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Blog » Yann Martel: Anti-Dentite

Posted on 12/13/2007 by Sam Varteniuk

It really feels like Yann Martel is a man who has answers.  At least, if feels like Yann Martel thinks he has answers, or thinks he ought to have answers and is working hard to be definitive in delivering them to his public.  Maybe that’s because so many people have read his book Life of Pi and responded positively to the simple, allegorical nature of it.  It seems as though there are answers to some of life’s most complex questions in that book, and that the answers are so uncomplicated that they must be true.  I certainly would not deny anyone the comfort of finding answers in a world full of questions.  I personally loved the book.


There’s something you learn early on in academia if you’re at all serious about it, and that’s to be wary of making broad, general comments.  If you’re going to present yourself as an authority then you have a responsibility to be as accurate as possible in your statements.  It feels really good to start a sentence like, “since the dawn of humanity people have . . .” or “there has never been a single work of fiction that does not . . .” The problem is that those sorts of statements are usually more aesthetic than factual.  They are grandstanding, theatrical moments, designed to wow an audience.  They are used by religious leaders to fan the flames of passion in their followers, brushing aside contrary opinion in the fervent need to be devoutly committed to something.


So maybe Yann is just trying to live up to the expectations of his adoring audience when he attempts to define the nature of art for us as it pertains to life.  “Art is the life of the mind,” he declares.  Good, I think, I can get behind that.  “Art is amoral,” he continues, “a gadfly, completely free to be objectionable.”  Well sure, I can see that.  Art needs to have the freedom to explore things that others may consider taboo; it is in this way that minds are opened, new possibilities introduced. 


Yann goes on to make a distinction between art and entertainment: the former is nutritious, the latter is candy.  Entertainment is moronic, he explains, and the enjoyment of it is shameful, albeit satisfying.  I’ve heard this kind of talk before.  It smacks of elitism and I don’t see how it helps, but I see where he’s going.  Art is that which is challenging, questioning life and encouraging thought.  Entertainment is escapism.  Part of me wonders why something as amoral as Art should be concerned with the lack of social conscience evinced by its unruly sibling Entertainment, but then I think I might be playing word games and decide to give my career a rest and just listen.


“Religion and art are the only ways of exploring life.  Science is mechanical, and commerce doesn’t even come close.”  Here is where he starts to lose me.  I get the whole anti-commerce thing – corporate irresponsibility is out of control, and I think we need to start recognizing how soulless business can become if it’s only about money.  But science?  Science is wonder.  Science is discovery.  Scientists speak of their work with the passion of artists.  It is nature, a truth that is constantly being questioned by people eager to have their beliefs changed.  Why is he attacking science?


“Dentistry is the opposite of artistry.”


This is where Yann loses me.  The comment smacks of someone who really doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but is determined to talk about it with authority.  Maybe I’m sensitive because my mother is a dental hygienist.  I just never would have figured Yann Martel for an anti-dentite.


A few notes: German culture did not commit the holocaust; to be satisfied is not moronic; men are not the only ones who work themselves to death.  You’re a smart man, Yann, and you tell a good story.  That’s plenty to be proud of.  You don’t have to feel as though it’s your job to deliver the meaning of life to humanity.


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