Friday, November 08, 2013

Life of Pi and WTF?

I finally watched the film Life of Pi on video last night -- not the way to first see it, I know, but for one reason and another I didn't see it during its theatrical run. I haven't read the book, and that may be why at the end of the film I was wondering if I hadn't actually 'gotten' it. Or was the message ultimately as thin as it looked? (Spoilers follow, for those who care.)

The film's basic theme seems to derive from the fact that there are two versions of the story of Pi in the lifeboat: the one that we see on film (call it the Tiger Story) and the tale of murder and cannibalism that Pi relates when the investigators fail to believe the first one (call it the Human Story). As Pi says, neither of them explains why the ship sinks, and neither of them is supported by any hard evidence either way. So Pi asks his writer-interviewer, "Which story do you prefer?"

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

"Thank you. And so it goes with God."

OK, I get that it's an allegory for the human condition: neither science nor any religion really explains the predicament in which we find ourselves, and the past is mostly lost to us, so people believe the story of humanity that best resonates with them, whether it be religious or secular. Fair enough. What kind of rubs me the wrong way about it is that Tiger Story is presented as God's version while Human Story is the atheist version. In fact, we're told more than once that Pi's story "will make you believe in God." But why, exactly? What are the crucial differences between the two stories?

The obvious one is that Tiger Story totally avoids the issue of human depravity. Sure, Pi is a vegetarian who believes that animals have souls, but clearly telling the story with animals instead of people creates emotional distance. They're just acting the way animals act, so there's no moral corruption implied in their acts of violence. They have a strong and uncomplicated survival instinct.

The movie's attitude towards the survival instinct is one of the weirder things about it. A few months ago I outlined Charles Taylor's distinction between the worldviews of ancient paganisms, based in a premodern conception of nature, and the religions of the "Axial Age", which in one way or another sought to transcend the natural order and its worldly goals. In that taxonomy, Pi -- who calls himself Hindu, Catholic and Muslim all at once -- is trying to follow an Axial Age ethics while immersed in a powerful natural world that seems distinctly pagan -- more magical than the scientific one, but no more ethical.

And God's role in the story, at least as Pi interprets it, is to keep jiggering things to make this possible. So when Pi compromises his vegetarianism by killing a fish, he decides that Vishnu incarnated himself as the fish in order to save them. When Pi is hungry enough that he finally turns on Richard Parker, a school of flying fish (more avatars?) suddenly blunders into the boat, yielding enough food for them both. Pi, in other words, keeps being spared having to choose whether he's going to give up his ethics or sacrifice himself to them.

There's also the curious episode where a terribly weakened Pi announces that he's ready to accept death, dreaming of a heavenly Axial Age afterlife, when the boat washes up on the strange floating island of carnivorous plants. I don't totally know what to make of that island -- which perhaps explains why I don't totally get the movie -- but it offers him both food and a vision of death that renews his will to live. "Even when God seemed to have abandoned me, he was watching. Even when He seemed indifferent to my suffering, He was watching, and when I was beyond all hope of saving... He gave me rest and gave me a sign to continue my journey."

In other words, the savage survival instinct that Pi shows in Human Story is outsourced in two directions in Tiger Story: to Richard Parker, and to God. It's as if God is saying to him, "Actually, death is a terrible thing that you want to avoid! Get back to civilization where you can avoid it longer!" Which does not really sound like him, honestly. As Taylor points out, seeing death as illusory or at least temporary is a key element of Axial Age religions, precisely because ethics that call for something like a life of vegetarian pacifism mean overriding your survival instinct. Ancient pagans, I expect, wouldn't have had a big problem with most of the moral issues that wrack Pi; avenging his mother would have been the right and proper thing to do, and all the animals on the boat would be food. (Cannibalism is another issue, admittedly; that depends on what pagans you're talking to.)

So, yeah: I try to look at it different ways but can't help feeling like it's living up to some of the worst stereotypes of religion's critics, proposing that faith is a better story because it makes you feel better about yourself and God is your magical escape artist. But as I said, I could be totally not getting it.


  1. I read and loved the book, Amy; I didn't think it was perfect--I, for one, despite several arguments with smart readers who disagree with me, can't make any thematic sense of the carnivorous island either--but over all I found it an immensely engaging and beautifully written story about our attempts--both explicit and intentional, and implicit and mostly unconscious--to make sense of the transcendent and the ineffable. I also saw and really enjoyed the movie: I didn't think the best parts of the book made into onto the screen, and I dispute some of Ang Lee's choices (foremost, with the cast available to him--Depardieu as the cook!--he really should have filmed out the whole "alternative story" which Pi relates at the end), but how could I not love something so visually splendid?

    As for "getting" the story of Life of Pi, book or film, I think you're relying too much on a Human Story vs. a God Story framework. Is the Tiger story really a story of God's involvement in Pi's fate--the death of his family, his determined endurance through his many weeks at sea, his ultimate salvation? I'm not at all sure. The Tiger Story is perhaps miraculous, but it is also arbitrary, bizarre, filled with random punishment. Perhaps I should take you lack of comprehension as a sign that Lee made the Tiger Story too beautiful, too filled with spectacular grace notes? Because you seem to be struggling with what you take to be the paganism inherent in that particular narrative, yet it find it simplified in a stereotypical way by Pi's voice-over--and perhaps, I suspect, by the glorious scenes he gives us along the way.

    Read the book--or, in the meantime, forget about the glorious beauty of the movie, and Pi's narration, and think about that gorgeous scene with the whale cresting the surface of the ocean also resulted in Pi suffering just another random tragedy which easily could have left him dead. It's all a mystery, I think, and we tell stories to account for these otherwise inexplicable miracles and the random violence and unfeeling rhythms of nature. That may not be a completely satisfying explanation of the story of Pi, but it works well for me.

  2. Yeah, it may be that I'm putting too much credence on the "it will make you believe in God" line, which Pi himself doesn't endorse (as well as by President Obama's calling the book "an elegant proof of God", which I don't understand). I think mentally I was also comparing it to Tree of Life, another film contemplating God amid beautiful yet heartless nature, which I liked a lot. Tree of Life was a lot more upfront about not making sense, and so didn't seem to invite the same sort of analysis. Pi's interpretations and commentary seemed a bit pushier toward the audience, so I perhaps reflexively pushed back.

  3. I liked the book but the movie had me wondering, five minutes into it, whether it would ever end. If you like stories about stories, I heartily recommend Ian McEwan's SWEET TOOTH, set in London about the time you arrived on earth. Hilarious. I hope they don't make a bad movie of it.