Life of Pi–Is God the Better Story?

Director Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee have done an excellent job of adapting Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi to film.  When I read the book back in 2004 I thought at the time it would never be made into a film because the novel was too cerebral, too narrative heavy, plus, how could anyone get a tiger to do all that acting?

bengal-tiger

Life of Pi the film covered a surprising amount of the content of Life of Pi the book.  So far I can think of just three scenes I missed.  First, story of Pi’s family running into Pi’s three religious leaders.  Second, showing how Pi used turtles to survive, and finally, the scene where Pi is blind and hears people in another life raft.

Still, Lee and Magee beautifully succeeded with capturing the philosophical heart of the novel.  If you loved the book, go see the film, you’ll be surprised by how well it was filmed.

Is God the Better Story?

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, don’t read beyond this point if you plan do either, because I’m going to analyze the philosophical statement of the book and it will spoil the story.

In the main story, a boy from India, Piscine Molitor Patel,  who wants to be called Pi, is shipwreck in a lifeboat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena and a tiger named Richard Parker.  Martel tells us this story very realistically and we are expected to believe it happened. But along the way, Martel takes us through scenes that are very hard to believe, like the carnivorous island with the meerkats.

Yann Martel has crafted a Zen kōan into a novel.  Most kōans are short, “What is the sound of one hand clapping.”   Yann Martel essentially asks, “Is God the better story?”

At the beginning of the novel and movie, in a pseudo introduction, the author is told by an older Pi, that he can tell the author a story that will make him believe in God.  Yann Martel creates two stories, one very long, elaborate, fantastic, awe inspiring – and brutal, and a second that is short and brutal.  We are asked which one we prefer.  Martel is right, everyone, including realists like me, will pick the story with Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger.

So where does God come in?  How can this story make us believe in God?  Analyzing fiction for symbolism is tricky, but for me, Richard Parker represents God though analogy.  At the end of the film and novel, when Pi has told his long fabulist story to two Japanese insurance investigators they refuse to believe him.  So Pi tells a shorter, ugly version that we know is true, but hate to believe.  Then Pi asks the investigators which story they prefer.

We all want to believe in the story where Richard Parker existed because it’s a better story than the one of madness, murder and cannibalism.

So what about the prediction at the beginning, that the story will make us believe in God?  I believe Yann Martel uses the desire to believe in Richard Parker as a stand in for God, creating an analogy, that the readers and audience must make on their own.  Pi desperately wants to believe in God.  Pi asks us to believe in Richard Parker because the story of surviving in a lifeboat with a tiger is a better story than going mad and surviving alone.

The whole point of the novel is to trick the reader into the question:  Which story do you prefer.  Of course everyone prefers Richard Parker to be real.  By transference, we’re ask to accept that belief in God is the better story, just like how we want to believe that Richard Parker existed.  We’re never explicitly told that wanting to believe in Richard Parker is the same as wanting to believe in God, but I feel it’s obvious.

Yann Martel tells us people prefer religion over reality because the story of God is a better story than reality.  And I ask:  “Is this why people refuse to accept the fact of evolution because they prefer the story with Richard Parker – oh, I mean God?”

The novel is an elaborate metaphor to explain why people believe in God.  It doesn’t say that God exists.  Nor do we know what Yann Martel believes.  It just says people prefers belief in God because it’s a better story than how we see reality directly.

What the novel is tricking us into confessing is that the belief in God, no matter how unbelievable that story might be, that it’s a better story than reality.  That when we’re pushed to the ends of our physical and mental limits, we want God even if he’s cruel, vicious and indifferent.  That the belief in God is what gets us through this life.

Has Yann Martel stacked the deck?  Is God the better story?  Yes, reality does sometime involve madness, murder and cannibalism.  And even in the God story, people die, animals are cruelly killed and eaten, people suffer.  If the audience was given the Richard Parker story, and a documentary about the evolution of the universe with cosmology and the evolution of life on Earth with evolutionary biology, is God still the better story.  I don’t think so.  Richard Parker is like a magician’s diversion.  If you could watch this movie and blot out the tiger, the reality of Earth is magnificent!  Richard Parker and God divert our attention to our fantastic reality.

God is only the better story when you don’t understand reality.  Richard Parker is ferocious, terrifying, cruel, indifferent and doesn’t answer prayers.  No matter how much Pi loves Richard Parker and wants his recognition, Richard Parker ultimately refuses to acknowledge Pi’s existence.

So why is God the better story if Richard Parker just walks away from us?  I know many people who have long given up religion but haven’t given up on God.  They say that God must have created us but walked away from the universe and is no longer involved.  Personally, I’m confident there is no God and the size, age and origin of reality is beyond our understanding.  I find it far more comforting to know the rules of our local universe and not feel the need to blame a superior being for bad things or beg for good things.  If a bacteria, shark, drunk driver hurts me badly, I just accept it was the luck of the draw and not a judgmental deity deciding I had done something wrong.

Where the metaphor of Richard Parker breaks down is Pi can see Richard Parker, and we never see God.  It’s actually easier to believe in Richard Parker than it is to believe on God.  Life of Pi is a wonderful novel.  I’ve read I twice now.  And each time I want to believe the Richard Parker story, even though I know the truth is the story about cannibalism.  How many times will I have to read this book before the realistic story is the better story?

What if the novel and movie had been about a boy that survived 227 days on the ocean and had endured the incident with cannibalism and madness and survived.  No tiger, no zebra, no hyena, no orangutan, just Pi, his mom, the Frenchman and the Buddhist sailor?  It would have been brutal, but the success of Pi surviving the ordeal would have been just as magnificent.

Why do we want a better story?  Santa Claus is a better story than parents buying kids Christmas gifts from Target.  The tooth fairy is a better story than throwing milk teeth in the garbage.  Heaven is a better story than dying.  But why is God a better story than reality?  Is God a better story than evolution?  If you understood evolution and cosmology, God isn’t the better story.  God is a simpler story, and God’s story is endlessly confusing and contradictory.  It’s just God is fantastically powerful like Richard Parker.

Even though I disagree with Yann Martel’s assertion, I love his fiction.  See, that’s the real revelation in this.  Fiction is the better story, and Life of Pi is very good fiction.  Humans embraces fiction with an intense passion.  Richard Parker is a better character than a cannibalistic Frenchman.  And for many people, all the stories about God, are a better story than the brutal aspects of reality.  However, there is nothing in fiction that comes within light years of evolution.  All stories about God are just crude children stories compared to the complexity and beauty of evolution.  Evolution is just as brutal as the Old Testament God – it’s just not personal.

Here’s the final kōan:  Did Yann Martel write this story to make us atheists or make us believers in fiction?

JWH – 11/28/12

The Fall of Robert A. Heinlein and the Fading Final Frontier

There are two concepts I want to express but I don’t know the words for them, if there are any, and I’m not creative enough to make up new words.  If these two concepts do have definitions please let me know.

The first concept deals with being so close to a belief that you can’t tell how widespread it is in the population at large.  The best I can come up with is the phrase “belief perspective.”  For example, back in the 1960s, kids who got high thought the whole world was joining their stoned revolution.

The second concept is about experiences that belong to a particular generation that are ineffable to earlier or later generations, and as people age, that particular quality of a generation fades away as their population die off.  The 1960s counter culture is a good example.  Kids growing up in the last two generations have no concept of what the sixties was like, in the same way my generation, the baby boomers, have no idea what WWII and the Great Depression was like.  I call this “fading generational identity.”

But these concepts don’t just apply to big beliefs or mass experiences.  For example, to young people of a certain age there is a huge identification with Star Wars movies that I just don’t get.  To this generation, Star Wars is huge in their belief perspective and it’s a touchstone to their language.  It’s  like Star Wars has infected their psyche.  

Kids today might love The Beatles  but they will never understand the impact of Beatles mania had on the music of 1964 and 1965, like I will never truly understand the success of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller on their generation even though I love their music.  Or look at the Beat Generation, what a tiny subculture, but their population is dying off, and the only way they will be remembered is a few books.  But no matter how many times I read On the Road I can never know how Jack Kerouac felt inside his subculture.

I grew up during the counter culture sixties but I also identified with a very small group of science fiction readers of the times.  In my belief perspective I thought Robert A. Heinlein was the Buddha, Gandhi, Einstein of a particular belief system dealing with space exploration.  Robert Heinlein defined my 1960s like Timothy Leary defined that era for acid heads.  From my perspective Heinlein was a major thinker, but my belief perspective totally distorted my worldview, because obviously he wasn’t.

Now on the Internet I’m finding other people like me, people in their fifties and sixties who have a generational identity with the same 1950s and 1960s science fiction that I have.  What we’re realizing is the beliefs we embraced weren’t widely embraced by the population at large and as new generations grow up, with their own beliefs, our ideas are fading.  The phrase “science fiction” means something totally different to the current generation than it did to mine.

It is sad, sometimes in a depressive way, and sometimes in a wistful accepting way, to see the ideas of your generational subculture belief system pass away.  You realize they really weren’t that big, or widespread, or even significant or meaningful, they were just beliefs you had, and they made life important to you in your time and place.

I grew up believing in the final frontier as proposed by 1950s and 1960s science fiction.  Like Christians or Muslims who thoroughly believe Jesus and Mohammed define their reality, not seeing that their beliefs are just ideas to believe in and not reality itself.  Colonizing the Moon and Mars was our Heaven to believe in, and Heinlein was our prophet.

I’m discovering two things now that I wish I could put into perspective.  I wish I knew how many people were like me that made Heinlein spiritually important to our final frontier beliefs.  Second I’d like to know how many people on Earth actually dream about colonizing space.  Space enthusiasts are actually separate from Heinlein, but I always tie the two together.

I have this hypothesis I’d like to test, but I don’t know how.  I think a small portion of the population believe in space as a kind of Manifest Destiny, but I don’t know how big that group is, and I’m also thinking it peaked in the 1960s because of the space race and because of 1950s science fiction.  I worry that in a hundred years that belief-perspective will be considered a minor 20th century fad.  Except for a handful of people I meet on the net I know very few people who share my religion.

We like to think the wonderful aspects of our generation are timeless, but they aren’t. They just fade when we age. Not only is my body wearing out and getting old, but so are all the ideas I loved.  That’s just another thing about getting old that we have to deal with.  And I’m not sure young people see this coming.  I certainly didn’t.

With the publication of the new authorized biography of Heinlein I’m afraid I’m discovering that his ideas and influence are already on the wane.  But I only have a few clues to go on.

Robert A. Heinlein is the Science Fiction Writers of America first Grand Master, selected for this honor in 1975.  It’s very hard to gauge the impact of Heinlein on science fiction fans of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, but if you search the web you can find hundreds of testimonials about how Heinlein imprinted on these writers.

With the publication of the biography I thought there would be an outpouring of reviews that would evaluate and elevate Heinlein’s literary status, but there have been damn few reviews, and most of them have been about Heinlein nostalgia.  Typical is the Washington Post review, which is the only national publication I found, all the rest were essentially blog reviews, like mine.

On the net I can rustle up plenty of folks to wax nostalgic about discovering Heinlein as kids, but among my normal friends, most haven’t read the man, and nearly all of them show a vacant expression when I mention his name.

To his fans from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Heinlein sold us on the future of colonizing the Moon and Mars and humanity heading out to the stars.  To the children of Heinlein, we all assumed everyone thought space was mankind’s final frontier, but in the forty years since, that hasn’t turned out to be true.  Most people never think about space exploration.

I’m reading Packing for Mars right now, by Mary Roach, and it’s about preparing astronauts for space flight.  If I had read Packing for Mars right after I first read Have Space Suit-Will Travel in 1965 I probably wouldn’t have embraced the final frontier dream.  People really aren’t designed for traveling in space, and you have to be immensely driven and a bit of a masochist to try.

I started really worrying about Heinlein’s popularity in the last few days when I did Google searches on the new biography.  I typed “robert a. heinlein in dialogue with his century” on Google and found damn few major reviews.  I noticed my blog review was second in the Google listing behind the publisher.  Now that’s a bad sign.  I mean, I like my blog, but if some tenth rate blogger gets the second slot on Google what does that say?  Furthermore, I’m averaging 2 hits a day on my review, from both the great Google placement and from the link I put on Classics of Science Fiction, which usually brings me a steady stream of 40-80 hits a day to various blog essays and reviews of science fiction topics.

This leads me to believe my childhood hero Heinlein is far less popular than I ever imagined.  For years now when I visit bookstores I’ve noticed that the number of Heinlein books in the SF section is shrinking.  And it’s extremely rare to meet a young person that reads Heinlein.

Now I can accept that Heinlein’s fan base is shrinking, but I dread the thought that the true belief in the Manifest Destiny of Space is fading.  But it might be.  It’s terrible to have to become an atheist to your own belief system.  And for me, I think 1950s science fiction was my religious substitute growing up in the 1960s.

So, what is the word for when you discover your belief system turns out to be minor and insignificant and is fading away as its older believers die off?  Whatever that condition is called, I’ve got it.  I’m not depressed.  I’m just wistfully philosophical.

I used to think I’d die knowing how the future would unfold from reading science fiction, but now I realize I won’t pass away believing in those visions.  But then I’ve known since I was a teen that the future is everything I never imagined it to be.  I wanted to believe different but the Zen of reality taught me it didn’t give a shit about what we believe.

JWH – 9/9/10

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