Saturday, March 4, 2017

Pi in the Sky: thoughts on Life of Pi

My God, look what he’s doing now. . .
Nevermind. Lest I begin to sound like a one-trick pony, I’m taking a break from politics. Let’s talk about books. Oh don’t worry, I’m still going to complain – you wouldn’t want me to go all kum-bai-ya on you, would you? But it will be complaining of a far less earth shattering variety.

Thinking I needed to make some tentative outreach to the modern world (and finding it readily available on my school’s shelf), I went for a book from 2001 – practically this morning by my standards. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was one everyone went ga ga over back in the day, winning slavering critical reviews, a Man Booker prize, and becoming a major motion picture directed by Ang Lee (who got a bleedin’ best Director Oscar for it. . .). So, people really freakin’ loved this book.

What can I say? The Mob Rules.

I suppose it’s all a very cute adventure story and survival tale, and I particularly liked the mysterious island chapter (I’ve always been a sucker for Mystery Island stories).  True, the whole first thirty six chapters felt kind of superfluous - more like abandoned plot threads then rich background detail - and the italicized narrator switch rather half-baked (what was the point exactly?). But I like adventure stories and survival tales, and I’ve always been a sucker for Mystery Island stories, and Martel’s got a friendly prose style, so I was happy to go along for the ride and had would have had a gay ol’ time.  . .

If only. . . .

If only it didn’t read so much like a dopey New Age apologia. Granted, the narrator is highly unreliable – how seriously are we supposed to take the rantings of some delirious kid with an admitted penchant for mysticism? – but I am still stuck in the proverbial elevator with him, and don’t have the luxury of shouting back at him. Authors make choices. Martel might have had his narrator simply tell his tale, and   
left it a lost-at-sea adventure story with bits of fantasy and sf thrown in (or “magic realism” as the snotty literati like to call it). Which would have been fine by me. But this narrator, “Pissing” Pi Patel, isn’t content to tell his tale – he insists that we believe it.
On several occasions he attacks skeptical thinking with arguments only a delirious teenager would find compelling, yet Martel allows for no rebuttal; only idiots get to challenge his narrative. When these idiots tell Piscine that they “believe what we see”, his response is textbook new age/pseudo science/crypto zoologist:  “So did Columbus. What do you do when you’re in the dark?”
Well, I certainly don’t let my faith guide me Piscine. And unlike you Mr. Patel, Columbus could point to his “new land” on a chart, and send other people to look for themselves. But of course, the idiots aren’t allowed to say that – they just stumble and mutter.  When they tell him that his island is “botanically impossible”, his response is pure teenaged smart ass:
“Said the fly just before landing in the Venus Flytrap.” 

Of course the idiots don’t patiently but politely point out this is what we call a “false analogy”; that Venus flytraps and bonsai trees have been extensively documented and independently verified and explained by scientists, unlike his island of bloodsucking seaweed. Bringing me to the kicker:

“ No scientist would believe you.”

“Those would be the same who dismissed Copernicus and Darwin.”

Woh, how many fallacies can we fit into one line? Kind of like his Columbus statement, this is the classic cry of pseudo-crytpo-claimant: “crazy things have been discovered before, therefore my crazy thing must be true”.  Or: “they laughed at Galileo, and they’re laughing at me, therefore, I must be Galileo”. Piscine forgets (and the idiots neglect to remind him) that Copernicus and Darwin had to prove their findings with empirical evidence. They weren’t accepted on faith.  
I suspect that many botanists would be quite intrigued by Piscine’s story,  for the same reason they read science fiction. They’d be tickled by the possibility, and speculate how it might work. That does not mean they would accept it blindly; not without physical evidence, which he has neglected to provide. The scientist does not have the luxury of the religious mystic; he or she cannot believe something just because it makes a “better story” (unlike Piscine, who pretty much admits later that’s the entire basis of his cherry-picked faith – kinda like Trump’s politics).

Let’s put it this way: maybe I tiger could hide undetected in the Mexican wilderness. But if we find some delirious kid adrift in a life boat, ranting about talking tigers and flesh eating trees, are we supposed to take his word for it?

One of the main responsibilities of any author is to the consistency of his/her characters, and I suppose Martel is doing no more than putting words in Piscine’s mouth which Piscine would actually say. In a first-person narrative which the narrator spends almost entirely in isolation, it is entirely reasonable to provide only that narrator’s perspective – indeed, isn’t that rather the point? To be fair, Martel does throw a bit of a bone to skeptics like me: Piscine admits the use of a “dream rag”, a saltwater-soaked rag he suffocates himself with. Deprived of oxygen, he “would be visited by the most extraordinary dreams, trances, visions, thoughts, sensations and remembrances”. A couple pages later the tiger starts talking to him. I think it’s an entirely to interpret the whole novel as a product of the dream rag.

Martel allows for this interpretation, but I bet dollars to donuts most readers (and viewers of the Lee film) will miss that detail completely and go for mysticism, taking from the novel Piscine’s false analogies and nonsensical aphorisms. I suppose they make for a “better story”. But I refuse to be drawn in by this kind of thinking. And if I have to sit in a boat with this quack for three hundred and fifty four pages, you’re damn right I’m going to yell back at him.  Especially when confronted with this howler:

“It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. . .to choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

Bullshit! Seriously. Not all of us need a dream rag to make sense of life. On the contrary, I would argue that the here and now, the solid, the tangible, the actual, slowly and painfully revealed by science, offers a much richer life experience than Patel’s fever dreams. Why is reasonable doubt – the simple act of admitting what we don’t know – a less viable philosophy than making it all up? Pretending you have special insight into the mind of the (necessarily invisible) creator? On this point, Pissing should piss off.   

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