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)

Shoshanna Felman, “What Does A Woman Want?”

1993

Felman wonders whether feminists can reclaim Freud’s famous question in a letter to Marie Bonaparte: “What does a woman want?” The question is always male – a bemusement in the face of women’s resistance to their place in patriarchy, but can it be reclaimed? If so, what are its affordances? In examining the male texts of Balzac and Freud, Felman sees a common fascination with female resistance – to be appropriated, interpreted, or recognized.

Felman tells the story of how Simone de Beauvoir began The Second Sex not as a feminist, but as a woman situating herself, first through the eyes of others, then through her own eyes. de Beauvoir tells Sartre that she became a feminist less through writing than through the existence of her book in a community of women around the world. This idea of becoming a woman, becoming a feminist, is vital to Johnson. It is also, as Rich says, a re-vision of the past.

Felman’s chapter on Freud begins with Juliet Mitchell’s argument that Freudian psychoanalysis is not sexist. Felman agrees that psychoanalysis has a number of useful valences for feminist reflection, but does not think Freud is immune from mistakes and oversights that can be critiqued through a feminist lens. Ultimately, she argues that femininity is “the navel of psychoanalysis: a nodal point of significant resistance in the text of the ongoing psychoanalytic dream of understanding; a navel that, though ‘unplumbable,’ is also positively… [the] ‘point of contact with the unknown’… dynamic play… with its own self-difference” 120.

In the final chapter, Felman considers Woolf, de Beauvoir, and Rich as “autobiographers.” She begins by claiming the Interpretation of Dreams as Freud’s own autobiography. Freud’s value is of “a structure of address inclusive of its otherness,” but she begins to turn in her own autobiographical consideration away from men entirely. Like Woolf, she attempts to correct this: she is speaking to women with the knowledge that she is being overheard – she wants to make room for men, too (like A Room of One’s Own). Rich first accuses Woolf of an oversight in this sense. Felman encourages us to “read autobiographically,” “giving testimony to the unsuspected, unexpected ‘feminine resistance’ in the text” 133. It is a practice of “experiencing this feminine resistance as a joint effect of interaction among literature, autobiography, and theory, insofar as all three modes resist, precisely, one another” 133. Thus we must read ourselves with theory’s tools as a resistance to theory – a similar formulation as art and autonomy for Adorno.

Felman points out that in Rich’s famous poem, “Diving Into the Wreck,” the speaker says, “I am he, I am she,” breaking down the very binary that Rich uses to resist Woolf’s address. The poetry is “autobiography and resistance to autobiography,” as Woolf’s is as well, and as Felman notes, de Beauvoir’s too. Woolf’s way to autobiography is via the detour of fiction – she cannot be named in A Room of One’s Own – she is “Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please.” (This indeterminacy is also like Rich.) Thus Woolf births her own autobiographer – Mary – who allows her to look back to her mother and mother’s mother and Judith Shakespeare, and forward to the future as well. The “splitting of consicousness” she describes, also characteristic of Emily Dickinson and Doris Lessing, is genealogical as well as personal, then. The real child of Woolf’s autobiography is the “writer’s certainty” that things will be better in 100 years.