Thursday, November 03, 2005

Biology and Theology in Life of Pi (2283 words)

(The following are comments on Yann Martel's Life of Pi, prepared for a panel discussion of the Literary Society at [blank] University where I work.)

The poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” Yann Martel in Life of Pi attempts to prove this claim or at least make it palatable enough to entertain and entertaining enough to be palatable. In other words, Martel tries to make sure that the readers of his secular, scientific culture do not fail to recognize not only the plausibility of religious belief but also its benefits in coping with suffering, in making sense of life, and, especially, in appreciating the world we live in aesthetically. As such, I would call Martel’s theology an aesthetic theology. Its principal concern is how we see the world, the attitude with which we view it, and the attendant emotional uplift that this “divine consciousness” brings with it.

Martel’s opponent in the book is not the atheist, but rather the agnostic. The difference between the atheist and theist is merely superficial; both share a passion for the world, an openness to experience, and, most of all, an imaginative capacity that enriches life immeasurably. So close is their proximity that the atheist is, therefore, open to the possibility of a deathbed leap of faith. The agnostic, however, refuses to be unreasonable and will only doubt but never affirm and certainly could not passionately love anything. Immobilized by doubt and paralyzed by loveless dispassion, the agnostic never ventures far from the secure boundaries of his sense of self and is, thus, “beholden to dry, yeastless factuality,” as the protagonist Pi puts it. In the end, it is the agnostic’s lack of imagination that leads him to “miss the better story.” The better story, of course, is the one that addresses all the same facts but accompanies them with consciousness of God. As the narrator interrupts the story to tell us, this divine consciousness brings with it “moral exaltation; … elation, joy; ... a moral sense … more important than an intellectual understanding of things; a realization that the founding principle of existence is … love; … a trusting sense of presence and of ultimate purpose.”

To make this consciousness of God vivid and “real” to the reader, whom Martel presumes to be an agnostic living in the disenchanted world of modern science and technology, something sudden and extreme needs to occur—some event that will shatter our ordinary sense of experience, disrupt the reasonable and self-centered calculations of our secure bourgeois Western existence, and launch us beyond the horizons of foreseeable expectations. In other words, something unforeseeable and overwhelming needs to happen. Being forced to live for 227 days on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker qualifies as just that. The theologian Paul Tillich describes this sort of jarring experience as “ontological shock”—an overwhelming recognition of the relative insignificance of most concerns in life as the overriding fact of one’s imminent death sinks in. But there’s more to the image of being stuck in a lifeboat with a tiger than an abstract recognition of one’s own mortality. This is an encounter with what the philosopher Immanuel Kant calls the sublime. The sublime can take two forms: immense size and immense power. The ocean and the tiger provide trauma-inducing quantities of both.

As the protagonist Pi takes stock of his predicament when the ship Tsimtsum sinks in the storm and he hangs on to an oar suspended from the lifeboat’s bow with the tiger in front of him and sharks circling in the water below, he restates the theological theme of the book in saying, “Had I considered my prospects in the light of reason, I surely would have given up and let go of the oar, hoping that I might drown before being eaten.” Faced with this sort of impossible situation, the reasonableness of the agnostic would only lead to despair. Pi clings to life in spite of the seeming impossibility of survival, maintaining hope in the midst of a hopeless situation. Later in the journey, however, Pi notes the paradox of hope and hopelessness: too much hope can actually fold into hopeless despair by raising expectations which result in ongoing disappointment. Thus, Pi says, “You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.” There is a sort of liberation that comes with hopelessness, that accompanies the realization that Pi makes a few pages later: “I am going to die.” Pi’s recognition of what philosophers call his being-toward-death issues forth in quite practical advice for those who wish, as he did, to survive. Pi states, “I had to stop hoping so much that a ship would rescue me. I should not count on outside help. Survival had to start with me. In my experience, a castaway’s worst mistake is to hope too much and do too little.” Reasonable hope makes no sense in an unreasonable situation. Instead, biology and theology begin to merge as his instincts for survival—rather than religious symbols and rituals--begin to express the religious dimension of his experience.

As the tale of his ordeal of physical survival unfolds and the struggle gradually induces a form of savagery in him, the religious elements of Pi’s civilized life begin to recede into the distant background. At the beginning of the book, Pi dabbles eclectically with various symbol systems producing a concoction of beliefs and practices that could only occur in India, and yet Martel’s French-Canadian background influences this discussion insofar as such cafeteria-style choices of religion could only seem possible in a Western consumer-oriented society. In any case, based on his upbringing as the son of a zookeeper, Pi makes an interesting assessment of religion in the modern secular world (which is really the world of Canada more than India): religion is perceived the same way that zoos are. Both impose artificial limits on the freedom of their inhabitants or adherents, and furthermore these limits are harmful. This view, according to Martel who is speaking through Pi, is mistaken. The problem with the modern view of freedom is that it is finally nothing more than the reign of terror.

This point is first explained with respect to zoos. Zoos are what might appear to us as a source of unending boredom, but to animals they actually provide a comforting environment of steady routine and security. For example, zoos help establish the elaborate social hierarchy among animals which stabilizes the life of an animal. As Pi writes, “Until it knows its [social] rank for certain, the animal lives a life of unbearable anarchy.” By contrast, the supposed freedom of living in the wild forces the animal into a life of “compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured.” For the animal, the freedom of living in the wild comes at the price of living in terror. They don’t call it “the wild” for nothing. For human beings, religion provides the equivalent sort of structure to tame the anarchy and chaos of experience. In the end, zoos and religion are ways of making the residents of the world feel at home. If we miss the better story, we will be homeless.

Back in the story, the naïve young Pi adopts an idiosyncratic blend of religiosity—a mixture of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism—and he then defends his pluralistic view to some skeptical adults when he disarmingly blurts out, “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” In some sense, the story of Pi’s adventure on the lifeboat makes the point that the Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida once made about religion. He compared religions to rafts floating on an endless sea. That is, religions are human creations that exist within something much more expansive and mysterious, and we must be careful not to mistake the raft for the ocean. We often take our religious symbols too seriously, mistaking them for the greater reality which they were originally intended to signify. Martel wants us to take stories seriously and recognize their power to transform us, but not too seriously that we miss the reality they are meant to open up for us.

This point becomes clear when Pi is stuck on the lifeboat. He occasionally acknowledges the fact that his earlier religious beliefs and practices have become remote and largely inconsequential. For example, he notes that the few remnants of traditional religion that persist during his ordeal are often curtailed by his weariness, despair, desolation, anger, and his understandable difficulty in continuing to love God. For the most part, the demands of physical hunger crowd out the spiritual yearnings that occupied much of the first part of the book. The journal he tries to keep—until his pens run out of ink—attempts, as he puts it, “to capture a reality that overwhelmed me,” but it turns out to be mostly full of practical stuff such as details about the weather, the pursuit of food and water, the techniques for taming a tiger in close quarters, etc. (It turns out a whistle and a turtle shell are very helpful.)

More importantly, once Pi is thrust into his adventure of physical endurance, the moral and religious boundaries that defined his previous existence gradually disappear. Although he initially experiences moral disgust as he witnesses the hyena literally eat the injured zebra alive, his revulsion at the injustice (which Richard Parker, the tiger, will soon rectify anyway) quickly passes as he observes, “When your own life is threatened, your sense of empathy is blunted by a terrible, selfish hunger for survival.” This guiltless, sixteen-year-old vegetarian quickly learns to kill fish and turtles with a hatchet or even his bare hands. The first killing was difficult. Pi says, “I wept heartily over this poor little deceased soul. It was the first sentient being I had ever killed. I was now a killer. I was now as guilty as Cain. I was … a harmless boy, bookish and religious, and now I had blood on my hands.” But he later notes a simple and brutal fact: “a person can get used to anything, even to killing.” Over time, Pi observes his gradual transformation from the civilized boy who acts according to principles of human dignity to his new form of sheer animal existence. One day while eating, for example, he notes, “I ate like an animal … this noisy, frantic, unchewing wolfing-down of mine was exactly the way Richard Parker ate.” Pi becomes accustomed to killing and even drinking turtle blood, but his progressive loss of human dignity culminates when out of utter desperation he eats a bit of Richard Parker's dung. (It tasted like shit.) Much of what we think of as essential and indispensable about ourselves, when put to the test of living in extremity, turns out to be so much cognitive pith and egotistical conceit.

But I exaggerate. There is a modicum of humanity left in Pi even as the necessities of survival force him to bestiality. For example, he describes one evening at sea when a lightning storm erupted. Richard Parker, acting on well-founded instinct, cowers fearfully beneath the cover of the tarpaulin as the bolts of lightning flash and strike the sea with tremendous power. The splash from one bolt even scalds Pi’s bare skin, but he reports a fearful yet fascinated sense of awe as this transpires. “The effect on me … was something to pull me out of my limited mortal ways and thrust me into a state of exalted wonder.” It is this ability to transcend himself that reveals the religious character of Pi. Pi has what the philosopher Thomas Nagel calls the “ambition for transcendence,” the ability to “reach a conception of the world which does not put us at the center in any way.” To make this point, Pi describes his feeling of transcendence as follows: “For the first time I noticed—as I would notice repeatedly during my ordeal, between one throe of agony and the next—that my suffering was taking place in a grand setting. I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant…. My suffering did not fit anywhere, I realized. And I could accept this. It was all right.”

This ability to transcend his own finite perspective, if only momentarily, confirms what many philosophers claim to be the essential characteristic of human beings. Contrast this with an animal’s total absorption in experience, its inability to stand back from itself, to detach itself from the onrush of sensations and reactions that fill its experiential field, to reflect on itself. Pi witnesses this distinctive animal capacity in the tiger Richard Parker one day during the flying fish episode. As the fish flew out of the water and bonked hapless Pi on the head, he watched Richard Parker react fluidly to this surprise--gracefully catching and eating the fish as they suddenly hurtled through the air. “Actually, it was not so much the speed that was impressive as the pure animal confidence, the total absorption in the moment. Such a mix of ease and concentration, such a being-in-the-present….” It is funny that we might worry about animals being bored in the zoo. They cannot be bored. Boredom requires a certain detached distraction, a whistling tunelessly at the airport while repeatedly glancing at the departure times and feeling restlessly unable to concentrate on one’s book. This is the negative side of our “ambition for transcendence.” If there is a plus side, it is the way fiction can help us transcend our loveless agnostic tendencies so that we do not miss the better story.


Anonymous karen_jk said...

Hi! I don't know you at all, but I'm surfing looking for stuff on LOP, and found this. It's very good and very helpful, especially the philosophical context you provide. Have you considered writing this up as a paper? There's always room for more writing that helps us understand Martel's extremely challenging novel.

You can find me on livejournal at karen_jk.

2/28/2006 9:52 AM  

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