Entrées to Interpreting Life of Pi

The Tacoma Film Club screened and then discussed Ang Lee’s film, Life of Pi, this month. I had seen it when it originally played in the theater so our screening was my second viewing. I was intrigued by many aspects of this film, and in particular wondered to what extent it was “faithful” to the novel on which it was based, so I checked out a copy from my local library (Yann Martel, Life of Pi, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001). Two quick observations. First, I highly recommend reading the novel, whether or not you have already seen the film. As is almost always the case when comparing a novel and a film based on it, the novel is more detailed and sophisticated than the film. Second, in my judgement, the film nevertheless did a pretty good job of capturing the “essence” of the novel. (However some other members of the Tacoma Film Club disagree with this assessment)

The film, and even more so the book, are rich in terms of symbolic meanings and exploration of complex psychological, philosophical and theological issues. It would be folly to think Life of Pi can be reduced to a single interpretation. However, I do think the following background information might provide some keys that could potentially open doors to possible interpretations.

1. The name “Richard Parker”

The Bengal Tiger on the lifeboat is named Richard Parker. A google search on this name produces the following Wikepedia entry.

In Edgar Allen Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, published in 1838, Richard Parker is a mutinous sailor on the whaling ship Grampus. After the ship capsizes in a storm, he and three other survivors draw lots upon Parker’s suggestion to kill one of them to sustain the others. Parker then gets cannibalized.

2. Dissociative Identity Disorder
The DSM-V classification of psychological disorders includes an entry called Dissociative Identity Disorder, often referred to in layman’s terms as Multiple Personalities. This psychological condition is thought to be caused by extreme psychological trauma experienced during childhood, such as that resulting from sexual and/or physical abuse. The symptoms include the creation of one or more distinct identities within the same person. A simplified explanation of this disorder would be that an individual who experiences horrific traumatic events during childhood creates dissociated identities as a coping mechanism.

In order to survive in the lifeboat, the 16 year old Pi perhaps experienced unspeakable and horrific experiences that included cannibalism. Thus, the animals that shared the lifeboat with him, especially the Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker, might be dissociated identities of Pi rather than physically present animals on the lifeboat. For example, if Pi had to engage in cannibalism in order to survive, he might have coped with the trauma associated with having done so by creating a second identity in the form of a carnivorous Bengal Tiger. Pi could then dissociate the cannibalistic activities to the carnivorous Tiger rather to his (original) self, a 16 year old human child.

3. Humans have an Inborn Tendency to Create Meaning for their Lives
Psychologists have discovered that one of the fundamental properties of us humans is that we go to great lengths to try to create meaning for our lives. This has been studied most extensively in terms of episodic memories, our memories of our own life stories. Research demonstrates that our memories of our own life histories are not really objectively accurate. For example, suppose that you had worn a video recording device your entire life, but never been allowed to look at the video. Then as an adult you were asked to write your own autobiography. You might imagine, naively and wrongly, that putting these two narratives, the one told on the video tape and the one told in your autobiography, side by side, one would discover the same story being told. However, research studies by psychologists have demonstrated dramatically that this is not the case! (I have dealt with this topic in more detail including specific examples of results from scientific studies elsewhere and will not repeat it here.)

Thus, our memories do not reflect what objectively happened to us; Instead they reflect our attempts to create meaning for our lives. For example, I might find meaning in thinking of myself as being an ethical person so my memories are crafted to be consistent with that image, ignoring or distorting any events in my past that contradict this image. Alternatively, I might perceive myself to have always been a victim so I pick, choose, and distort my memories of events to make them consistent with victim-hood. And the images we carry of our self have a huge influence our psychological sense of well-being, or lack thereof, as well as in guiding our actions. As I used to tell my students when I taught Introductory Psychology: Be careful about the memories you keep.

The (fictional) character Pi was confronted with the challenge of trying to create meaning in his life following a horrific lifeboat experience that ultimately resulted in his survival while the rest of his family perished when the ship on which they were all passengers sank. He carefully constructed a memory, a memory that provided him with a sense of well-being and influenced the way he led the remainder of his life. That memory also provides the narrative for the film, Life of Pi.

4. Religious Allegories, Fables, and Proverbs
An allegory is a form of narrative that is explicitly constructed to carry a double meaning. The story can be read literally in terms of the characters and events that are described, but can also be interpreted symbolically as referring to something else, perhaps involving moral or religious beliefs or precepts.

A fable is a specific form of allegory in which animals are used to represent human characteristics or actions. For example the fable The Tortise and the Hare can be read literally as being about a race between two animals, but simultaneously as a morality tale about the advantages of putting ones efforts towards accomplishing long range goals instead of rushing impulsively towards whatever seems interesting at the moment.

The implied moral lesson being taught in a fable can often be summarized in a short phrase called a proverb. For example, “The early bird gets the worm”.

The Life of Pi is clearly constructed as an allegory in the form of a fable, and it carries a moral lesson that can be summarized in the form of a proverb. The animals present on the lifeboat are presented literally as being a Bengal Tiger, a Zebra, an Orangutan, and a Hyena. However, they can also be treated as symbols that map onto humans, and human actions and motivations. Both the book and the film make some of those symbolic mappings explicit. And the moral lesson proposed in this allegory can be summarized in the form of a proverb, something along the lines: Religious Myths can give meaning to life experiences that might otherwise lead to despair or nihilism.

5. God as Myth

The character Pi informs us that during his stay on the lifeboat, “He found God”.

Theological perspectives concerning the nature of religious truths can be separated into two basic groupings. The first, which I will refer to as top-down, asserts that religious truths are handed down to humans from an entity called “God”. The religious task is to receive and accept these truths. The second, which I will refer to as bottom-up, asserts that religious truths are created by humans as a means of trying to find meaning in terms of our relationship to the universe. The religious task is to create/discover meaningful truths, and the ultimate religious truths created/discovered in this manner are sometimes given the name “God”.

The theological perspective adopted in Life of Pi falls within the bottom-up category. This is a “God as Myth” theology – Myth with a capital ‘M’ signifying a grand theology, not a small ‘m’ myth as a demeaning term.

Some philosophers approaching religious questions from an existential perspective would argue, as Pi does, that the important question is not whether a particular Myth is the ‘correct’ one, but which is the ‘preferred’ one in terms of whether it aids one in creating a meaningful life. The important religious task, they would argue, in concordance with Pi, is to create/discover a Myth that one finds meaningful, and then live one’s life “as though that Myth is true”. The particular Myth that that will be meaningful will of course vary from one individual to the next. It might be a form of Atheism, Agnosticism, Humanism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or Whatever. Pi asks us to choose which Myth we prefer. Personally, I can only respond to the position advocated by Pi with, Amen.

Ron Boothe

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