Re-Reading Cloud Atlas Part I
By Kim Hollis
October 29, 2012
Meanwhile, it is implied that Jocasta “collects” musicians. In the past, it seems, she had an affair with Claude Debussy, and Ayrs eventually reveals to Frobisher that he knows all about her affairs, and that she conducts them with the utmost discretion. Robert’s relationship with Jocasta is fine until she realizes that he has become attracted to her daughter; then, she seems to work behind the scenes to undermine the young man both with her daughter and with her husband.
Between the two of them, Vyvyan and Jocasta drain Frobisher of his ideas, his self-confidence, his determination and eventually, his will to live.
Themes and Ideas
Eternal Recurrence and Interconnectivity - The structure and overarching theme of the book are echoed in Ayrs’ obsession with the idea of “Eternal Recurrence,” which comes from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. This concept states that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar number of times across infinite time or space.
Although Frobisher reads Ewing’s story and sneers at his forbear for being taken in so easily by Dr. Goose, the same thing is happening to Frobisher, who is being robbed in an entirely different way by Ayrs. The elder musician has a vision of the future, too – one that we will see later in the book. “’I dreamt of…a nightmarish café, brilliantly lit, but underground, with no way out. I’d been dead a long, long time. The waitresses all had the same face. The food was soap, the only drink was cups of lather. The music in the café was’ – he wagged an exhausted finger at the MS – ‘this.’”
Because Frobisher and Ayrs are musical composers, this theme naturally emerges throughout the course of the novella. “Plainly, music is oxygen for us both,” Frobisher says, and it gets to the fact that without music, without the drive to create, life isn’t even worth living. Frobisher reinforces this notion when he notes, “Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.”
More than just exploring creation through music, Mitchell examines the act of writing itself. When Frobisher is reading the Adam Ewing journal, he’s quite critical of it. He says that there is “something shifty about the journal’s authenticity,” which may show some creeping doubt and insecurity on behalf of Mitchell himself. Frobisher also assesses Ewing’s journal as seeming “too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t ring quite true – but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?” Mitchell seems to be asking why we should tell stories at all, a notion that he will question further in a different chapter.
This theme returns over and over again, in every portion of Cloud Atlas. While it’s not immediately clear, we come to realize that Ayrs is preying on Frobisher, vampirishly sucking his assistant’s creative life-blood in an effort to craft Todtenvogel, a musical work that will endure through time. “My employer’s profoundest, or only, wish is to create a minaret that inheritors of Progress a thousand years from now will point to and say, ‘Look, there is Vyvyan Ayrs!’”
The theme is further reinforced in a rather lovely six-page section wherein Frobisher tries to visit the grave of his brother, who is believed to have died in the area during the First World War. Our protagonist has an extended discussion about war with his driver for the day, a man named Dhondt, who philopsophically reflects, “What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature.”
To Frobisher and Dhondt, war is eternal, a means for the strong to intimidate weaker portions of humanity until eventually, our species is eliminated altogether. “Our will to power, our science, and those [very] faculties that elevated us from apes, to savages, to modern man, are the same faculties that’ll snuff out Home sapiens before this century is out! …What a symphonic crescendo that’ll be, eh?
Frobisher’s way of rising above it all is to leave Ayrs behind, complete his own masterpiece (the “Cloud Atlas Sextet”), and because he has become a “spent firework,” remove himself from the world. For he knows, to put it in terms Battlestar Galactica fans will understand, “All this has happened before, and will happen again.”
Coming in Part Two: “Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”