Why am I here?
Do I matter?
Do I have a purpose?
“You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?” – Agent Smith, The Matrix Revolutions
I have always struggled with my existence. I often ponder my purpose, as I see other people’s success. I wonder if I can ever achieve the happiness they all exude, or share in the achievements they almost universally bask in. I imagine scenarios where I am actually happy with my place on earth instead of constantly worrying about whether I am making the right choices with my life. This leads to questioning my worth, especially in the grand scheme of things. It makes me think there is almost a pointlessness to my life. I find myself constantly apologizing for my existence. As of late, I focus entirely on the negatives of my life. In short, I suffer from constant lack of confidence in myself, leading to massive feelings of inadequacy, which then leads me to believe I have no purpose. In fact, I struggle finding the purpose of life in general at times. It is a vicious cycle that stems from my realization that I do not believe in a god, or any sort of higher being back when I was in my formative teenage years. Along the road to that self-discovery, I came into the possession of a book that I think may have saved my life, with the assistance of some key family members and friends. This book was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Cloud Atlas is an important novel to me because I discovered it at an important moment in my life. A moment in my life where I honestly thought that not existing was the better option.
“Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.” – David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
I could spend an entire page attempting to condense the entire plot of Cloud Atlas for you, but to do so would be an injustice to the power the text holds within. It is simply just to big to go through each individual plot thread, and why it is important. Instead, I will attempt to give a broad overview of the text’s structure, as well as its themes. In short, I will give you my best interpretation of the novel, which I believe to be a crucial element to the assignment at hand.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a novel of massive scope and imagination. It consists of six interconnected stories that also vary in conventional genre. As Sarah Jane Johnston Ellis summarizes, “The genre of each vary markedly as does the narrative method employed: journal entries written in the nineteenth century while on a voyage back from the Pacific, a set of letters written to a lover, a ‘cheap airport-thriller’ chock-a-block with ‘goodies’ fighting ‘baddies’ in an attempt to prevent a potential nuclear catastrophe at a nuclear plant, a picaresque written as a memoir, an interview between a State archivist and a convicted traitor, and the spoken history of a man living in a futuristic dystopia.” (12-13). Much like a orchestral score, each unique story is crucial to the overall piece’s success. If even one piece were omitted, the entire work would feel incomplete. In fact, life, in many ways, is like an orchestra. Tiny, seemingly insignificant, intricacies that slowly build up into tangible moments, that then gradually become something important; something noticeable. This is the very definition of life to me.
The way Mitchell connects these stories is also crucial to the overall theme. The journal of Adam Ewing, the main character of the first story, is being read by Robert Forbisher, the main character of the second as he writes letters to his lover in the 1930’s. Those letters are then left to Lusia Ray, a journalist in the third story. These letters lead her to investigate the cooperate crimes of a nuclear facility in the 1970’s. Her exploits are then turned into a novel by a young writer she befriended, the manuscript of which is being read by a publisher, Timothy Cavendish, in the fourth narrative in 2012. Cavendish attempts to escape from a toleration nursing home he has found himself trapped in. This whole ghastly affair is later turned into a feature film that is watched over one thousand years later by genetically engineered fabricant named Sonmi-451 in the futuristic world of Neo Seoul (geographically what we call Korea) in 2144. This film inspires Sonmi to be the figurehead of a rebellion that fights for the rights of all beings, real and synthetic. Over two thousand years later, long after the fall of humanity, Sonmi is worshiped as a god-like figure by tribesman, including the main character of the final story, Zachry.
The connective tissue of each progressive story represents, to me at least, the most important theme of the novel: the consequence of actions. Johnston Ellis writes, “Mitchell emphasizes just how crucial free will, and the choices and decisions one makes, are in determining the path of one’s life (the process of self-making), and the manner in which one lives that life.” (21). Each person can be indirectly influenced by another person, regardless of time or location. In other words, there is no such thing as an insignificant action. Any action that takes place, big or small, will have some sort of reaction. Regardless of social standing, race, sex, religion, or lack there off, your life will affect another, and so on and so forth. That’s what effected me most when I initially read the book. There is no god putting a path before us. It is the world that came before us, and the choices that we make in the present that will ultimately shape our future.
“All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
The idea of family ties heavily into the major theme of Cloud Atlas for me, and that once again is the consequences of action. We are all the results of one singular action after all, with various actions leading up to it. Only recently have begun to look to the seemingly insignificant actions that helped shaped the person I am today. Cloud Atlas stresses the interconnectivity of life, and that interconnection begins with the chance of two random people making a connection against all probability, a physical interaction, billions of cells competing against each other, and finally just luck. The ultimate product was my birth.
Once the messy affair of my birth was out of the way, the formation of the person who sits before you, writing this paper, began. We cannot choose the family we come into, or else we would all be millionaires. In Cloud Atlas, the journalist character, Luisa Rey, had a father who served in an unnamed war. His name was Lester Rey. She shares many qualities as her father, and even followed his career path. Like her father, Luisa attempts to look for the truth in things, as well as being expectational brave in the face of immanent danger. During the war, Lester saved a man named Napier. Napier would go on to work for a nuclear facility, the same facility that Luisa is investigating. The company that owns the facility sends an assassin to silence Luisa. Luckily, Napier learns of this and is able to save Luisa from her certain demise. Napier’s past with her father was something completely beyond Luisa’s control, but it ultimately effected her future.
Like everyone else, we can all be somewhat defined by the family that raises us, at least at an early age. My grandmother, and my father both love to read. I find it only natural that I also find great joy in the written word. Not only in literature, but the internet, film, and so on. My grandmother instilled a great love of reading where there had not been one before. The first book I can remember her giving me was the first book in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. After that, books were like my drug, and that is still very true today. She recently passed away, and at her funeral, I included the quote from above in her eulogy, and I found it very appropriate to include here. This is a woman who I was related to, that did something as simple as put a book in my hands, and the result is the major in which I work towards for the next two years.
It should also be noted that my family is fairly religious. We were never a “go to church every Wednesday and Sunday” bunch, but the faith was still an important element to my home life. I do not think my atheism is some subconscious need to rebel however. I have openly discussed all of this with my parents, and I know they don’t love me any less for my beliefs. I think it stems from just having a logical mind, whether that is a gift or a curse has yet to be seen. The point of all of this though is that all of these elements are out of my control, but they had a clear effect on who I am as an adult, even though there may be some subconscious need to rebel. You can’t change who your family is, and I certainly wouldn’t. I love my parents, and how they raised me. As I said, it has instilled some of the critical factors about who I am, and they may carry some element in how I raise my children one day. It was the direct action of a family member that caused me to find Cloud Atlas, and why I am currently an English major after all.
The connections that I have made, in terms of community, are my friends. I do not believe in any sort of god, but I do believe in good people. To give a degree of context, I grew up in a small town. As with most small towns in Oklahoma, the population was predominately Christian. I grew up in a household that was rather religious, and for a while, I would consider myself religious as well. In the back of my mind though, the whole concept never made sense to me for reasons I will not bore you with here. In short, I felt that I was living a lie by attending church, and singing to a being that I didn’t believe existed. What I was finding though, were friends. I wasn’t going to church to find religion, I was going to find friendship, and I did. I found some of the best friends I will ever have through church, and while we do not really discuss things of a religious nature, we still keep in contact today. Through church, I was able to form new circles of friends beyond it.
In Cloud Atlas, the interconnectivity of life is stressed, and that rings true in the family we are assigned at birth. It also applies to the people you associate with. I never found my definition in my community as a whole, but I did in the people I considered friends. So in a sense, they were, and are, my community. I recently lost a friend to a car accident less than two days before I turned in this assignment. She was one of my friends from my hometown, and we kept in contact on a weekly basis. It is still quite a deep shock right now, but over the past day or so, I have gathered a little time to self reflect. This won’t be a make shift eulogy, but it does offer a more relevant example for the point I was ultimately going to make. On Wednesday, when it is time for her funeral, a few hundred people will gather to mourn the loss of her life. These people will range from family, close friends, and acquaintances. Some knew her very well, and others may have just known her from a distance. The beautiful thing is that all of these people will be gathered for one purpose: to mourn the life of a person that effected their life. She was a member of a community, whether she saw it or not. This is an example of both presence, and action. My friend may be gone, but through the simple action of talking to me, she has become immortal, and not just to me, but hundreds of people. In Cloud Atlas, characters die, and in their death, meaning is found. We all build our own individual communities while we are alive. Our presence never truly leaves this world, as it lives in the communities we created.
“A man gets only a couple of chances in life. If he doesn’t grab’em by the balls, it won’t take long for he’s sitting around wondering why he got to be second rate.” – Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
“You’re young! You will get your recognition, and honestly it is absolutely ridiculous to be two years in your career and counting your ideas! Everything to you is an opportunity!” – Don Draper, “The Briefcase” Mad Men
This was without a doubt the hardest section to put context to. I have not had much time to think about what I want out of a career yet. This is a problem I suffer with everyday. I hope that I do not find myself in a place where I am unhappy with the road I chose. Feeling second-rate is an obvious source of pain for me. If I had to pinpoint a specific career, I would hope to be
a writer, even though I believe I like the talent for it. Whether it be creative or technical, I would hope I could find a job putting this skill I am currently honing in on to have some relevance in my life after college. Cloud Atlas is obviously the creation of a writer, and it has three main characters that are also writers in various mediums. Adam Ewing is a lawyer, but he keeps a journal that is later published. Robert Forbisher is a composer, so he writes music. Luisa Rey is a journalist, and her work saves millions of lives, and finally Timothy Cavendish is a publisher, who goes on to write a book titled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, which is later adapted into a feature film. “The Orison of Sonmi-451” is told in the form of an interview of the main character, Sonmi, by a nameless Archivist. This Archivist is the character that most effectively hits the point I am trying to make here.
The purpose of a writer is almost a thankless job. The simple act of committing something to paper is almost trivial in the age of Facebook, and Twitter. People are able to connect in quicker ways, and information is much more digestible. This doesn’t making writing an obsolete way of communication because it has fundamentally stayed the same through its evolution. At its most basic core, writing is just another facet of storytelling. Storytelling is something completely unique to our species. Phillip Pullman, author of the Golden Compass, once said, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” The basic structure of a story allows us to make sense of life. We have beginning, we have a middle, and we have an ending. Stories are how we explain how things work. They can bring people together regardless of race or creed. They are the universal equalizer. Everyone has the opportunity to be a story-teller, and that is what I find so appealing about the profession.
The draw of writing does not come without its fears though. I have often noticed that writers are not particularly kind to other writers. As the character of Earnest Hemingway says in Midnight in Paris, “If it’s bad, I’ll hate it. If it’s good, then I’ll be envious and hate it even more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer.” Writers naturally think they can improve others work, and that is especially true when it comes to critics. What better example than the criticism of my main text, Cloud Atlas? The response seems fairly divisive. Some call it ambitious, while others call it an unruly mess. It’s always interesting any piece of literature that is labeled both by critics initially because as time progresses, the work is usually looked in a more universally positive light. Ambition is hardly ever recognized at first because it is difficult to defend something new. Critics thrive on negative feedback, but the harsh truth is that the average piece of junk is more usual that a critic deeming it so. When a critic defends something new though, it is something really special. The most memorable literature is often divisive at first, and Cloud Atlas certainly falls in that category. I want to be a writer so I can create something like Cloud Atlas. Not only to gain recognition, or some other momentary satisfaction, but to have a work that creates a conversation. Writers are immortal in the same way an individual is. Their work lives beyond them. The can connect with audiences in a more direct way through the words they commit to writing or typing. If I could be anything, it would be a writer. Not necessarily a successful one, but that would fantastic. No, I want to create something that moves someone else in a positive way, and become immortal by doing so.
I have a particular affinity for pop culture, especially movies. This stems all from being a fairly loner child, and finding comfort in the adventures of others, both in textual and visual mediums. I continually find myself drawn to stories about the triumph of the human spirit over the counter-productive evil that outside forces, including humanity, are capable of. These stories also stress the importance of an individual that had yet to realize their true potential before the actions of the main narrative unfolded. Books like the aforementioned Lord of the Rings and the
Harry Potter series had great effect on me in my youth. Movies like The Matrix, Star War, and Akira all brought me hope that maybe I too have untapped potential. In every single one of these examples, the hero is someone that leads an unremarkable life. They long for something beyond their humble roots. Luke Skywalker was just a young man on a small planet, living on an even smaller planet, just looking for a way to leave. Harry Potter was just a young boy under the stairs, never knowing the path that he would ultimately take. Thomas Anderson would literally become “The One.” The would all be remembered for things that they never could have imagined.
There are two notable characters like this in Cloud Atlas and it should come as no surprise that they are the protagonists of my two favorite sections in the narrative: “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” and “An Orison of Sonmi-451.” Cavendish’s tale is told in a comedic tone, as he attempts to flee gangsters that believe he owes them money for the recent success of their brother’s book. His brother tells him of a hotel in which he can lay low for the time being. As it turns out this hotel is actually a nursing home, and the staff will not let Cavendish leave on his own accord, as he signed a release, thinking it was a logbook. Along with a few of his fellow “in-mates,” Cavendish plots a successful break-out. Over one thousand years later, Sonmi-451, a genetically engineered fabricant, is being interviewed before her execution. She relates how she was freed from her life of servitude at a fast food restraint by a leading solider of a fabricant equality movement. A fabricant is basically a clone, bred to be a slave. Once these fabricants reach a certain age, they are murdered, and “recycled” into food for future fabricants. Once learning this, Sonmi agrees to spread this message on a world-wide broadcast.
The rebels are able to hold off a brutal government led assault just long enough for the broadcast to appear on-air, ending with Sonmi’s capture, interview, and execution.
The way to the two tales intertwine is also the most appealing connection to me as Cavendish’s seemingly insignificant rebellion against a nurse on the verge of being a dictator, inspires the revolution of an entire people, leading its martyr to become almost godlike in relevance. Before she is executed, Sonmi relates her story to an Archivist, whose job is to basically catalog stories. His unassuming role will lead to the spread of Sonmi’s parable, and a world-wide revolution. The act of story-telling is something that is often overlooked, but almost vital to who we are as a species. While never being aware of his influence, Cavendish is a hero beyond his own life through the choices he made, and the actions he took. Its also important to note that Sonmi-451, learns of Cavendish’s exploits through a cinematic adaptation of them. A movie is an artistic form of media, and in essence, an element of popular culture. This is an obvious statement about another connection people have throughout decades, and that is through art.
Art connects people in a unique way beyond just a visceral experience. Like storytelling, it is an element in our everyday life that we take for granted, but it transcends generation after generation for basically the same reason. We project important things onto art. Our hopes, our dreams, our past, our present, and much more go into how we interpret art. Sonmi sees Timothy Cavendish’s fight against oppression, relates it to her own suffering, and applies it to her outlook on life afterwords. That is what makes art something that deserves to be elevated. It is not about cold, hard facts. It is something subjective that anyone can enjoy in any way they see fit. The
way we perceive art is heavily effected by our past, and the context in which we came to find. Sonmi finds The Ghastly Affair of Timothy Cavendish at a time in her life when all she knew was how to be a good slave. I found Cloud Atlas at a time where all I knew was how to be a good Christian. Through the help of art, we both moved on to finding ourselves, much like the heroes of my favorite books and movies, and how to become better people in the process.
“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” – David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
“I would love to believe that I will live again. That some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability is to look death in the eye, and be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.” – Carl Sagan, Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium
I matter. As small as I feel in the grand scheme of things, I am adding to the great tapestry of life in some form. No man or woman can see the path led before him. Will I ever be completely comfortable with my place in the world? Who is to say? Is anyone ever really comfortable with themselves? Life is always going to be a struggle. The important thing is that I keep going. That I do not surrender to thoughts of ineptitude, or pointlessness. I may not believe in a literal afterlife where I reunite with loved ones, but I do believe there is a definite form of life after death. People remain immortal through the actions they chose in their short stay on this planet. We even define people by the actions they took long after they have left their mortal coil. I am not religious. I do not believe that there is a God. I do not believe that there is a Heaven, or a Hell. I do, however, believe in miracles. Biblical passages tells us that miracles are something that require divine action. That they are something we can see, and make us believe in some higher power, when in fact, true miracles are the ones we cannot see at the time. The tiny moments that connect us as beings together, the events that led to us as individuals, these are the true miracles. Against all odds of probability, and failure, we are here. An infinite amount of factors contribute to who we are, most of which are completely beyond our control. Things like family, or community are all elements that come to us without warning. They ultimately effect our future. The careers we work towards, and the way we process pop culture. All of these elements make us who we are, and out of all of that chaos, the fact that anything can emerge is beautiful. Life is a miracle.
If Cloud Atlas has taught me anything it is that my ideas, words, actions, and even the time in which I was born in can effect other people on even a subliminal level. We may not see it, and the world may not see it, but this happens all the time. This is what shapes our lives, and humanity as a whole. To deny the world the experience of a person is regrettable, because for all we know that person could have shaped our lives in a new, and positive way. The possibilities of life are limitless. This is what I draw on to keep moving forward, when the darkness begins to become almost unbearable. I will not go until I am forced, and when I do, those around me can take comfort in the fact that I was here, and whether it was big or small, I made a difference.
Never give up.
Humanity needs me.
Whether I know it or not.