April 10, 2017 § 3 Comments
Six stories. Six periods in history. Six genres. Six geographical locations. Six modes of storytelling. Cloud Atlas links these diverse stories together with the idea that characters are reincarnations of each other. If you thought, or maybe wished, that the reincarnation theme was just implied and not certain, Mitchell has dashed all your hopes because he has said in an interview that, “Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark”. But, was reincarnation really necessary to connect the stories? They are tied together in other, arguably stronger ways, such as Frobisher discovering Ewing’s journal and Sonmi~451 watching Cavendish’s ordeal. This is also not simply a pro-reincarnation novel as Mitchell has explicitly stated that he, regretfully, does not believe in reincarnation. If the link wasn’t necessary and he is not simply advocating for the idea of rebirth the question must be asked, why did Mitchell choose to include reincarnation?
There are three types of reincarnation that I see in Cloud Atlas:the rebirth of both soul and physical body, the rebirth of soul or consciousness into a different physical body, the reincarnation of a physical body with a different soul. First, a little introduction to reincarnation. The idea of reincarnation originates from Eastern philosophies and religions, many of which believe that people are trapped in a cycle of repeated birth and death in which previous lives influence future ones. Reincarnation is often taken to be synonymous with transmigration, which refers to the concept of a soul moving from body to body. However, in Japan where David Mitchell lived for eight years, Buddhism, one of the country’s two major religions, teaches that there is no immortal soul or constant, unchanging self. Most sects of Buddhism believe that each individual has a consciousness that is ever progressing and continuous, and that this is what is reborn. Some also believe in karma, the principle that actions in a present life can affect succeeding lives. Mitchell plays with these concepts, possibly injecting Western ideas into the Eastern philosophy or using ideas of reincarnation from other religions like Hinduism to give his characters a more defined soul. The actions and choices of each character also affect other (reincarnated) characters. To exemplify this principle of karma, Sonmi influences her future reincarnations as her decision to become a martyr leads to her being deified by Zachry’s people, and so affects Meronym’s life.
The rebirth of both soul and body is demonstrated by Ewing, Frobisher, Luisa, Cavendish, Sonmi, and Meronym. The characters have strange visions of other characters’ lives, such as Luisa seeing “images so vivid she can only call them memories” (120) of Frobisher’s life, implying a soul or consciousness that is repeated in all these characters. There is also a certain similarity between these characters, as if they are all iterations of the same essence trying to survive in an oppressive world. Like Buddhism, these characters are all also searching for salvation from something, Ewing from his illness, Frobisher from his poverty, Luisa from her inability to write what she wants, Cavendish from his entrapment, Sonmi from her enslaved existence, and Meronym from the degradation of her people. But they are unable to escape the cycle of birth and rebirth itself, and so it is ambiguous whether they actually attain this salvation. On top of this rebirth of their soul, they all also exhibit a type of physical reincarnation in their shared comet-shaped birthmark. As this birthmark appears on all their torsos there is a physical connection between all their bodies, and so a rebirth of both soul and body.
The phenomenon of rebirth of the soul without any rebirth of the physical body, i.e. the classic view of reincarnation, is shown in the religion of Zachry’s dystopian world. In Zachry’s world the Valleysmen believe in a Buddhist kind of rebirth where each person is remembered as an individual, by their own personal icon, but is reborn at the end of their life. Zachry compares this rebirth to clouds floating across the sky, which change dramatically in shape and size as they move. The Valleysmen believe that upon death, their soul will be guided by Somni into another womb to be reborn as another Valleysman. However, Zachry’s ideas of rebirth differ from Buddhism in an important aspect, its end goal. Buddhism’s preaches that one must seek to escape the suffering of a cycle of birth and rebirth where people are trapped by their earthly attachments and desires. This aim is even mentioned in the novel when Sonmi~451 and Hae-Joo happen upon the statue in the wilderness (Buddha) who “was a deity that offered salvation from a meaningless cycle of birth and rebirth” (Mitchell 329). Contrastingly, in Zachry’s world the people celebrate being reborn as “death weren’t so scarysome for [them]” (244) and fear being tempted by Old Georgie and losing the ability to be reborn. Again, Mitchell appears to be adding Western influences to the Eastern ideas with the devil-like tempter figure of Georgie who has to be rejected.
Cloning is a subtler manifestation of rebirth, which only involves the physical body. Cloning is reincarnation made controlled and regulated. In Cloud Atlas it allows the same body to live again, millions of times. The question of a soul for these fabricant clones is controversial, but Somni~451 challenges the corpocracy’s view that that fabricants are soulless and identical (if their genoming is identical). This idea is never more poignant than when Sonmi~451 says, “But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snow-flakes” (187). If their genetics and environment are identical but produce different individuals, as Sonmi suggests, then there must be another entity or quality which is unique in each fabricant. This ‘soul’ is joined to the physical rebirth of a Sonmi or Yoona or other stem-type, to create a singular individual. As an interesting point of support, a New York Times Article published in 2007 explains how embryonic stem-cell cloning and research is much more acceptable and supported in Eastern countries like Singapore, India, and China than in Europe or North America because of the compatibility of cloning with religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, which believe in rebirth. Cloning upholds the same ideas of recycling life as reincarnation, albeit it relates to a physical reincarnation while the traditional ideas of rebirth refers to a soul or consciousness.
Throughout the novel, Mitchell showcases various models of rebirth, and emphasizes the dichotomy of body and ‘soul’, which can be reincarnated separately or together. He draws from Eastern views on the cycle of birth and rebirth but adds Western ideas of the soul and the devil. Does the addition of Western ideas blurs the possibility of salvation for these characters, as they no longer know how to escape from the cycle? The various types of reincarnation emphasize the cyclical nature of history, as humanity can never escape its fundamental nature. This theme is exemplified in the re-emergence of the Moriori’s peaceful way of life in the time of Zachry’s Valleysmen. The most distant past collides with the most distant future in this novel, and the snake bites its own tail.