In May of 1951, at the age of twenty, Jacques Derrida took the entrance exams for the prestigious École Normale Supérieure a second time, having failed, as many students do, in his first attempt the previous year. Fueled by amphetamines after a sleepless week, he choked on the written portion and turned in a blank sheet of paper. “The answers are brilliant in the very same way that they are obscure,” the examiner wrote, encapsulating a sentiment about Derrida’s work that has since become a commonplace: “An exercise in virtuosity, with undeniable intelligence, but with no particular relation to the history of philosophy….Can come back when he is prepared to accept the rules and not invent where he needs to be better informed.”
Cloud Atlas, the unlikely new adaptation by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer of David Mitchell’s ingenious novel, should do well on DVD, a format whose capacity for endless replay will enable viewers to study at leisure the myriad concurrences binding the movie’s half dozen plots. Better yet, the directors should hire their friend the philosopher Ken Wilber to provide expert commentary. A sixty-three-year-old autodidact, Wilber is the author of an ambitious effort to reconcile empirical knowledge and mystical experience in an “Integral Theory” of existence. It’s easy to see how Mitchell’s novel, with its nested construction, mysterious connections, and perpetually recurring birthmark, could give off a Wilberite allure.
By late May, more than ten million copies of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy, an erotic romance series about the sexual exploits of a domineering billionaire and an inexperienced coed, had been sold in the United States, all within six weeks of the books’ publication here. This apparently unprecedented achievement occurred without the benefit of a publicity campaign, formal reviews, or Oprah’s blessing, owing to a reputation established, as one industry analyst put it, “totally through word of mouth.” In fact, Leonard’s bestseller originated as fan fiction, an online genre that is inherently collaborative and by convention resolutely anti-commercial.