80).

Faceting:

Susan: “I saw her kiss him… She danced in flecked with diamonds light as dust… Jinny’s eyes break into a thousand lights” (15).

Louis: “From discord, from hatred… my shattered mind is pieced together by some sudden perception” (39).

Bernard: “I am not one and simple, but complex and many… I am only superficially represented by what I was saying tonight. Underneath, and, at the moment when I am most disparate, I am also integrated” (76-7), see also 80.

As in other Woolf, the images around waves and water seem to concern solitude and drowning (often Rhoda). On the flip side, plants, leaves, and trees seem to connote connectedness – rootedness but also striving (see Louis, 11-12).

Language: 

Though the shifting perspectives are represented as things characters have “said,” much is internal, some is aloud. Importance of direct speech, vs. free indirect discourse? Stream of consciousness as a kind of speech (Woolf sees mind processing world, at least consciously, via language?). Bernard’s speech is imagined as a continually unfolding story (69).

Bernard: “we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory” (16).

Susan: Rhoda dreams, Louis regards, Bernard moulds, Neville finished, Jinny spins, I am not afraid (25-6).

“Bernard says there is always a story. I am a story. Louis is a story” (37)/ “Among the tortures and devastations of life is this then – our friends are not able to finish their stories” (39).

Neville: “I shall be a clinger to the outsides of words all my life” (48). His elision of language around homosexuality (51).

Bernard: “My charm and flow of language, unexpected and spontaneous as it is delights me too. I am astonished, as I draw the veil off things with words, how much, how infinitely more I can say I have observed… images and images” (84).

Faces: 

As sources of misreading (30) – faces of people (affect) and clocks (time).

Misc.

Bernard on shopgirls (86)/ Kracauer.