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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Immanuel Kant, “Critique of the Power of Judgment”

1790

Also called the third critique, this is where Kant lays out his idealist philosophies on the sublime and the beautiful. Following from Burke, Kant’s approach is much more disinterested, depersonalized, categorical, and universalizing. Kant’s a priori knowledge moves more by deduction than experience (Burke’s empiricism). His idea of the sensus communis translates its literal meaning – common sense – from the individual’s total capacity of bound faculties working together to produce judgment into a wider social realm, in which a disinterested and trained public could agree on questions of aesthetic taste.

Kant’s position is certainly one of a bourgeois, middle class individualist. Still, he opens himself for debate by inviting contestation and by asserting the self/social dynamic of the sensus communis. As with the categorical imperative, one cannot act or judge out of political interest – we must act as if a universal law exists. Aesthetics, as in Schiller, is a sort of training, preparatory work that predates political change. Kant thus advocated reform, rather than revolution.

In Kant, the object is always outside our understanding, and the subject of the treatise is the mind itself. Judgment is a sort of negation of the senses – almost an alchemical process like Eliot’s disinterestedness. In cognitive judgment, we transform the objects of the world, through mental representation, into determinate concepts via our highest faculty, reason (this is the sublime). In aesthetic judgment, we create a unified representation from the manifold, but can arrive only at a harmony of the imagination and the understanding, not a determinate concept shaped by reason (this is free beauty).

We move from the manifold (the senses or sensation) to the intuition (representations in the imagination) to the generation of concepts (understanding) to our highest faculty, that of our ides (reason). Our senses are at the level of nature, while our Reason is at the level of freedom, and we move osmotically up and down this ladder of mentality as we order the world around us.

One of the most fascinating subjects of Kant’s inquiry into the beautiful is the crustacean or the rare bird or tropical flower. Kant gives all of these as examples of things that exist as ornament or drawing, not as natural, or having entelec function (recall that Kant prioritized the bounding line of form over the filling color of content – think about this in terms of Blake’s drawings (line filled in later) versus Lily Briscoe’s painting in To the Lighthouse, which engages color before line and strict form, or The Waves, where the female characters see color and the boys see form).

My reading of this fascination is a relation to defamiliarization – free beauty is that which we cannot categorize, a novelty we cannot subsume (Lolita). Whereas adherent beauty seems to unite beauty and cognition, form and function, free beauty lies in an excess of form to its function. This reminds me of Nabokov’s theories on the chance excess of evolution – how butterflies are far more detailed in their colorful trickery of predators than their predators’ senses can sense. This is where Kant’s confusing distinction of “purposiveness without a purpose” might be explicable, at least to an extent.

In contrast to the beautiful, the sublime is a negative, rather than a positive, pleasure in Kant. Unlike Burke, beauty is above the sublime as experience for Kant. Beauty is contemplation, an (in)determinate concept at the realm of (imagination and) understanding, a spatial and static harmony, a purposive form or limitation. On the other hand, the sublime is a toggling between repulsion and attraction, a dynamic narrative of experience, an indeterminate concept at the level of reason, a contra-purposive with a limitless higher purpose. The mind is fitted to the beautiful; it is unsuited, at least initially, to the sublime. Here, the object is a springboard for the mind, which confronts something  either mathematical (a problem of quantity or greatness) or dynamic (a problem of threat or fear).

The experience of the sublime is one of regaining power over experience. In the mathematical, the mind uses what it already knows to overcome the problem, moving from a failure of imagination to a reasoning of the totality by a whole based on comprehensible units (concepts of space time for example. One wonders if, once conquered, such a concept transitions into beauty…) In the dynamic sublime, the solution is narrativization – one moves to a picture of the whole synthesized by the imagination in discourse. As the body is in danger, but not really, one learns that the power of nature does not have dominion over our power of reason. The distinction seems to be one of apprehension vs comprehension. The proper distance is required for the sublime.

Kant is implicitly defending defensive, but not offensive, war. This is bound to the value of Protestant individual/national concerns, rather than Catholic objective idol/ imperialist concerns for Kant. It would be interesting to compare his ideas on “formless” feeling to Bakhtin and the “formless” novel.

 

 

Katherine Mansfield: Stories

Mansfield’s stories are remarkable for their clarity of image, their stirrings of stream of consciousness, and the way in which they resonate with the work of Virginia Woolf.

“PRELUDE,” 1918

Lottie and Kezia are moving away. Kezia is startled when she goes back into the house to get something. Aunt Beryl and the grandmother put Lottie, Kezia, and Isabel to bed together. The grandmother washes dishes and recalls Beryl being stung by red ants when they lived in Tasmania. The children play at being grown-ups. Kezia tells her cousin to “put head back on” the duck he has decapitated. They eat the duck for tea. The story ends with Beryl writing a letter to her ‘nan’ saying she is bored and false in the country. Kezia calls her to dinner and marvels that a jar of cream that flies off the dresser does not break.

“BLISS,” 1920

Bertha Young’s consciousness unfolds over the course of a dinner party she throws with her husband Harry. She starts out filled with bliss, as though she had “swallowed” part of the afternoon – she plays with her baby and looks at “a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom” in the garden. In attendance are the Knights, as well as the implicitly gay Eddie and the fascinating Pearl Fulton. She thinks Harry is rude to her, and hers is the only perspective we have as readers. She thinks again of the pear tree, which “would be silver in the light of poor dear Eddie’s moon.” Bertha tries to locate her interest in Pearl, which is at the fringes of desire, but ultimately realizes that she shares with Pearl an attraction to Harry. She realizes they are having an affair when she walks into the hallway and sees her husband take Pearl in his arms. She “laid her moonbeam fingers on his cheeks and smiled her sleepy smile.” As she leaves, Pearl mutters, “Your lovely pear tree!” “Bertha simply ran over to the long windows… But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.”

“GARDEN PARTY,” 1922

The in medias res beginning of the story, “And after all the weather was ideal,” reminds me so much of Mrs. Dalloway. The similarities continue as we watch Laura and Jose Sheridan and their mother prepare for a garden party, which is nearly interrupted by a death (recall Clarissa!). The sensations of the house, where all the doors and windows feel open, and there are an abundance of fragrant cut lilies, also remind me of Mrs. Dalloway. When the Sheridans learn that a man from the cottages at the edge of the property has died, Laura wants to call off the party. Mrs. Sheridan considers this “extravagant.” She sends Laura to the cottages with leftovers afterwards. Laura is taken with the beauty of the young man, who seems to be peacefully sleeping. The story ends with her musing, “Isn’t life…” to which her brother says, “Isn’t it, darling?”

“AT THE BAY,” 1922

This story seems almost like the bits of The Waves that begin each section with a time of day and the sea. It is told in one day, like the structure of that novel (which imagines each stage of life as a time of day), and involves the same characters as “Prelude.” It begins with Stanley swimming in the sea, tracks Kezia, Isabel, and Lottie playing, Linda remembering, and Beryl fretting over growing old alone. It ends with a cloud floating across the moon, and then “All was still.” The way the story draws attention to the objective world is also like To the Lighthouse.