The Purpose of History (Movie: Cloud Atlas)

Recently, Cloud Atlas was on Dutch television. This is a science fiction movie made in 2012, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski’s, and based on David Mitchell’s eponymous book.

In the movie, we follow six different storylines, featuring well-known star actors like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Susan Sarandon. The story lines take place in different periods and different places: we have an American lawyer involved in the slave trade on an island in the Pacific in 1849, whose life is saved by a runaway Moriori slave. We have a composer in England in 1936, whose work is stolen by the musician who employs him. We have a publisher who answers to the name Timothy Cavendish (2012), who is confined to an old-age home by his vindictive brother. We have journalist Luisa Rey, trying to expose a conspiracy surrounding a nucleair reactor which could kill many people (in 1973). We have Sonmi-451, a clone in a dystopian futuristic location called ‘Neo-Seoul (2144), who is an enslaved waitress and joins a rebellion group. And last, we have a futuristic, post-apocalyptic clan in 2321, threatened by another clan.

Each storyline is in some way connected to another. For example: when stuck in an elevator at her newspaper’s office, journalist Rey meets Mr. Sixsmith, who as a young man, was the lover of the composer we know from the other story line. Sonmi-451’s rebellion is based on information she obtains through the life of Timothy Cavendish. And the futuristic clan worships someone called (probably no coincidence!) ‘Sonmi’.

The message that the movie conveys with this interconnectivity is that history, present and future are all inseparably interlocked. One action leads to another.
This message is not only conveyed in an explicit way, but also in a more subtle way: the actors play different roles in different storylines, sometimes so disguised that they are hardly recognisable.

The movie is pretty absurdist and surreal, but beneath these layers, it touches on many philosophical themes. One of these is the question: what is the relationship between the individual and world history, assuming ‘world history’ is by definition something collective? 

The problem of evil
This second question on the relationship between the individual and world history is in the movie first and foremost treated by the ‘problem of evil’. The movie shows that the human condition is marked by violence: war, the submission of ‘the other’ and totalitarian regimes for example. It doesn’t matter in what time or in what space we live, history repeats itself (although the scenes change, the mechanisms remain the same). This is clearly expressed in the movie by the words: “The weak are meat and the strong do eat”.

Also, this is not only happening on a ‘macro’ scale; it happens on a micro scale too. An example of how this unfolds on a micro level in the movie, is the fact that mister Cavendish and his ederly companions are (at least what they perceive as) ‘locked up’ in the ederly house. On a macro level, it for example happens in the context of Sonmi-451, who is part of an oppressed group of dehumanized people in a state. In the context of this evil, the movie constantly presents to us the theme of ‘revolt’. Since what all the story lines have in common, is that the indivual offers resistance against systems that produce injustice. Mr. Cavendish for example, runs away from the ederly house and Sonmi-451 becomes a member of the resistance group in Neo-Seoul. Some of the personages offer resistance that has a relatively low risk, but for others, their life is at stake.
No matter how big or small their resistance is, not just accepting the status quo and a longing for freedom is what they all share.

The ungoing strive for power and the abundance of violence in this world, raises two questions in the movie. The first is asked by journalist Luisa Rey (played by Halle Berry): “Why don’t we learn from the past?”. The second is: “If power struggle and violence will always remain and reoccur, what is the purpose of making sacrifices for the greater good?”

A drop in the ocean (the individual versus the collective)
This second question is perhaps best shown in the sentence with which the movie begins and ends. When Ewing announces to his father-in-law that he’s leaving the slave trade and that he and his wife are going to join the resistance movement, his father-in-law answers in an icy tone: “There is a natural order to this world and those who try to upend it do not fare well. This movement will never survive: if you join them, you and your entire family will be shunned. In the best case you’ll live as pariah, to be spat on and beaten, at worst lynched or crucified. And for what? For what? No matter what you do, it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean.”

In other words: is the price that you pay, the sacrifice you make for a moral cause (being shunned, living as a pariah, ect.) worthwhile?

And I think the movie tries to go even further: empirical evidence proofs that it is part of the human condition that evil will never be fully conquered. The same problems of violence and oppressive systems keep reoccuring, no matter where or when a person lives. True, if an individual tries to fight against it through activism or (political) rebellion for example, it may have an effect on the ‘short term’ and in relation to a specific issue (as when a violent and dictatorial regime is succesfully overthown). But on the bigger scale, history will always  repeat itself (although in different forms and shapes). The individual may sacrifice his life for the ‘greater good’, but what does it achieve? If he fights for justice today, the same sort of injustice will occur in hundred years from now in some other place in the world. What is the purpose of caring if in the end, the result remains the same?

Lineair progress of history
The premise beneath the idea that history repeats itself, is that history does not experience moral progress. In other words: the world is not becoming a better place over time. But is this true? Haven’t women gained all kinds of rights in certain places, where these rights did not exist before? Haven’t black lives started to matter (at least compared to the age of slavery)? Haven’t democratic values such as (reasonably) fair judicial trials gained more ground in many countries? Yes, in some sense we absolutely have progressed. But, as someone suggested to me when I had a conversation on this topic: the progress is not lineair. Meaning: moral progress does not move in a chronological order. If you were to visualize history in a graphic, it wouldn’t show a smooth upward line. The line would be convoluted. A practical example: in the time of the Greeks, the principles of democracy were established, but in the Middle Ages, that come later in time, barbaric practices were common.

However, the problem of the theme of ‘moral progress throughout world history’ is that it is actually not really measurable. Because how do we define ‘moral’ and how do we define ‘progress’? What might be seen as ‘moral’ in New-Guinea might not be seen as moral in England and vice versa. Every part of the world has its own (moral) development and therefore it is probably only worthwhile to speak about ‘moral progress’ in relation to a specific geographical place.

Not just the term ‘moral’, but also the term ‘progress’ would require more specification. For example: you can look at progress both in a relative and in an absolute way. Looking at the ‘moral progress of history’ in a relative way would mean that you would speak of ‘progress’ even when you consider the moral failures that took place during the time of that progress. The clearest example of this is the Second World War. This took place in a time in which mankind had already come a long way in terms of moral progress: important social battles had been fought, there was a certain level of civilization. In hindsight, people have wondered how during a time with reasonably high moral standards, such horrible things were able to take place. Do we call the Second World War a black spot, an excess of violence, in a relative upward line of moral progress? Or do we not? This depends on whether we see ‘moral progress’ in a relative or an absolute way. 

The power of the individual
From what is said so far, it would be easy to imagine that Atlas Cloud is a rather gloomy and defeastist film: the individual is powerless in the course of history. But actually, I don’t think this is the movie’s message. In this context, Ewing’s answer to his father-in-law’s ‘drop in the ocean’-metaphor is interesting. Ewing replies by posing another question: “What is an ocean more than a multitude of drops?”. Instead of seeing history as an ‘objective’, natural and therefore unchangeable fact that cannot be influenced by (small), individual actions, Ewing is reversing the roles: he sees history as a subjective thing which is not necessarily natural and therefore can be changed by individuals. Because after all: systems are comprised of individuals.

In addition, the movie shows that those who don’t want to change the status quo of history, are often the people who benefit from it. Ewing’s father-in-law is after all a slave trader, and has no interest in changing the narrative that the individual is powerless when it comes to ‘a greater purpose’.

The human being is and remains a vulnerable, finite and ambivalent creature. So totalitarian systems, oppression and other forms of systemized evil will most probably never disappear. Although moral actions on an individual level may not put an end to the problem of evil in the world throughout time, one thing for me is clear: we can do what is morally necessary in our own small historical context of time and space, and regardless if it will add to the prevalence of the good on the long run, we can at least give our own historical context (and therefore are own lives) a purpose.

About the Author
Anne Ornstein was born and raised in Amsterdam in 1989. She studied philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, where she wrote her thesis on Martin Buber's perception of Judaism. She works at the Municipality of Amsterdam.
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