Adult Pi Patel: So which story do you prefer?
Writer: The one with the tiger. That’s the better story.
Adult Pi Patel: Thank you. And so it goes with God.
Writer: It’s an amazing story.
I love this piece of writing from the Life Of Pi – because it goes to the heart of everything I believe in as a storyteller by trade and by passion.
It also points to the most sublime collision of existence and creativity for me.
The brutal truths of everything we are, that we come from, exist amongst, experience, endure and prevail upon are in themselves poetic and beautiful. But there is something so human about our need to embellish the flat dry expanse of these truths; to make them greater, more fantastic: our need to story tell around them. There is for me a perfect conflicted symmetry: of both hubris and humility in our need to do it.
That we want to use our consciousness, and the gifts of existential self-perception that it brings to ‘big ourselves up’ in the species department is par for the course. The ascending arrogance of increasing predominance is so expected as to be almost dull.
But in seeking to story tell around such profound and all enveloping concepts: of existence, creation, death, belief, faith, survival – we are also admitting that the base nature of them is simply too overwhelming to us to comprehend in their pure form, too complex and exceptional for us to divine without reduction and simplification. (Sustainability experts take note!!)
So story-tell them we have. Between Reason and Faith, the scattered facts and dynamic data of our human condition and the absolute nature of our relationship with the world in which we bear it are rendered.
In the parables, cautionary tales, prophesies, miracles, fairy tales, wisdoms, mythologies, metaphors, legends, monoliths and dream catchers, we find storytelling that is wonderful, hopeful, brutal, yet optimistic – transforming the data of our reality into ‘the one with the tiger’.
The giddying ascent of some of these ‘tiger stories’ as I will now call them into regional and world movements of dogmatic faith inevitably has seen them dragged into service as the spiritual slings and arrows of marauding armies. In doing so they have both exported a negative arrogant shading of their ‘tiger story’ while importing a culture of cruelty, violence and division into the heart of it.
It is unclear to me whether this conflicted nature is inherent within the cosmic fizz or purely a product of it. Regardless, in the evolution of these ‘tiger stories’, they have proven themselves wholly capable of extreme polarities of positive and negative outcome: the Atomic Bomb and The Inquisition being two such glorious (western) examples.
I would venture though that it is the base corruption of the storytelling concepts – and the flags and actions that they are seen to have resided over that despoils them, not the nature of the story itself or the faith or reason upon which they are built.
As Oscar Wilde pointed out quite rightly – there is not such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all. The storytelling is not where the problem lies.
It is the questionable moralities of human interpretation and subsequent actions undertaken in the name of something; be it science, faith or any other where the spoiling starts. A wantonly childish and proprietary approach it seems: It’s my toy so I’ll smash it if I want to.
I believe that if we took the smashers from all sides – the pedants, the inquisitors, the lunatics and the absolutists – the ‘my book’s better than your book and oh, by the way it’s the only book’ crowd and the equally intransigent and nihilistic ‘faith is the great cop out, the great excuse’ polemicists and shoved them in a large room and closed the door we might start the conversation again.
If we did, I think we might find that the people of science and the people of faith are connected at a deeper level than either their rigour or dogma would like to admit – and the immutable truth of that fact is being obfuscated by what is in fact on deeper interrogation a stylistic disagreement – like the one that exists in the land of storytellers between the purveyors of muscular contemporary prose and those of classic highly mannered poetry.
There is a tremor of violent agreement that runs between them that remains unnoticed (to themselves certainly) probably due to the deafening and cacophonous nature of their own ‘combative noise’.
When particular men of science call religion a fiction the only issue that arises in that emphasis for me is the inference that it is a fiction rooted in no factual or reasonable truth. Well, I am currently jury’s out on that absolutism and here’s for why.
In my wish to not polarize or propagandise my children and in answer to the question “what is heaven daddy?” (the inconvenient inquisition of children is the most brutal of examinations) I have netted out at this story-teller’s logic, and it begins with science:
Atoms never die. They just reassemble re-task and reintegrate themselves in a new form.
So, we are all one great big mass of finite circulating particles. Amazing.
In which case, if we were, theoretically at least, able to pull focus on the physical world in which we exist to reveal that great big mass of finite chaotic swirling particles; to reveal its sub and supra atomic nature, we would perhaps reveal a singular phenomena – the cosmic atomic fizz of everything. (Eat that challenge Google Glass!)
133,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms swirling around dynamically, condensing clustering conflating and coagulating for a brief while in every visible and invisible material thing we know and many we don’t, before deconstructing and reconstructing themselves somewhere else along the way.
Now your brain might be so huge as for there to be little issue for you in contemplating the jaw dropping magnitude of this, but (certainly for my tiny self absorbed brain) this is a concept so vast so complex and so overwhelming to the average human being that we would struggle to grasp its meaning.
And we hate that, us humans, the ‘can’t quite get it’ thing. It makes us feel a little small, stupid and out of control, so, we use storytelling to simplify and sort the problem. To order the cosmos. Bring ourselves closer to it.
In this instance I think we’ve effectively taken the jaw dropping magnitude of the cosmic particular mass, stuck a beard on it and called it Norman.
This is not to say that the creation of the mass, how it got there, what drove it and what the point of it all is doesn’t exist in the pantheon of life’s big questions, but I’ll leave that to David St Hubbins of Spinal Tap to ask that question for all of us:
“If the universe is indeed infinite, then how…what does that mean? How far is all the way, and then… if it stops, what’s stopping it, and what’s behind what’s stopping it? So, what’s the end you know, is my question…to you”
The moment where human interpretation and the nature of our existence meet is at the moment we decide to call the infinitely finite cosmic particular fizz a name, embody it in some divine yet recognizable (like us) form, allow it to take human form, or simply see itself at work in ourselves and in all things around us.
But if we’re tooling down the storytelling pathway of the immortal atoms, lets round out the characters first shall we.
That the breath of Moses, The Christ, Buddha and the prophet Mohammad are still in the world, atomically speaking, is an incredible, philosophically charged and mind-boggling thing. But in that we must also accept that so too are the breath of Hitler, Genghis Khan and Jack The Ripper.
Our simple survival evolutionary selves have spent millennia trying to identify filter and prioritise the data of danger, relentlessly, restlessly seeking clarity around what might hinder or hurt us. So even the earliest storytellers will have been thinking of and framing our existence in very simple structural terms predicated on understanding the simple signs that guide us:
Crisp bright coloured plant: tasty and makes me feel perky = GOOD
Dark brown stinking plant: Whole village dead from soup of it = BAD
Large Screaming Drooling Sabre Tooth: Ate my mother. Ugh = BAD
Small trembling rabbit like creature: Ate for supper. Yum = GOOD
I sense the same simple storytelling principle has been applied to the cosmic fizz.
That the particular nature of the cosmic fizz can cluster and form into larger entities beautiful, brutal or otherwise inane and inert (read Turner, the Terror, Trousers and Taramasalata) demonstrates that the cosmic atomic fizz is indeed nuanced positively and negatively in ways far more cognitive and philosophical than just how those particles are charged
So, it’s no surprise that some of the earliest storytellers will refer to similarly complex concepts in the simplified form of perhaps good things and bad things, nice place not nice place, or a heaven and a hell perhaps.
We have ample evidence of where the commonalities of our beliefs, philosophies, reasoning, values and mantras – the cultures of science faith, culture and philosophy – meet, in turn finding little to differentiate or choose between them. In The Picture Of Dorian Grey the collision of ancient greek texts and philosophy, Christian morality, Islamic beliefs, eastern mysticism, Romanticism and the mind of the scientist and mathematician we find in the author’s use one of the texts from the Rubaiyat Of The Omar Khayyam (translation: the shoulder of Faith) is to me the most perfect of examples:
“I sent my soul through the invisible
Some letter of the afterlife to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d: ‘I Myself am Heaven and Hell”
Storytellers from every shape and shade of tribe and belief have either knowingly or unknowingly reshaped and molded the brutal nakedness of this atomic dynamism into concepts of things, beings, feelings, spirits or forces, eternally alive within everything, including ourselves.
Over time we have come to believe that our ability to connect with these forces – the ability to feel them, see them, understand them, call on and capture the essence of them – is representative of a higher state of being and existence – something to aspire to and yearn for – as an elevation out of the brutal reality of survival.
Trans-substantiation, The essential Fire, The Holy Spirit, Nirvana, Reincarnation, The Great Spirit, Sacred texts. Every one of them resides at the junction where the storyteller sits. But to simply dismiss them as ‘spun’ fictions is to mitigate what they intend to communicate, the beliefs they contain or what they are seeking to point to, however clumsily or fantastically the critic might feel they are doing it.
I believe that these stories are part of what makes humanity more resilient (not always a good thing). They exist because our evolutionary gene-pool need to prevail and the traits and tools that we need to endure in extremis require far more than just physical attributes.
It demands a strength of mind that perceives itself far greater than the sum of the physical parts it controls. An absolute belief in ones ability to complete an action, test or challenge, come what may, is what enables us to prevail against all odds. These examples of shared and disseminated storytelling enable human beings, social by nature and with an innate sense of collectivism, to transcend the confines of their physical truth. To prevail is to be optimistic (a form of positive delusion or illusion perhaps but no less powerful because of it), disposed to expecting the best of things.
But Optimism needs to be written, because it is not innate.
We all understand the brutalities of existence. Fight or Flight is innate. Primal ferocity as a predatory or defensive mechanism is innate (learned gleaned or forced over time) a living echo of all previous experience of our ancestors. We all understand that science is emotionally inert: it carries no sentiment other than through the emotional human impact of its comprehension or application.
Our emotional nature as seen through the scientific lens is simply a transportable cache of sentimental data – a form of big human data collated and conflated over millennia; cross related through social memory and learning by us to create what we believe to be a conscious, feeling aware creature with inbuilt reflexive and intuitive responses.
But the positive halo of optimism – a mannered elevating way in which we choose to capture the positive outcomes of the brutal innate truths – is in itself a lever and generator of resilience in regards to human existence and our ability to prevail.
Story telling, especially that which is designed to be passed down and around is a massive factor in predisposing fractured scattered battered tribes and communities towards constructing more positive outcomes for themselves. The shared beliefs that storytelling can engender is testament to that.
Storytelling is where the resilience of humanity lies. Even in the realm of science and the learned institutions, I would venture that there is a marked difference between those professors who light a fire in the heart and minds of the students who seek to learn from them and those that don’t regardless of both academics singing from the same curricular song sheet. The education that stays with you is that which is shaped to be remembered, not learned to be forgotten. It is only through the stickiness of more enlightening communication that we ascend and improve and bolster ourselves against the odds.
Is the culture of ‘stories spun’ open to abuse? Yes: The speed at which storytelling can moves from parables, myths and cautionary tales of improving and guidance, and of things greater than ourselves to being a corrupted propagandised text with the sole intention of suppressing, controlling and excusing untold inhumanities and predations is all too clear across history.
Should it, for that very reason, be set aside and simply forgotten? Should we make do with the less dramatic, less shiny, less embroidered version of our existence? What surrounds us and is within is us is certainly beautiful and amazing enough (though some would argue even our driest concept of self has been brilliantly inked to some extent by millennia of human storytelling)
Should we look at ourselves in the mirror without gods, tigers, and miracles to obfuscate the view? Some would argue most certainly.
Nonetheless, I would not (and given my trade could not) dismiss the story teller from the court of human existence. I could not contemplate a life without ‘tiger stories’. I believe that humanity would be less capable of great things and less resilient without them.