Barack Obama apparently wrote to the author of ‘Life of Pi’, Yann Martel, and told him his book was “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling”. A big claim.
I mean, actual proof of God? That is something of a Holy Grail in terms of the sort of nonsense humans have busied themselves with since they started shaving their flanks and telling stories around the cave fire.
The release of the film version of ‘Life of Pi’ in 2012 was not followed by mass religious conversions. Its anodyne depiction of India, clean enough for tourism board virals, may have missed out on the true, unhinged, overwhelming glory of the great sub-continent, but its menagerie of zebras and tigers unleashed from the cages of Soho post-production suites kept the kids happy. Well, it’s easier to accept than the sort of mysterious stuff you really see in India, like the sight of a camel eating an umbrella next to a group of guys decorating a crashed rickshaw with fruit while some school kids invent new choreography to Tin Tin Out on a pile of weird green sand in the middle of a road. And the death-defying yet marvellously creative driving.
But the question still remains: Can you go and watch a couple of hours of cinema, and be made to believe in God by the end?
We are presented with what is essentially a very simple story structure. A boy by the name of Pi is shipwrecked and after his survival for the best part of a year and provides two narrative accounts of his time at sea on the lifeboat on which he survived:
1. He was trapped with several animals, all of which were eventually eaten by the dominant Tiger, and the process of managing to survive with this animal in the confined space revealed to him the true nature of himself, the universe, and man’s relationship with God.
2. His time on the boat began with three other castaways who all fell foul of a horrific initial period of murder, treachery and cannibalism. Pi is the only survivor.
Pi maintains that the former is the true version of events, and the latter was just created to satisfy the negative, rationalistic expectations of society. Then we come to the central thesis of the film: we all apparently have a choice between two narratives: one filled with hope and beauty; the other with horror and desperation. In the words of the script, “so it is with God” – you can choose your own narrative of your existence, so why not choose the explanation which makes you feel that life is richer and more worthwhile?
Now this is what Obama identified to be an elegant proof of God.
Really? At most, it is a justification for believing in God. By believe, I mean “accepting something to be true in the absence of absolute proof”.
If you have not seen the film, and only have my narrative summary above, you will probably be wondering what the fuss is all about. It is apparent that he has invented a false and fantastical narrative because he could not cope with the trauma he encountered. If you have seen the film and disagree with my statement in the previous paragraph, you are possibly thinking that I have not done the beauty of the story justice (or perhaps that the film does not do justice to the book – although this article is really about cinema).
But herein lies the key issue, and the real value of the film. The aesthetics of the story are carefully arranged, and the film skilfully structured, to load the aesthetics of the narrative in favour of one side of the argument. The majority of the film is spent in the first narrative, i.e. with animals on the lifeboat instead of people. It is beautifully shot, excellently scripted, sympathetically acted, and directed by Ang Lee to give an overarching sense of benevolence behind all the events. Metaphorically, Lee is assuming the role of the reassuring God that many of us would like to think of as in control of the universe.
Strip away the aesthetics of 3d visual effects, befuddled wild animals, and CGI plankton filled seas, and things become more plain. Vice versa, in the film (unlike the book) the second, grim disaster narrative is only afforded a short segment at the end of the film. We are hit with the possibility of a second narrative quickly, like a splash of cold water in the face trying to undermine all the wonderful escapist narrative elements for which we have suspended our disbelief during the majority of the film. It is like the director walking in to the cinema before the end and turning the lights on. Just as the audience is reeling from the disturbance, we are posed with the question almost before we have time to think: “Which narrative would you rather believe?” or “Shall I switch off the harsh lights again?”. The question would seem quite different if were asked: “Either I keep the lights on or stay in the cinema for the rest of your life”.
The film is a closed textual entity, so there is no reality for us to determine absolutely within its confines. It is a text which provides us with two narrative strands, left deliberately undetermined by the authorial voice, but determined by the writer’s aesthetic skills. There is a hierarchal relationship between the two narrative strands in the presented value structure: to choose the second, brutal narrative would make you cold, callous, unnecessarily rationalistic; to choose the first, more lovely parable narrative will make you a spiritual, warm, and even wise person.
And this is the problem. We are pelted with condemnations of rationality, that without faith in God we are just ‘stumbling with believability’, which is made to sound quite pathetic. As though if we put reason before faith, than we will have no idea what love is and so on (I actually personally think the opposite is true, on this last point). If we don’t believe in God, then we live in a world of emptiness, uncertainty and pain instead of a wonderful parable of love and goodness and flying fishes jumping onto a tiger in a boat.
We are not given the space or time in the film to question this before the credits roll. We are even shown that all the other characters who hear this narrative choose to believe the more lovely story (so why shouldn’t we see the vision of which others have partaken?).
But this argument all falls down quite quickly when you ask what would happen if you could adjust the elements of which you necessarily have no control in the movie theatre: the aesthetics of the narrative and filmmaking techniques.
Let me start by presenting you with a comparable application of Pi’s argument:
Imagine your neighbour, Pi is supposed to drive your children home from school. They never arrive home. You call the police, and they catch up with him. Your children are no-where to be found. Pi explains that he was driving your children home when a golden dolphin came flying through the window and carried the children out of the car on his flippers which transformed to angel wings. The children were laughing happily as the dolphin bore them to the clouds and heaven’s gates opened, granting the happy party access to eternal happiness in the arms of God’s love. The police detectives propose an alternative narrative, that Pi has kidnapped and murdered your children. Their bodies may never be found, and (despite what a jury might think) you will never know the absolute truth. What should you believe in the absence of absolute proof? It would surely be nicer to spend the rest of your life believing in the wondrous, if far-fetched, apotheosis, rather than that your loved ones were taken you from a vicious predator.
Applying the argument of Life of Pi, which Barack Obama has found so compelling, you would seemingly hope to see the Jury acquit Pi of child abduction and murder.
So what have I done here? What is the difference between my story and that of Life of Pi? The main thing is that Life of Pi constructs a benign narrative in which we see no real suffering, so it does not matter which story you believe. We certainly don’t suffer. We don’t care for the characters who are murdered in absentia (a powerful element of cinema is that the viewer ties his fate and allegiance to that of the protagonist, hence why we can temporarily condone bank-robbery or over-brutal policing depending on the activities of a film hero). Yes, I have chosen an opposed aesthetic in my example: where believing Pi allows him to get away with terrible crimes as opposed to seemingly unavoidable and justifiable crimes. But my point is that if you cede your reason, you lose the ability to discern when harm is being done which no amount of religious credulity would justify. Just look at the horrific history of sexual abuse perpetually being exhumed from Catholic boarding schools. As is common with of sexual abuse cases, the perpetrators get away with it because everyone, including the victims, pretend that no crime had occurred. This is the choice Pi makes to survive.
The problem with illusion, self-delusion, faith-over-fact, choosing what to believe, psychosis – call it what you want – is that everything is fine until you encounter other humans. If our well-being depends on self-delusion, then that is fine as long as we are isolated (it is even possible that psychosis is a form of defence mechanism against physical or psychological trauma or isolation). But when we need to interact with other humans then there is a problem. We all exist in material reality, hence we are able to interact. We exist in a universe of reason, hence interaction and the logic inherent in communication are available to us. I could not be communicating you without material reality and reason. When we depend on self-delusion or faith-based explanations for our reality, anyone who disagrees with us can become a threat to our psychological security. Religion is great for giving us meaning when we are in the dark and desperate, but it is also the cause of senseless conflict, and always has been.
Life of Pi presents us religion in a very reductive human environment, and one of great personal stress. There is conflict in the second storyline, but it is a conflict in which the conclusion is a fait-accompli when we discover it, and one in which we have no concern for the losing parties. If Pi was actually the disgusting cook of the story, with Pi as the other castaway murdered for fishing bait, we would probably not like to believe in God because of this story. We would like a justice system to seek the truth, and punish the cook for hideous acts. We would not want to hear his counter-narrative about a Tiger.
In brief, the the moral of this essay is watch out for aesthetic persuasion techniques – it can let people get away with murder.
Being in a lifeboat is not a good metaphor for life. Contrary to the vision of Martel, we really are not alone. We exist in a society. There is much terrible in it, yes, but also much wonder to be found, mostly in being alive alongside other people, not despite them. We are connected in the material of space and time in the universe, and that is something which we should embrace, not hide from in fantasy and self-delusion. It may work in the rare circumstances of being shipwrecked and confronted with absolute isolation, but it is a poor, stale and sad view of life to see that as the nature of normal existence. The escapism of religion is a poor trade for embracing the real beauty of being alive: accepting the reality of the world around us, no matter how harsh it may be at times, and using the incredible facilities we all have available to create, to think, to share, to build, to enjoy life to the full. Religion is the creation of other people, of institutions and cultures in order to control and guide people, and not always for sinister reasons. Why should we accept someone else’s reality over that which we can discern with our senses and our reason?
If we, as Pi suggests, should ignore reason and choose what to believe, then we are susceptible to having that reality controlled by others. This is because we will make faith choices based upon aesthetic appeal, as demonstrated by the film, and those aesthetics can be controlled by others who put themselves into positions of power, having understood this propensity of mankind. Like the director of a film with his controlled aesthetic environment, a dictator controls belief systems in society with propaganda. The mass-murders perpetrated by Mao and Stalin were made possible by the creation of a political state of reality, where people at first unwillingly, then willingly accepted the propaganda films which declared bumper harvests when their fields were sterile, their farm machinery rusting, their stomachs numb with hunger. The more dreadful their situation became, the more they needed to believe in the ultimate benevolence of their dictator Gods. This is the choice of Pi.
Humans did not create vaccines, farm machinery, roads, planes, justice systems, healthcare systems, computers, or weblogs by throwing up their hands and renouncing their attachment to reality. These are all responses to seeing real problems in the world around us, and using our minds to create solutions. Prayer never produced a blueprint for prosthetic appliance or a jet-engine. It just got mankind through the period of our history when when our suffering outweighed the ability of human society, science and reason to care for us.
What Pi sneers at stumbling with believability, I call seeing a problem and trying to come up with a solution. What he calls love I describe as deluded devotion, what I call love is the overwhelming wonder at the unfettered, undiluted, unabridged, incredible reality of someone, or even the universe.
So in short, does Life of Pi offer proof of God? No, just imagine Pi is a sex-offender using the same argument.