24 November 2012

The Non-Anglo-American Reading and Writing

"The island raises another question: Is it real? Is this whole story real? I refuse to ask that question. "Life of Pi" is all real, second by second and minute by minute, and what it finally amounts to is left for every viewer to decide. I have decided it is one of the best films of the year," Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the new Ang Lee film, Life of Pi.

holding on to the non-Anglo narrative in a way most films refuse to
"I refuse to ask that question," Ebert says... and this is essential. If you approach this tale in traditional, Anglo-American rationalist style, you end up writing the kind of nonsense produced by The New York Times' critic A. O. Scott, who writes...
"No problem! He will go on to embrace Islam and study kabbalah. Thousands of years of sectarian conflict, it seems, can be resolved with a smile and a hushed, reverent tone of voice.

“If you believe in everything, you will end up not believing in anything at all,” warns Pi’s dad, who is committed to the supremacy of reason and who is, as rationalists often are in the imaginations of the devout, a bit of a grouch about it. But this piece of skeptical paternal wisdom identifies a serious flaw in “Life of Pi,” which embraces religion without quite taking it seriously, and is simultaneously about everything and very little indeed. Instead of awe, it gives us “awww, how sweet."' 
Scott is so sure of his position as an authority on reason that he ends his review by stating,
"The problem, as I have suggested, is that the narrative frame that surrounds these lovely pictures complicates and undermines them. The novelist and the older Pi are eager to impose interpretations on the tale of the boy and the beast, but also committed to keeping those interpretations as vague and general as possible. And also, more disturbingly, to repress the darker implications of the story, as if the presence of cruelty and senseless death might be too much for anyone to handle.

"Perhaps they are, but insisting on the benevolence of the universe in the way that “Life of Pi” does can feel more like a result of delusion or deceit than of earnest devotion. The movie invites you to believe in all kinds of marvelous things, but it also may cause you to doubt what you see with your own eyes — or even to wonder if, in the end, you have seen anything at all."
Oh my, the very idea that one might actually, "doubt what you see with your own eyes." This is the startlingly disturbing concept which The New York Times cannot embrace in this film, and which prevents us from allowing a democracy of reading and writing into our classrooms and schools. 
"If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn't love hard to believe? ... Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer." (Life of Pi, p. 297)
Six months ago I wrote about young students at Scoil ag An Ghleanna at St. Finan's Bay in County Cork, about how those six and seven-year-olds attributed the sinking of the RMS Titanic to (a) "it wasn't blessed," (b) "if you looked in a mirror, it said 'No Pope'," (c) "it was build by the Protestants in Belfast." And I wrote then that, well, who knows what brought that ship together with that iceberg at that moment in that way? "Wrong," is such an absolute word, because, who really knows the whole story?

"We," in that "Anglo-American" conceptualization of the world, crave certainties, as A. O. Scott does. One cannot share religions, because some stories are contradictory. One cannot create a tale based in uncertainty, because it makes the endings too difficult, and the "theme" too personal. One cannot be both moral and a Democrat even in much of America. We believe in hard lines of separation, in linear tales with the climax on page 278, in stories with a specific - instructed - point of view which we can all reconstruct in a summary and, of course, can "compare and contrast" with other similar narratives.
"Tigers exist, lifeboats exists, oceans exist. Because the three have never come together in your narrow, limited experience, you refuse to believe that they might. Yet the plain fact is that the Tsimtsum brought them together and then sank." (Life of Pi, p. 299)
But for most of the world, the certainties that come from being the favored race in either the British or American Empires remain elusive. The universe is unstable. Often our beliefs are unsure. And thus our stories cannot be linear, and can often simply observe and reflect. That "climax," that "turning point," that "transition where the protagonist changes," well, it just may not happen during the segment of life being reported - or the segment of dream being reported - or the mix of the two which it - any of it - may be.

Because the other thing about the uncertainty is our differing conceptualization of "facts." The English and the Americans - at least as those are understood by FoxNews - believe in the existence of the "reliable narrator," that, if we just find that person, be in Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow or whoever, we will "get the truth." But the rest of us, we cannot certain of that either. No one sees without lenses, no one sees without experiences and education, beliefs and fantasies. No one sees without having both needs and wants. So vision, yes, is always personal, and thus "unreliable."

Pi Patel is an "unreliable narrator" to The New York Times. Of course he is an "unreliable narrator" to both Roger Ebertand myself, but the difference is, The New York Times is troubled by this, and Ebert and I, perhaps our life experiences tell us that all narrators are unreliable, which allows us to listen to the story rather than to analyse it.

Akira Kurosawa's Rashoman. Truth? Where does that exist?
When the power is all yours, or you believe that power is all yours, you can, you will, feign certainty. And that certainty will allow you to easily split the world between "fiction" and "non-fiction." That certainty will allow you to easily categorize and label and summarize and simplify. That certainty will lead you to the simplicity of introductions, bodies of content, and conclusions. It will allow you to write five-paragraph essays and believe in hard lines between citation and plagiarism, just as you believe in hard lines on a map of the world.
The "rest" of the world might find all this too simple to be true at all. Memory is memory after all. It is "unreliable." It is always fiction and yet, it is also our only "truth," as Norman Mailer made it clear in that essential explanation of the writing of history, The Armies of the Night.
"She is in my memory her own avatar," John Banville writes in The Sea, which I just finished hearing. "Which is the more real, the woman reclining on the grassy bank of my recollections, or the strew of dust and dried marrow that is all the earth any longer retains of her? No doubt for others elsewhere she persists, a moving figure in the waxworks of memory, but their version will be different from mine, and from each other’s. Thus in the minds of the many does the one ramify and disperse. It does not last, it cannot, it is not immortality. We carry the dead with us only until we die too, and then it is we who are borne along for a little while, and then our bearers in their turn drop, and so on into the unimaginable generations." 
We are uncertain and we are unreliable, and, as Banville adds, we are uncertain. “Given the world that he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him," Banville's narratorinsists.
“A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” - James Joyce, Finnegan's Wake
So that other "we," that non-"academic," that non-white-protestant-power-owning, non-Anglo-American, non-imperial "we," need that democracy of reading and writing which allows our voices, our world views, and our uncertainty to exist fairly and equally within "your" school's walls. For without our voices being truly welcome, "your" schools have nothing for "us."
"You want a story that won't surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won't make you see any higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality." (Life of Pi,p. 302) 
- Ira Socol

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