Cloud Atlas: An Excursion into Mediated Reality

June 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Many of us take for granted that the things around us exist in space and time and we go about our daily routines never questioning if the world around us is, in fact, real.  We do the same thing when we encounter a history textbook, read our favorite newspaper or watch the news channel of our liking. We assume that what we find in these texts or speeches are, in some sense, objective reality or truth. Do we have any reason other than a mentality incited by the Enlightenment, to believe that the world and the things in it are real and not constantly being mediated and interpreted through our thoughts and stories? I’ll leave the question of reality, debated for centuries, to the hands of more capable philosophers than I, and instead focus on David Mitchell’s book Cloud Atlas which, if books could speak, would answer the proceeding question with a resounding no.

Cloud Atlas is one of the most intriguing books I have read lately, gaining most of its momentum from the interconnected form it employs. It is a novel that contains six smaller stories within it, all of which, except for the sixth, are split in half in such a manner that the stories begin in ascending order and are wrapped up in descending order. This form and Mitchell’s exuberant, genre-shifting prose enables the novel to pose questions about the very nature of reality and the way we interact with and ascribe reality to texts. When I put down the book, I came to the realization that every story in the novel was mediated through another story or was framed as being told in some form that wasn’t directed tied to reality. In fact, I’m not certain if any of the stories in the novel are real in the fictional universe described in the book.

Let me unpack that and also touch on some of the implications Mitchell seems to be making. The first portion of the novel is from the journal of a Pacific explorer, written by Mitchell in the verbose, pious tone of a learned man of the day. Clearly, we are not reading direct reality, but this man’s interpretation of his experiences. The first part of this story ends abruptly, cutting off in mid-sentence, a device we don’t understand until in the next portion of the novel, a series of letters from one friend to another, we read a description of the author of the letters finding and reading The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, unfortunately ripped in half. The very portion of the novel we just read has been read by the character in the current portion. This trend continues for the rest of the novel, and it would take me far too long to describe all these instances of intertextuality, but these instances raise serious questions about the authenticity of any story within this fictive realm.

Third-person omniscient narration is only employed once in the novel in a portion which is revealed in the next story as being the manuscript for a novel. There is no objective viewpoint in this entire novel, instead what exists is mediated through personal stories, often told in the novel through the text and others reading or telling stories. In typical postmodern fashion, Mitchell has made us doubt the very existence of impersonal, objective truth, or at least he has made us doubt our ability to uncover this truth. His characters forge their way through the confusing quagmire of their reality by learning from and telling stories. Perhaps this is the way we make sense of the world now, instead of searching for theoretical underpinnings that pack up our entire lives in nice little, understandable packages.

Among Mitchell’s critique of objective reality and the other postmodern trappings of his novel, I think that this focus on story is something that deserves a closer look. Humans making sense of the world through story is nothing new, just look at communication scholar Walter Fisher who introduced his narrative paradigm in the late 80s, a theory asserting that humans are basically homo narrans, or storytellers. Fisher showed that the way mankind communicates is not through cold, stark factual information, but through lively personal narratives. Mitchell takes this idea and suggests that truth is difficult to find in this world and the things we think of as objective reality are often simply the personal narratives of the person who is doing the research or the writing of the information. We can’t actually touch or experience things that we consider set in stone such as the history of the Civil War or even the story our friend tells us about yesterday. We have to accept that what we know about the past or external reality beyond us is generally mediated through stories, whether they are our stories or those of someone else.

This doesn’t mean truth doesn’t exist, after all plenty of stories are entirely true, and much of history is accurate in as much as it can be. However, Mitchell provides us with a useful caution: if life is composed of stories and interpretations, don’t believe everything you hear. Something that you think is true and real may simply be the appropriate story created to serve the needs of whoever birthed it. Your objective reality about the world, America, the existence (or lack) of God could be shattered in an instant if a previously unknown narrative suddenly reaches your ears or eyes. Think about it. Then again, this is just one more story about a book with six stories, so take it for what it’s worth.

For those who stuck with this rambling, if you are interested in a philosophical position that tries to marry the subjectivity of our personal narratives with an objective sense of truth check out Critical Realism. 


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