Yes, We (Shere) Khan: The Life of Pi, A Film About The Simple Bare Necessities
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
Why should you run? Can it be possible that you don’t know who I am?
-Shere Khan, The Jungle Book
Watch the short video. If you don’t, you may find this post convoluted and difficult to understand. It’s not very long (the video, I mean). I think it is a total of thirty seconds long.
Consider: The Life of Pi opens upon scenes of a young boy growing up in a beautiful zoo. There are monkeys, and parrots, and giraffes, and tigers, and tree sloths, and wallabies, and emus, and anteaters…skipping a bit here…and there is whimsy, and there is beauty, and there are the things the heart feels, and there is mystery, and there is the surprise ending from Home Alone where the frightening old man turns out to be nice…sorry, let’s jump ahead again, you get the general idea… One of the wild creatures is the boy himself. When he’s born, he’s delivered by a herpetologist.
But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself here. The film really begins with a conversation between two men — a frustrated white novelist, and a serene middle-aged Indian man. The zoo is one of the man’s memories. His name is Pi, which is short for Piscine. He shortens his name because “piscine,” which refers to a pure and limpid swimming pool in France, is easily corrupted into “pissing,” which refers to “a stinking Indian latrine.” That is, let’s be real, unbelievably racist, but anyway the name “Pi” has a complex dual significance. First of all, it is undecidable whether “Pi” is short for “piscine” or “pissing,” and this undecidable crossroads of beauty and horror, swimming pool and latrine, turns out later to be the film’s major theme. Secondly, “Pi” is of course an irrational number, which makes it something of a mystery, like all that is irrational (i.e. spiritual) in our world. The spiritual impulse, in The Life of Pi, exists because (according to Yann Martel) we cannot rationally decide whether life is good or evil.
As Pi’s story unfolds, several things are noticeably wrong with it. The first unsettling thing is Pi’s willingness to belong to every religion at the same time. As he grows up, he becomes first Hindu, then Christian, then Muslim. When Martel jokes that he should adopt Judaism, he replies that he teaches a course on the Kabbalah. “The house of faith has many rooms,” he tells the novelist (who very unrealistically does not immediately throw up all over the place). In Pi’s narrative, his father and brother laugh at his credulous nature, and only his mother defends him. Perhaps we are supposed to sympathize with him, too, but it’s hard to see why. His mother’s theory is that he’s still “finding his way,” but in fact Pi never does make a choice, or choose a path. He reminds me of those insufferable people who cheerfully declare that all religions “teach love,” and therefore are basically the same, as though the entire history of religious conflict has been some sort of gigantic and regrettable misunderstanding. (One such person, Alex de Silva Souto, led the theological workshop I attended in Italy this year, and came pretty close to ruining it.) These syncretists certainly do not overflow with love, though they would like to; rather, they are desperately in need, which is why they gobble up every creed in sight, and yet continue to starve. That is what we learn of our young hero, Pi.
Even Pi starts to get tired of himself, and at a moment of adolescent crisis when he has fallen so low as to actually be reading Camus (the horror!), he satisfies his “need for some kind of meaning” by falling in love. This isn’t “a kissing book,” though, as Fred Savage would say. Pi’s love affair has almost no significance other than a) to provide fodder for the movie trailer and b) to supply woman imagery for Pi’s upcoming hallucinations. What’s wrong, though, with this section of the film is a conversation between Pi and his lady about the symbolic gestures she makes while dancing. He asks her what one gesture means, and she replies, “it means the lotus is hidden in the forest.” Confused, our chaste protagonist asks her what that means, causing her and her friend to start giggling. We pretty much have to assume, therefore, that the lotus flower is her vagina. On the other hand, it is also a symbol for the spiritual quest, in which a young man seeks enlightenment (the lotus flower) by undergoing a difficult ordeal (searching the dark forest). So, which is it, Yann Martel? Which is it, Ang Lee? Is it good (spiritual enlightenment) or evil (the female body)? Perhaps we’ll never know! All we can know is that it’s another moment that seems askew — misremembered, perhaps, or dishonest.
The narrative is, loosely speaking, the same as in the first books of the Bible. We go from Eden (the zoo), to the encounter with Eve and her lotus flower, to Exodus (leaving for Canada), to Noah’s Ark (the ship and then the life raft). Let’s skip ahead a bit, past the antics with the animals (we’ll return to them in a moment), to another really “off” moment: the carnivorous island. What appears, at first, to be a mangrove swamp turns out to be a weird version of the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, where Pi can have all the fresh water and delicious food he requires, but where (unless he pushes off again) he will live a brutish life and die alone. A lot about this island does not make sense. Why does it have to be carnivorous? Aren’t Pi’s feelings of relief and relaxation dangerous enough? (Admittedly, this works better in the book, which discusses sloths at length.) If the island digests fish every single night, how do the fish get in? They’re ocean fish, which means they live in saltwater, and yet the island’s water is supposedly fresh. Why is the “floor” of the island carnivorous and dangerous, but not the canopy? Why does Pi go up in the canopy to sleep in the first place, instead of falling asleep on a nice patch of ground, and getting his face chewed off?
Nobody knows the answers to these questions, just like (as Ron Burgundy first pointed out) nobody knows what “San Diego” means. The island is not real. It is a projection of Pi’s own fears. He is afraid of becoming nothing but stomach and sex. The strange acidic pool is a gigantic, hallucinatory stomach. The furry animals swarming all over his body, and the lotus flower (ahem) with the dentata inside, are symbols of bestial desire. To his credit, Ang Lee recognizes this, and gives us a zoomed out view of the island in which it clearly resembles a supine human body.
NB: I’m about to give away the ending, so if you haven’t seen the movie, now would be a good time to continue reading, since it’s not a very good movie.
The last thing that’s wrong with this story comes right at the end. Pi is interviewed by two Japanese insurance men about what happened to him. He tells them about tigers and carnivorous islands, etc, and they don’t believe him. They insist that he tell them a different story, and he actually complies. This is pure dream-logic. Pi has no reason to tell them anything. He is not under oath. They do not have a subpoena. Considering his condition, there really should be a team of Mexican doctors and nurses hustling these two monsters out of the hospital, and banning them for life. The only explanation is that the intense pressure to tell a different story is coming from Pi himself. He is projecting his own guilty conscience onto the two Japanese men, creating a fiction in which they are menacing figures who force him to change his story.
Here’s what actually happened to Pi. After the ship sank, he was in a lifeboat with a dying Buddhist, a vicious cook, and his mother. The cook ate the Buddhist. His mother assaulted the cook. The cook killed his mother. Pi killed the cook. Pi gives us this version of the story, but only after we’ve lived through an entire movie in which he turns all of these people (himself included) into various animals, and spends most of the time trying to overcome his vicious, animalistic inner “tiger.” This is a battle that, in fact, Pi does seem to win. He ends up a placid, married, vegetarian professor of religious studies. The tiger slinks off into the Mexican jungle like some striped, sinister version of Puff the Magic Dragon.
But is everything really alright?
You see, I think, deep down, Pi hates religion. The lotus flower stands for more than his fear of women; he also despises Buddhism, because Buddhists don’t understand that nature is savage. They see the lotus flower but not the tooth inside. The Buddhist aboard Pi’s Ark — an idiot who believes that meat gravy doesn’t contain meat — breaks his leg, develops an infection, and is fed to the fish and the cook. Pi reminds me of that omnipotent kid from The Twilight Zone. Everyone he doesn’t like comes to a really bad end. His father and brother, who make fun of him, drown. His mother, who is irrational enough to cling to Hinduism, turns into an orangutan who is too doped up on tranquilizers to fend off the hyena. In other words, if you want your nice clear Parisian Piscine Molitor, you have to be as savage as the French cook.
The worst part of it, the really unforgivable part, is that despite Pi’s total inability to deal with suffering (the Buddhist with the broken leg), and Pi’s still totally unresolved love of violence and lust for power, millions of moviegoers will identify with Pi and his wondrous journey. They will feel that, somehow, this film is saying that God exists, in a really nice way where God exists for atheists, and perhaps even for Jews, what with all these new university courses on the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah. They will come away from The Life of Pi reassured that their faith is justified, and that there must be a God, because the world is beautiful, and anyway, it would just be way too sad if there wasn’t a God.
I could quote The Usual Suspects here: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Or I could quote Brian Wilson’s admirable verdict on people like Pi: “they come on like they’re peaceful / but inside, they’re so uptight.”
But I have a different quote in mind, from a book by Kurt Vonnegut that comprehends evil far better than The Life of Pi. I understand that both Ang Lee and Yann Martel have very serious qualms about the nature of human beings, and their capacity for evil, and that on some level they would like those qualms to be the secret of this story. Lee and Martel can’t really make sense of a world in which God permits so much cruelty and suffering. But that is not what the audience is perceiving “in spectacular 3D.” The audience is putting on polarized goggles and enjoying the phosphorescence. Perhaps human beings cannot stand much reality, but that incapacity is hardly their noblest trait, or the sign of a great work of art. No, strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
THIS POST IS REDEDICATED TO YANN MARTEL AND ANG LEE, WHO SERVED EVIL TOO OPENLY AND GOOD TOO SECRETLY, THE CRIME OF THEIR TIMES.