Monday, April 1, 2013

The Story of the Life of Pi:
Pay No Attention to that Plan behind the Curtain

In an interview with Life of Pi author Yann Martel, Jenni Renton asks, "Would you say that religion and fiction work in the same way?"

Martel answers,
To the extent that for either to work you have to suspend your disbelief. The subtext of Life of Pi can be summarised in three lines:
1) Life is a story.
2) You can choose your story.
3) A story with God is the better story.


If you've read the book or seen the movie, you recognize this as not only a good summation of both but point three as being the final declaration of Pi to his interviewer, just not using those exact words. (If you have not read the book or seen the movie, you would be best served to do so without reading further as spoilers await)  The problem is, not everyone thinks that way and allegories work best when they're more than an allegory, that is, when they could easily function as something not allegorical.  No Country for Old Men, for example, can work as an allegory for many things or it can be taken at face value.  Because it does not state its message or meaning every few minutes, it can be so much more than an allegory, it can also be a sober and somber tale of treachery and evil.  Life of Pi, on the other hand, states its message with reckless abandon, points out its own symbols, and even identifies its own allegory as such in its final moments so as to let the characters, readers and/or viewers choose for themselves which made the better story (and if you didn't answer the one where a brutal and deranged Gerard Depardieu kills and eats a sailor, we clearly have different outlooks on life).

Of course, that's the point (that we all choose our own story) but it's weighted, heavily, towards the other story, the one with the animals.  We see the tiger story over the course of an hour but we only hear the deranged Depardieu story over a total of about five minutes.  When the choice is given, of which story is better, the deck has been relentlessly stacked.

I take comfort in reality and reason and Martel does not, as he points out thoroughly in this talk to be found here.  That's fine and he's the author telling the story so he should absolutely stack it in his favor.  But when he talks of children dying as a reason to have faith, i.e., to give their death a purpose, I can only think, having encountered such things in life, including a drowning, a fall to death from a bridge and a little girl of five cut up and stuffed in a closet, it is much more comforting to know there is no reason for it at all and no cosmic plan.  If there were, I would be forever depressed, in bed and cursing existence.  When he says, in the talk linked at the top of this paragraph...
And I remember thinking, if you are dying in your bed, you know, if your legs are like two little sticks and you have a mountain of a stomach and you’re rotted by disease, you know, you’re, the flesh on your face is melted away and you’ve lost your hair, what’s the point of being reasonable? Why not believe in whatever? You know, whatever? Jesus, Buddha, any one of these? Why not believe that someone transcendentally loves you? Why not believe that?
... all I can think is, "Because then that means you have to believe that someone in control has chosen this horrible end for you.  And now you have to die knowing that."  Perhaps that is comforting for some but not for me.  To me, that is hopelessly defeating.  I have children and would never do anything to harm them so the thought that there may be a cosmic power that decided it's an important part of the plan to have this child raped and dismembered or that child drowned in the rough surf is one that makes me sick to my stomach.  What evil would ever devise such a plan?

Life of Pi tells its story well but it takes the easy way out by not dealing with the nature of that cosmic plan.  What it does, instead, is say, "Life can be brutal and violent but if you substitute animals for the reality, it's easier to take."  That is, if you substitute a God story, it's easier to digest life.  But that's not true once you introduce the plan where Anne Frank dies of typhus and children are shot dead in a school.  Now the story becomes, "and there's a father figure that made this happen for a reason."

"So, wait," you ask, "you mean someone planned this out, someone who could have stopped it but didn't?"

Yes. And if that doesn't depress you, I don't know what will. I don't want to imagine that kind of evil, that kind of hopeless horror, planning out anything.

For me, the reality is more comforting.  I'd rather know that my friend's cousin, raped and mutilated at five and stuffed in a closet, died because horrible things happen, not because she was playing a part in an all-important plan, a plan so callous and monstrous and without empathy that it, in fact, involved a five year old girl being raped and mutilated and stuffed in a closet.  That plan is morally filthy beyond compare.  I'd rather believe that we are here to make what we will of this world and when we pass, it will not be because some plan pre-destined it but simply because we died.

In the end, I much prefer the philosophy of Will Munny:  "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."

8 comments:

Lisa said...

I am with you with your philosphical discussion of the plan vs. random awful. It does seem inconceivable that people could take *comfort* in thinking that horrible occurences are planned by some entity. Thanks for writing this. I know that when I was a little girl one of my classmates fell off a cliff by the ocean and was killed. I knew then that there was nothing good in it, that the girl was GONE for no reason except some horrible accident, and she was no longer here and I was. Not her fault nor part of some plan that I would ever place any credence in. I don't think I've had that belief of mine ever seem like a mistake.

Aubyn Eli said...

Your post is very well-timed for me since I just saw the film yesterday.

I'm very glad I didn't read the Martel interview before I saw the movie. Comments like "secularism has nothing to say in the face of death and in suffering" and "somehow the suffering of children is a part of the puzzle and you just accept that" would have made it damn near impossible for me to examine Martel's allegory without prejudice. As it is, I left the theater thinking that I've heard far better arguments for religion than Pi which takes for granted that a)belief automatically enriches you as a person--the more beliefs you have, the happier you will be--and b)atheism=nihilism.

At the same time, I can see why Martel's story became so popular since by his own account, he's flat-out offering a combo platter of different faiths, telling the reader to take whatever they need to feel better. It reminds me a little of The Lovely Bones (the book, haven't seen the movie) which was a bestseller around the same time. That book used the rape and murder of its child-heroine to set the stage for a tale of a fluffy, bland Heaven where our dead narrator got as many puppies as she wanted and could spy on her grieving loved ones from afar. In the end, she got to move on to a better heaven. After possessing her friend's body to have sex with the boy she'd crushed on in life. And this was all meant to be comforting.

On second thought, I think I'd rather forget The Lovely Bones.

Josh B said...

As an atheist myself, I find it hard to disagree with your general approach to life experiences. But I'm a big fan of this film, so I feel the need to defend it a bit.

First, LIFE OF PI should be viewed as a children's/young adult film, considering the source material and presentation of the content. It's designed to be accessible to this audience, so comparing the subtlety (or lack thereof) to the adult sophistication of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN seems off-base to me.

Second, rather than "stacking the deck", I found the presentation of the two alternative stories to be an ingenious inversion of the norm. Think about it: everyday, reality and reason are stacked against faith, which must be conjured up in the mind without the benefit of using our physical senses. In this film, Ang Lee makes us experience the "faith" story through our senses (incorporating 3-D) and he takes the "reasonable" version of the story and forces the audience to imagine it in their minds through a single static shot of its retelling.

As far as which life approach is "taking the easy way out", that's up for serious debate. But I saw the film as more of a comment on the nature of storytelling in general rather than a treatise on faith vs. reason. By presenting his survival story in this fantastical way, I think Pi is better able to communicate the psychological truth of his experience--what he had to tap into to survive and how he grew as a person as a result. This is exactly why humans tell stories and imbue reality with symbolism: to better understand ourselves and to make these truths relateable across different life experiences. In that way, it's the same with faith.

Greg F. said...

. It does seem inconceivable that people could take *comfort* in thinking that horrible occurences are planned by some entity.

When something bad happens on the job or at home and no one's at fault, let's say a printer breaks just when a major report is needed to be printed out for an important meeting, people often say, "Well, it was nobody's fault so what can you do? Don't worry about it." That's comforting to people. It helps assure you that you are neither at fault nor is anyone out to get you.

Now, let's say after the meeting you find out your boss broke the printer on purpose. All that stress and the ruined meeting and extra work was created on purpose. Why? You're told your boss has a plan. What's the plan? He won't say but it has a purpose. And he might do it again. Also, the best person on the team is fired. Again, it's a part of the plan. Would any of this be comforting? Knowing it was being done on purpose?! Of course not! Most everyone would start looking for another job.

But that's the thing; something that people find easy to understand in everyday life (that someone purposely planning tragedy and heartbreak for a higher purpose is both awful and not ever comforting) rarely carry that over to religion and say, "Oh yeah, that is kind of awful." The God story gets a pass for no other reason than "it's God so I don't question it."

Greg F. said...

That book used the rape and murder of its child-heroine to set the stage for a tale of a fluffy, bland Heaven where our dead narrator got as many puppies as she wanted and could spy on her grieving loved ones from afar. In the end, she got to move on to a better heaven. After possessing her friend's body to have sex with the boy she'd crushed on in life. And this was all meant to be comforting.

Aubyn, I avoided The Lovely Bones for just that reason, it seems utterly devoid of a serious understanding of the implications of an afterlife. Most explorations of the afterlife in pop culture usually echo this, that is, you finally get to be invisible and spy on people. Simplistic and childlike all at once.

Pi... takes for granted that a)belief automatically enriches you as a person--the more beliefs you have, the happier you will be--and b)atheism=nihilism

I do so tire of those assumptions. For some, that's true, for others, it's not.

Greg F. said...

Josh, I hope it didn't look like I was comparing NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN to PI movie to movie, philosophically. I simply meant that certain stories (and then chose MEN as an example) can work at both allegorical and face value.

You make excellent points and this one, in particular, But I saw the film as more of a comment on the nature of storytelling in general rather than a treatise on faith vs. reason, I can see either way. I tend to see it as the faith vs. reason more than the storytelling in general because they clearly point out the struggle with Pi having a secular humanist father and, most importantly, talking about "believing in God" after hearing the story. It's not initially brought up by Pi, but he buys into and acknowledges several times that faith is a big part of it. I can see how you could see it as either but I think you have to strain harder to not see it as a treatise on faith vs. reason.

By presenting his survival story in this fantastical way, I think Pi is better able to communicate the psychological truth of his experience--what he had to tap into to survive and how he grew as a person as a result. This is exactly why humans tell stories and imbue reality with symbolism: to better understand ourselves and to make these truths relateable across different life experiences. In that way, it's the same with faith

And that is, of course, the point of the movie: the story with God, or the story that is fantastical, is better but I think understanding what he had to "tap into to" to survive is far better understood seeing a cook kill his mom. Martel has also written an allegorical tale of the Holocaust that I have not read but I can tell you this, watching the Nuremberg trials, the camp liberation footage and seeing the pictures of countless dead Jews, gives you a brutal, honest and infinitely deeper understanding of the Holocaust because it doesn't allow you the unintentional or not out of allegorically minimalizing it. Yes, some animals herded up and killed by some other animals might allegorically tell you something about the Holocaust but to encounter it, head on, and make a sincere attempt to confront it, requires reality, not fantasy.

All that said, I didn't hate the movie at all. I thought it was entertaining and interesting throughout. I did, somewhat, like it. Despite everything, it's not very dogmatic, to its credit. I was actually more put off by Martel's interview comments which is why I respond to that in the piece much more than the film.

Mike Radcliffe said...

One way to talk about differences between religious traditions is to look at how they address the question of suffering. Life of Pi is canny in that it expresses the basic fact that many religions have some sort of narrative which attempts to account for apparently senseless suffering. The formal word for the subject is "theodicy"--you often hear it reduced to the question "If God is all good and all powerful, then why do bad things happen?"

Following the book of Job, I would say that the Judeo-Christian tradition doesn't offer an explanation for the problem of evil but rather proclaims that God has done something about it--whether that means calling a chosen people (Israel) or a chosen person (Jesus) to be a solution. Like Michael Stuhlbarg's character in A Serious Man, Job never got an answer to his question. The irreducibly grave nature of human (and animal) suffering means that no why & how of it will ever really be satisfying. I think Pi overreaches by imagining that its attempt to make cruelty and death meaningful rather than senseless is actually comforting.

Ryan H. said...

To be fair, religious individuals have had their fair share of complaints about Martel's notions of religious belief, which is flimsy and dubious. Martel's construction of religion is sort of like Sam Lowry's escape into madness/fantasyland at the end of BRAZIL.

Religion or the notion of some kind of divine plan or not may not have satisfactory answers to questions of theodicy--some strands of religious belief deny the *possibility* of theodicy, such as the Orthodox Church--but in their best forms, religious traditions don't shy away from real-life horrors in the way that Martel does.