Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Lie of Pi

/ Everyone loves a good story.

One of my favorite ways to take in a good story is to watch a movie. I love movies. I even studied them in university. Which may be why I also tend to think way too hard about the films I watch. This means that I normally watch them semi-alone, since Gina prefers to fall asleep if movies get too deep. Or not very deep. In fact, she just likes to fall asleep watching movies - she actually really likes the deep ones, when she can keep her eyes open for them. Regardless, I had this happen the other night when I watched The Life of Pi for the first time. I have to confess that I think this is a great movie, since I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. But before we get too much farther:

HUGE Spoiler!

SPOILER ALERT!!! I am about to give away the ending of The Life of Pi. IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN IT, stop whatever you are doing and GO WATCH IT NOW!  (Then come back immediately and finish reading my blog. If you think you won't remember to finish the blog, then just accept the spoiler.) 


The bulk of the movie consists of Pi Patel narrating the fantastic story of his voyage from India to a journalist who wants to publish the story. The story has Pi, shipwrecked and traveling across the ocean, originally sharing a lifeboat with some zoo animals. but ultimately with only Pi and a tiger named Richard Parker. The story is unbelievable enough that Pi admits that he needed to tell the insurance men investigating the shipwreck a second version. This second version describes sharing the lifeboat with other survivors of the shipwreck who all meet their end before Pi arrives alone in America. The story with the tiger is magical, and becomes more and more unbelievable as he continues. The second story is harsh and realistic.

I tot I taw a puddy tat!

The journalist puzzles to make sense of what he has just heard; he tries to draw parallels between the events in the two stories, to find comparisons between the lifeboat's human occupants and the zoo animals, when Pi interrupts his thoughts:

                          ADULT PI
                Can I ask you something?

                Of course.

                          ADULT PI
                I've told you two stories about
                what happened out on the ocean.
                Neither explains what caused the
                sinking of the ship, and no one can
                prove which story is true and which
                is not. In both stories, the ship
                sinks, my family dies, and I


                          ADULT PI
                So which story do you prefer?

                The story with the tiger. That's
                the better story.

It is without question that the story with the tiger is the most interesting story. But it bothers me that Pi promotes the two stories as equal factually, therefore making the most interesting one "better". It is as if the truth of the story is not important, only the outcome. I cannot accept this logic. The story with the tiger is a metaphor, and the story without is a report.

Metaphors can be wonderful, but the metaphor is not the thing.

If you have read previous posts from me, you are probably aware of my disdain for Deepak Chopra's disingenuous stretching of metaphors into real things. But this is not exactly what I am on about here. In this instance, I see the danger of equating symbols with reality as a road to self-identifying with untruths.

Deepak Chopra: confusing symbols with object since 1947

I do not want to diminish storytelling. For each of us, our lives are made up of stories. Some of us are better storytellers than others, and this superior quality is often a matter if embellishment. Often we are not even aware we are modifying the story. Things that at more unlikely are often more interesting, and great storytellers have a knack for including (or adding)  the most unlikely details in order to keep the audience intrigued.

Penn Jillette tells a story (which I cannot find, but I think it was on his podcast) about a conversation with a woman who had an opportunity to have a sexual encounter with a U.S. President and declined - sort of an anti-Monica Lewinsky story. Penn responded that he had nothing further to discuss with her, since he sees life as an opportunity to collect stories, and she had passed up a doozy. Although I have trouble thinking of a situation where I would be unfaithful to my wife, I can certainly see his side of things. Anyone can tell a story about being close to a person of importance, but there is extra value when that story is true.

"Is this real life, or is this just fantasy?"

Of course, not all of us can draw from a pool of fantastic events that happened to us. So as a result, we will attach ourselves to stories told by others, and identify ourselves with their stories. If you know me, you know that I am a huge hockey fan. When I cheer for my team I am, in a way, making myself part of the team. I say things like "we need to win this game", when the truth is that "we" really means the players on the ice, and since the GM hasn't returned my calls "I" am still not on the roster. It doesn't matter: their win is my win. I can talk for hours about how I came to become a fan, what it took for us to win our first championship (and second, and third ;) how specific players became part of the team. I have adopted this story for myself. And all of us do this, whether it is with sports, or through books or movies, religion, or the stories of our friends. 

When we take ownership of a story outside ourselves, does it matter if it is true? If my story about the New Jersey Devils Hockey club included Wayne Gretzky playing for the team, would that matter? Of course it would. Maybe that would be a better story, but if I told it to my friends expecting them to believe it, they would all consider me to be delusional. Real Gretzky fans would be calling me out, probably with insults and ridicule. My story would be offensive to them - it would be offensive because they already have a story with this character - a true one, and they have adopted that story wholeheartedly.

Imagine this two wearing the same sweater? *KAPOW!* Mind blown!

I could tell a story about a hockey team that wins championships, and employs the greatest player along with the greatest goaltender ever. But it would be fiction. It may be a better story than reality. It may even incorporate a lot of details from the real world. But it is still fiction. 

But Pi claims his story will make you believe in God. He has a shadow of a story taken from reality (i.e. a lone boy arriving via shipwreck from India), and he has added a lot of magic and symbols. Then he claims that the magical story is historically equivalent to the realistic story. He seems to be implying that belief is as powerful as truth. This is as if an acknowledgment that the story with the tiger is fiction will diminish it, so he sets it on the same ground as reality. Yet, I knew it was fiction (since I was hearing it via a movie), and it captivated me. I think we all can provide a willing suspension of disbelief. There is no need for a genuine belief in order to enjoy a story.

I might be willing to believe he crossed the ocean with this guy. 

I think that a lot of people live their lives as if Pi is right. If they believe their story, they think it will be a better story. This drives belief in all kinds of thing that we know cannot be. How many times do we see people sharing unbelievable things on their Facebook as if we should accept it, and we know that that person should know better. Chances are they do know better, but they are just so in love with the story that they cannot be rational about it. I think we need to accept fiction and love it for what it is. But we should not be afraid to give preferential treatment to the truth, even when it is not as lovely. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

No pressure

I realize I have not published anything here in a while. I could blame it on being busy, or any number of other things. The truth is that I often have lapses, and I am writing here for my fun and my own psychological well-being, so I can't be bound to a schedule. So, I'm unreliable - get over it. The other fact is that I have several drafts that are in various stages of finish, and I am not ready to publish them yet. This is good for the readers, since it means I won't be wasting their time with inferior crap. That is, if they are willing to be patient.

Another fact is that I have some stories written, maybe even complete, that I am not ready to publish yet. This could be because I am not not ready for them, or because I think that some others are not ready for them. Sometimes I write three or four posts at once, and I end up building complex dependencies where one cannot be published until another one is, and that one could be waiting on me to finish a discussion I am having with someone.

The nice thing is that I have absolute freedom here. Someday, maybe I will have a publisher, and that person will be calling me about deadlines, and whatnot. Today, that publisher is me, and I am a softie.

But to anyone who is actually interested in reading more, please be patient. I haven't forgotten about this, and I have something that will be coming soon.