Cloud Atlas and Essential Human Nature

Some films beg to be discussed philosophically. But many of these films are dismissed by professional philosophers as pseudo-philosophy.  Cloud Atlas – the new film by the makers of The Matrix – is one that will be so dismissed.  It has all the same vices as The Matrix Reloaded, a movie I greatly enjoyed.

Like the Matrix sequels, Cloud Atlas is flawed in many ways, not least of which is philosophical argumentation less rigorous than most professional philosophers would hope for.  But if it is laughable to say “we are bound to others, past and present”, as the messianic figure of Cloud Atlas says, then it is just as laughable to say that “no man is an island entire of itself; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” as John Donne said or “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” as Paul says in Romans 12:5.

This theme of interconnection between people is the key to Cloud Atlas.  The film seems to be about reincarnation, but that’s a red-herring.  The filmmakers’ choice to cast the same actors in more than one role – including actors playing different races and genders – is an illustration of the view that one’s character is a construction.  We are all actors.  And just as Tom Hanks can put on various costumes and play different roles, so can we.  The filmmakers are rejecting what is called gender and racial “essentialism” in favor of the view that gender and race are “social constructions” – not surprising given the fact that one of the filmmakers is transgendered.

This is all pretty standard queer theory, which makes use of the postmodern method of deconstruction. And, yes, Cloud Atlas is postmodern, despite its claim to objective truth.  In the novel one character responds to a query about her “version of the truth”, by saying “truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths” (p. 185).  Another character affirms that “the true true is diff’rent to the seemin’ true” (p. 274).  This sounds like an odd thing for a postmodernist to say, but, contrary to popular belief, postmodernism is not all about rejecting truth claims; it is fundamentally about the pursuit of justice, which deconstructs power plays that mask themselves as truth claims.  Derrida says explicitly that justice itself cannot be deconstructed.  It is the pursuit of justice for racial and gender minorities that motivates the film’s attempt to envision an alternative to essentialism.

What is interesting about Cloud Atlas, is its recognition that a certain type of essentialism is actually entailed by deconstruction. The claim that everyone on the GLBTQ rainbow spectrum is equally human rejects gender essentialism but assumes an essentialism about human nature.  There must be such a thing as human nature that we all share.  Thus the filmmakers are committed to the rejection of  transhumanism.

Indeed, this is the point of the film’s multiple storylines spanning from the 19th to the 24th Centuries.  Film critics have been stumped trying to follow the different characters played by the same actors in an attempt to discern some pattern of progress across the stories.  But the point is that there is no progress.  Human nature is unchangeable.  Cloud Atlas argues that we may try to “civilize” ourselves and adopt new technologies in the name of “progress”, even eventually acquiring the ability to genetically alter our bodies and create “fabricant” clones, but we can never leave behind the (fallen) human nature of the will to power.

As C.S. Lewis argues in The Aboloition of Man, “if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners” (p. 72-3).  In the novel of Cloud Atlas, it is the murderous Dr. Henry Goose who, on “scientific” social Darwinian grounds, thinks human beings are merely “joints of meat” and hence raw material to serve the appetite of those in power – not “sacred being crafted in the Almighty’s image” whose souls must be respected as interconnected with one’s own soul (p. 503).  In short, the filmmakers accept the objective truth of essentialism as a foundation of humanism.

Of course, it is a further question how Cloud Atlas wants us to overcome the universal human tendency toward domination of others and to replace that with a recognition of universal human connection with others.  And it is a still further question about whether the film’s proposal is compatible with Christianity.  But that is a discussion for another time.

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