Richard Parker, Burning Bright

[Check out this post about Life of Pi for more of my rambling about what the ending might mean.]

Life of Pi didn’t seem at all preachy or dogmatic to me, but that’s not to say that it was particularly subtle. It seemed to have a character on hand to explicitly recap the major idea of each scene, and to spell out every possible conclusion we were supposed to take from the story. I thought it was a nice story, well told.

After seeing complaints online — one that the ending was terrible, and another that the movie was too heavy-handed — I started to wonder whether my initial take on the “message” really did cover everything the movie had to say. Considering that I didn’t find the movie all that subtle, it says something that I’m genuinely not sure whether I’ve got an insightful interpretation of the story, or whether I’m simply giving a more prosaic recap of what the movie says explicitly.

In either case, this will have tons of spoilers for the movie and (I’m presuming) the book. I’d really recommend not reading it until after you’ve read or seen either one.

More than anything else, the feeling I got from Life of Pi is one of inclusiveness — it completely disregards the borders between nationalities, languages, and religions, instead following a character who wants to learn and to understand everything. Pi comments on the novelty of an Indian family on a Japanese freighter headed to a new life in Canada, and much of the story and conversation focuses on Pi’s status as a Canadian Indian Catholic Muslim Hindu, who teaches a course on the Torah. I think the story would work well if it were simply an ode to universalism: encouraging all of us to see ourselves as living creatures united in a world we don’t understand, each of us with his own path to enlightenment.

But then comes the ending, which makes this more than just a facile, straightforward parable about finding faith. It brings that theme of universality home, by suggesting that there’s not an uncrossable divide between faith and reason. It explains to the rational members of the audience exactly why there’s such a powerful, almost innate draw to spirituality among the faithful. And it explains to the faithful why blind belief without reason is unsatisfying. Even better, it uses the format of the story itself to deliver the message.

To a person who’s driven completely by reason — if such a person actually exists — the “truth” of the story would be completely straightforward: it’s the version he told the insurance company representatives. Pi watched the cook kill the Japanese crewman and Pi’s mother, then killed the cook himself. Because the reality was too horrible, he made up a fantasy in which he was the only survivor, and the others, along with his own killer instinct, were all represented by animals.

To a person who’s driven completely by faith, the “truth” is almost as obvious. Everything that Pi first described is the “truth.” The story told to the insurance representatives was made up for their benefit, to have a more plausible account. Since they can only believe what they see, they wouldn’t have been able to accept all the fantastic things that happened to Pi, or appreciate how meaningful the experience was for him.

The beauty of Life of Pi is that neither one of those is completely satisfying. In the first account, we’re denied a resolution. Pi’s journey showed him more of the world than he could ever have imagined, and he grew to understand how every living creature is connected. But in the end, the tiger didn’t look back. Pi had become convinced that Richard Parker had a soul, and what he saw in the tiger’s eyes was more than just a reflection of his own understanding. But there was no acknowledgement of their shared experience, no definitive conclusion to the story.

With the second account, we’re denied a purpose. The boat sank for reasons unknown, and Pi was the only survivor. The “moral” of the story is nothing more than that some people act purely out of self-interest, and that bad things happen to people for no reason. If there’s any metaphor involved, it’s the acknowledgement that without the trappings of civilization, human beings are ultimately no more and no less than any other animals. The version with the bengal tiger is unquestionably a better story, whether it’s plausible or not.

There’s no single right answer. While the story obviously favors the “Pi’s Ark” version, it deliberately avoids advancing either one as the objective truth. A rational mind would say that there is an objective truth, even in a work of fiction. But Pi was the only survivor of the ship, and he was the only one who could give an account of his entire time lost at sea. Any conclusive evidence that one or the other is “true” has been lost forever. So is there actually an objective truth, or is there only Pi’s personal version of what happened? How can anyone else tell him what’s the truth or what it means to him, and what would be gained by proving him wrong or right?

I’ve seen so many over-simplistic, facile descriptions — and I’ve made several over-simplistic descriptions myself — of the importance of rationality and the importance of faith. I’ve seen militant atheists call religion a “lie,” or dismiss it as a story, a book, or pure imagination. I’ve seen people dogmatic in their faith claim that non-believers are living incomplete lives without meaning or purpose, and insist that they’ve found the true way and the one path to enlightenment.

What I like about Life of Pi is that it dismisses both extremes as ultimately futile. Belief (or confidence in rational explanations) is completely personal. Conclusive, definitive answers simply aren’t going to come in our lifetimes. Both versions of Pi’s story are true: having faith without being able to acknowledge the natural order of the world will get you no closer to understanding. And rejection of the fantastic or implausible denies the fact that human beings need good stories to make sense of what’s happening to us.

I think the conclusion of Life of Pi encourages us to concentrate most on the things we have in common. Instead of convincing ourselves that we’re right and anyone who believes differently is just fooling himself, we can be humble enough to admit that we just don’t know everything, and we’re all finding our own way to make sense of our existence.

12 thoughts on “Richard Parker, Burning Bright

  1. I certainly agree that human beings need good stories. (Or, at least, that I do. Especially in video games.) And that we particularly need good stories to make sense of what’s happening to us.

    But having just come from a fresh read of (well, listen to) Douglas Adams’s _The Salmon of Doubt_, the “rejection of the fantastic or implausible” versions of those stories seems quite sufficiently engaging to me.

  2. No one can believe something that is completely implausible or doesn’t make sense to them. The problem comes when anyone assumes that that only goes one way.

    For my part, I was taught that all the stories of creation in the Bible were to be taken as literal truth, and even as a child that made no sense to me. But it also makes no sense to me that there is no God behind the creation of the universe, who will be eternally outside the realm of science. (In the movie, Pi’s mother says that science explains the world “out there,” and religion explains what happens “in here,” pointing to her own heart).

    What I like about the movie is that it acknowledges — and even celebrates — that what makes sense to one person might not, and doesn’t need to, make sense to another.

  3. I sincerely can’t wrap my head around religion. One of the reasons being that right now someone could probably just come up with some crazy story that nobody would even dare to take seriously as a work of investigative journalism and write it down in the form of a holy book. Then through some clever marketing and a gargantuan amount of luck, the writer could potentially create the most popular religion on the planet in a hundred years. Some of the people following said religion might even interpret the book literally and follow all of the crazy rules that the writer added just for giggles: Thou shall not tap dance on thursdays. Thou shall eat 30 things each day, no more, no less. Thou shall not fall prey of logic, for logic is the devil’s work. And so on.
    The point being: Anybody could start a religion, and given sufficient time, luck and misinformation, people will eventually treat it VERY seriously.

    To me, religion is built by society … just like sports. Just as anything can be a sport if enough people practice and follow it, any story can be a religion if enough people believe and have faith in it.

  4. That’s exactly the type of dismissive, divisive BS that I’m talking about. You’re saying that people of faith are gullible, that there’s nothing but arbitrary nonsense forming the basis of people’s faith, there’s nothing distinguishing religion from cult apart from how many people they’ve tricked into believing it. And somehow this isn’t offensive?

    I’ve frequently seen that people will have no problem claiming that religious belief necessitates an abandonment of reason, and yet find it grossly offensive to claim that atheism means an abandonment of ethical or moral behavior.

    It would benefit a lot of self-proclaimed “free thinkers” to live up to the label, keep an open mind, and talk to a person of faith instead of dismissing their beliefs as superstitious nonsense. You won’t get that discussion here, since I got tired of it years ago. You will get a reminder that you’ve abandoned your right to be treated to respect as soon as you make blanket dismissals of people’s belief systems as “crazy.”

  5. Mmmhhh, I didn’t expect such a strong response but then again, I probably should have qualified my point of view before submitting the comment. Sorry if I came off as an asshat.

  6. You’re the victim of my having recently read a long discussion elsewhere on the internet, that was exactly like every other discussion about religious belief & atheism that I’ve seen over the past 15 years or so. It just seems like people recognize that it’s obnoxious for dogmatic religious people to be dismissive and insulting of people of different beliefs, but see no problem with its going the other way. We all need to appreciate that there’s more to most people than what’s visible on the surface.

  7. Right, I wasn’t dismissing other people’s point of view, but trying to explain (badly) why I don’t understand them.
    To clarify what I said earlier, I understand how belief and faith works, but what I definitely don’t understand is _organized_ religion. I don’t understand how someone can believe in what other people tell with no real proof supporting their tales.
    Even as I say that, I can partially see how one could take a particular religion and NOT interpret everything their holy book says literally. After all, we’d be stoning to death many many people if that were the case…. and even then, if we take these holy books only as metaphor and allegory … let’s say that those holy books work as very misguided moral compasses to say the least. And that’s only natural if we take them for what they are: Books that reflect at least partially the morality/ethics of the time.

  8. The distinction between organized religion and broader religious belief or “spirituality” is part of it, but even within organized religion there’s a huge spectrum of different beliefs. Essentially what I’m saying is that it doesn’t make sense to assume that everyone with a certain religious belief is the same as their worst representatives (e.g. young-Earth creationists), any more than it would make sense to assume that all atheists are as obnoxious and attention-hungry as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Lots and lots of extremely intelligent people have been thinking about the issue for millennia, and most of us have reached a comfortable balance between faith and reason.

    And yes, holy books can be both creations of Man and divine works, if you believe that they were inspired by God (which can itself have a range of different interpretations), and then translated by imperfect men, reflecting the beliefs of a certain time period. Again, I think the problem is when someone takes either extreme, assuming that their beliefs take precedence over another person’s: either when a self-proclaimed Christian, for example, uses the Bible as defense of something that is directly contradicted by the rest of the bible, like bigotry; or when an atheist dismisses another person’s holy scripture as “Some book you like.” If someone has no respect for another person’s beliefs, that’s his prerogative, of course. But he can’t then claim he’s being oppressed when he’s not treated with respect in return.

    Coincidentally, io9 has a blog post about “smug atheists” that surprised me, how much I agreed with it.

  9. In what way is Richard Dawkins obnoxious? I know very little about him, other than that Douglas Adams respects his works a great deal. I just bought one of his books on Audible.

    I don’t think that to not respect another person’s beliefs is oppression; to not respect another person’s right to share or to exercise those beliefs is oppression. There’s a pretty big difference.

  10. I somehow missed that comment way back in November: I don’t think Dawkins comes across as obnoxious or opportunistic as Christopher Hitchens did, but I always conflate the two. And to be honest, I wouldn’t be able to recap any of Dawkins’s points; my opinion is based mainly on the titles of his books and the quotes from him that I’ve seen.

    But essentially, he’s the most notable example of Dogmatic Atheist, and I’ve always thought that strident atheism is futile at best. Every argument in favor of atheism as The One Truth is arguing against a point that people simply aren’t making, at least the people who’d be listening to the argument at all. Fundamentalists are never going to be swayed by a book called The God Delusion. And most intelligent people of faith acknowledge that their faith is inherently irrational, by definition; therefore, an argument against the existence of God that claims to be based in science is simply never going to work. So he’s just preaching to the people who refuse to be on the choir.

    If he wants to argue against the cross-contamination of religion with government or education or scientific study, then he’ll get plenty of support from believers and non-believers both. I’ll vehemently object to teaching non-science in science classes, or in violating the separation of Church and State. But I don’t see what’s to be gained by trying to disprove the existence of God, other than stirring up controversy. The only people listening are the ones who believe that it’s impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God.

    And I still strongly disagree with your last point. When someone dismisses my belief in God as silly superstition, or talks about “some man in the sky,” or makes snickering comments about Flying Spaghetti Monsters and the like, or dismisses a holy work as “some book you like,” they’re showing me disrespect by attributing a lack of intelligence or discernment to me. That’s not “I don’t believe the same thing you do,” that’s “It would be stupid to believe the things you do.” Maybe that’s not “oppression,” but it’s at best rude. And it’s counter-productive, because I can’t imagine why I’d be obliged to talk to someone with respect when they give me so little.

  11. I’ve been mulling over that last paragraph in your January 6th comment for a long time. I’m still not quite sure how to respond to it, but I think I’ve finally figured out why it makes me so uncomfortable: to me, it suggests that the fact that I believe a certain statement about the nature of the universe to be true — whether or not I take any action based on that belief — necessarily makes me rude and disrespectful toward those who those who do not believe that statement to be true. That’s something that would make me uncomfortable no matter what the statement was, and no matter what side of the debate I was on.

  12. @Yossi Horowitz: I’m not sure how you arrived at that interpretation, since I’m not saying anything like that. There’s nothing disrespectful about believing something different from someone else; in fact, that’s the only way that intelligent people can function. A person can’t believe something that makes no sense to them. That means people of faith need to accept the fact that there are those who don’t believe, and atheists need to accept the fact that there are intelligent and rational people who still believe in the existence of a God that exists completely outside the realm of science. There are plenty of people who operate on dogma and have never questioned their beliefs, but there are also tons of intelligent adults who’ve put a lot of thought into it and still believe.

    Which means everyone needs to coexist, even though things that they are certain to be true aren’t accepted by everyone else. And writing or saying things that are dismissive of the beliefs that other people hold sacred, is just as bad as people of faith calling atheists “heathens” or trying to impose their own religion where it doesn’t belong.

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