Life of Pi
Yann Martel, 2001

the fourteenth book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Conrad Baldner

I first encountered Life of Pi not long after it came out, when all of a sudden it started popping up in pretty much every essay my SAT students wrote.  Seriously, as early as 2002 it seemed like the two books every high school English class required were The Scarlet Letter and Life of Pi.  But none of those SAT essays did a very good job of explaining what Life of Pi was actually about.  They did tend to establish that you had a tiger and an Indian youth on a boat, but the essays gave the impression that these characters were drifting down a lazy river, Owl-and-Pussycat-style, telling each other Eastern-tinged fables about the nature of the divine.  It sounded pretty dire.  So when Life of Pi appeared on my reading list I wasn't looking forward to it.

As it turned out, the tone of the book is rather different from what I had been led to expect.  The bulk of Life of Pi is a survival narrative, in which we find 16-year-old Pi Patel stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific.  He tells his story with the same matter-of-fact emphasis on obtaining and eating food that Virginia Woolf highlighted in her famous essay on Robinson Crusoe.  The presence aboard the lifeboat of a Bengal tiger — not a talking Jungle Book extra but an actual zoo animal — adds interest but does not substantially alter the tone; much of the time the tiger is really just an additional complication that forces Pi to add a few wrinkles to his constantly evolving survival plan.  "Catch and eat turtle, drink daily ration of captured rainwater, attempt to repair tarpaulin" becomes "Catch and eat turtle, drink daily ration of captured rainwater, attempt to repair tarpaulin without being eaten by enormous jungle cat."  This stuff is engaging enough, I reckon.  That sounds like very faint praise, but I mean it — it's a pretty good page-turner, and the reason I got through it so quickly was not merely that I spent the week in the condo of an elderly Canadian couple who had no Internet service, television, or other books.  In any case, there's no reason for me to do the damning-with-faint-praise routine when I'm about to talk about why I think the chief message of this book is idiotic.

Before the lifeboat sequence comes a series of chapters covering both Pi's childhood and his life from his university days up to the present; they make up roughly the first third of the book.  Pi's father owned a zoo, so a lot of this section consists of Pi holding forth about the lives of zoo animals.  Again, this is engaging enough.  But then comes the sequence in which Pi repeatedly finds religion.  Though born Hindu, upon reaching his teens he befriends a Catholic priest and a Muslim baker, and is soon practicing all three faiths simultaneously.  His family is perplexed and the local clerics insist that he choose a side.  The interpersonal conflict here is interesting.  The theological musings are not.  Let me put it this way.  One of my favorite writers is an ordained minister, and on his blog he once quoted someone he knew saying that he had no time or patience for debates about the existence of God, because to him it wasn't even a question: "I believe in God like I believe in water."  I hold the same stance for the opposite reason.  For some people, becoming an atheist involves a sort of conversion experience, a denial of a god they once believed in, and the effect on their sense of the universe is like removing a piercing: the ring may be gone, but you can still see the hole where it used to go.  But I never got pierced in the first place.  It is transparently obvious to me that there are no gods, capitalized or otherwise, and I see no more need to spend time making a case against their existence than I see the need to make a painstaking case against the existence of flazzjubs.  What's a flazzjub?  Exactly.  Actually, the flazzjubs would be less tiresome to talk about because they're just a spurious concept rather than a spurious concept with several millennia of elaboration on top.  This being my position on the matter, you can see why all the material in Life of Pi about the right way to love God held as much interest for me as a tale of a character torn among heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bestiality would hold for a eunuch.

It gets worse, though.  I remember that back when I did argue with people about the existence of a god, the theists would sometimes wrap things up by sniffing, "Well, it sounds like you must lead a very sad existence. I believe in God because I wouldn't want to live in a world without Him."  This always struck me as pretty fatuous.  First, what you want has no bearing on what's actually true.  Second, you don't get to choose what you believe, not what you truly believe deep down.  I went to a high school in Orange County with a computer science magnet program, and putting those things together meant that I knew a lot of nerdy Christians.  Many of them were convinced that Pascal's Wager was the ne plus ultra of theological debate.  You know, "If you believe in God, then if you're right you go to heaven, and if you're wrong, nothing happens! But if you don't believe in God, then if you're right nothing happens, and if you're wrong, you go to hell!"  But even if you buy this line of reasoning, there's a difference between being convinced that holding a particular belief is advantageous and actually believing it.  Pascal himself apparently contended that if you go through the motions of belief for long enough, you will gradually lose your investment in your objections and be able to believe sincerely, but I'm dubious.  I know that people have a huge capacity for deliberate self-delusion, but there's a reason that Orwell referred to this practice as "doublethink."  Don Draper may be shocked at how completely he can convince himself that the events of his life "never happened."  Tracy Flick may have no trouble summoning the outrage of an innocent in response to accusations that are actually true.  But while on one level they may have induced an altered understanding of reality in themselves, there is another level on which they retain enough awareness of actual reality to be scared when people find clues suggesting what they've done.  And I have to confess that it's hard for me to comprehend that intelligent theists don't do something similar.  There are things we actually believe because they logically follow from empirical evidence, and there are things we try to make ourselves believe because those beliefs are identifying markers of membership in a particular group, and belonging to that group is key to our sense of self… and I figure that if I can tell the difference when I'm truly honest with myself, then so can a lot of other people.  I guess that's the sort of thing you're not supposed to say — it's pretty much begging for a barrage of replies asking "who the fuck are you to suggest that I don't really believe what I say I believe" — and of course I can't say for sure that intelligent theists know deep down that gods don't actually exist.  I don't understand how it could be otherwise, but then, I don't understand a lot of things.  Google tells me that these things include British accents and picture matting, so it's no surprise that the rather less fathomable workings of other people's minds would be something of a mystery to me.

But I've strayed from the point I was initially trying to make.  I was talking about people whose minds I don't have to read, who come right out and say that they believe in God because they can't bear to face the alternative — and who act as if this is somehow a good argument and not effectively a concession.  But Life of Pi's rationale for belief is even worse.  In the end, in the face of hostile questioning from Japanese investigators, Pi offers up another story, a grimmer one in which his mother and a couple of other (human) survivors are with him on the lifeboat until things get desperate and, one by one, they kill each other until only Pi is left.  He then argues that since neither story explains why the ship sank or why Pi consequently suffered so, which one is actually true doesn't matter and what matters instead is whether the lady or the tiger makes for "the better story."  That is, "since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way," the question to ask is "which story do you prefer?" — and just in case we're not picking up on the metaphor, he explicitly adds, "And so it goes with God."  In sum, this is a decently well told yarn that serves to advance the cause of inane solipsism.  At least the cowardly "can't handle the truth" philosophy merits some pity.  But when Pi criticizes those who attribute the bright light that accompanies death to failing oxygenation of the brain because they "lack imagination and miss the better story," that is willful stupidity on an Insane Clown Posse level.  Except that when the clowns said they didn't want to learn about magnets from a scientist, they were roundly lampooned.  Martel won the Booker Prize.

Postscript:  Martel has Pi reflect that "If Hinduism flows placidly like the Ganges, then Christianity bustles like Toronto at rush hour. It is a religion as swift as a swallow, as urgent as an ambulance."  Um, I've been to Toronto.  With the possible exception of Los Angeles, it has the worst traffic I've ever been stuck in.  It once took me 53 minutes to proceed 1½ miles — less than half a typical person's walking speed.  At rush hour Toronto traffic is as swift as a dead swallow and as urgent as a parked ambulance.  And yet this is one of the less vapid observations about religion to be found in Life of Pi.

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