“Please, sir, I want some more.”
When young Oliver Twist makes his famous request for a second helping of the miserable food being served to him and his fellow orphans at the start of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, it’s all but impossible for the reader not to be moved by the simple humanity of his plea. We all understand what it feels like to be hungry, and so we all readily empathize with Oliver’s hunger for more.
But in David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, as well as in the recent film adaptation of the book, we encounter the phrase “hunger for more” in a strikingly different context. At the center of a sweeping plotline that encompasses several centuries of real and imagined human history, we find ourselves in a future post-apocalyptic world where humanity’s long forward progress has slipped into sudden and steep reverse. Here we encounter a peaceful group of survivors who live as simple hunter-gatherers in a forested island community, dwelling in makeshift huts, under the sway of superstitious elders, and in constant terror of a marauding band of savage warriors who prey on them as much for the sport of killing as for the plunder of their food and belongings. A small contingent of a dying race of humans known as “prescients”, descendants of the scientific elite that ruled the world prior to the apocalyptic event known simply as “the fall”, arrive on the island for one of their periodic trading visits to exchange goods with the peaceful tribe. On this trip, however, the prescient group’s emissary, a woman named Meronym, has a more ambitious agenda. She enlists Zachry, an overly nervous but otherwise capable adult member of the tribe, to guide her on a dangerous journey to the top of the island’s imposing mountain, where tribal lore says that the devil resides. In fact, as the prescients know, this mountaintop is home to what is left of a long-abandoned intergalactic communications station, which they must re-activate in order to establish contact with another prescient civilization on a distant planet and arrange for their migration before they, and the remnants of the technology they have managed to preserve, pass away forever.
Over a campfire on the second night of their trip to the mountaintop, Zachry asks Meronym how else the fall could have happened, other than that the devil he so fears at the top of the mountain made it happen. Meronym’s answer – that humans caused their own demise – elicits disbelief from Zachry. In the stilted language used by his tribe, he protests ….
“But Old Uns’d got the Smart!”
“Yay, Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’humans, yay, a hunger for more.”
“More what? Old Uns’d got ev’rythin’.”
“Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big, but it weren’t big ’nuff for that hunger what made Old Uns rip out the skies an’ boil up the seas an’ poison soil with crazed atoms …. “
What a stunning contrast! On the one hand, we have the Old Uns’ “hunger for more” to which Meronym attributes the fall of humanity, and on the other we have Oliver’s request for more which strikes us as so reasonable, even heroic. Is it conceivable that this most basic of human traits – the hunger for more of whatever is good and pleasurable – could turn out to be the most fatal of human flaws?
Quite possibly, yes, it is.
And not just because Mitchell makes such a compelling case with the nightmarish vision of the future he presents in Cloud Atlas. There are more than enough warning signs right here in the present day.
Consider just a few:
– the growing trend toward luxury seating at concerts and sporting events, on airplanes, and most recently in neighborhood movie theaters.
– the unending stream of new social media sites, new movies, new reality TV shows, new tablet computers and smartphones, and new apps.
– the well-documented and long-lamented preference for large portions of food on our plates and oversized containers for our beverages.
– the rapid expansion of wealth inequality, as the incomes and assets of a privileged few rise disproportionately relative to the less-privileged majority.
Each of these four phenomena has its own unique aspect, and each requires its own separate analysis in terms of why it is occurring and what impact it is having on us as a society. But in all of them we can recognize the underlying cry of “I want more!!” – a cry driven by an instinctive craving for self-aggrandizement, a cry completely bereft of the dignity inherent in Oliver’s noble plea.
Of course, Buddhist teaching has for centuries been calling our attention to the detrimental effect that indulging in this kind of craving for more pleasures can have on us as individuals. Cloud Atlas calls our attention to the devastating effect such indulgence may have on us as a society.
There is a long and tragic arc connecting Oliver’s orphanage to Zachry’s mountaintop. While those two places are the fictional products of their respective authors’ imaginations, the link between them lies in the very real human craving for “more”.
More and more, it seems, mindfulness demands a new human cry ….
“Please, everyone, we could all make do with a little less.”