David Mitchell’s Master-Slave Dialectic

To be a character in David Mitchell’s fiction is to be caught in a nexus of powerful forces, only dimly understood by both master and slave. Jacob is entrapped by Chief Deputy Vorstenbosch and interpreter-spy Hanzaburo. Batavia and Nagasaki fight for control of Dejima. The Dutch East India Trading Company struggles with Japanese bureaucrats and spies, and with Shogunal authority, as well. Both the Dutch trading company and the Shogunate are hoodwinked by the spiritual order of Lord Abbot Enomoto, whose acolytes abduct women, rape and impregnate them, and then harvest their squalling infants at birth for a sacrifice on the altar of an insane belief in immortality. And lastly, France, England, Russia, and Holland fight for access and control of global markets and resources. People, families, communities, and nation-states compete for and establish supremacy, only to suffer unexpected reversals of fortune, or even a reversal of a reversal of fortune: “My temporary reverses are reversed,” ponders Shiroyama. How do we escape the master-slave dialectic? By the usual means. By adopting a broader perspective that transcends narrow egoism. That, and a specific Mitchellian commitment. Namely, a commitment to marks, figures, words, journals, letters, scrolls, manuscripts, articles, books—and other modalities of language, whereby one mind touches and informs another, in a gesture of mutual support and recognition. In Cloud Atlas, Adam Ewing writes a journal for his son’s benefit; Sixsmith authors a report to expose the dangers of the Hydra nuclear reactor; Luisa Rey’s investigative journalism blows the whistle on Seaboard. And in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Jacob pens his investigation into the corruption of Dutch East India Trading Company; he gives a letter and a dictionary to Aibagawa; and he entrusts his Psalter to Uzaemon, who entrusts the Rules of the Order of Mount Shiranui to Jacob, who then painstakingly translates them to open Shiroyama’s eyes to Enomoto’s foul crimes.

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3 Responses to David Mitchell’s Master-Slave Dialectic

  1. nicole says:

    How do we escape the master-slave dialectic? By the usual means. By adopting a broader perspective that transcends narrow egoism. That, and a specific Mitchellian commitment.

    I had a much gloomier outlook than this, though I certainly see what you mean. Even that Mitchellian commitment fails, or comes extremely close to failing, so much of the time. But what’s worse is that it can only be a remedy after the fact, when it works at all. For the smaller and constant oppressions of everyday life, there is no such remedy. For example, Uzaemon’s problems being spied on in his own home—there is nothing he can do against his mother and her servants, but is trapped as a slave within his own home and family.

  2. Kevin Neilson says:

    Ay, I agree with you. I should have said that wordphilia is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for escaping this or that oppression, or that wordphilia plus blind dumb luck (read: godless fate) often determines who lives (JdZ, Luisa, Aibagawa) and who dies (Sixsmith, Uzaemon) in the ongoing struggle against domination, etc.

  3. nicole says:

    Yes, that nails it I think. And articulates how much closer than I’d realized Mitchell’s ideas were to my own. No wonder I like him so much, ha.

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