Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cloud Atlas Explores Our Interconnected Lives and Destinies

"All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be."--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cloud Atlas explores a theme stated by the character Sonmi-451, who declares, "Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future." This is an alluring, attractive and yet frightening concept: it is tempting and comforting to believe that every soul is inextricably bound together, that we are not alone and that a better future can be created by each act of kindness--but it is distressing and frightening to think that perhaps individual free will is constrained by a larger plan and that this larger plan permits (or even specifically includes) evil actions that cause much suffering.

The film tells six parallel narratives set in six different locales/time frames:

1) South Pacific Ocean, 1849
2) England/Scotland, 1936
3) San Francisco, 1973
4) United Kingdom, 2012
5) Neo Seoul, Korea, 2141
6) Hawaiian Islands, 2321 (post-apocalyptic Earth)

Cloud Atlas' journey from a primitive (by 2012 standards) 1849 setting to an advanced (by 2012 standards) 2141 setting culminating in a very primitive (by any standard) post-apocalyptic setting where a horde of cannibals terrorizes a peaceful settlement brings to mind an Albert Einstein quote: "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." Cloud Atlas never explicitly examines this point but strongly implies that the degenerate nature of the 2141 society resulted in a war, revolution or some other kind of general social upheaval that quite literally brought the world back into the Stone Age.

The quest for freedom--on both an individual level and on a larger level in terms of freedom from mass suffering/oppression--is the driving force in each Cloud Atlas storyline. In the 1849 setting, one character scoffs at the notion of freeing a slave, saying that the would-be emancipator is taking an action that is the equivalent of removing one drop from an ocean and that this action could have dire consequences (ranging from social ostracism to death by lynching) while not making any real difference. The skeptic received the unhesitating reply that the ocean consists of nothing more than drops of water. Similarly, in the 2141 setting, Sonmi-451 is interrogated shortly before being executed. The interrogator asks her what difference her ideas about freedom could possibly make if no one ever hears them or believes them. She calmly replies that at least one person has already heard her (meaning the interrogator).
Is it really true that if you remove (or add) enough drops of water that you can reshape society, that one person can significantly change the world? Or is the cynic right that anyone who tries to do so will meet a horrible fate without making a meaningful difference? There have always been brave, visionary leaders willing to risk their lives for the sake of that "one drop" but those leaders frequently suffer immensely--and often make the ultimate sacrifice. Have their sacrifices made the world better or are the trappings of our "civilization" just a thin veneer draped over our true barbaric nature? I fear that Einstein was right and that we are just one war away from heading right back to the Stone Age; our technological capabilities are increasing much faster than our capacity to function on a high moral/ethical level: as Martin Amis put it in Time's Arrow, "[The Holocaust] was unique, not in its cruelty, nor in its cowardice, but in its style--in its combination of the atavistic and the modern. It was, at once, reptilian and 'logistical.' And although the offence was not definingly German, its style was. The National Socialists found the core of the reptile brain, and built an autobahn that went there."

Whether or not reincarnation literally exists as depicted in Cloud Atlas, Dr. King is right that all of humanity is intimately connected--but it is far from clear if we will collectively understand that concept and act accordingly or if we will soon be fighting World War IV with sticks and stones.

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