Friday, December 14, 2012

Afterlife of Pi

Again, spoiler spoiler spoilers will probably appear in what follows.

After writing the previous post I allowed myself to read some reviews of Life of Pi.  One of the best I found was Tasha Robinson's at the Onion AV Club.
A central plot point in Life Of Pi—the film adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestselling book—centers on the philosophical question of whether animals have souls. The title character, a self-possessed Indian boy, believes they do, and that people can tell by looking deep into their eyes. His zookeeper father feels differently; in his opinion, any depth in an animal’s eyes is just human emotion reflected back at the viewer. This conundrum—essentially, the question of whether to interpret the world spiritually or cynically—becomes the backbone of the plot. But it also works into a choice that the characters present directly to the viewers, about whether they want to take that plot literally or metaphorically, whether to focus on the film’s body, or accept its soul.
The choice is harder than it was in Martel’s book, because here, the body is more compelling by far.
By "the body" Robinson means the glorious visuals of the movie's main story, Pi's voyage across the Pacific in a lifeboat accompanied only by an adult Bengal tiger.  The second story, the one Pi tells from his hospital bed to the Japanese investigators, doesn't get the full CGI treatment but simply Pi's talking head against a white background.  As Robinson argues in Spoiler Space, "the real story (if that’s what it is) only gets a flat verbal retelling ... It seems to be a conscious distancing effect, with Lee strongly stacking the deck in favor of the fantasy by making it so much more cinematically compelling."  Many people believe that the audience is expected to take this second story as the "true" one -- what actually happened after the freighter sank -- and that the story we've been watching for nearly two hours is a fantasy or hallucination.  Maybe so.  It's often a toss-up when one is expected to decide which of two fictional alternatives is "real," since neither of them is, yet both are.  In this case, there's a revealing bias involved in the assumption that the less edifying story is the "real" one, and the more colorful one the myth, except that it's supposed to be the true real one because reality is a drag.

Robinson's framing of the movie's central question shows just how inadequate that question is.  Is the second story, which involves a sociopathic ship's cook who kills and kills again before guiltily surrendering to Pi's justice, "cynical"?  It could be interpreted in "spiritual" terms just as easily.  Think of great religious stories like Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov, which take a dark view of human beings yet still find meaning in them.  "Spiritual" doesn't mean only cotton-candy primary-colors happy endings, but I suspect that's what many people who made Life of Pi a bestseller think it should mean.  As with the book of Job, being deprived of everything and then physically tortured isn't given meaning by having one's belongings and health restored -- even if Job had more children, that doesn't mean his first batch of children wasn't slaughtered unjustly with Yahweh's permission.  (The reviewer of Life of Pi for the Guardian does a terrible job, one example being his reference to "Pi, howling like Job into stormy skies."  The guy ought to try reading what Job said; he didn't howl, he eloquently read his god the Riot Act.  Pi howls, but unlike Job's, his god doesn't talk back.)

One commenter, I think on the remarks by Samuel Delany that I quoted in the previous post, lamented that we don't have a good spiritual writer like C. S. Lewis around.  Lewis was an interesting writer in many ways, but he nearly always let his thinking be hobbled by dogma.  But this might be a good time to recall some of his comments on suffering, from his 1940 book The Problem of Pain:
We are perplexed to see misfortune falling on decent, inoffensive, worthy people -- on capable, hard-working mothers of families or diligent, thrifty little trades-people, on those who have worked so hard, and so honestly, for their modest stock of happiness and now seem to be entering on the enjoyment of it with the fullest right. How can I say with sufficient tenderness what here needs to be said? ... Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for a moment, that God who made these deserving people, may really be right when He says that their modest prosperity has not made them blessed; that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. And therefore He troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover. The life to themselves and their families stands before them and recognition of this need; He makes that life less sweet to them. ... The creature's illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature's sake, be shattered. ... And this illusion ... may be at its strongest in some very honest, kindly, and temperate people, on on such people, therefore, misfortune must fall [96-98].
Those who think only of the Narnia books when they hear Lewis's name must ignore his specifically Christian writings, which it must be remembered were intended as defenses of Christianity.  Lewis's justification of torture of the creature by its creator should be borne in mind when contemplating Life of Pi.  At least Lewis engaged the problem, however inadequately, instead of smiling benignly at it as the movie does.

Most modern Christians seem determined to ignore the less cutesy parts of the New Testament; many brush aside the Hebrew Bible as the domain of an "Old Testament God of wrath," but that's evasion since both Testaments are about the same god, and there's no shortage of wrath in the New Testament in any case.  (Those who do, like the people who made and liked The Passion of the Christ, with its CGI-enhanced torture scenes, are another can of worms.)  Many of the positive interpretations of Life of Pi try to turn it into a feel-good fable.  To its limited credit, the movie never anthropomorphizes the tiger.  If it has a soul, it's not a human soul but a tiger's; not Milne / Disney'sTigger nor Bill Watterson's Hobbes, but a tiger's.  What exactly is answered by claiming that animals have souls?  What is a soul, anyway?
This conundrum trips up a number of earnest reviewers.  Roger Ebert, for instance, writes that "wild animals are indeed wild and indeed animals," but human beings are also animals, and religions don't necessarily treat us as all nice inside, even if we do have "souls."  The Bible depicts bloodthirsty humans who will be justified by their bloodthirsty lord of armies.  The film shows young Pi grappling with the doctrine that Yahweh killed his own son for the sins of the world, but he only had to do it because his own "justice" required blood sacrifice to atone for sin.  If Pi had been stuck in the lifeboat with a herbivore, his voyage would have been a lot less fraught, and let's not forget the importance of cattle in Hinduism.  Yet a few sentences later Ebert writes:
The writer W.G. Sebold once wrote, "Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension." This is the case here, but during the course of 227 days, they come to a form of recognition. The tiger, in particular, becomes aware that he sees the boy not merely as victim or prey, or even as master, but as another being.
That's highly debatable even within the world of the movie.  Once safely onshore, the tiger disappears into the forest without looking back, and Pi cries disconsolately in the arms of his rescuers because the great cat did not grant him any "recognition."  Why should it have done?  I don't see any basis for Ebert's fine rhetoric about the tiger seeing the boy "not merely as victim or prey, or even as master, but as another being."  In the end the movie accepts the warning of Pi's father, that you may think you're seeing recognition in a tiger's eyes, but you're really only seeing your own reflection.  But it looks like many viewers will ignore this, trying to turn it into a parable of interspecies communication and love.  If so, the love is unrequited, but I don't consider that tragic, let alone "spiritual."

I agree with A. O. Scott, the New York Times reviewer:
The novelist and the older Pi are eager to impose interpretations on the tale of the boy and the beast, but also committed to keeping those interpretations as vague and general as possible. And also, more disturbingly, to repress the darker implications of the story, as if the presence of cruelty and senseless death might be too much for anyone to handle. Perhaps they are, but insisting on the benevolence of the universe in the way that “Life of Pi” does can feel more like a result of delusion or deceit than of earnest devotion.
But I repeat: there's nothing in "spirituality" itself -- which can be quite morbid, misanthropic, and even "cynical" -- which entails vagueness or repressing of the darker implications of life.  It's this underlying assumption of the movie that made it hard to watch despite its visual beauty and great performances.  And as an atheist, I believe that any worldview which claims to make sense of the world has to grapple with questions like those of suffering and evil.  Here again I part company somewhat with Samuel Delany when he wrote that the filmmakers "couldn't have come up with a better script promoting atheism if they had gotten Christopher Hitchens to write it."  Atheism isn't itself an answer or a solution to the problem of suffering.  I prefer the witch Granny Weatherwax in Terry Pratchett's Lords and Ladies:
"I don't hold with paddlin' with the occult," said Granny firmly. "Once you start paddlin' with the occult you start believing in spirits, and when you start believing in spirits you start believing in demons, and then before you know where you are you're believing in gods. And then you’re in trouble."

"But all them things exist,” said Nanny Ogg.

"That's no call to go believing in them. It only encourages 'em."