Jun 26, 2006

Life of Pi

I would really like the Life of Pi reference unpacked a little more. I was at Trent University doing a Canadian Literature class when it was announced that Yann Martel (a Trent alumni) had won the Booker. There was some hasty deletions from the syllabus to fit in Life of Pi.
I've actually wondered what other people make of this remarkable book. I haven't found any really interesting critical commentary yet. For what it's worth, here's a little of my take on this quite remarkable book.

Spoiler Warning - skip this post if you haven't read the book and don't want to have anything given away.

I think the theme of "Life of Pi" is the importance of faith. It isn't explicit, or in your face; it's delightfully sneaky in fact. It's also a refreshing departure from most books of religious/spiritual allegory in that it isn't really pushing any particular agenda in particular. This is clear from the wonderful insouisance of the hero, Pi, in simulataneously believing in Hindusim, Islam, Catholicism and later, scientific materialism.

Rationally, this doesn't make any sense whatsoever, as the priests and imams point out in the beach confrontation scene. But Martell's point, as I read it anyway, is that faith trumps rationality as a spiritual virtue.

Often we confuse faith (pali: saddha) with dogmatism. Pi blows this away. He's full of faith, but there isn't a bit of dogmatism or fundamentalism in him.

Martell's primary argument for faith is developed slowly and only becomes somewhat explicit at the end. This argument is a novel one; at least I haven't seen it before. It is primarily aesthetic. The detective at the end sees two possible scenarios; either the boy's story is true and he survived for months on a raft with an adult tiger or he survived in a much less inspiring, even sordid manner. There is no real proof of either scenario. The choice is left up to the reader.

And here is where Martell's sleight of hand comes in. You, the reader, silently make your choice. Rationality would have to say the other story is more likely, but I think most readers whose hearts are not stone cold will quietly root for the fantastic tiger story. Why? Isn't the choice entirely aesthetic? When you get down to it, isn't our choice of what to believe in always aesthetic in the end?

In another place in the book Martell makes another astonishing claim; he has his character Pi opine that atheists are men of faith as well, but agnostics are not. He can't find it in him to sympathize with their point of view. The atheist has made his aesthetic choice, the agnostic is unwilling or unable to do so. The atheist then, lives in a universe that he finds beautiful and inspiring. The agnostic just waffles about in uncertainty. (remember: in Buddhism skeptical doubt is a hindrance!)

I found that sentiment surprising, but I immediately found it agreeable too. There are those who want to promote a Buddhist agnosticism, even though the Buddha called this view "eel-wriggling" and decried it as stupid and cowardly. Agnostism is a refusal to dare to make the necessary leap of faith which leads to spiritual awakening. The agnostic is one who clings forlornly to the branch of rationality and is unable to cross the stream to the far shore. (Of course, faith must be balanced with discriminatin wisdom, but that's a topic for another day.)

Faith, in my reading of Martell, could be defined as an intuitive leap of the heart towards the beautiful. Mathematicians, I think, can understand that the beautiful (or "elegant") is also an indicator of the true.

Another way of putting this; what kind of universe do you want to live in?


Anonymous said...

When you get down to it, isn't our choice of what to believe in always aesthetic in the end?

So...for example, string theory, if you can get your head around it, can be as aesthetically pleasing as a religious doctrine?

Beauty = elegant = what we are drawn to = what we believe

Wouldn't that mean that "realization" in Buddhism deepens faith and faith deepens realization, etc, etc, and on and on?

Ted the future Monk said...

i don't claim to be a smart man (gr12 educated) however this book was very interesting. Opposite to "Heart of Darkness" by Conrad. Several parts deeply remined me also of the true life events of a soccer team stuck in the mountains, "Alive" The mind has a keen way of dealing with tramutic events inline with the fight or flight theroy. This event in military terms is a form of shellshock.
I'm more incline to the second of stories that the Japanese brought forth. Maybe Pi's version was the god-head in us all freeing us from the pain of reality. Make sense?

Punna- its in the mail

ant said...

Your post on The Life of Pi makes me want to pick it up and read it all over again.

And with that, I'm off to the book shelf!


e.m. said...

I would like to take this opportunity to heap scorn on The Life of Pi, and on the genre of insufferable pseudo-philosophy that the poseurs of the decadent west produce and consume as a jejune substitute for wisdom in our era.

Ted, or antoine, or whoever you people are, please do not confuse pulp fiction with philosophy. Don't read this book "again" (don't read it once) --catch up with the past 2,500 years of real philosophy first (starting at Anaximenes), and, if you have time left over, you will find that the education you have received in the process of said reading will have rendered you immune to the false charms of this "Can-lit" junk, that (unsurprisingly) is neither confused with "real Lit" nor "real philosophy" anywhere outside of Canada!

jen said...

Hi e.m.

Not impressed by the 2002 Booker Prize for Life of Pi?

You seem like you need a little more Harlequin Romance in your life.