Month: August 2013

On Reading Cloud Atlas

“In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.” 

I just finished reading Cloud Atlas, a novel by David Mitchell. It is brilliant. I don’t use that word frivolously. I sincerely mean it. I rarely read a work of fiction and find myself congratulating the author aloud, but I did. I have stayed up far too late for the past several nights reading. I was engrossed, enthralled, absolutely delighted by the intricately woven twists and turns, and the artful manner in which he connects the disparate stories to craft a delicious scavenger hunt. I ferreted away information while reading, paying close attention to the seemingly insignificant, so that I could make the connection and piece together the puzzle determining how one tale was linked to the next. This man knows how to tell a story.

Cloud Atlas, at its core, underscores the age old struggle of the powerful and the powerless. President Lincoln understood this well when he said “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” No matter the time — future or past, present or otherwise, there will always be those that desire power and the unfortunate souls who are collateral damage in their struggle to obtain more of it. A greed driven culture of conquest requires a need to justify the evils that must exist in order to sustain that culture. If our contentment is only bought with consumption, we will be eternally hungry. Always desiring more. More power, more status, more intelligence.

“Yay, Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more”

more what?

“Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big, but it weren’t big ’nuff for that hunger what made Old Uns rip out the skies an’ boil up the seas an’ poison the soil with crazed atoms an’ donky ’bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned an’ babbits was freakish birthed…human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too.”

In order for a small concentration of power to remain, a large percentage of the population must be kept powerless. To treat a person poorly, you must somehow convince yourself that they are deserving of such treatment. In C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, he posits “If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more.” and I do not disagree. You have to not only convince yourself of this, but others as well, in order for them to allow such ill treatment to continue. As Cloud Atlas explains it:

“In a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only “rights.” the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful”

The effect that such atrocities have on the perpetrators is to make them callous to the suffering of those they deem “less than,” it in turn makes them less human. But we are all connected. The thread that binds the stories of Cloud Atlas, binds each of us and just as one act of hatred will inevitably begat more of the same, it is also true that one act of kindness begets more kindness. I love a book that causes you to question the goodness of humanity to lament the evils of society, but then, to ask yourself: “what is my role?” The closing paragraph of the novel ends with such a call:

“He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!”
Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

So, what is your drop?