Atheism and Life of Pi
I finally watched
Life of Pi last night. It was a very moving film--very hard to
get out of my mind. And so I sit here at five a.m. blogging.
Peter Harrison via Flickr
Before watching it, I'd heard quite a bit about it, as regards belief
and nonbelief. Some said it would reaffirm a person's faith in God, and
that made me hesitant to watch it. The last thing I want in
entertainment is preaching. But many said it would also reaffirm a
person's nonbelief, so I gave it a chance. It certainly worked for me.
[This post contains a frank discussion of the complete film and so
The story is about an author who has lost his creative spark. He
meets a man in a cafe in Canada who tells him he should meet his nephew,
Pi. Pi has a story that he will want to write, but also a story that
will make him believe in God. And so, he meets Pi and Pi tells him his
Pi was spiritual from a very early age. He is Hindu, Christian,
Muslim, and has even dabbled in Judaism. His father owned a zoo in
India. But unlike Pi, his father was a rationalist and atheist. When Pi
is caught trying to hand feed the new tiger, his father shows him that
the tiger is just an animal and would kill him if it got the chance.
"You think you see a soul in his eyes," his father tells him
[paraphrased]. "But it is just your own reflection looking back at you."
The family must leave India and boards a ship, along with the zoo
animals which they will sell in North America, to Canada. The ship sinks
during a violent storm and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a hyena,
an injured Zebra, and an orangutan that found its way to the boat after
the storm ceased. We see the tiger get on the boat at first, during the
storm, forcing Pi back into the water, but then it disappears. [The
boats are covered with a tarp, this one having been pulled back only
about halfway, leaving part of the boat hidden.]
The hyena kills the injured zebra, then attacks and kills the
orangutan. It is at that point that the tiger rushes out of hiding and
kills the hyena. The rest of the story is about Pi and the tiger
learning to survive together on the boat (Pi spending most of his time
in self-made rafts outside it). Eventually, he tames the tiger and they
live together somewhat peacefully.
Pi tells us that it was the constant care and tending of the tiger
that kept him alert. The tiger saved his life.
When the food and water run out, Pi cradles the dying tiger and
accepts death. At that point, the boat abuts a strange island. By day,
there is fresh water, seaweed for the [until forced to eat fish to
survive] vegetarian Pi, and meerkats for the tiger. But by night, the
floor of the island becomes acid. The meerkats and Pi retreat to the
safety of the trees, while the tiger takes to the boat. Pi realizes that
the island would consume him if he stayed. So, he gathers supplies and
gets back into the boat with the tiger.
Finally, the boat washes ashore in Mexico. Pi crawls to the sand
while the tiger heads off into the jungle, without turning back. Pi is
heartbroken that the tiger left him without saying good-bye.
Investigators of the shipwreck don't believe Pi's story. They want a
story that is fitting for their report. They want the truth. So, Pi
tells us that he told them another story.
He is on a lifeboat with a wounded sailor, the ship's cook, and his
mother. The cook convinces them he can save the sailor's life so has Pi
and his mother hold him down. But instead, the cook murders the sailor,
intending to use his body for bait. Pi's mother lashes out at the cook,
and the cook murders her. Pi then kills the cook.
"He unleashed the evil within me," Pi tells the investigators.
Unfortunately, at this point, either the author of the book, or the
filmmakers, believe we need a jog to get us to understand. So, the
author reasons that the wounded zebra was the sailor, the hyena the
cook, and the orangutan was Pi's mother. The tiger, was Pi. [duh]
When the author questions which story is true, Pi asks him which he
prefers. The author prefers the first story. "It's a better story," he
says. And Pi responds, "And so it is with God."
So, we realize that the story of the tiger was a metaphor that Pi
uses to deal with the stark reality of what happened to him. The tiger
is his animal nature--evil. It got on the boat with him, but didn't
emerge until Pi killed the cook. The rest of the story is about Pi
taming his animal nature while it is the very thing that keeps him
alive. The island was his acceptance of death. His survival instinct
stayed with the boat, and he eventually realized that he had to continue
the fight; he couldn't give in to death, he couldn't accept it.
In the end, Pi credits his father for giving him the tools he needed
to survive, namely: reason. Pi refuses to believe that it was only his
reflection in the tiger's eyes, because he knew that it was part of him.
His animal nature--evil as he called it--was a part of him. It was just
as human as he was.
And the tiger didn't turn to say good-bye because [and Pi doesn't
seem to realize this himself] it never left him. It only returned to the
jungle, as Pi came back to civilization.
There is probably quite a bit more to this story in the book, and
so much more metaphor involved. But that's what we got in the film.
God is metaphor--the beautiful story we tell ourselves
because reality is not so pretty, and not nearly as interesting.
At first, I failed to see how this film could renew someone's faith.
It is said that the purpose of the story is not to answer the
question of "god" at all, but to let the reader decide: which story do
you prefer? As if either story could be true. And so, perhaps the
religious believe that the first story is actually true, but
because it is unbelievable, it must be trusted by faith. The
second story, then, becomes the lie, told for those who can not, or
refuse to, believe.
And yet, just as with the stories of their respective faiths, we
know, by evidence, that the first story is the metaphor for a savage
journey of survival at sea. Well, those of us who, as Pi's father did,
value reason above all.