Fearful Symmetry

Answering a FAQ (that I keep getting, for some reason) about The Life of Pi

Ever since I wrote this post about The Life of Pi, I’ve seen at least two people a day finding the blog by searching with the question “Why didn’t the tiger look back?” I never really gave a clear explanation of how I interpreted it in either of those posts, so here’s my take:

In the movie (I still haven’t read the book), Pi explicitly says what bothered him about it: after all they’d been through, and all the time they spent together, the tiger didn’t acknowledge him at all. The whole experience that had been so profound for Pi meant nothing to Richard Parker. That goes back to the argument Pi had with his father when younger: Pi insisted that the animals must have a soul because he could see it in their eyes; his father said that it was just a reflection, and Pi was seeing nothing more than what he wanted to see.

When the tiger goes into the jungle without acknowledging him, Pi takes that to mean that his father was right. The tiger had no soul, and he’d never been a rival or a companion. He was just a dumb animal.

That’s the part that’s spelled out explicitly. But the larger context of the story is about faith and belief vs. logic and reason. We end with two different versions of Pi’s experience: the story with Richard Parker and all the other animals, and the story in which they all represent people on board the ship and Pi himself. One is wildly implausible but more engaging and ultimately more satisfying. The other is much more believable, but it’s not a good story because it doesn’t “mean” anything. It’s just horrible. There are no epiphanies or moments of wonder; it’s just an account of human beings acting with the savagery of animals. They have no souls and are driven simply by the need to survive.

Leave it at that, and you just have the two extremes of spirituality vs. atheism. Believers need to have their existence fit into a narrative, where everything happens for a reason, and their existence means something. Skeptics reject the fantastic and are more concerned about getting to the bottom of what really happened, which implies that their existence isn’t driven or guided by anything other than what they make of it. If there were nothing more to the story than Pi’s two accounts of what happened, then it would be an allegory of the oldest and simplest complaints that religious and non-religious people have of each other: that the non-religious can’t appreciate beauty and wonder, or that the religious are simply making up stories to make themselves feel better instead of searching for the truth.

The final scene with the tiger throws a complication into the works. The most satisfying version of the story would’ve actually ended with Richard Parker stopping and looking back to Pi, to acknowledge that they had a shared experience together, one that was meaningful to the both of them. Instead, he just wanders off into the jungle, driven by whatever base needs or desires drive a wild animal. The story doesn’t have a happy or even a satisfying ending; in fact, it doesn’t really have an ending at all. Pi doesn’t learn that animals really do have souls after all. With all the wondrous things he saw, he didn’t share any of them with another living creature — he was genuinely alone, and he had nothing except his own memory to verify that any of it actually happened.

The counterpart to that, to a lesser degree, is Pi’s description of the cook aboard the lifeboat. The movie doesn’t linger on the second story for nearly as long as the first, but we do hear about the cook’s senseless brutality, and how Pi was forced to go against his true nature and kill the cook. What was a gruesome but realistic example of the laws of nature in the Animal version of the story, becomes a story of evil and revenge when the animals are re-cast as humans. There’s a clear villain, and the players now have motivations. In a sense, the human version of the story is less satisfying not just because it’s more horrific, but also because it’s so (horrifically) straightforward.

So we’re left with one version of the story that seems more plausible at first. But it also has the lingering feeling of something that Pi could’ve told the agents just because he knew it was the only thing that they’d be able to believe. In other words: an explanation that he made up to make the skeptics feel better, instead of understanding the complexity of the true version.

And on the other side, we’re left with a fantastic and implausible story that defies rational explanation. But we’re left without an ending, without the acknowledgement that yes, our hunch was right and that this is what it all means. We want to believe, but we can never really know. As the movie says, “And so it is with God.”

So that’s why Richard Parker doesn’t look back: because God doesn’t ever give us simple acknowledgement, a reassurance that what we’re going through means something. Religious belief isn’t something that can be tested and verified; it’s not a case of each of us choosing a side and waiting to be proven right. Faith means belief without reassurance, because we’re not going to get the answers in this lifetime. And the story never goes for the easy answer of saying that the faithful are making up fantasies and the rational are directionless, unethical nihilists; instead it makes the case for faith without ever dismissing or undermining the need for reason.

And while I’m thinking about it: I never really understood the part where Pi’s uncle has supposedly told the writer that his story “will make you believe in God.” I’d always thought that making someone believe in God meant giving them some proof that God exists. But now I understand that the story is saying that there will never be proof; therefore, the belief itself is everything. You could say that Pi’s story is like the story of Job, but the difference is that Job eventually got some answers. He spoke to God, and he was able to find out the reason for and purpose behind all of his tribulations. But there’s no event in Pi’s story that makes a case for the existence of God. Instead, it’s the entirety of Pi’s story that shows the value of believing even when there’s no way to see if you’re right, and of continuing to ask questions even when you know you’re never going to get an answer.

Now for the other people who stumble onto this blog by searching for “I hate Georgia” or “I don’t like Mad Men“: I can’t help you there.

One thought on “Fearful Symmetry”

  1. Chuck, thanks for continually posting about this film, as I don’t seem to get out much these days to talk to other adults about movies, I’m too busy to scour the web for further explanations of the film, and I missed the critical tiger going into the jungle scene because I was taking my 7 yr old to the bathroom (and hearing a description of the pivotal scene from my 13 yr old made it all the more difficult to interpret). On the other hand I was surprised to find that, in spite of the heavy themes, all 3 of my kids (age 7, 11, 13) actually loved the movie. I guess movies about tigers are just generally cool.

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