“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present.”

The Wachowski’s ambitious film Cloud Atlas (2012) doesn’t achieve everything it aims for, but it does achieve a lot of what it wants.  At least I think it does.  Having read the novel by David Mitchell, I’m a little concerned that the film would make no sense to those who don’t know the source material.

For example, the title is never explained in the movie, but comes from this passage in the book.  Zachery (the post-apocalyptic Tom Hanks character in the film) says the Abbess taught him that,

Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ’morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass and’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds (p. 308).

This is the clearest hint in the novel to the intention behind the device of telling six stories.  Note that, while it initially sounds like reincarnation – a soul can stay the same while returning under a different appearance later in history – the point is really about epistemic uncertainty (“Who can say…”) in that, whenever we are encounter someone in life, we don’t know who they were before or who they will be later.  The enemy I’m tempted to kill now might have been my grandmother in a past life or could return as my grandson in the next life. And the point here is not metaphysical – the author doesn’t really believe in reincarnation.  The point is that we are all connected by a map only God knows.  So a “cloud atlas”, is a map of souls’ movements across history.

But “atlas” is something else, too.  It is the Greek titan who holds up the earth, the metaphor Ayn Rand used in her novel Atlas Shrugged to describe those “titans” of industry, job creators who prop up the economy while the rest of us lazily take from them.  Rand imagines the titans “shrugging” the world off their shoulders, going on “strike” and refusing to let others take from them any more.  Many newspaper editors used clever titles for their negative reviews of the film, playing on the phrase “Cloud Atlas Shrugged”.  But this is more true than they realized. The parallel is intentional.

Both novels end in apocalypse.  But, for Rand, the problem is that the government won’t leave self-made businessmen alone to pursue profit in their own way, and our only hope for salvation is unbridled self-interested competition and survival of the economically fittest individual.  For Mitchell, on the other hand, the problem is that the government has left businesses alone, and their endless pursuit of profit has cannibalized itself, so only altruistic suppression of self-will though a recognition of humanity’s interconnectedness can save us.

In short, Cloud Atlas is the anti- Atlas Shrugged.  Whereas Atlas Shrugged promotes egoistic individualism in pursuit of capitalistic greed, Cloud Atlas argues that the logic of corporate capitalism is self-destructive because individualism is an illusion.  According to Cloud Atlas, we are all connected and therefore altruism is the only appropriate way of life, even if individuals’ greed and egoism makes altruism a dangerous creed to hold.

Thus, despite is apparent affirmation of reincarnation, Cloud Atlas is actually close Christianity.  Christ’s call to love our enemies is certainly incompatible with Atlas Shrugged.  So is Paul’s statement that “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another”, not to mention John Donne’s sermon in which he argues that “no man is an island entire of itself; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”.  Collectivism, not individualism, is the Christian heritage.

So what about that reincarnation stuff?  That the film isn’t really about reincarnation should be indicated by the fact that the two symbols of reincarnation – the use of the same actor to play multiple roles and the use of the same birthmark showing up on different characters – don’t line up.  The birthmark doesn’t follow the actor.  Also, when Tom Hanks tells Halley Berry he thinks he knew her in a past life, he’s wrong – he won’t meet her again for 200 years.  (Here is the best discussion of the birthmark stuff I’ve read.)  The point in the novel is much clearer:  we all share the same universal human nature.

So we shouldn’t read the end of the gay character’s storyline as an affirmation that his particular soul will be reunited with his lover’s particular soul; instead, it is the recognition that, because we are all one, then the two of them will be eternally united anywhere anyone is in love. This is what he means when he says,

“All boundaries are conventions. One can transcend a convention if only one can conceive of doing so. … Separation is an illusion. My life extends far beyond me.”

This is not about overcoming all rules, only boundaries between people, those hierarchical distinctions between people that oppress them.  We’re all connected, and no one, however weak, is simply “meat” for the “strong to eat”.

17 thoughts on ““Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present.”

  1. To me Cloud Atlas is less of technicalities of rebirth, reincarnation and definitions of good/evil. It is more of intuitive feeling which we as human beings have at one point or other. When we walk on the street and see a beggar with hungry mouth, we do not respond but keep walking as if it was a tree or a stone – usual and ‘supposed to be so’. So is true of the daily routine which life throws at us, be it in a life in the mountains, or life of a politicians, businessman, blue collar worker or scoundrel.

    The life continues and yet there is a spark. We all feel the spark, it is not necessary whether we can tell the causa causans of the spark. Most of the times, it is just our capability of rationalizing, drawn from our education, habit and mood while other times, it is just what our interlocutor would ‘buy’. And yet, in all our lives there is the presence of kairos; what the greeks separated from chronos, the clock-measured time. It is the state when we our experience defines us, makes us feel larger than simple ‘meat’ and allows us to see our place in the flow of events.

    To me, the most important feeling is that of the shared humanity. We all share between ourselves lot of things, feelings, ideas, words, languages, beliefs from our ancestors and each other. The Pacific Journal connects to the musicians which connects to the letters which in turn connects to Luisa Rey which connects to Timothy which connects to Somni and finally connecting to the valleysmen. It is to show this interconnectedness of our lives, that I believe is the heart of the matter. That we are connected, we are dependent on each other and that what we do spends out reverberations in humanity affecting the chain as it unfolds.

    I didn’t mean to contradict. Just felt like replying.
    Continue writing. It is a nice blog, will surely return.
    H.

  2. Thanks for the article. The recognizing of individuals for each other over time seems very important in this and some hoped for learning during each life. But I’ve also read of “life reviews” that often occur during near-death experiences and the meaning of them being educational. It would have been good, I think, if this had been included as “soul evolution” would then be highlighted. About the birthmarks, I only noticed the switching between individuals on seeing it for the second time but I like the idea of a common humanity and interconnectedness that this may represent.

    Re birthmarks, perhaps you know of the work of Professor Ian Stevenson – on birthmarks being carried over from previous lives from injuries sustained. Much more here from the University of Virginia site:

    http://www.medicine.virginia.edu/clinical/departments/psychiatry/sections/cspp/dops/publications-page

  3. “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ’morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.”

    This is quite beautiful. Do you think there is a relation here with John Donne’s “Hymne to GOD my GOD, in my sicknesse” poem? Verse 3:

    “I joy, that in these straits, I see my West;
    For, though theire currants yeeld returne to none,
    What shall my West hurt me? As West and East
    In all flatt Maps (and I am one) are one,
    So death doth touch the Resurrection.”

    The patient here doesn’t seem to fear his death (What shall my West hurt me?) and is linking East and West with resurrection and death. And only Somni above knows, only the atlas o’ clouds know the movement of the soul.
    But is the patient above resurrecting into a new kind of life, not a reincarnation? I like that he sees himself as a map!

  4. Nice to know that there are people out there who understand as well as you. This movie went right over the heads of the general population. For me, it was the film I had been waiting for. I believe that if we collectively understand what Robert Frobesher understood, then this world could transend its conventions on revolutionary scale. However, not only is it hard for this book or movie to reach the heart of most individuals, but it encourages me to relax and let nature take its course, with this story helping me bask in the beauty of the bliss of our ignorance that is seen when we view ourselves from a higher, Collective perspective.

  5. Although we like to make things as deep as possible, the concept of reincarnation is still the strongest in this story. Furthermore, it demonstrates Time Simultaneous. Note that, for instance, Tom Hanks characters all wrestled with some devil or another, on up to Zachery who had one actually whispering in his ear. Each incarnation brought him closer to overcoming his devils. On the other hand, Zachery’s “devil” used to be a few less evil incarnations before that one, but evil all the same! One became more evil… while the other became good. Who’s to say what will happen with the choices we make, and how we interact with others has a solid influence on outcomes. It was about making and breaking bonds and how some are good to break such as the ring around the servers’ necks. Some were bad to break, such as the cutting of the wedding ring. Some of the bonds in this story were not rings. Each character was most certainly related to the other roles they played and with the crescendo of things coming into place Simultaneously, each incarnation effectively influencing each layer at the same time.

  6. Oh, I forgot to add this part: Time Simultaneous. This means Tom Hanks DID meet Halle in another life. The word is “another” life, not a “past life.”

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  8. There’s one more theme in the movie and that was about the relationship between science and religion. I think the ghost that plagued zachery represented primal fear of the unknown. We can see how as Halle Berry’s character was searching through the archives, the ghost was trying to make Zachery stop her. If what her character was saying was true, it would destroy the myth of Sonmi as a God figure. The parallel drawn between Sonmi’s story and the story of Jesus is clear. Sonmi was a revolutionary who overthrew existing order and sought to create equality. After her death, her story became mystified and the spirit of her ideas became lost. Even though there’s no way to prove it was the same process for Jesus, the film certainly points towards that possibility. As Zachery shook off the old ideas he had about the world, he gained the courage to step into the unknown. In the film, this was him literally leaving the dying planet.

  9. The “Cloud Atlas” title also come from The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish “To possess, as it were, an atlas of the clouds.” p 372 of the paperback.

    Just nitpicking. Beautiful commentary!

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