Cloud Atlas: Beauty and Humanity

Cloud Atlas

“Soul 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? ”

— David Mitchell, <Cloud Atlas>

Cloud Atlas paints a vivid metaphor of human souls as clouds, traveling across time. Sometimes they fade away and reform. Sometimes they combine into something new.

The six main characters in <Cloud Atlas>, with their comet-shaped birthmarks, may or may not be reincarnations of one another. They share some traits and memories and experience echoes of other lives, past and future. Their souls travel, mingle with others, and eventually dissipate, like clouds.

<Cloud Atlas> tells six different stories, separated by time and genre, and yet connected by a seemingly thin thread of fate and coincidence as the main characters of each story find inspiration in the stories that preceded theirs to ultimately change their own in a meaningful way. It’s a story about stories; about the peculiar way in which we can convey a life experience from one individual to another; from one generation to the next. We do this through diaries, letters, literature, films, and in more abstract ways through religion and mythology. Solzhenitsyn (the director), who is referenced in the film more than once, uses the overarching term ‘art’ to capture what he sees as “the only substitute for an experience we ourselves have never lived through.”

Author David Mitchell describes the themes of <Cloud Atlas> as

One is the interconnectedness of cause and effect; you think you have your own little life and it runs along its own tracks. We think we’re islands but actually we’re interconnected archipelagos of islands.

“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth out future.”

— <Cloud Atlas>

<Cloud Atlas> leans heavy on the notion of eternal recurrence which is often associated with spiritual concepts like reincarnation and karma. However, the filmmakers expressed that although they welcomed spiritual interpretations, they also specifically wanted to explore secular perspectives;

The interconnectedness of cause and effect is shown in the book by the motif of a comet-shaped birthmark found on the main characters of each story, suggesting why are the same soul embodying different characters, but in the film they changed this by using the same actors to play different roles, turning the journey of one soul into a story of many. By using the same actors, they purposefully alienate the audience from the individual characters to instead encourage them to draw connections between them on a level that transcends there individual stories.

Regardless of your spiritual or religious belief; the deeply intricate ways in which our actions impact the world around us, captured into words in Sonmi’s revelation;

‘The nature of our immortal lives is in the consequence of our words and deeds that go on apportioning themselves throughout all time’ ;

Number two, it’s about predacity; the way individuals prey on individuals, tribes on tribes, corporations on their host societies, states on the individuals within those states.

Predacity is the main source of conflict in <Cloud Atlas>, It is reflected in the satires of each of the characters as they struggle against greed, power, malevolence and all the other qualities that lead to victors and victims, oppressors and oppressed. reflected by the simple mantra;

“The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”

— <Cloud Atlas>

If we take the interconnectedness of the stories into account; There appears to be a demoralizing truth to this statement, for although the individual stories end with the main characters achieving some form of victory over the oppressing forces they’re facing, on the larger cosmic scale, these victories feel rather inconsequential as the progress made in each story is diminished by a new form of oppression in the next. It raises a serious issue for moral behavior on the individual level; for why should I suffer and sacrifice for a greater good that’s never going to manifest itself? Why should I stand against injustice if my effort will only end up being inconsequential?

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either’ — but right through every human heart. ”

— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

“At this point in my life, all I know Sixsmith, is that this world spins from the same unseen forces that twist our hearts. ”

— <Cloud Atlas>

“ During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; Sometimes it is squeezed one way be exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish.”

“ One and same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn't change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, GOOD and EVIL.”

— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Although we can’t expel evil and injustice on this grand cosmic scale, we can constrict it within our own heart.

Here we do have agency, and we can make a difference, but we ourselves are responsible to assume it, and this takes courage and honesty which at last brings us to the purpose of art. Against eternal justice, art offers beauty as it’s equally eternal antidote.

“Beauty is to enthuse us to for work, and work is to raise us up.”

— Cyprian Norwid

It’s difficult to define what this beauty is, but this is exactly the point; it is up to you to do it; you have to bring your own agency to it and define what it is. Art, in all its many forms, can help you do this, or at the very least it will help you discover what it’s not. This process is reflected by the main characters in the film. Even though their comet-shaped birthmarks no longer represent a spiritual or genetic connection, it does suggest a new connection through beauty as they all find meaning and motivation in the beauty transferred to them form those who came before. It allows each the characters to elevate their individual and highly particular struggles to something that comes closer to carrying universal meaning;

“Freedom; the fatuous jingle of our civilization. But only those deprived of it have the barest inkling of what it really is.”

— <Cloud Atlas>

This, hopefully, is when we realize that the boundary between our heart and the rest of the world is just a convention, waiting to be transcended. If we can conceive of doing so, then even the thinest victory becomes one of comics significance.

“One drop of truth can outweigh an ocean of lies”,

— Aleksandr Solzhenisyn

“What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”

— <Cloud Atlas>

It emphasized that it only takes one drop to preserve goodness and justice, and within a limitless ocean; the existence of this drop is not a lost cause, it is all that matters. And so <Cloud Atlas> makes its case for how the human heart, over and over again, will save the world in its entirety. It doesn’t give you a definitive moral path, but it does urge you to take up the responsibility to find one for yourself. To stop doing the things that make you feel weak and stand up for what truly meaningful. To be that one drop in the ocean.

Pope John Paul the Second presented a letter to the artists, in which he wrote,

“On the threshold of the third millennium, my hope for all of you who are artists is that you have an especially intense experience of creative inspiration. May the beauty which you pass on to generations still to come be such that it will stir them to wonder! Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude. ”

People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path.

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