Monday, 16 April 2012

Cloud atlas and the left

Monday 16 April 2012

I'm quite short of time at the moment (one assessment due tomorrow, one on Thursday, three books to read this week, editing work needed for Wednesday, going to Melbourne for the comedy festival from Thursday to Monday, with a presentation on a book I haven't started reading due two days after I get back), so in lieu of a real post, here's something I've been meaning to put up here for a while that won't eat too much into my time.

A while ago, while Til and I were travelling around Italy and Greece, I read a wonderful book by David Mitchell called Cloud Atlas, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2004 and which was recommended to me by one of my lecturers, the excellent Dr Joshua Lobb.

I'm increasingly interested at the moment in tracing back the texts and ideas I encountered that led me to certain conclusions, because sometimes my conclusions (eg socialism, vegetarianism) seem so radical when just looked at bare. But if I could present people with a more manageable sequence of ideas that, once accepted, lead to that conclusion, it might be more understandable.

The book is full of beauty and poignancy, but in particular the passage I want to quote below, the ending of the book, when read after undertaking the journey of the entire novel, was one of the first things I encountered that led me to start thinking about why a progressive, leftist, socialist (look it up if that sounds alarming; it might not mean what you think it means) approach to world governance is a better one than a conservative, capitalist, individualist one. I now see the divide between left and right as largely one of cooperative socialism and competitive individualism. It even had a part to play in the development of my ideas about vegetarianism (note the 'weaselly word' the narrator identifies, and possibly see my post ''Naturalness', semantic decay and veg(etari)anism (part two of three)').

And don't worry, it doesn't have much in the way of spoilers, although being the final passage there are a few references you obviously won't understand if you haven't read the book:

Scholars discern motions in history & formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises & falls of civilizations. My belief runs contrary, however. To wit: history admits no rules; only outcomes. What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.

What precipitates acts? Belief.

Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind's mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & beastiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, & history's Horroxes, Boerhaaves & Gooses shall prevail. You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why underminde the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the 'natural' (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this: – one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the entropy written within our nature?

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peacably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth and its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Tortuous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president's pen or a vainglorious general's sword.

A life spent shaping a world I want Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living. Upon my return to San Francisco, I shall pledge myself to the Abolitionist cause, because I owe my life to a self-freed slave & because I must begin somewhere.

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 red-necks that they are merely white-washed negroes & their negroes are black-washed Whites! Sail to the Old World, tell 'em their imperial slaves' rights are as inalienable as the Queen of Belgium's! Oh, you'll grow hoarse, poor & grey in caucuses! You'll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified! Naïve, dreaming Adam. 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? (527–529)

Incidentally, there's a film adaptation of Cloud Atlas coming out late this year with Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Jim Sturgess, so get your hands on a copy and read it beforehand!


David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas, published in 2003.

Cover image.