Saturday, March 30, 2013

Pi's head in the Clouds and Methuselah's Fountain

"There ought not to be anything in the whole universe that man can't poke his nose into"
- Robert Heinlein, Methuselah's Children

I will likely watch Cloud Atlas. I do enjoy expansive, possibly surrealist imagery. However, I think I'll forego my usual determination to read the book before I watch the adaptation. It's simply not likely to be worth the trouble.

I am citing the same creeping dread I felt before I saw Prometheus (and the irony of the two titles is not lost on me) regarding the religious overtones of the concept. While Hollywood is one of the least religious places that's ever existed - seriously, crosses are not better displayed on a lavish pillow of silicone - they can smell money, and the great Earthican public will pay through the nose for the hollow delusions of religious indoctrination. Hollywood's emanations largely blow in the wind broken by public opinion.

Now, this may seem somewhat hypocritical from someone who spends his time in escapist fantasies. I love mythology. There is almost endless artistic value in the myriad supernatural shapes birthed by human imagination in its desperate search for meaning and reassurance. This does not extend however to an acceptance of the idiotic, slavish, sheepish, primitive premise of divinity as a real foundation for any system of thought. There is a difference between promoting the human spirit or the spiritus sancti. There is a difference between the humanist exploration of the moral possibilities of a supernatural taint to the natural - and outright swallowing the communion wafer.

There was a quite recent time when we still seemed capable of telling the difference. Some years back, after his crowd-pleasing (and me-pleasing) success as Wolverine in the X-Men movies, Hugh Jackman starred in an excellent romance drama fantasy flick titled The Fountain, replete with religious imagery both occidental, oriental and... I dunno, I think martian? It details a fight against mortality itself, in three different time periods by the same two characters, one active one passive. This notion of lovers meeting in various reincarnations and situations across history is hardly new in literature. Superficially, it is the same basic setup as Cloud Atlas.
However, the bits of advertising I've seen of Cloud Atlas paint a fairly conventional religious image of immortality, of a 'soul' being beaten into a god-pleasing shape by external forces. The Fountain's protagonist on the other hand transcends his nature through personal choice. He rages against the dying of the light. He would pluck the fruit of the tree of life not as some pre-ordained action or a paltry reward for genuflecting and paying his church dues but as the act of a sentient being which recognizes that without sentience there is no value and the value created by sentience stands above the limitations of taboos. When he finally surrenders himself he does so not at the whim of a tribal patron god or even a generalized pantheistic deity but because of his re-evaluation of the natural order of things. Though it may even be interpreted as simple defeat before the implacable force of entropy, one thing it is not is kow-towing before brainless superstition.

I am perhaps unduly troubled by Cloud Atlas' theistic leanings because I've recently watched Life of Pi, another display of fantastic imagery mostly revolving around mortality. All three movies have good directors. As pieces of cinema history, they are all worth keeping at the very least for the, well, cinematography. Good art may sometimes promote bad ideas however and nothing excuses the glorification of blind faith shown by Pi all throughout the story. Yes, it is true that gods sometimes make better stories than the drab reality of human exploitation of other humans but one is no substitute for the other. Insanity is not sanity. No matter how terrible the events of Pi's life, his retreat into the self-delusion of divine purpose should be treated as what it is: a mental illness. Greater than all his losses is the loss of self, the loss of his own potential in his need for external justifications for his experiences. A man who could have tempered himself through his trials into a diamond mind like the hero in The Fountain is instead allowed to rot to hollowness, the better to echo the mumblings and chantings of religious puppet-masters.

I started this post with a quote. It refers to an event in Methuselah's Children where human explorers find a planet which professes to house an honest-to-goodness deity. When one of the travellers attempts to pay the holy being a visit however it drives him insane, a la Cthulhu. The quote comes much later, at the end of the book when the hero declares his intent to revisit the planet someday centuries hence when he has grown like unto a god himself and barge in on that unknowable deity to demand satisfaction. This is the appropriate attitude to have even if we do ever run across something we think might be a god. If we are small, let us grow, if we are weak let's strengthen ourselves. There is no knowledge which cannot be set to reason and if our capacity for reason is not yet great enough to grasp all knowledge, cowering beneath the safety-blanket of blind belief represents inexcusable backsliding. You are a mind, your self is your own reality, the totality of subjective existence. If you are dull, sharpen yourself, if you are carbon, contract to diamond, if you are a snowflake, become an avalanche.

If you are mortal, become immortal. Buy yourself some time until you can poke your nose into that room with the un-knowable god.

addendum: My fears concerning Cloud Atlas were eventually proven false.

No comments:

Post a Comment