Well, all this is interesting to me, anyway, and that's what matters here. The Internet is a terrible thing for someone like me, who finds almost everything interesting.
Monday, August 15, 2011
"Life of Pi" by Yann Martel
Pi is an Indian boy, the son of a zookeeper, who really loves God. He sees the world through Hindu eyes. He says the world makes sense to him as a Hindu. But when he encounters other religions, he becomes a Christian and a Muslim, too. And we're told that his story will make us believe in God.
Most of that story occurs after a shipwreck, when the 16-year-old Pi finds himself drifting in a lifeboat across the Pacific Ocean with a 450 lb. Bengal tiger. Yes, it's quite a remarkable idea for a book.
Since its initial publication in 2001, Life of Pi has become a huge sensation, and this month, we've been reading it in the ClassicScienceFiction discussion group on Yahoo, despite the fact that it's not science fiction or even fantasy. It's certainly giving us a lot to talk about.
But I must admit that I'm not crazy about the book. It was pretty slow to catch my interest, not for nearly a hundred pages, when the shipwreck finally occurs. And I didn't get especially interested for another fifty pages or more after that.
Of course, this isn't my usual kind of book, either. I might have liked it better when I was younger and had more patience. Indeed, I might have liked it a great deal, then. But these days, I generally want a straightforward story with no bullshit. And this story is anything but straightforward.
In fact, we're having a big debate in our reading group about the meaning of the book. As I noted, the story, we're told, is supposed to make us believe in God. But I think it should do just the reverse.
Unfortunately, I can't discuss anything further without huge spoilers. If you think you might read the book, I urge you to stop here. Otherwise, I'll continue below the fold: Spoilers Below
The first part of Life of Pi is about Pi's early life in Pondicherry, India. His father owns a zoo, and we learn quite a bit about that. We learn, in particular, that social rank is essential to animals. On the top or on the bottom, an animal is only secure when its social ranking is clear.
Territory is critical, too. An animal can be perfectly happy in a zoo, as long as its territory contains what it needs - and as long as that territory remains inviolate. These things will become quite important later in the book.
We also learn about Pi's enthusiasm for religion. Raised Hindu, he becomes a Christian and a Muslim, too. To my mind, it's clear that Pi has a fantasy-prone personality. He can belong to three mutually-contradictory religions, because the truth isn't particularly important to him. As he notes several times, it's the story that's important.
This also becomes important later. In fact, this whole thing is just a setup for the main story. When Pi is 16, his father closes the zoo and sells the animals, and they take a ship to Canada - along with some of those zoo animals. Somehow, the ship sinks, and Pi finds himself on a small lifeboat along with a full-grown Bengal tiger.
Initially, there are a few other animals with them: an injured zebra, an orangutan, and a vicious hyena. But eventually, it's just Pi and the tiger. And Pi decides he must train the tiger to acknowledge Pi's dominance and respect his territory.
This is when the story finally gets interesting. And note that it's all in the first person. Pi is telling us this incredible story about his 227 days on a lifeboat. With a tiger!
But some of the story is just not very believable (and believe it or not, I don't mean the parts with the tiger, which Martel writes quite plausibly). When Pi finally drifts onto land in Mexico and is taken to a hospital, his questioners don't believe him. So Pi gives them a completely different story, one of human murder and cannibalism.
So what are we to make of all this? I have not read any other reviews of this book, since I much prefer to set down my own interpretation without being influenced by others. But one member of our group sees the first story as a religious invention, with the tiger as a metaphor for God. The second story is supposed to be the real one, but believers are supposed to prefer the first.
Apparently, the first story is supposed to make us believe in God because it's a better story. We prefer the story with "God" (the tiger) in it.
But my interpretation is different. Martel makes it clear that Pi has a fantasy-prone personality. The truth isn't important to Pi, only the story is. And considering the terrible privations he suffers, not to mention the emotional distress, it's no surprise that he might hallucinate, anyway.
So I don't believe either story. For one thing, the second story doesn't seem much more believable than the first. For another, I think Pi just finds stories irresistible. After all, he doesn't care that each of his three religions contradicts the others. The truth doesn't particularly matter to him, certainly not compared to a good story.
What really happened on the lifeboat? I don't think we can know that. I'm not sure even Pi knows. Earlier in the book, he deplores "dry, yeastless factuality," preferring the stories that religions tell us. And I think that he will always pick the better story over the truth. Pi is the ideal of religious belief.
Now I'm just the reverse. I think the truth matters. I think it's important. I certainly do enjoy fiction, but I never confuse it with the real world. And I find true wonder in science. Describing science as "dry, yeastless factuality" is about as far from reality as you can possibly get. But science is more concerned with the truth than with anything else.
Should Pi's story make us believe in God? Just the reverse, I'd say. Pi's story is just a story. It's a tale told by a fantasy-prone individual. There might be some connection with the truth, but we just can't tell. Because for Pi, a good story will always trump reality.
Of course, this whole thing is fiction. So what is Martel trying to tell us? I have no idea. I don't know what his intent might be. I don't even care, or not much. But what he actually told me - deliberately or not - is not to look to religion for the truth. Religion provides fantastic stories, but they're fiction.
Religious believers are like Pi, eager to embrace a good story. But if you want the truth, you must look elsewhere. Enjoy fiction, but don't believe that it's real. A good imagination is useful, as well as fun, but reality matters. The truth matters.
That's how I interpret Life of Pi. Others disagree. And as I said, I have no idea what Yann Martel's intent was.
It's an interesting book. Parts of it, in fact, are really fascinating. But I wasn't wild about it. It wasn't easy to stick with the first half of the book. And I don't like the end of it much, either. But it's certainly interesting. I'm glad I read it.
I'm a skeptic. I think it makes sense to have reasons for what I believe, so I apportion my belief to the evidence. You're welcome to disagree. Please, tell me I'm wrong. I probably don't agree with anyone about everything. Why should disagreement be a problem? Check the Pages section below for series posts and links to book reviews and game posts, as well as contact info. Unfortunately, I rarely blog at all, anymore. So don't expect new posts. - Bill
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It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong - Richard Feynman
The general root of superstition is that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss, and commit to memory the one, and pass over the other. - Sir Francis Bacon
When a whole nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and purity of its heart. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Speculation is perfectly all right, but if you stay there you've only founded a superstition. If you test it, you've started a science. - Hal Clement
No matter how many times a theory meets its tests successfully, there can be no certainty that it will not be overthrown by the next observation. This, then, is a cornerstone of modern natural philosophy. It makes no claim of attaining ultimate truth. In fact, the phrase "ultimate truth" becomes meaningless, because there is no way in which enough observations can be made to make truth certain and, therefore, "ultimate". - Isaac Asimov
The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion. - Treaty of Tripoli, passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate and signed by President John Adams (1797)
I don't doubt the sincerity of dowsers, but even after we've demonstrated that they can't produce results that are any better than chance they'll still go away believing in their abilities... It is like the mother whose son is caught shoplifting on tape. She wonders why someone would want to frame her child by producing a fake video. - James Randi
During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church ... imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry. - Mark Twain
Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths. - Bertrand Russell
A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. - Friedrich Nietzsche
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This is not about proof. Science does not use proof. We favor evidence, and the work consists largely of the slow accumulation of evidence in support of ideas, not magically potent proofs that establish an idea as unassailable. - PZ Myers
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The formula was very simple: build this really flexible, really open economy, tolerate creative destruction so dead capital is quickly redeployed to better ideas and companies, pour into it the most diverse, smart and energetic immigrants from every corner of the world and then stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat. - Shekhar Gupta
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To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man. - Michael Servetus, burned at the stake in 1553
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We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason. - Thomas Macauley, 1830
It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important. - Martin Luther King, Jr.
We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven into an age of unreason if we dig deep into our history and remember we are not descended from fearful men. - Edward R. Murrow
The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence. Science is simply common sense at its best - that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic. - Thomas Huxley
There is no absurdity so obvious that it cannot be firmly planted in the human head if you only begin to impose it before the age of five, by constantly repeating it with an air of great solemnity. - Arthur Schopenhauer
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To be elected in America, no matter from what party, the candidates have no choice but to year after year pledge to lower taxes further and further. We have become the nation of Ken and Barbie, looking good but very poor at the math. - Rack Jite
Invisible Pink Unicorns are beings of great spiritual power. We know this because they are capable of being invisible and pink at the same time. Like all religions, the Faith of the Invisible Pink Unicorns is based upon both logic and faith. We have faith that they are pink; we logically know that they are invisible because we can't see them. - Steve Eley
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