Inherited, Engineered, or Chosen: Attitude in Cloud Atlas

Attitude is both the curse and the savior of contemporary life, according to the two parts of “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

Attitude certainly seems to be a problem for Dermot Hoggins, to say the least. It is also what makes Mrs. Judd an angel (Florence Nightingale) and Mrs. Noakes a monster. But I am more particularly interested in the two train ticket attendants, who prove to Cavendish to be impossibly rude, unfeeling, and “intractably dense” so that he condemningly concludes: “the corporation breeds them from the same stem cell” (168). Later, in attempting to explain his circumstances to Nurse Noakes, Cavendish again calls the two ticket clerks “the ruddy stem cell twins” (175). It is so interesting to see Cavendish link these two people literarily according to a genetic epithet—“stem cell twins”—when what links them is anything but genetics or blood relation or even physical similarity: What links the two clerks is their attitudes, their uninterest in helping him or in any sort of relational processes involved in their jobs.

In part two, when Cavendish has escaped the terrible confines of Aurora House, he clarifies the moral to his story for the reader: “That is more or less it. Middle age is flown, but it is attitude, not years that condemns one to the ranks of the Undead, or else proffers salvation. In the domain of the young there dwells many an Undead soul. They rush about so, their inner putrefaction is concealed for a few decades, that is all” (387). Now, attitude is a soul-saving matter, sounding almost inherent or spiritually inspired, not an issue of scientifically engineered “stem cell” design. What would Cavendish say about his “stem cell twins” in terms of his moral? Are they the Undead souls in the domain of the young? If so, why does he claim they have been engineered that way? Do they really have a choice to choose the attitude that proffers salvation or not? Or are they stuck in their own Aurora House?

What are the boundaries of this all-important attitude that Cavendish identifies, and how does one begin to encourage it? Through reading Cavendish’s story? How does one counter the corporations, then, that seem to have the power to breed the Undead? Why this metaphor of corporations breeding? Why does Cavendish not allow the same right to break free, to escape, to choose attitude for the two ticket clerks that he allows himself, the old man who will not join the ranks of the Undead?

Erin Spinka

~ by erinspinka on April 9, 2009.

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