Drops in the ocean: Buddhist reflections on David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas”
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, is a ripping good read with plenty of action and suspense. It’s also a cautionary tale of karma-vipāka (how our actions set up complex results, short- and long-term) and how failing to choose is itself a choice just as much as a conscious decision is.
Populated by clever and colorful characters from different places, pasts and futures, the six stories making up this diverse sampling of human experience nonetheless weave together, surprisingly, into a poignant and epic tale of suffering and kindness. From the story of a rather naïve young man on a return voyage to San Francisco from the South Pacific, in perhaps the 1800s, to a nearly Lord of the Flies reorganization of tribal life in far-future Hawaii after humans have pretty well trashed the environment, the reader is zoomed from one kind of crisis–ranging from the personal to the global–to the next. Each of the characters have challenges unique to their time, place and situation. Yet these challenges, specific as they may seem, do not eclipse their all-too-human needs and desires, which all of us share.
When you have a landscape that covers this many diverse stories over such a sweep of time, the main point(s) of the overarching story could get lost. But Mitchell makes us care about the characters, and their grappling with their fates, not just by evoking all the richness of lived experience but by helping us connect our hearts to that of each character. In the end, what I was left with wasn’t just another display of the whole gamut of human cruelty, ignorance and greed. In each story, most of the characters realized something more about themselves and their world, prompting me to examine myself, my values, and the world around me. Putting myself in their shoes, I wondered: how can I better use awareness and kindness to respond to the confusion and unsatisfactoriness in and around me? A book that makes you question, maybe makes you squirm — that’s an excellent use of one’s reading time, no?
I felt richly rewarded with well-evoked characterizations, some who could rightly be called “a piece of work,” who employ all manner of picaresque language such as:
Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.
Agog is one of the basic human states, I think; it was a pleasure to live there while reading this book.
Though Cloud Atlas is not a Buddhist book, I found certain Dharmic themes reflected in the prose. The strongest of these is the Three Characteristics of Conditioned Existence (impermanence, non-substantiality and unsatisfactoriness), which seem woven throughout the narratives. Or maybe, like when I first fell in love with old Volvos, I just see them everywhere. In one brief scene, from a time maybe 200 years from now, a humanoid fabricant being, somni-451, is being shuttled from safe-house to safe-house, avoiding the corporate/government authorities. She is being hunted down as the (reluctant) figure-head in an emerging revolution of the have-nots against their ‘beloved masters’. She is taken to what had been, centuries before, a monastic complex with many temples and shrines somewhere in Korea, perhaps. Visible across the river gorge is a carved, serene, seated, cross-legged figure, the worse for wear and tear, in huge bas-relief. Somni-451 comes out just before dawn, and sees the elderly headwoman who is sitting, contemplating this figure. She is the abbess, who, as a young girl, had trained briefly as a nun and is the only survivor from the time of rehabilitation (or death) of those who practiced the old, now-banned, religions. She tells somni-451 about this Siddhartha and how he taught freedom from suffering. But she can’t really tell her the stories, because they have all been lost. Nonetheless, she abides, and helps those who come to this place seeking freedom.
Cloud Atlas, written as a palindromic enigma, reveals itself gradually. Each chapter focuses on the story of a particular character, time and place, starting with the past (roughly the early 1800s). Working forward in time we reach a time in the far future (maybe 500 years?), and then the order reverses where we find the denouement of each character as we proceed, backwards in time. However, words, phrases, shadows of names, and roles of characters reverberate back and forth among the chapters. It’s exciting and also uncomfortable. I find myself once again sucked into the vortex of a dystopian vision, and find myself wondering why I am drawn to this. As the survivor of a personal apocalypse or two (although thriving now, thankfully) perhaps I can’t help being fascinated by fictional apocalypses. Even though I know there is no safe ground in saṃsāra (the world-as-we-know-it: the ocean of suffering and beauty we inhabit), and even though I deeply believe that no one is free until we’re all free and saṃsāra is emptied of the suffering of craving, aversion, and confusion, I can’t quite look away.
This is a book of disturbing conceptions, but of such conceptions that we ought, ethically, to be disturbed by. In the paired sections named “An Orison of Somni-451,” a dystopian future is presented wherein the population of “purebloods” exists by the caring grace of the “corpocracy” and cannot survive without their “franchises and gallerias.” Meanwhile, fabricants from corporate wombtanks live in complete servitude, unable to survive without a special nourishing but soporific substance , and poisoned by regular food. They labor, die, and then become — Soylent Green-style — the food that supports the whole enterprise.
This book has riled my inner revolutionary. I want the victims rescued, injustices revenged, and the evil punished. But also it takes genuine talent for a writer to make a reader care that all the villains, no matter how contemptuous and evil, are really just so sadly deluded. This makes for some painful reading in certain moments. The truest revolution is the wish for all villains to see with new hearts and be transformed.
There is a sad eloquence generated by beings not considered by others as sentient. Somni-451 is not alone. It doesn’t matter if that being is different by way of gender, age, color of skin, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, or genomic construction. All of that is portrayed here and often it is wryly funny. As one character, the only slightly decrepit yet elegant Veronica explains, “Oh, once you’ve been initiated into the Elderly, the world doesn’t want you back… We–by whom I mean anyone over sixty–commit two offenses just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offense is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.” Ow. And I say this partly, yes, but not completely because I, too, am over sixty.
Another treat this book offers is a sort of comparison of technologies past, present, future. From our current vantage point, we can never see very far how our choices play out in the future, but maybe we should keep trying to see. Science and technology have brought wondrous things to pass. Many have been the entrepreneurs who by connecting dots have opened the way for people to make a better living for themselves and their families. Leaders and organizations can help whole communities flourish and creatively respond to challenges to the common good. And it can and has and will all go horribly wrong unless we’re smart about it and practice good ethics.
But what to do, as a practicing Buddhist, since I cannot look away–from this book, from ongoing life? I am riled, I am moved–but to what? How exactly, does the bodhisattva save living beings? I wanna know; I’m also afraid that the answer might be that it is beyond me. Truly, it does seem beyond the abilities of “me,” this un-Enlightened, ordinary, human woman.
Adam Ewing (our young guy from the 1800’s), who had both observed and suffered much cruelty from his fellows aboard ship makes it home to San Francisco determined to use his newly-awakened passion for justice for the abolition of slavery. He intends to spend his life
shaping a world I want Jackson [his son] to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit…[yet] I hear my father-in-law’s response: ‘Oho, fine, Whiggish sentiments, Adam, but don’t tell me about justice. Ride to Tennessee on an ass & convince the rednecks that they are merely white-washed negroes & their negroes are black-washed Whites!…You’ll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified!…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!’
Well, okay then; whatever! But the last line in the book, the son’s silent answer to his father-in-law is strangely comforting, and perhaps our next-step-clue: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”