[This is an old post that never actually went public. I’d like to open it up to review–and criticism. Don’t read this if you get extremely uncomfortable looking down from the edge of a great height, looking into a bottomless hole, or thinking about forever.]
I saw Life of Pi last night and knew it was heavily philosophical in nature. (Well, anything with an irrational number that is, paradoxically, one of the few universal constants we can find, in the title even) is bound to be a mindjob. Knowing nothing about it other than that it was a story about a boy surviving at sea with a tiger in a small boat–and heavily recommended by my wife ;-)–I was eager to sink my teeth in.
If you haven’t seen it, I will now give some MAJOR SPOILERS!!!! So read at your own risk.
Did you see the MAJOR SPOILERS warning? I shall forthwith assume you’ve seen the movie too…
Ok, what happens after this, I wash my hands of.
First, let me say I liked the movie quite a lot. But I think people who like the film will naturally have wildly different reasons–indicator of a great story. I want to share the stream of thoughts that came after watching it.
Pi was a microcosm of what I’ll call optimistic existentialism. That is to say, the noble character of Pi who had hope and love for the world, and a hunger for truth and justice, found himself slammed into the absurdity of the real–or at least what seems “realer.”
I’m defining absurdity here as utter meaninglessness. Even though any death or tragedy is a painful situation, we can face situations in which someone suffers or dies for the sake of a loved one or the greater good much more easily than facing someone’s suffering or dying for no conceivable reason at all.
Pi saw purpose in life; he saw more than most. When it seemed like purpose was slipping away, he went and looked for it. But as hard as Pi looked, I couldn’t shake the feeling while I watched film that the writer of the story reveals where he falls in this spectrum. He tried to have a poker face but he had a few tells, and they always pivoted around the tiger.
The first encounter with the tiger, Richard Parker, entailed Pi looking into his eyes and seemingly into his soul, but the father proved to him that he’s just a senseless carnivore. That powerful scene split the audience well. (“No, he did connect with Richard Parker! His Dad messed it up and distracted him!” “No, the dad saved him by showing him the connection was an illusion!” and so on.)
He cannot be tamed, but he can be trained…
Did I want to believe that the tiger wouldn’t have taken his hand off? Sure. There was magic happening in that look–why was the tiger looking at him and not just at the meat? His father felt differently of course, seeing nothing more than a tiger about to tear his son’s hand off, driven by pure instinct.
That is an ANGRY cat
This dynamic came up again and again through their relationship on the boat, but the most telling event (to me) was the stars scene.
Richard Parker stares off into the night sky, and Pi asks him, “What are you looking at?”, half annoyed and half desperate to know. Slowly–very slowly–Richard Parker gazes down into the water. Pi looks to see what the tiger is staring at, almost as if he is beckoning him to look. In a dreamlike state, Pi sees all the way down and all the way through. Like looking into Krishna’s mouth, he sees the whole universe. All his experience, all the animals and people that died in the shipwreck, his mother, his family, and at the very bottom–the deepest point on the planet Earth–is the wrecked ship that he had left behind. Their tragic end. He had left one ship to end up on this tiny boat. Floating to who knows where?
Staring into the abyss
What I think the movie is “about” if you could say that is that no matter what worldview you hold, you will have to encounter and deal with the absurdity of life and purpose. How does this stuff with no apparent hope or purpose not overwhelm the quest for life and goodness? People come out on the other side with different views but they have to go through it nonetheless. It’s not that life and purpose are absurd, but that their endurance through all the absurdity does actually occur always has and always will be debated, and it seems to me that personal choice plays a big role in which way a person goes. I believe in the end that they are real and that there is a Glory, so real and so good that it’s own existence is even more important than anyone’s experience of it. But that doesn’t mean that the pursuit of it may not have points along the way that go pitch black.
The two interpretations of the story of Life of Pi–one with the face-value story of the animals and the lone boy on the boat, and the other with the bitter but more plausible account of the few survivors and the boy having to kill the cook–could be summed up as the amazing/hopeful story and the horrific/cynical story. My bottom line is that both of these stories fit the human experience at times and there can still be a greater Good at the bright end of it all. God is.
Is he floating aimlessly through the ocean? Through the sky? Through the world? Through space and time?–does it make a difference?
I think when you’ve thought about this and looked at it honestly for a while, then you can completely understand what Nietzsche was talking about when he said that if you stare into the abyss long enough, “the abyss stares back.” But staring into it doesn’t mean it wins. Or that it is ultimately all that there is. That is up to each of us.
P.S. When looking for images for this blog, I came across this:
Something to think about.