Evolution or Causation?
Shortly after first reading Cloud Atlas several years ago, I encountered a review of the novel by Tom Bissel in The New York Times whose vast divergence from my own view of the text has imprinted it in my memory. In a highly critical (and, in my opinion, largely unfair) reaction to the novel, Bissel accuses David Mitchell of deliberate difficulty simply for the sheer pleasure of difficulty. Leaving aside the loaded question of why finding pleasure in difficulty is bad – what sort of affective policing is going on there, as well as in the postmodernist rejection of modernist difficulty more generally? – I would like to instead look at Bissel’s two primary critiques of Mitchell’s difficulty. On the one hand, Bissel suggests that Mitchell undoubtedly pushes forward the historical progression of the novel, but he wonders whether the assumed end to this trajectory is in fact desirable or not. Bissel’s second problem with Mitchell’s novel, on the other hand, paradoxically has to do with its lack of difficulty. Transparent conventional devices, such as the birthmark that all of the protagonists possess and their consumption of each others’ stories as novels, films, and diaries, demonstrate that Cloud Atlas fails not only on Bissel’s terms, but also in respect to its author’s own presumed intentions. Why are these conventional devices so problematic for Bissel? Why do they not provide the ease of reading that he seems to yearn for, the security that conventional tropes typically provide? The key to this seemingly paradoxical critique (too difficult/not difficult enough) would seem to lie in Bissel’s tacit assumptions regarding the role of the novel and its “evolution.” For Bissel, the use of fictional texts as a vehicle of causation is tacky, unartistic, and not true to life, and he is far from alone in this respect. Kant’s notion of the “purposeless purpose” of art holds much the same moral, namely, that art does not “cause” anything in an instrumental sense (such as, say, a hammer). Writing that fails to achieve this “purposeless purpose” would fall into the category of didacticism, propaganda, or pornography, among others. The trouble with Mitchell’s novel for Kantian critiques is that it avoids any of the markedly kinetic forms of causation that coincide with these genres – the texts do not instruct, inspire, or otherwise directly motivate the characters’ actions – but we are still left with an ethereal, indeterminable sense of causation, that in one way or another each of these texts, whether fictional or non-fictional, has in some uncertain manner produced the action that follows. Indeed, it is hard not to feel that when Zach’ry’s son “shows” the reader the conclusion to “An Orison of Somni~451” a threshold has been crossed in the narrative that will allow the rest of the tales to conclude peaceable. Of course, the causal chain here works in reverse, from future to past, thus troubling the evolutionary framework that Bissel sets up to talk about the development of the novel. If, for Bissel (and he is far from alone in this assumption), the novel can “evolve” but not “cause” another event to happen, if to do so would be to forfeit one’s claim to artistic worth, then what we see in Mitchell’s use of conventional voices, tropes, and narrative devices is both his refusal of evolutionary teleology (Zach’ry leads to Adam Ewing as much as Adam leads to Zach’ry – the use of famous biblical fathers’ names cannot be accidental) and his insistence that the novel can be a causal factor, albeit one whose exact parameters are undefined.
And yet, the birthmark DOES come off as forced, over-the-top, and somewhat unconvincing. If I differ with Bissel in his condemnation of Mitchell’s difficulty, I cannot help but agree with his assessment of the birthmark as highly contrived, as well as the New Age thematic of reincarnation that goes along with it. Given the numerous theorists who have exposed New Age spiritualism as the obverse of capitalism (e.g. Slavoj Zizek), it is highly important for Mitchell to differentiate this “reincarnation” from an ethic of transcendental individualism that attempts to disavow the material world that has produced that very individuality. In this respect, note that Mitchell’s characters do not seem to reflect any single consistent personality type across their six variations – Luisa Rey’s often naïve innocence contrasts sharply with, say, the cynicism of Robert Frobisher. Instead, Mitchell presents six characters whose only apparent similarity seems to be the situations in which they find themselves – threatened death, dismemberment, and identity theft, all various ways to “lose” one’s self – and not any core individualistic personality. In other words, it is the similar networks within which the characters find themselves, their “niche” (to take Regenia Gagnier’s term), that produce them as, in some ephemeral way, the same “person.” These networks, like the mode of causation that the various intertexts provide, witness effects that are indeterminate with respect to any one given cause – Is it Adam Ewing’s poising that “makes” him the imprisoned Timothy Cavendish? His residence on an isolated island? – but which are nevertheless there. The birthmark, cliché extraordinaire, shows the very externality of this form of reincarnation, which can pass from fictional to “non-fictional” characters and vice versa: there is no interior essence that we can observe passing from character to character throughout the course of the novel, but only circumstantial similarities that impose themselves on the exterior of an individual subject.