Cloud Atlas, Or, Why Violence is Never the Answer

by Nola

SPOILER ALERT! I discuss the end of this novel in detail. If you wish to read this book and not be spoiled, come back after you’ve read it.

A friend recommended David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to me over a year ago. I finally got around to reading it. The title of the book references one of its major themes: “[H]ow disparate people connect, and how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.” (Publisher’s description.)

Other descriptions of this book focus on the different “styles and genres” this book utilizes: “The novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes, a puzzle-book.” (Michael Chabon.) And that certainly hooked me. It’s a series of six stores, “each is set in a different time and place, each is written in a different prose style, each is broken off mid-action and brought to conclusion in the second half of the book.” (Publishers Weekly.)

Yeah, yeah. So it’s clever and has an original idea as to HOW to write a story. And that’s cool. But that’s NOT what makes this book fantastic. It is, as any fantastic book must be to make it fantastic, the story itself, and the timelessness of its tale. And that story unfolds itself with deliberate slowness and a deft hand.

What this book was about to me was simple human nature. And the price the human race pays for the decisions of its selfish individuals.

In the fifth story, wherein an archivist interviews a clone, the clone makes the following statement:

Rights are susceptible to subversion, as even granite is susceptible to erosion. . . . [I]n 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.

And in the first story, that, in turn, ends the novel, the narrator comes to pin things down to a system of beliefs:

Belief is both prize and battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontations, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being. . . . You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds out. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance or 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 doom written within our nature?

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world can come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous 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 [my child] to inherit, not one I fear [my child] shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth living.

Since my days of devout yoga practice, I have been repeating the mantra that violence is never the answer. That violence always and only begets more violence.  And Mitchell’s novel brings this point home in a poignant, stark way. What do we need in this world to give peace a chance? It can’t grow in a world that is consumed by fear and violence. By allowing such fear and violence to dictate our actions, our reactions, with more fear and violence, we are dooming our own future, our children, our very world.

It’s not easy to turn the other cheek, to not seek revenge, to not fear Others of whom we either misunderstand or choose not to understand. But by upping the ante with ever-more violence, we are ceding more and more power away from ourselves and to those in power, and not necessarily a just power or even a power concerned for the survival of mankind.

And to me, the novel reinforces that if enough of us put down arms (physically as well as mentally — nonviolence in our actions and in our thoughts), we can have a world of peace, a better world for our children. Or even just the survival of the world for our children to come to this conclusion on their own.


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