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Cloud Atlas – Book Review

CloudAtla750by David Mitchell

Publisher: Random House Trade Paperback Edition

Copyright: 2012, 2004

Cover: Warner Bros. Pictures

Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, December 8, 2012


Summary:  It’s complicated.  It is an enormously entertaining, superbly written work of fiction that is an experience in and of itself.

We meet Adam Ewing, a lawyer and the protagonist in CLOUD ATLAS, as he is about to embark upon the ship Prophetess on his way back to the San Francisco of 1849. We meet him again, and again, and again, until finally we meet a version of Adam Ewing after he is ravaged by the ups and downs of life at sea in which he must weigh his actions relative to the acts inflicted upon the lives of others, from slavery to sexual abuse.  That’s one way of looking at the story told by CLOUD ATLAS.  Another way to look at the story is as a simple exposition where life is the protagonist and Adam Ewing is the event which happens to it.  By the end of the story, it is not so much the perspective on the story we remember but the incredible skill of the writer and the characters he creates.

When we reviewed Winston Groom’s FOREST GUMP (reviewed November 1994), we observed that the movie managed to infuse spirit into a story which the book, in the telling, lacked.  The possible problem with the movie CLOUD ATLAS is the opposite problem—sucking the spirit out of a story that relies heavily upon the magic of the written word. We have not as yet seen the movie.

In each of the six incarnations of Adam Ewing, Mitchell captures the atmosphere of the times of his character by skillful, manipulative use of language.  For instance, in a distant future of 2144 in Neo Seoul (Korea), we meet a character named Sonmi-451.  Sonmi-451 is a female genetic clone whose only purpose in life is to be a server at a fast-food restaurant.  Everything we learn about Sonmi-451 and her society is relayed during what we discover an interrogation conducted after her arrest. She tells her story to an Archivist and it is this telling that we are privy to.

It is through the art of fiction that we discover that all the characters in the life vignettes presented in CLOUD ATLAS are in fact the reincarnation of Adam Ewing.  The voice in the back of our mind nags with the question of what exactly is reincarnation. It is estimated that between thirty and forty percent of Westerners believe in reincarnation. The only two religious groups with a theological argument against reincarnation are Christianity and Islam.

The Western concept of reincarnation dates from theologian Origen of Alexandria (184 to 254).  Origen was ex-communicated precisely because he managed to insert reincarnation into the Christian concept of redemption. There is a fairly strong argument to be made that reincarnation was a part of early Christian theology. By 500 A.D., promoting the idea of the individual as part of a community, the idea of reincarnation just did not fit. Reincarnation provides too much room for exhibition of individualism. All behavior must be centered on the community (religious tenets, unity of the Roman Empire, etc.) and not life experiences—present or past. When the Dali Lama was asked what would happen to Buddhists belief if science proved that reincarnation did not exists, the Dali Lama said that Buddhists would have to change their belief in reincarnation. He also said that it would be very difficult for science to prove that reincarnation does not exist.

NBC News science reporter Melinda Wenner reported in April, 2007 that researchers at Masstricht University in The Netherlands found that people who believe that they were once “Indian princesses or battlefield commanders” or other “past lives” personas are most likely suffering from memory errors. The memory errors, so the report goes, are most likely the result of a creative imagination.  Saying that people who believe in reincarnation are suffering from “creative imagination” is the same as saying that having a creative imagination can result in a belief in reincarnation.  This is a near-perfect example of going from amorphous to fog with a single thought.

Whether David Mitchell believes in reincarnation or not, he is certainly gifted with “creative imagination”.  Whether others who believe in reincarnation are similarly gifted is open to discussion.  However, it is really irrelevant. Science is just now, within the last twenty years, addressing the question of the origin of the mind.  This new endeavor arises only after recognition that the brain as a biological component within the machinery of biological life is more a filter than an engine of reality.

CLOUD ATLAS is extraordinary entertainment. For those of us who believe that there is more space than grains of sand out there, CLOUD ATLAS nudges us to examine what we do now to make the tomorrows better.



Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife

by Eben Alexander, M.D.

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Copyright: 2012

Book design: Renata Di Biase






SUMMARY:  Neuroscientist Dr. Eben Alexander reports on his near-death-experience from a rare brain infection known as E.Coli meningitis. He was in a coma for six days.

Another Voice From the Grave

I don’t carry this around in my head as a factoid, but writers usually have writing projects in the mental-note-taking hopper while doing the writing-composing for another project.  This was my situation in early 2012.  I was working on a mathematics project when I became intrigued by the mushrooming, revolutionary discussion in scientific circles—neuroscience specifically—on the dichotic views between the brain and the mind.  The old view that the brain housed the mind gradually gave way to the reductionist scientific view that the brain (parts making up a whole) was the mind. This reductionist scientific view is being challenged by a plethora of fragmented neurological research adding up to something entirely different. Dr.  Eben Alexander’s PROOF OF HEAVEN is one more salvo against the conventional scientific view that the brain and the mind are the same.

While Dr. Alexander approaches the subject of mind and brain form his personal near-death experience (NDE), my approach in A SHORT HISTORY OF MEMORY steps back from the personal to look purely at the science.  Both PROOF OF HEAVEN and A SHORT HITORY OF MEMORY arrive at the same conclusion regarding the brain and mind. Dr. Eben’s informative and fascinating work carries some baggage which I have tried to avoid.

The first booked reviewed in these pages about the mind and death was Carol Mercado’s A VOICE FROM THE GRAVE (reviewed June 1994).  Though not a description of a NDE, VOICE FORM THE GRAVE describes the case of Chicago therapist Teresta Basa who was murdered in 1977 and her spirit supposedly came back to possess a co-worker who revealed Basa’s killer.  Consciousness surviving death?  The question is a thread running throughout recorded history.  The late Raymond Monroe along with the late Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross brought the question out of the realm of spiritualism into the soft science of psychology in which the question gained a firmer, more defined context. There followed such books as Barbara and Lionel C. Basom’s FULL CIRCLE (reviewed June 1994), and Roy Abraham Varghese’s THERE IS LIFE AFTER DEATH, and P. M. H. Atwater’s COMING BACK TO LIFE (reviewed March 1995), and SAVED BY THE LIGHT by Dannion Brinkley (read but not reviewed) —all describing near death experiences. Dr. Alexander’s PROOF OF HEAVEN falls into this category with one major exception. Dr. Alexander approaches the near-death-experience from his training as a neuroscientist.

Life and Love or Love and Life

In the above named books as well as others, all start with the admonishment that we have no words to describe the emotional impact of a near death experience. The experience opens the eyes to a truth beyond mere intellectual truth. The experience uncovers the essence of life. The essence of life is one of love:  unconditional love, love as the engine driving life as an experience, of knowing beginnings and endings powered by a love that simply overwhelms all details of time, place and events. It is an experience where the need to analyze or rationalize is non-existent. To attempt to stand back and intellectually grasp life as a sequence of events is to miss the entire point. Alexander encapsulates the NDE criteria succinctly and with precision on page 41 of his book. He relates coming back from his NDE with the following message:

 ‘”You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.

    You have nothing to fear.

   There is nothing you can do wrong.’”

This message runs consistently in all reports of NDEs.  It is an amazing message because it is so simple. So simple in fact that it is difficult to accept the proposition that we have to experience a near-death episode to “get the message”.  It is here that books on NDEs attempt to bridge the divide between intellectually “getting the message” and truly understanding the message.  Dr. Alexander follows the elucidating path of examining his physical condition to explain the difference between message concept (intellect) and message meaning (emotion).  Could the various elements of his NDE have been the result of a brain undergoing the contractions and pulsation of death (a primitive brain-stem problem)? Alexander answers this question by pointing out what the attending physicians learned about the condition of his neocortex (needed for visual and auditory perception as well as the synthesis of logic) while he was in a coma.  Though not brain-dead, Dr. Alexander ceased to exist for a brief period.  His brain had effectively severed ties to consensus based reality.

What makes PROOF OF HEAVEN even more interesting than other books on the subject is not only that Dr. Alexander is a neuroscientist, but also the way his story progresses from being a report on a NDE to an exposition on the meaning of life. This is another element of NDE reporting germane to all books on the subject. It is what I call the “message from god” aspect. Though the term may be viewed as derisive, it is not meant to be.

On page 47 of his book, Alexander says that he originally used the pronoun “Om” to indicate the power of inclusiveness he felt around him during the NDE.  Later, he simply replaced “Om” with the word, “God”.  Some NDExperiencers skip this analytical step in explaining the NDE and immediately declare they have been in the presence of God or Jesus.  In A SHORT HISTORY OF MEMORY, this all inclusive power is referred to as the Mind.

Near the end of the book, Alexander makes a statement that is both a distillation of the entire book and a contradiction:  we can talk to God, yet God is present in each of us. Another contradiction he makes is that free will is essential for human development, yet there is “. . . no such thing as a question without an accompanying answer.” These two contradictions are not solely the province of the way Alexander analyses his experience.  Indeed, the externalization of a God-like power and the determinism of “free will” are fogs whiffing out of nearly all NDE reports.

The Near Death Experience and Intellectual Constraints

Everyone who has experienced a near-death event would agree with Alexander’s sentiment that “consciousness, or spirit” is the “great and central mystery of the universe.” In PROOF OF HEAVEN, Alexander throws the proposition on the table with a resounding crack. But even before the proof has settled into a collection of facts, Alexander, like other NDE authors, starts snipping away and re-arranging the details to fit a preconceived notion of what this “consciousness, or spirit” should look like. He starts with renaming “OM” God.

Part of the problem NDE authors face may be the inadequacy of language we have for describing the power of inclusiveness experienced in a NDE episode. To say that one has been in the presence of God carries more heft than saying one has been in the presence of Love. But it is an overwhelming power of inclusive love that drives the experience. To call this God is shorthand—anthropomorphizing an unknowable. But the shorthand reduces the experience to the mundane and throws it into the churning vat of dogma with all its vapors of confusion and equivocations. For instance . . .

 “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

 Well, what about Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and on and on and on . . . are they loved too? And what about the young woman who decides to have an abortion? What about the men and women who conspire to kill a doctor because he performs abortions?  What about the near-do-well who sneaks into a house and murders an entire family, or accosts a man or woman on the street and kills them to secure money for a drug habit, or on, and on and on?  To say that God loves these folks is a lot different from saying I love these folks. Yet, from the NDE experience, I learn that I am God, or so much a part of God that I have a choice of ignoring God to assert my individual consciousness (ego)—which may be anything from God seeking to perpetuating absolute confusion.  Now, re-read the last sentence and replace God with the word Love.

Once God is introduced into any discussion, the discussion becomes objectified into an external and an internal reality. The NDE is one of internalization where the internal of the ego is recognized as merely a tiny, tiny perspective of a whole other reality. That reality is one in which I am Loved unconditionally and may choose to be an expression of that unconditional Love, or choose to be the sum of my ego driven fears. There really is no “reality” outside my head. I am it. But to say that “God said”, or “God commands” offers me a way out of taking responsibility for not only what I am (an expression of Love), but who I am (a confused and discombobulated consciousness seeking Love). Nothing illustrates this dichotomy better than the people who fight vehemently against abortion.

If we are born as individual expressions of Love, can anyone of us be of more value than another? If we are sustained and nurtured by family, community, society—some better than others—does our resulting individual status of being loved and being born of Love confer upon us the ability to adjudicate the value of anyone else? These are the questions most anti-abortionists answer in the affirmative.  It is a paradox that an unborn child (aborted) is unborn because they are not loved. The circularity of logic here is intrinsic to all “words of God” as propagated by organized religions. The vitriol directed against the would-be-mother who would have an abortion, the doctor who would perform the abortion, the society that allows abortions—all are supposedly outside the province of Love, yet somehow, the unborn (aborted) child is to be an expression of Love for whom the abortionist fights. In the midst of the paradox there are a plethora of announcements about what “God said . . .,” but nothing resembling “I love this unborn child–not an abstraction, not a statistic, but there is Love for this unborn child.”   (Has God ever told anyone to shut-up?)

Introducing God into any conversation automatically drops the conversation into an intellectual exercise having nothing to do with God.

As stated previously however, people who experience a NDE are constrained by the inadequacy of language in explaining their experience. So we have “OM” in Alexander’s reported NDE which becomes “God” upon the filtering mechanism of intellect. If you read other reports of NDEs (the aforementioned COMING BACK TO LIFE by P.M.H. Atwater, for instance), you find this same transformation of a simple concept of Love becoming the externalized concept of God.

 The First Butterfly

“The sensitive dependence of initial conditions” is expressed as a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil and the effects being felt in Oklahoma as a tornado.

Everything is connected and everything is propelled or restrained by connectivity. Free will as a universe of possible actions is finite because the universe of possible actions is always finite. Hence, the possible choice one has at any given time is always finite and is “free” only to the extent that one recognizes possible choices.  This is a nice little intellectual exercise which concludes quite simply that there is no such thing as free will (the capacity to choose between all possible choices).

Dr. Alexander and other NDE authors use free will as the fulcrum upon which deeds of good and evil are balanced. Take away judgmental values of good and evil, deeds are still deeds. Stuff happens. Deeds have consequences.  Consequences result in deeds; a sequence repeating into infinity.  An infinity none of us can discern nor foresee.  According to the free will perspective, we can judge a deed by results. Yet, we never see all the results, only those of the immediate present.  Introducing free-will into any discussion is pretty much like introducing God into a conversation.  It is an escape route for disavowing responsibility.  Reports of near death experiences bring us this idea of a connected world where Love governs and dictates everything.  Whether life happens to me or I happen to life, ultimately I am responsible for expressing or suppressing my innate capacity to be an expression of Love. Love is a sense of self which we may express—or not. Deeds are secondary and are ultimately inconsequential. Regardless of what deeds I do in life, the only pertinent question relating to who and what I am is whether I perform those deeds based on a recognition of Love as the basis of all things.  Simple stuff.  Simplistic, even. At some point in the distant pass, this message was the basis of Christianity.

The value of Alexander’s PROOF OF HEAVEN is the straightforward and factual manner in which he reports his experience.  When he veers off into speculation and opinionated inferences, he tells us.  The reader is left to deal with the basics.  The basics are monumental in determining how we see the divide between science and philosophy, science and religion and the entire area of parapsychology.  There is more to being human than merely having a brain.

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