“There is, by the way, an area in which a man’s feelings are more rational than his mind, and it is precisely in that area that his will is pulled in several directions at the same time.” –Ralph W. Ellison, Invisible Man, 573
“It is as if the very tendency to use the language of injustice is explained as a symptom of willfulness.” –Sara Ahmed, Willful Subjects, 224
Cloud Atlas (Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, 2012) opens with images of a man on a beach, a forest, a business transaction between men, a signed paper thrown into a small chest and locked. But the story begins with a touch of eyes. This touch is slight and tenuous, a connection less like a plea or moral command than a slim needle sliding into thin cloth. In sewing, a hem is basted by hooking fabric with big loops of thread, loose and approximate, just to hold it in place. This look was like that. Atua (David Gyasi) is tied to a pole and being whipped. Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), lured by the noise, peers through the undergrowth to see its cause…and his body is the fabric hooked by Atua’s eyes.
The film’s premise is that action, will, or choice in this life impresses lives in other times and places. More specifically, the premise is that a willful action—what Sara Ahmed calls an action that refuses the social will, or that takes its own way, or that insists obstinately on self-will or perversion—such action is more the rudder of history and more the story of justice than social cooperation and quotidian projects of consent. “Willfulness,” Ahmed writes, “becomes a sweaty concept if we can reveal the labor of its creation” (Willful Subjects, 18). The paragraph continues with an aside: “To be called obstinate or perverse because you are not persuaded by the reasoning of others? Is this familiar to you? Have you heard this before?” Cloud Atlas flows lucidly through a temporal and affective cascade of just this echo, of just this chiding repetition, and the good and evil rendered to humanity by the insistence and limitation of refusing the rod of compliance (Willful Subjects, 18).
The film (and David Mitchell’s book on which it is based) is reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 novel, The Years of Rice and Salt, a sci-fi alternative history organized around a jadi (group) that sticks together through the bardo between death and life, and returns to live in loose association for ten different lifetimes, each in a different century and different country. Instead of a kind of Tibetan reincarnation organized around the staying power of personality traits (the fighters, the compassionate, the questioners), Cloud Atlas is organized around what Sara Ahmed discusses as the plasticity and “setting” of character through the molding of will (Willful Subjects, 70). Mitchell’s (and the directors’) regulative principle doesn’t lie on the axis of religion so much as justice, not the truth or speculative generativity of reincarnation so much as the truth of something like epigenetics (the sedimentation of stress and action into inheritable genetic dynamics ancillary to DNA/RNA replication and transcription) and the generative speculation of how a willful act—or, equally, a willful failure to act—can realign both the obvious orientation of one body’s life and the temporal waves and currents of history that are so diffuse and huge that maybe we should call them hypernatural (in materialist resistance to Morton’s hyperobjects because these hypernatural dynamics do not recede from us; quite the contrary). Maybe, indeed, this is something like the “transnatural” dynamic of love that Ètienne Souriau writes about in L’Ombre de Dieu. Adam, caught by Atua’s eyes, orients his life away from slavery and toward abolition. Other times and places ring the harmonics of his willfulness in actions against racial, gendered, sexual, and environmental injustices. [Class, as always, is invisible. Hardly any grist for that particular mill, especially in Hollywood.] Like Ahmed’s book, the film is a profound meditation on how individual choice is and is not real, on how individual lives both matter and don’t matter. Social or individual will, Ahmed notes, indicates a disjuncture or self-variance in that it registers a present command to bring about what is not yet accomplished (Willful Subjects, 29). We might say that Ahmed and Cloud Atlas, differently, show how that material-affective gap is more real and more influential than either pole of the self-society binary. And without mentioning love, both scholar and film make it clear (like Ellison) that the feelings of care, commitment, eros, and friendship are the rational powers that thread the willfulness of will.