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Life of Pi

Posted by Kristofor on 2014-09-16 22:05:55, Tuesday

I had a request to reprint this lost CJAT devotional on and I thought while I had the text out, I should share it here too.

A movie has come out recently (update: awhile ago, lol) that promises to ‘make you believe in God.’ The movie is ‘The Life of Pi,’ starring 19-year-old Suraj Sharma and an incredible computer-generated Bengal tiger called ‘Richard Parker.’ It is based on an earlier, internationally best-selling book of the same title by Canadian author Yann Martel. The movie is a historic breakthrough in realistic animation, and it also conveys the deep philosophy of the book very adeptly. Apart from that, it’s a very good story, and visually electrifying. I recommend you see it if you haven’t already. In 3D, if possible.

I’ll tell you a little about the story first, and then talk about the movie’s approach to God. I have to warn you, to discuss the latter, I have to produce some ‘spoilers,’ some giveaways of the film’s developments. I don’t think they will matter to you. I had already read the book years ago, and I still found the movie dazzling. As you can see.

Sharma plays 16-year-old Piscine Molitor Patel, raised in Pondicherry, southern India. His zookeeper father, in a moment of romantic impracticality, has named him after a deluxe swimming pool in France – the French word for swimming pool is ‘piscine,’ a word related to ‘pisces,’ the fish. The boy starts as a young lad (played mostly by Ayush Tandon - - as the cute 13-year-old Piscine) in an English-language schooling system, where he is inevitably nicknamed ‘Pissing’ Patel. At 13, however, he dramatically flips the significance of his name. He nicknames himself ‘Pi’ and astonishes schoolmates and teachers by writing out dozens of digits of the famous ‘irrational’ mathematical number of the same name, 3.14159… on the chalkboard. It’s his first experience with the power of offering positive interpretations to replace the regular human negatives.

The young Pi is very interested in religion, in ‘knowing God,’ and has become involved in Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, all at the same time.

His father decides to emigrate to North America and, to fund the move, he brings most of the animals from his zoo on board a cargo ship, intending to sell them for a good price in the new land. A disastrous storm intervenes. Pi’s parents and brother are trapped below decks and drown there, but as for Pi himself, his curiosity about the beauty of the storm has led him above decks. He ends up surviving in a lifeboat – but it also contains several animals that have escaped the cargo decks. All but Pi are soon killed by each other or by the biggest and fiercest of them all, the Bengal tiger Richard Parker. Soon Pi and the tiger are locked in a struggle for survival – except that Pi cannot bring himself to kill the tiger when he has the chance, even though the tiger would love to kill him. Instead, from the safety of a makeshift raft tied to the boat, he begins to catch fish for his adversary. He and the tiger spend 227 days together on their lifeboat, slowly crossing the Pacific ocean to the west.

The ocean is rapturously beautiful, but in times of storms and other trials, also appallingly destructive. Pi prays to God and yet it seems that God, in moments of Old Testament fury in the sky, insists on stripping him of everything he has – all his emergency supplies, his survival gear, his survival manual and ultimately even the raft that protects him from the tiger. Yet, Pi adapts, and uses traditional tiger-training techniques to restrict his carnivorous shipmate from devouring him.

Then the story has an odd development. Just at the point of death from starvation and thirst, Pi and the tiger arrive at a small, uncharted island that is a source of plentiful fresh water and food. The algae around the beach are edible, and a beautiful pool of fresh water in the middle of the island yields edible fish. The island itself is populated only by trees and by thousands and thousands of meerkats – ultra-cute little carnivorous animals, related to the mongoose, that stand on their hind feet like upright ferrets, surveying the landscape. This is a species only known from the Namibian desert in southern Africa – what are they doing here? The mysterious island seems to be a paradise – but at night, the meerkats all rush into the trees in apparent terror, and Pi follows. The tiger, who has been eating meerkats since he arrived, rushes to the boat. It turns out the entire surface of the island becomes acidic at night – the vegetation is carnivorous and digests any animal that stays on the ground or in the freshwater pool. Pi and the tiger stay on the island, eating and drinking by day, long enough to revive; then Pi waits for the tiger’s nightly return to the lifeboat, and he pushes both of them off back into the ocean. Eventually they land in Mexico, and the tiger, Pi’s long-time companion, stalks into the jungle without looking back – much to Pi’s distress.

It’s when Pi later tells this story to two insurance company adjusters settling accounts for the sunken ship that the question of God emerges sharply. Pi tells the story as you’ve read it, and the adjusters find it unbelievable, especially the uncharted, meat-eating island inhabited by the adorable animal from Africa. Pi then tells an alternative story, which sounds more plausible at first but is relentlessly grim. Instead of a few animals gathering at first in the lifeboat, a few people survived there instead. The survivors except Pi, were killed by the fiercest of them all, the ship’s cook. Eventually Pi was forced to kill him, after which he cooked and ate him. In this version of the story, the cook was the ‘tiger,’ and the other human survivors mapped one by one onto the other animals in the lifeboat. The ‘tiger’ cook drew out Pi’s own evil, unlike the ‘real’ tiger Richard Parker, who drew out Pi’s compassion and honed his resourcefulness.

Pi tells the whole story again, years later, to a visiting author. Before he begins, he promises the author that the story will make him believe in God. When the author hears the two alternative stories, he naturally wants to know which one was the truth. Pi answers (I’m quoting the book here, not the screenplay), “Since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” The author thinks about it, and chooses the animal story. “Thank you,” Pi says, “And so it goes with God.”

He then shows the insurance adjusters’ report, also stating that he’d spent 227 days at sea with a Bengal tiger. Even the skeptics of the insurance biz have decided the ‘God’ story is preferable.

Pi’s argument for God may seem woolly at first to those who believe that God is part of the ironclad truth of things, and not just a ‘better story.’ Yet, if we adhere to ironclad truth, we know that we can’t prove that God exists or does things. We have testimony, and maybe personal experiences of revelation and miracle, but none of it is proof that can be used to convince the skeptic. And scripture is at peace with that reality. “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen,” says the letter to the Hebrews. “Because you have seen me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed,” the resurrected Jesus says to his skeptical disciple Thomas. In fact, Pi’s argument for God, though a metaphor, is THE classic argument for God. Saint Paul expressed it as ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for.’ The French philosopher Blaise Pascal expressed it in his Pensées (‘Thoughts’) as his famous ‘wager’ or bet The whole passage is in wikipedia, but here’s a chunk – though, admittedly, it’s slightly challenging to read:

"Yes; but you must wager (between God or no God). It is not optional. You are embarked (on board this ship of life, where this decision is critical). Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let’s see which option interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since necessity forces you to choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that God is."

And I expressed it, a few months ago, in a devotional on faith, as my ‘proof of love’ parallel:

"When we offer love, we do it even though we can’t be guaranteed that love will be returned. When we try to start boyfriend or girlfriend relationships, or even non-sexual friendships and YF relations, we may find that the other person is faking their friendship. Would-be boyfriends might just be in it for the sake of a hot night or two; potential YFs might just be looking for someone to buy them treats. There is no way to prove your genuine love to someone, and no way for them to prove it back to you. Every proof, however dramatic, could be faked by a good faker, and there are plenty of good fakers around. And fakers sometimes include people who are trying not to fake, but are fooling themselves. Perhaps they are trying to fully return your love out of a sense of guilt, but they can’t really manage it, because they are not really very compatible with you.

"Because love can’t be proven, it can only be ‘known’ by faith. As St. Paul said, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Love is put out as a bootstrap gesture, and the notion that it is genuinely being bootstrapped back by the other person is strictly a matter of faith. The bond of faith between friends and lovers is an ongoing work of the imagination – the accurate imagination."

Part of the genius of Martel is that he has composed a tale with a tiger in it that poses this eternal question. He has taken it out of the philosophy books and sermons and put it onto the big screen. To me, though, this is only the beginning of the movie’s richness of thought. To tie the spiritual half-full/half-empty question to the character’s name, the skeptical ‘Pissing’ versus the sustaining, philosophically wise ‘Pi,’ is a beautiful touch.

But Martel’s real calling-card as a literary master is the island of meerkats. He could have made the faith decision much easier if he hadn’t interposed such an impossible island in it, uncharted and implausible. To believe in God, do we need to believe in a something like a carnivorous island of meerkats floating in the Pacific?

In a way, we do. In Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, we tend to believe in miracles and divine interventions – and for many people, that’s the equivalent of a floating nonsensical isle. And in a way, the story of miracles IS a ‘better story,’ and one that is not inconsistent with its starting points – after all, if a creator created the universe, then that creator can also tweak its physical parameters at times. A miracle is, in effect, a microcosm, a little piece of new creation. Nothing new here folks, don’t form a crowd, move along, you’ve seen this one before. But nothing can compel you to believe that any of these creations has happened.

That’s only the beginning of the explosion of valid meanings around the meerkat island, though. You may wonder if I’m simply inventing interpretations and plastering them on a story-telling device, and I’ll tell you why I’m confident what I am about to say is realistic. I think Martel is a top-flight author. Whereas lower-level literary authors may play with metaphors and have distinct ‘meanings’ that could be assigned to parts of their stories, the best ones have enough music for language and enough literary background to write their storyscapes to harmonize with essentially all possible meanings they might have. Canadian lit-crit author Florence Stratton has come up with one of these possible meanings, placing a socialistic interpretation on the meerkat isle

"From this perspective, (the island as a metaphor) seems to be taking direct aim at consumer capitalism as the most secular and materialist form of human existence. The society portrayed is one in which freedom and individuality have been eliminated. The meerkats (mere cats?) never act singly but always collectively, “like one man,” as Pi puts it. They are also eternal consumers, spending all their days nibbling at the algae or staring into the island’s ponds, waiting for the fresh (dead) fish delivery. Nothing, not even hurricanes and marauding tigers, distracts the meerkats from the business of “pond staring and algae nibbling.” In their mass consumerism and conforming mass order, the meerkats are, as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno describe human beings living under late capitalism, completely conventionalized in their modes of behaviour."

In fact, this ‘capitalism’ idea is just one of hundreds of similar human situations that could remind us of the meerkat isle. What else gratifies us with abundance by day and then erodes and digests us by night? It could be any life of empty pleasure – being rich, living in luxury, and then knowing, at night, that our wealth mocks and perhaps even robs the poor. It could be belonging to a judgmental religion, that fills us up with self-praise about being saved and holy and then has us turn prissily mean-spirited, judgmental and functionally indifferent to those we consider to be making their own evil beds. It could be taking part in popular prejudice, where we feel just great about our group but savagely participate in witchhunts against the outsiders, creating a cycle of hatred that slowly works its way around various members of the human race. It could be spending our evenings downloading vast amounts of child pornography and then wondering, as we rest on the pillow, to what extent those kids wanted to do what they did, and wanted to be photographed doing it, and how they felt about it later on. It could be drinking or smoking weed or injecting ketamine at raves – and then living with the hangovers, the blurriness, the theft of property and mental health.

Oh yes, enjoying, pigging out and then feeling the world’s acid digesting us later – this is a common pattern of human life.

So the thing that really makes story with the meerkat isle ‘the better story’ is that Pi, in his spiritual development, knew enough to get away from it. He had confronted all the elemental challenges to human spiritual survival. He had met the wild beast and tamed it, though alas, he could never befriend it. The savagery of the human heart can never be fully tamed, and we can only let it go. He had confronted the physical challenges of storms and eruptions (a surfacing whale from the depths shattered his raft), cried out to God about why he’d been abandoned, been stripped of everything except himself and his faith, and come through it. The last trap in his life was the easy fix, the pleasant little solution to pain, the self-indulgent choice that rots you afterward. Idolatry, we Judeao-Christians call it, in the broadest sense of the word. He could have joined all those little meerkats, all standing like the vast crowd we call the ‘public,’ the real people, looking around, eating by day, fleeing dissolution by night, sure to be digested by the world’s acid some night when they can no longer escape the consequences of their situation. But he didn’t stay to share their fate; he left. And thus completed his own spiritual rescue.

Now, was this multi-layered novel an author’s clever concoction, devised to put money in the pocket and provide a few spicy tiger scenes? Should we raise a skeptical eyebrow at this story because Martel admitted he’d plucked the basic idea of a man adrift on the sea with a predatory feline from Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar's 1981 novella ‘Max and the Cats?’ Is it a partly plagiarized potboiler?

Or is there genuine spiritual inspiration in it, a touch of the holy spirit?

You know what I’m going to ask you.

Which of those choices is the better story?

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