Globalization is frequently described as materializing around networks or flows linking places and peoples, engulfing sites and souls already established and situated.1 Consequently, the globe appears as a totality encompassing all such entities, one where we reside snugly in this larger container. However, in The Creation of the World, Jean-Luc Nancy distinguishes globe from the quite distinct conception of world: if a globe is a whole containing already rooted entities, a world is a process in which subject and environment help constitute each other (2007: 28). Globalization thus differs from mondialisation or world-forming: the globe assumes autonomous subjects which are increasingly linked through exchanging goods and services in markets (36–7), while a world is composed of mobile selves whose relation is shifting and mutually constitutive (41–3, 109); the globe entails the equivalence of exchange relations (54), whereas world employs a contingent equality (52, 71); the globe is viewed from outside (27), a world mapped from within (42). In sum, theories of globalization are criticized for linking peoples and places solely through a neoliberal marketplace, a market increasingly reducing distinctiveness; in contrast, mondialisation conceives the world as viewed from inside different vantage points, foregrounding difference while tracing moving lines of relation between these outlooks. I argue David Mitchell’s novels Ghostwritten (1999) and Cloud Atlas (2004) do not merely rehearse familiar lessons of globalization but rather employ complex and shifting links between characters to compose a world, an entity distinct from the global. Mitchell’s mondialisation incorporates complex material global interconnections, but maps these from within through the trope of spirit; these mobile spirits allow the novels to link disparate characters together.2
The trope of spirit appears in both novels through seemingly far-fetched presentations of ghosts (e.g., the spectre haunting a Hong Kong flat in Ghostwritten), reincarnations (a device seemingly linking characters in Cloud Atlas), and non-corporeal beings (Arupadhatu, the noncorpum, and the Zookeeper in Ghostwritten). These spirits, though, embody Nancy’s world-forming by appearing in mobile narratives which chart a world from the inside, featuring spirits which—in moving between characters, places, and times—reveal contingent and intertwined selves. These spirits allow the narrative to convey knowledge from within multiple embodiments and fields of relations; as spirits move between selves, the full complexity of these incarnations and their little worlds mesh. These interconnections reflect not vague platitudes regarding flattened earths and global communities, but lives whose specific contingencies compose our own world. The concept of spirit has long been opposed to the material, for – in Western traditions, at least – it is often envisioned as being elevated above mere matter through association with some empyrean realm or affiliation with rationality, “higher” affects and the like. However, Mitchell presents spirit—whether as ghost, noncorpum, or computer program—as that which goes beyond matter. That is, spirit is not bound by matter, but it is not free of it either: Mitchell’s spirits do not float free in the heavens but must be located spatially, whether in a body or a site (as with Ghostwritten’s ghost in the flat or its Zookeeper positioned in satellites). Likewise, his spirits are shaped by time: the noncorpum is born and fashioned by the lives (and deaths) of those it inhabits; similarly, reincarnation in Cloud Atlas does not free the characters that it links from the passage of time, but conjoins their mortal lives.3 In sum, spirit is not independent of matter in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, but is rather the capability of some matter to transform itself.4 Consequently, the ability of his spirits to go beyond the material means that these spirits do not possess some elevated global perspective, but rather link myriad incarnated and situated perspectives on the physical world from the inside. In Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, spirit marks the limit of and provides passage between material incarnations framing each separate narrative. Thus, through the trope of spirit, the novels avoid presenting the world as given, as that which might be simply observed; rather, the world appears only through a chain of corporeal and contingent experiences.
That Mitchell’s Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas foreground globalization is not earth-shattering: both novels initially appear almost as collections of apparently autonomous stories set in different locales and times. Ghostwritten’s itinerary ranges from eastern Asia to Saint Petersburg, from the British Isles to New York; its stories include tales of terrorism, coming-of-age, financial corruption, spirit possession, art heists, science fiction, and apocalypse. Cloud Atlas runs from the South Pacific in the 1850s to Korea and Hawaii in distant futures, a trajectory encompassing 1930s Belgium, 1970s California, and the present-day UK. As these quick surveys demonstrate, these jumps in setting juxtapose tales quite specifically-located in time and place with the larger narrative web that ensnares them. Separate story shards compose a collage, constructing a rich, varied world articulated through proliferating characters and tales. Digesting these novels necessitates assembling links between characters, charting how stories intersect even though they never formally meet. In Ghostwritten, each tale is impacted by the previous narrative and in turn is obliquely invoked in the following story: e.g., the phone call Quasar makes from “Okinawa” is revealed to delay Satoru in “Tokyo,” allowing him to meet the young woman he is spotted planning a future with by Neal Brose in “Hong Kong.” Cloud Atlas has each narrative discover the previous one as a textual artifact: Frobisher discovers a copy of Ewing’s journal and his letters are in turn found by Luisa Rey. Through these interweavings, the novels seem to echo accounts of our shrinking world and the ubiquitous moral that our lives—however seemingly far apart—are bound together, socially, economically, and politically.
However, this simple interpretation cannot map the novels’ presentation of an interconnected world, a world linked by spirits who inhabit each major character in turn. Through these international interweavings, Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas recast the customary association of novel and nation, a link forged in arguments ranging from F.R. Leavis’ nationalized tradition (1973: 1) to Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities (1991: 25–6; cf. also Barnard 2009: 207). Such accounts have presented single nations as the novel’s natural frame and the novel as the expression of such nations. According to such accounts, novels represent specific environments housing particular characters and convey concreteness only through precisely demarcated environs. Globalizing a novel, then, would seemingly strip it of specificity and resonance, leaving a mass-message—such a novel would be purged of any localised particularity and addressed not to a specific national audience but, effectively, to everyone on earth. A novel eschewing national ground would therefore be deracinated, having no firm foundation. Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas avoid such difficulties through their multiple story strands, creating a world-encompassing scope by juxtaposing different grounded narratives. However, given the rapid survey of genres and locales, as well as the peripatetic characters, Mitchell’s novels do not naturalize nationalized narratives and identities, for characters are constantly in relation to one another, within and across story and national boundaries. Their mobility and multeity refuse easy association of voice, narrative form, and national identity. Consequently, shifts in selves and styles link these voices, for they are articulated as if by a medium channeling successive spirits. Significantly, these novels do not simply accumulate tales that together approximate some form of global totality, with numerous story lines playing on simultaneously (neither novel narrates in the mode of the ‘meanwhile’, for the tales transpire at different moments). Rather, using spirit as both theme and narrative device, the novels interlace stories and characters so that these tales cannot be conceived separately, for each is not only set in relief by the others but achieves significance only through these connections. The novels reconceive the concept of world, for it is not merely an agglomeration of nations (and national frames) but an understanding of how worldliness braids each of us with all others, a process that composes our individual worlds. Mitchell’s novels rework both accepted conventions of globalization and the traditional link between nation and the novel, then, through narratives linked by spirit, spectral connections allowing Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas to inhabit numerous intersecting lives so they might chart the world from within.
Unsettling Global Form
Both Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas offer mobile narratives with worldwide scope as if ticking off arguments from standard theories of globalization. Zygmunt Bauman characterizes globalization as an inequitable distribution of mobility (1998: 18), a contrast witnessed through Ghostwritten’s lurch from free-ranging tourists (the “Mongolia” chapter’s Sherry and Caspar) and financial traders (Neal Brose) to thoroughly anchored individuals (the “Holy Mountain” chapter’s unnamed narrator; Margarita Latunsky). Cloud Atlas operates through similar oppositions: mobile Ewing and rooted Moriori, wandering Prescients and anchored Valleysmen. David Harvey suggests that globalization is not a cosmopolitan utopia but a spatial-temporal destabilization, a disordering in which “situatedness is not a constant but something that is itself always shifting, sometimes rapidly so” (2009: 256). Accordingly, even the most localized people and places in Mitchell’s novels are transformed: the woman on Holy Mountain—and her mountain—are uprooted, as is Cloud Atlas’s Chatham Island. If globalization according to Manuel Castells is the development of new networks (2000: 3, 188) and flows (442), then the spaces in Mitchell’s novels are reterritorialized in these new post-national organizations. Consequently, both novels plot global flows of capital, commodities, loot, and texts, as well as characters moving as traders, advocates, criminals, investigators, tourists, immigrants, researchers, fugitives, and warring parties. These circulations chart power structures: cultural, administrative, industrial, commercial, financial, and military. Similarly, Saskia Sassen argues globalized flows disrupt hierarchies neatly arranged from the local up to the global by becoming multiscalar: organizations and corporations are simultaneously below and beyond the national, while cities likewise are subnational places where global circuits intersect (2007: 20, 102). Mitchell’s novels thus revolve around international networks linking global cities: Tokyo, Hong Kong, Petersburg, London, New York, (New) Seoul. This restless movement between metropolises demonstrates Sassen’s suggestion that such cities are necessarily intertwined and cannot be isolated: “There is no such entity as a single global city” (27). Both novels also separate narrative strands and settings, threads that, although intersecting, are never woven into a single skein, a structure illustrating Ulrich Beck’s point that transition to a global frame produces unassimilated—and inassimilable—differences: “‘World’ in the combination ‘world society’ […] means difference or multiplicity, and ‘society’ means non-integration […] world society [signifies] as multiplicity without unity” (2000: 10). Consistently thinking a world entails less a growing together and more the difficulty of conceiving and inhabiting a world composed of irreducible differences, bringing together what does not unify. Mitchell’s disparate characters foreground the differences that continue to protrude in spite of attempts to yoke them together. In sum, Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas aptly illustrate Roland Robertson’s definition of globalization “as a concept refer[ring] both to the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole,” a process often ironically operating through proclamations of the distinctness of particular locales (“glocalization”) (1992: 8, 173–4). Accordingly, Mitchell’s novels weave together interconnections that depend on the distinctiveness of highly specific settings.5
Consequently, globalization is identified as a central theme in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas by many critics. Peter Childs and James Green find the novels “to be an alternative recognition of planetary contemporality and dynamic synchronicity where people and places are inextricably linked regardless of distance” (2011: 26–7). Debjani Ganguly suggests global networks function as the chronotrope in Mitchell’s works, generating a globalized presentation of time-space (2016: 97). Rita Barnard argues that globalization in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas centers around “a very extensive, uneven, and precarious modernity” (2009: 211). Similarly, Rebecca Walkowitz finds this world of differences is often conveyed by characters’ “lack of comprehension”, signalling the “multilingualism” of individual “episodes” (2015a: 139; see also 2015b). Fredric Jameson notes the settings defining Mitchell’s characters also encompass their failures to envision alternatives to the societies and worlds they inhabit, the characters bound by “the contradictions in which we are ourselves imprisoned, the opposition beyond which we cannot think” (2015: 338).
These arguments all still operate in terms of globalization (and not world); they also do not explore the strange tension surrounding spirits in novels whose focus encompasses the globe. Similarly, Berthold Schoene argues that Mitchell’s novels “imagine globality by depicting worldwide human living in multifaceted, delicately entwined, serialised snapshots of the human condition, marked by global connectivity and virtual proximity as much as psycho-geographical detachment and xenophobic segregation” (2009: 98; see also 2010: 48). A later version of Schoene’s argument suggests this portrait of globalization is accomplished not by presenting the globe as unified but rather emphasizing “the world’s brokenness and fragmentation, a sense of global connectivity and neighbourly proximity by representing individual alienation” (2012: 109). Schoene does employ Nancy in his arguments, but suggests Mitchell’s presentation of globalization contradicts itself:
Confusingly, it appears to be the contemporary world’s very trend toward totalization and glomicity that mobilizes local individual specificity in the first place, and in such a way that—by becoming instrumental in other, hitherto unprecendented processes of world creation—it cannot but perpetually rupture globalisation’s drive for sameness and uniformity (2009: 100–1).
In contrast, I argue this confusion is dispelled by Nancy’s distinction between globe and world—that the worldly in fact depends on the collision of localized differences emphasized by the narrative form in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas—and that true mondialisation depends on imagining these composites from within, not as a smooth globalization, but as textured by the “ruptures” generated by the disparate humans thus incorporated. Mitchell’s composite form must therefore be examined for how it employs the concept of spirit to convey the experience of world from within.
In Mitchell’s novels, this globalized world is accordingly articulated through wide-ranging stories. Rick Altman (2008) labels such texts ‘multiple-focus’ narratives, texts composed of numerous autonomous story strands, each with a different main character. In multiple-focus texts, narrative proliferation offers recurrent beginnings that continually move from one tale to initiate the next (264–5). As narrative beginnings establish setting, each fresh opening emphasizes time and place anew.6 Beyond surveying locales, the novels foreground historicity through disparate scenarios: Altman finds multiple focus narratives like Mitchell’s “constant[ly] return to the wellspring of history—not what actually happened, but an event or set of events with the depth, complexity, and volume of a historical incident” (252). Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas teem with distinct settings where local and historical color distinguish character, scene, and situation from one another, their differences so extreme as to constitute distinct worlds. Each section’s title accentuates movement between realms. Ghostwritten’s ten separate tales are titled by place, highlighting a given locale’s specificity and impact, making the movement between each location jarring. Similarly, Cloud Atlas gives a literary title to each narrative, all foregrounding a proper or place name. In both, first person narration opens a particularized world, one not only filtered through a specific viewpoint but also bounded through localization in space and time. However, no character is absolutely place-bound, for all narratives in both books center around quest or flight (or both).7
Through such wandering, Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas invoke a narrative technique familiar from the beginning of the twentieth century: scattered characters in teeming cities whose autonomous lives thread through one another’s tales (such as in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Ulysses’s “Wandering Rocks” by James Joyce (1922), Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde (1900) and its many adaptations, and O. Henry’s “A Newspaper Story” (1910)). However, in such texts, intersections among dispersed characters seemingly have no lasting impact or connection: characters who collide ultimately return to separate lives, perhaps chastened or wiser but free from being ensnared with those other lives. The narrative threads knot and unloop, an unraveling without residue. Contrastingly, Mitchell’s novels display an inextricably interwoven nature accomplished in part through an endless sprawl outward, that surfeit of stories: the novels not hinging around a single event, object, or story holding everything together, but crossing at many points. Consequently, there are multiple connecting knots binding characters’ lives: Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas interweave scattered stories in one another. Ghostwritten’s tales begin with slight intersections that nonetheless register significant impact: Neal Brose’s death in “Hong Kong” ensures Katy Forbes’s chair is delivered in “London,” an arrival propelling Marco out in time to save Mo Muntervary from being hit by a cab, thus sparing her to narrate “Clear Island.” Likewise, Cloud Atlas has each narrative resurface as a text in the succeeding tale, accentuating parallels and echoes: similarly-shaped birthmarks, common phrasing and figuration (hydras, ghosts, Sunt lacrimæ rerum, matryoshkas), and mutual concerns (environmental devastation, an inhumanity characterized by greed and cruelty).
This intertwining also juxtaposes, implicitly relating tales, characters, geographical places, historical moments, and generic styles. Ghostwritten agglomerates through its stream of stories, tales moving from the Pacific’s edge across Asia and Europe, describing a world of circulation. The spirit’s movement charts the peregrinations and uprootings of the characters who host it, just as the novel itself houses all the individual narratives. The final section encapsulates this formal parallel when Quasar feverishly struggles to escape the subway train he has just sabotaged: his attempt to disembark is punctuated by images and phrases echoing the preceding narratives, all spurred by the car’s advertisements and other passengers (1999: 423–6). The novel’s final two sentences closely echo its first four (426, 3); however, after opening in the past tense, the novel ends with the present, moving Quasar forward into uncertain darkness and an itinerary already glimpsed. This apparent circularity, a return to the moment before the novel begins, to the time when Ghostwritten’s narratives are still to come, hints perhaps those other narratives might stem from his racing brain, the delirium of a mind facing its own extinction, as with Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1891).8 However, even this closing passage cannot count as a frame narrative. The final short section does not fully disclose Quasar’s story: why he is in the train, what danger the bag with its ominous timer and solenoids indicates, why he must flee, why he has committed such an act, what will happen to him immediately afterwards. Furthermore, although the passages are similar, they offer two different moments: the opening locates Quasar at the Okinawa hotel; the conclusion in the subway. Consequently, the entire narrative is meaningful only when referred back to Quasar’s initial tale, a story itself already imbricated with the novel’s other narratives. Thus, Ghostwritten refuses to privilege one of its tales as marking an outside, as framing a superior perspective on the other narratives. All are positioned as between, inflected with and contingent upon other stories.
Cloud Atlas accomplishes its embedding largely through form with its six nested narratives. Each story in the novel’s first half abruptly halts; the succeeding narrative then discovers the preceding story as a text uncovered by the new protagonist, this narrative in turn interrupted by another tale. The novel’s center, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” proceeds without interruption, echoing the preceding stories’ themes of enslavement, imprisonment, and flight. Upon completion of Zachry’s tale, the novel concludes each of the other narratives in reverse order. The effect, as self-consciously proclaimed several times, is that of Russian nesting dolls (52, 337, 445). Through the textual discoveries, the narratives’ material and fabricated nature is stressed. The novel embeds its tales both within individual narratives and through the book’s structure, each tale encompassed within the following story’s diegesis, a story locating that preceding narrative as text. However, the reverse is also true—because the tales move in order from the historically oldest to narratives set in a distant future and then back again, the more historic tales physically contain the more recent ones within the novel: all are literally bound within the “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” which, as outermost tale within the physical book, envelops (while pre-dating) the other tales within. Consequently, the stories split time’s arrow: the novel moves both forward and backward in time. Or, in the language of spirits and possession, the specters of the present and future are housed and hosted by the past. This nesting provides a more contingent sense of interconnection: in Cloud Atlas too, no narrative is sufficiently free from the others to act as frame or reference point, no privileged position from which to view the whole. Because the narratives contain one another, within the story lines and literally in the novel’s physical formatting, there is no outside, no narrative not nesting others or itself nested inside other tales. The stories cannot slough off the other tales, for they are bound within a web of collisions and motifs.
Globalization and Worlding
This embedding of selves in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas better incarnates the concept of world than a mere global survey of independent points, illustrating Jean-Luc Nancy’s argument that the global reduces difference and must be distinguished from the sense of the worldly. Nancy’s distinction between the global and the worldly reveals why Mitchell’s novels employ spirit to present and narrate the world from within, rather than simply assessing a host of points from without. Globalization for Nancy is “a global injustice against the background of general equivalence” (2007: 54), equivalence signaling regularization through exchange, transactions equating and homogenizing, quashing difference. This regularization operates through abstraction and detached perspective: Nancy suggests the concept of the global views the planet as if from the outside, as an orb. This distanced viewpoint permits standardization, a perspective echoing familiar critiques that globalization produces homogenization around a capitalist market and an accumulative drive. However, Nancy approaches globalization’s limitations ontologically: “The world has lost its capacity to ‘form a world’” (34). World is not a pre-given entity, exterior and separate, that cannot be seen as some object or field outside of oneself, but is rather an active process that shapes and is shaped by the subject that it frames: “a world is not a unity of the objective or external order: a world is never in front of me, or else it is not my world. But if it is absolutely other, I would not even know” (42). The concept of world cannot be seen from a detached point of view and as such cannot take form as representation, for then one stands outside the world. A world is seen only from inside, opening it to change inconceivable within a closed and detached globe:
To inhabit is necessarily to inhabit a world […] To take place is to properly arrive and happen […] and to properly arrive and happen to a subject. What takes place takes place in a world and by way of that world. A world is the common place of a totality of places: of presences and dispositions for possible events […] It is a network of the self-reference of this stance. In this way it resembles a subject […] what is called a subject is each time by itself a world (42–3).
Subjectivity and world are not separate but imbricated as each entwines the other, just as Mitchell’s characters are ensnared with one another: these subjects only exist within fields of relations, and worlds only arise around those who sense them as such. A world depends on incarnation, and so could only arise through subjects who perceive and inhabit it, for it does not exist as something separate and external (as globe does). Conversely, a world frames experience for the subject, and shapes the subject’s existence as a perceptive and engaged entity. The subject becomes aware of itself as a subject in relation to a world experienced as a field of relations with objects and other subjects. As with Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, a world opens the subject to other subjects, even as moving to another subject would articulate another world: each character exists in a unique environment, one colored by his/her particular vantage point. In framing the subject, a world does more than situate—it not only provides a setting but also a space, so that events might transpire; it opens the world so that subjects might exist. Consequently, a world locates, but not to secure and anchor. Embodying itself through event and arrival, world cannot truly be stabilized as home, as it is the locus for what alters the habitation itself, transforming the structure of dwelling: through the necessary existence of the perceiving entity, a world reflexively discovers its own sense, a change of relations through this discovery that simultaneously reveals and alters itself. Worlds are thus encountered from within but are altered by those who discover themselves within them, just as we follow Mitchell’s characters, encountering the particularity of their milieu, and the environments that they alter (even the more apparently aimless characters such as Satoru, Marco, and Timothy Cavendish help transform their worlds). Because sense is situated in a world, it is placed and located; in short, it is incarnated, as with the narrators and focalizers who help make the worlds of Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas concrete. Consequently, conceiving world is not grounded through pre-given and distinct subjects and orbs, but through mutual and ongoing manifestations of the world in the subject, and materializations of the subject in the world. The sense of the world locates and discloses itself only within and through the material and the corporeal, through embodied selves. However, matter can also only be disclosed through sense, that is, through spirit in its capacity as the capability of some matter to transform itself beyond the material. Consequently, allowing events to arrive and take place, occurrences that transform subject and world, an embodiment might be conceived as being possessed, as inspired toward being otherwise, for spirit mutates matter, changing subject and world from within. Moreover, as the world includes others, the individual’s situation as a singular self means we only come to a sense of our own self through charting how we relate to others, just as those in Mitchell’s novels can only be truly situated in relation to other characters. Given this interrelation of individual selves, none of these selves can be understood outside the web of relations situating them, the networks in which they are inextricably enmeshed: as Nancy notes, “[a] world is not something external to existence; it is not an extrinsic addition to other existences; the world is the coexistence that puts these existences together” (2000: 29). A world assembles existences, not as a set that might be completed, but as that which is ever in motion through the intersection and interruptions of these existences. In the same way, Mitchell’s novels offer multiple characters narrated and seen from the inside, all intersecting with one another, so as to present not merely a globalized orb but a world where all inhabitants are ever in interrelation with each other.
This conception of world demands not merely an external charting of diverse, separate selves and their mutual impact (as with globalization), but offers the concept of world as shared between and through us. True worlding could not work from the outside, envisioning all the little lives teeming upon some globe, but rather from inside, composing a world life by life. Moreover, it necessarily stresses those lives are not separate or merely intersecting, but contingent and related. The only way such a material world could be conceived would be through some type of spiritual relay, an inhabiting of intertwined singularities composing and creating the world, forming a progressive survey from inside subjectivities composing the world. To accurately experience an entwined world, one must move as spirit through enmeshed lives, discovering relation despite distance, and encountering each from within. Accordingly, spirit moves beyond mere interconnection and intersection of characters in Mitchell’s novels to a deeper embeddedness, where characters can only be contingently plotted through relations with unseen others. Both novels paradoxically employ spirit to embody worldly intertwining. In Ghostwritten, a literal spirit travels from character to character, a perambulating possession binding its hosts in a more intricate and intimate interconnection; Cloud Atlas too suggests spiritual ties by hinting that reincarnation links major characters (2004: 357). Spirit and textual form thoroughly imbricate protagonists in one another. In both novels, the concept of spirit not only materializes thematically but also performs narrative labour, serving as a structural device. Because of the stuttering nature of multiple-focus story-telling, connections between storylines are not neatly given but must be pieced together. The trope of spirit suggests and (paradoxically) incarnates these ties, bringing patterns and echoes together: the spiritual bond justifies parallels, provides rationale for why one tale succeeds another, and links disparate characters: the books are novels and not loosely linked story collections largely due to spirit’s connecting role. Spirit then serves an ironic role in these novels of worlding. World appears as spirit’s opposite, referring to material existence contrasted with something ideal and insubstantial; consequently, they appear incompatible. However, Mitchell’s playful use of spirit exorcises it from its previous embodiment as a beloved trope of nationalism and transforms how the worldly is viewed. Rather than merely offering lessons about given worlds, or fables about realizing ties with one another (the morals of globalization), Mitchell’s novels utilize theme and form to conceive the world as a project, one discovered only through accessing the lives of others.
Mitchell’s Spirited Worlds
Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas offer these spirits with no trace of farce, a straight-forward presentation which is explicit in some narrative arcs while obliquely invoked in others. Though a recurring device, these spirits are not sustained or developed enough for the texts to become magic realism or to fully realize the supernatural. Rather, the narrators’ relation to spirit varies widely, from explicit possession to distant resonance. In both novels, spirits are invoked from the beginning (Quasar’s cult, Adam Ewing’s ethnographic discoveries), a motif sustained through the succeeding tales until these spirits materialize as a plot point in their own right. Cloud Atlas suggests that its characters reincarnate one another as spiritual transmogrifications signaled by a comet-shaped birthmark (2004: 85, 122, 303, 357). Ghostwritten boasts an actual spirit, a “noncorpum,” passing from character to character. This novel also offers a disembodied AI entity, the Zookeeper, similarly moving from satellite to satellite as technologized spirit.9 Moreover, this text also foregrounds ghostwriting as a prominent trope. The fluid movement of spirits through locales and bodies certainly gives them a spectral cast: Jacques Derrida notes the difference between a spirit and a ghost is that ghosts have once been embodied (1994: 126). Consequently, spirits in both novels are also ghosts, for they have been literally incarnated in different characters. Such spectral resonance suggests characters are haunted by one another, unseen presences from other times and places lingering in an uncertain afterlife, impacting the present and shaping the future.
Floating in and over things, spirit has long figured the unseen in religious, philosophical, and psychological traditions. As this insubstantial figure manifests an existence beyond the material world, spirit, according to Pheng Cheah, attracted Enlightenment theorists of nationalism (2003). As bodies that age and die limit human existence, spirit instead offers something lingering, a trace that remains without rebirth. A stable entity inhabiting an all-too-changeable material body entails some ghostly presence beyond the corporeal: as Cheah notes, “Spectrality […] is an interminable process that necessarily follows from our radical finitude as beings in time […] the living-on of the form of a present being through time” (386). Spirits inhabit mutable bodies, forging different moments together into a singular identity; similarly, spirits bind disparate selves who, separated by space and time, compose a nation. Spirit—as the ethos of the people and the land itself—vivifies the nation. This derives from the nation’s provision of what outstrips the limits of individual citizens, whose lives are scored by time and space, flesh and death. Spirit is the trace that bridges such gaps, melding material and corporeal discontinuities, transmitting ties, and communicating connection. Because spirits perpetually possess new bodies, they preserve and extend the nation’s life. However, this very persistence of self also permits that self to be incarnated in different forms, performing different acts, and incorporating new aspects: in short, changing. Spirit persists, outlives mutability, and binds together the apparently disparate; nonetheless, in its movement, in its lingering, spirit alters: its habitations and temporal persistence open new dimensions, fresh incarnations linked by spirit’s continuity.
In Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, spirits move beyond these internalized national boundaries to become more mobile, transforming how the concept of spirit relates to time and space. In both novels, spirits frantically relay from character to character, from place to place, a movement that composes the narrative progress. Indeed, this connection need not depend on contiguity—Ghostwritten’s artificial spirit, the quantum cognition entity known as the Zookeeper, operates through nonlocality (1999: 334), a physical principle which maintains that an object can directly influence another beyond its immediate surroundings (and thus its materiality). Spirits here produce something other than unity or cohesion of a people in a distinct territory over time; they are a bridge that, though involving touch, joins the radically disparate, encompasses those no longer inhabiting a single space, and extends links beyond national borders. Moreover, spirit’s embodiment, moving from host to host in both novels (transmission through touch in Ghostwritten and through reincarnation/reading in Cloud Atlas), raises the specter of the ghost, of temporal disjunctures. But, given multiple embodiments, it appears the specter thus figured is not a single ghastly entity, the residue of some principle that might yet return, a single national identity persisting through centuries; spirit, rather, manifests as something like the novels’ own nested and hopelessly imbricated forms. It is, in short, a compound ghost, trailing behind it the residue of other lives visited. Spirits appear in Mitchell’s novels as accumulating previous incarnations, their times and places serving as remainders of worlds previously inhabited. Spirit is not a singular thing persisting after corporeal dissolution, but a phenomenon that archives all previous bodies that it has resided in and touched.
Accordingly, ghosts and spirits interrupt and disrupt from within. Their transmigration betrays an unmoored—yet necessary—relation to human bodies, for they can leave their “old body and transmigrate into another, as easily as I change hotels and islands” (1999: 29). However, such fluid freedom depends on the spirit incarnating or at least localizing itself—to not have a body is to lack a place in the world; that which lacks location lacks being. Traces of these embodied situations adhere to a spirit after it moves on: spirit’s disturbing aspect derives from trailed residues of the unseen, remainders of relations and intersections not fully visible. Consequently, this visibility distinguishes peopled selves from spirit: in Ghostwritten, Neal Brose notes, “the ghost is in the background, where she has to be. If she was in the foreground she’d be a person” (1999: 93). Bodies obviate presence, a corporeal self around which tangible lines of relation constellate; spirits constitute the periphery, dragging traces just out of sight, a field of resonances opening myriad lines of relation that point beyond the immediate environment. This background, one encompassing the web of connections between characters, links Brose’s revenant back to Holy Mountain in China—and even further back to Mongolia. This background also moves onward temporally: the ghost, which spurred Neal’s breakup with his wife, connects him to London, where she has now moved—and through the arrival of Katy’s chair, onto Marco (1999: 261), as well as onto still other tales and characters. Similarly, in Cloud Atlas, the musician Frobisher’s ghostwriting, composed in 1930s Belgium, produces music heard later by Luisa Rey in 1970s California, a harmony with which she has a spectral familiarity (2004: 409). The trope of spirit constructs a network of interrelation, an openness to others’ lives through which world is encountered. This openness materializes through intersecting tales and lives, touches permitting relays of spirit. In Cloud Atlas, this transfer occurs through interwoven texts (Robert Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s journal, Luisa Rey stumbles upon Frobisher’s letters and his Cloud Atlas Sextet); Ghostwritten uses the actual intersection of one storyline with another (as with the links between Quasar, Satoru, and Neal Brose).
Such entwining not only surveys the different stories and selves but emphasizes radical embodiment and situation, exemplified in the noncorpum’s leaps from host to host as lives temporarily intersect. The noncorpum stresses that not only must these separate stories meet but they must literally come into contact: “When another human touches my host, I can transmigrate […] The fact that touch is requisite provides a clue that I exist on some physical plane” (1999: 158). The computer program Zookeeper similarly manoeuvers between satellites. These spirits, themselves without form, must necessarily find something (and thus someplace and sometime) in which they can be incarnated and situated. Revealingly, even such spiritual beings need matter to move and anchor themselves, to be placed and spaced in the material world. The bodies they inhabit enable these spirits to locate themselves, taking up a particular corner of the world from which to view and intersect with others—and to touch. Such location, though limiting, grants access to the world: a truly disembodied being would have no contact point with the world, and could not see or interact. One cannot engage the world without being materially placed in it; to flit through or above it would permit no access. Not only must these spirits be incarnated, but they also are changed by each embodiment, as with the noncorpum’s acquisition of languages and experiences from each host. Consequently, the movement of spirits brings the different lives they have visited into implicit contact, acting, as Phillip Griffiths argues, as “palimpsestuous junctions at which a number of discursive systems interact” (2004: 93). The material touch through which spirits transmigrate seems less incidental contact and more collision: this brush brings worlds into sudden intersection, worlds composed of languages, situations, and histories.
Ironically, through the spirit motif in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, the interconnection of lives goes beyond Cloud Atlas’s ethereal conclusion that “Souls cross the skies o’ time […] like clouds crossin’ skies o’ the world” (2004: 302). Rather than providing a disconnected survey of the little lives, past and present, housed in this big world of ours, the novels imagine how those lives might be embedded in one another through material connections and collisions. Importantly, there is not just a single strand of interconnection. Cloud Atlas, beyond the purported transmigration of souls and texts, streams proleptic connections, such as hydras, Cavendish’s movie directions (a tic actualized in the movie Sonmi later watches), and Sonmi’s desire to go to Hawaii (ironically realized when Zachry opens Meronym’s device). Similarly, Ghostwritten’s stories, even beyond intersections and myriad echoes, are linked by more than the movement of a single spirit. The noncorpum propelling the Mongolian tale offers an itinerary that could not include the Okinawa, Tokyo, and Hong Kong tales (1999: 165–6); it sees Mo Muntervary at a remove (150); finally, this spirit incarnates into a Mongolian child not likely to leave her immediate surroundings for some time, if ever (194–5). This specific spirit could not be the sole animating presence linking tales, for it was not present for the opening stories and certainly could not make the leap to St. Petersburg, London, and Clear Island for the succeeding tales. Given that Arupadhatu in the Night Train section claims to have known Mo Muntervary from the inside (412) when the Mongolian noncorpum was already resident in Caspar, there are clearly multiple spirits at work.10 Therefore, the novels point not to unification through spirit, but rather to the fact that spirits are multiple, just as they trail the residue of their many incarnations with them. Furthermore, in both novels, literal spirits are an incomplete figure; they cannot be granted full existence either thematically or structurally, and fail to fully link characters within the novels. In Cloud Atlas, comet-shaped birthmarks are located differently on their various possessors, suggesting less than absolute connection (and undercutting suggestions of reincarnation). It is Meronym, and not Zachry, who possesses the birthmark in “Sloosha’s Crossin,” breaking the pattern of the birthmark being attached to the focalizer of each tale. More significantly, Adam Ewing appears not to possess this birthmark, positioning him outside the apparent chain of reincarnation. Indeed, “memories” move both forward and backward in time in the novel: though Luisa Rey experiences déjà vu with Frobisher (2004: 139), Frobisher himself has what he labels “jamais vu” (458), a proleptic echo of a situation Zachry encounters centuries later (300). These misalignments and gaps mean these characters are not unified as a single persistent soul, their possible reincarnation remaining an insufficient device to tie them together. Instead, Timothy Cavendish’s skepticism regarding this reincarnation is never rejected (“Far too hippie-druggy-new age” (357)). Consequently, the two novels’ actual spirits appear more significant thematically than as a strategem unifying the scattered characters.
Spirit rather operates more as a loose trope and structural device than an earnest plot point, weaving through other motifs. Significantly, spirit possession is linked to reading in both novels: perusing Frobisher’s letters, Luisa encounters the “dizzying vividness of the images of places and people that the letters have unlocked. Images so vivid she can only call them memories” (2004: 120); Satoru has the “odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing” (1999: 55). Reading—or textual consumption more broadly—transfers each of the CA characters—and their stories—from tale to tale (2004: 64, 116, 156, 234, 263–4, 277). Ghostwritten likewise uses narrative accumulation to knit together its stories, most obviously in the noncorpum’s movements from host to host, each incarnation picking up a different storyline (and encapsulating the book as a whole). Indeed, what drives the noncorpum is the search for a story’s source (1999: 138, 165, 190, 192). This movement is continually juxtaposed against more bound and located stories, each tethered within a single story (seemingly a major distinction between humans and noncorpa); the Mongolian noncorpum confesses, “[h]ow I envy these humans their sense of belonging” (178; see also 186). This lack of fully-owned embodiment means these spirits are apparently unable to commune (168). Given the noncorpum’s quest to locate its story (as well as the self present at the story’s initial telling), the tale ultimately grounds, links together, and materializes around specific humans in distinct times and places, the setting not only part of the tale but also of the moment of telling.11
Spirits are most intriguingly conceived through ghostwriting. In Ghostwritten, Marco dutifully invokes this theme; the London vagabond practices this craft because “the endings have nothing to do with me” (1999: 270). Pieter Vermeulen notes the book’s very title stresses a subjectivity which is less agential than resulting from a process without “central agency”: “appearing as a past participle, the grammatical form ‘ghostwritten’ draws attention away from the subject that does the writing the word refers to […] put[ting] the emphasis squarely on the result of that writing—on the ‘ghostwritten’ lives” (2012: 382–3). Similarly, Cloud Atlas’ Robert Frobisher also works as a ghostwriter: his own compositions are plagiarized by his mentor Vyvyan Ayrs, an “inspiration” for “co-authored” pieces (2004: 446, 454–5). Timothy Cavendish contemplates using a “hungry ghostwriter to turn these notes you’ve been reading into a film script of my own” (387). All three conceive ghostwriting’s spectral dimension as detachment: not fully controlling what is ghostwritten, a ghostwriter allows him/herself to be occupied by the story authored by its nominal author. Those using ghostwriters are separated from the tale told, being narrated from outside their own bodies. Ghostwriting figures as a fracturing—and loss—of self, a type of spiritual possession. Such writing surrenders to an outside spirit, someone directing the telling of a tale or doing the actual writing. The publisher Cavendish, would-be mentor to ghostwriter Marco, expounds on this spiritual force: “the act of memory is an act of ghostwriting […] We’re all ghostwriters […] And it’s not just our memories. Our actions, too. We all think we’re in control of our lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us” (1999: 286–7). Ghostwriting dictates self-division, a past self directing memory to a present self, a fracture between contingent spirits animating us and our willful selves. Our lives are figured as hosts for an outside spirit who arrives with traces of things beyond us, other times and places, contingencies to which we were born. And yet this self-division, this possession by outside elements, founds subjectivity, a fissure akin to Alfred’s story of self-haunting (1999: 276–279). This anecdote underscores self estrangement, a split suggesting not just a double but a dispossession or, more accurately, not so much being outside of one’s body as not being fully at home, a fundamental dislocation. If, as Alfred confesses, the “ghost comes in the first paragraph”, this remark identifies the specter as the ‘I’ telling the tale and the double it chases throughout his story (276). This internal displacement transmigrates into other stories: Satoru, on hearing Tomoyo describe Hong Kong (the novel’s next setting), has the “odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing, but soon that sensation too was being swallowed up” (55). His impression suggests touching the outside of one’s own story, perceiving another story containing one’s own narrative like a matryoshka. This experience leaves one disembodied, for one is no longer a material character in one’s own right but an impulse translated from some outside. It renders one a ghost of sorts, even to oneself, for one no longer seems to fully inhabit one’s own body. Neal Brose encounters his own ghost as a split in self: “She brushed nearby, and blew on the back of my neck [an echo of Quasar] […] A new Neal inside the old opened his eyes […] He was waiting for my old skin to flake off so he could climb out and walk abroad” (102).12 Such ghost stories do not build toward suspense but haunt from the start, a possession originating from not being fully oneself, a founding dispossession. The experience is of being inside oneself but feeling the frames of one’s world changing. This account stresses not coherent and anchored subjects but colliding stories, narratives freighted with historical and political contingencies of setting—and with the curious question of “why do things happen the way they do” (1999: 236). Consequently, the worldly incarnates through narrative: “The human world is made of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed” (1999: 378).
In sum, Mitchell’s novels, then, help us think in the more complex vein of the world rather than the reductive frame of the globe. If, as in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, the world is composed of stories, these narratives inhabit and move through the world. Moreover, tales, like those in Mitchell’s novels, retain traces of those whom they have possessed, their habitations, the selves in which they have been situated. The movement of spirit and story carries forward the selves encountered, perduring material traces. The concept of spirit, as with the spirits in both novels, can only be known through material incarnation and location. Accordingly, spirit resonates not with the empyrean but the quotidian, the worldly. Spirit’s apparent freedom from temporal bonds, its ability to range over space, only manifests through the spatial and historical location of the bodies that it must possess to incarnate and locate itself, just as spirits in Mitchell’s novels serve to connect the different settings inhabited by his characters. Consequently, geographic and historic passages are highlighted; moreover, remnants of these settings persist. As both novels indicate, spirit manifests not only traces of presence from other material beings, but also reveals how haunting indicates that one is not fully present to oneself. If, as with Mitchell’s characters, the world that enframes and discloses a self is shot through with other beings, places and times, then a lone self cannot be fully grasped, for it always depends on a chain of relations. Further, these abstracted phenomenological relations and lessons disclose more concrete geographic and historic ones. These codings and residues more precisely chart an intertwined world, one which is narrated in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas: a world certainly not flattened and equivalent, but opened and resonant in highly located and embodied ways, dependent on specific and fluid lines of relation. These complex characterizations and locations encounter the other but suspend it as an object of knowledge, for this encounter is partial, contingent, and shifting. Moreover, Mitchell’s spiritual relay, where the manifestation of a character jostles the one before it, interrupts it, and prevents any illusion of knowing others completely, foreshadows Gayatri Spivak’s exhortation to treat the ethical as an eruption (2012: 316) in realizing that there is no complete comprehension of others’ subjectivity:
If to be born human is to be born angled toward an other and others, then to account for this the human being presupposes the quite-other […] By definition, we cannot—no self can—reach the quite other. Thus the ethical situation can only be figured in the ethical situation, can only be figured in the ethical experience of the impossible (352).
As Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas convey, worlding, in contrast to globalization, entails a precisely rendered sense of beings ensnared with one another, bodies whose collisions with each other reveal a very material spiritual communication.
- See Appadurai (1996), Castells (2000), and Krishanaswamy (2008), among others. [^]
- “Spirit” is an encompassing term, embracing ghosts, specters, and the like. I stress “spirit” to highlight how these ghosts, ghostwriters, reincarnated spirits, specters of the future, etc. come together in Mitchell’s novels with the national resonances of spirit, but I by no means wish to collapse the specificity attached to individual members of the broader genus. [^]
- Mitchell’s more recent novels, The Bone Clocks (2014) and Slade House (2015), resemble Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas in offering narratives revolving around spirits and souls; likewise, these more recent novels employ multiple stories refracted through different characters, accumulating links and parallels between these storylines. However, though both gesture toward a global frame (particularly The Bone Clocks), the focus for this more recent fiction is, more explicitly, time: the leaps between decades foreground characters who persist throughout the storylines. Consequently, these linked novels are interested less in globalization than in temporality and mortality (see also Mitchell’s teasing discussion of ghost stories (2016)). My argument here emphasizes how spirit is employed to chart worldly space but time too has been a major focus of Mitchell criticism (cf. Machinal 2011 and Edwards 2011, for example). Regarding reincarnation, Jay Clayton argues this trope might be read as evoking the genetic temporality he labels “genome time” (2013: 59). More recently, Rose Harris-Birtill (2017) has intriguingly proposed a “reincarnation time” operative not only in Mitchell’s novels but also across the larger “macronovel” they compose through their interconnections and interweavings. [^]
- As such, Mitchell’s presentation of spirit echoes its use in continental philosophy, in which spirit is a capacity not independent of matter but able to go beyond it: to transform both itself and its environment, to link itself with other spirits to form a larger whole (as with the spirit of a people/nation). Such a tradition ranges from G.W.F. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) to Jacques Derrida’s Of Spirit (1989) and Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Sense of the World (1997) (which employs “sense” rather than “spirit”). [^]
- Beyond these theorists of globalization listed above, there have been numerous efforts to link globalization with literary and cultural studies; see among others Timothy Brennan 2008; Wai Chee Dimock 2001; Suman Gupta 2009; Revathi Krishnaswamy 2007; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak 2012; and George Yúdice 2003. Spivak’s proposal to employ the language of the “planet” to “overwrite the globe” shares similarities with Nancy’s rationales behind employing the “world” and mondialisation. [^]
- Pieter Vermeulen similarly notes how Ghostwritten’s “decentered” narrative form sustains “the structural indeterminacy that marks the relations between the lives it depicts, as that indeterminacy also characterizes the ways in which globalization has an impact on the lives of globalized subject” (2012: 383). Sarah Dillon likewise argues that Ghostwritten’s composite form transforms novelistic devices to conceive the global: employing an “autopoietic system,” “the stories that constitute Ghostwritten as a composite entity exist within the space of the text, whereas the unity that is Ghostwritten exists in the cognitive domain of the reader […] the stories interact in such a way that they grow and adapt while always preserving their identity and without losing their independence, without loss of autopoiesis” (2011: 155). [^]
- The unnamed woman in Ghostwritten’s “Holy Mountain” section does leave her tea shack to visit the village below and the monastery above. However, it might be more accurate to describe this narrative as a quest to stay alive during a brutal century, an extended flight-in-place chronicling a succession of horrors detailing twentieth-century China’s turmoil. Consequently, it is a journey through time, a distinction brought out by the fact that it narrates by far the widest historical swath of any section in either book. [^]
- In Bierce’s much anthologized short story, a man escapes at the last moment from being executed and proceeds onward on a detailed flight back home. He is troubled by strange visions but arrives safely. Before he can enter his home, the noose of the rope snaps taut, killing him—his escape was merely a hallucination entertained in the moments before his death by hanging. Regarding “Underground,” Rebecca Walkowitz finds the chapter “to be both part and whole: a new sample as well as a sampling of all the prior samples” (2015a: 138). [^]
- Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas thus playfully employ the futurity of science fiction and speculative fiction to chart our own present world. Dunlop (2011), McMorran (2011), and Stephenson (2011) have all explored Mitchell’s employment of these genres more extensively. [^]
- Significantly, even the name of this spirit is connected with the worldly: Bernard Schoene notes “Arupadhatu” is a Buddhist term for “formless world” (2009: 110). [^]
- This focus on the performative moment allies with Courtney Hopf’s point that in Mitchell’s novels, “rather than just relaying ‘what happens’, his narrators perform their discourse, always emphasizing the process of storytelling as a transformative act” (2011: 107). [^]
- Neal’s ghost might actually be a futural one: Brose is told she might be “the child of a gwai lo man and a maid. The man would have left, and the maid flung the girl off one of these buildings” (1999: 89). The maid in Neal’s tale (who has unprotected sex with Brose) reappears without any children at the end of the “Holy Mountain” section (145–6). [^]
The author has no competing interests to declare.
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