The Eye of the Tiger
The film version of Life of Pi centers on a story that, according to the film’s characters, “can make you believe in God.” Over the course of the film, we encounter baroque crucifixes, statues of Hindu deities, and at least one mosque. However, the film begins with a long montage, not of icons in a temple, but of wild animals—flamingoes, warthogs, orangutans—frolicking in the waters of a lush tropical menagerie. This may seem like a strange place to begin a movie with such overt religious overtones—until we consider that the religious story we are about to hear is yet another meeting of East and West, and such stories must always begin, on some level, in Eden.
Pi Patel, a middle-aged professor of South Asian extraction, narrates the story in flashback to an unnamed French-Canadian novelist who, finding himself adrift, has come to Pi for material to re-stock his creative mill—and, we cannot help but sense, to feed his malnourished soul. Pi grew up in Pondicherry, India, the son of a zookeeper; he experienced a series of religious awakenings, building a personal devotion combining Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam (we see the young Pi pray, “thank you, Lord Vishnu, for introducing me to Jesus Christ”).
When the freighter ship carrying his family and all the zoo’s animals to a better life in Canada goes down in a storm, Pi is forced to share his lifeboat with the only other survivor, the zoo’s Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, mollifying his feline moods and sating both their appetites in order to survive his exile at sea. Our narrator plays the now-familiar role of the guru—a word that, like Pi himself, has been plucked out of its Sanskrit context and plopped down in front of a Western audience to serve its needs. With the teacher making the disciple wait before revealing the purpose of his lessons, the movie forms a kind of spiritual Karate Kid.
By the end of the film, Pi’s epic story has conveniently solved our novelist’s professional and spiritual crises in one fell swoop. This should not be surprising to the audience; wisdom from the East (our mishmash of various regions of Asia, as in “Eastern” medicine) seems to offer cures for all our Western ailments. Feng shui and acupuncture are household words, if not universally embraced; many of us dabble in Buddhism as a more aesthetically pleasing alternative to therapy. Yoga and transcendental meditation promise to rejuvenate mind and body, and a number of business schools have even begun offering courses in meditation as a management technique. It seems there isn’t anything those soulful sages of the East can’t do—or, more precisely, for whatever practical problems we face that traditional Christianity or secularism can’t solve, we turn to Eastern wisdom. When the gaps between inherited religion and contemporary capitalist individualism grow too wide, a mystical balm from Asia can fill them in.
But I do not mean to dismiss Life of Pi as a fashionable trifle. The questions it explores, and its way of turning East to answer them, though simplistic and limited, are no passing fads—they stretch back through centuries of Western thought.
When Pi refers to himself as a “Catholic Hindu,” the novelist asks flippantly if he is also a Jew; Pi responds proudly that he teaches a university course on Kabbalah. We have all heard of this Jewish mystical tradition as a pastime for Madonna and other celebrities with unstable senses of self. Not all are aware, though, that it has been an obsession for mystical-minded Westerners, both Jewish and gentile, since the late Middle Ages. Itself a blending of Greek and Egyptian Platonism with meditative study of the Hebrew Bible, Kabbalah offers the possibility of restoring the human soul to the primitive happiness that it enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. Kabbalists advanced in their quest in the 1400s with the discovery and translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of third-century Egyptian meditative texts that combined Christian, Jewish, Persian, and Egyptian symbolism.
Middle Eastern and Asian methods of divination worked their way into everyday life through the occult art of astrology (whose zodiac is borrowed from India). Isaac Newton and his friends read the Hermetic texts; colonial New England ministers preached on Kabbalah from Congregational pulpits. A French Freemason traveled to India in the 1750s to acquire the holy books of Zoroastrianism, and in the 1800s, the Transcendentalists scoured the Upanishads, collections of Hindu philosophy, for their understanding of the “Over-Soul.” Small-town Americans today might recognize this romance with the East in the swords and fezzes of the Shriners, or Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, parading down Midwestern Main Streets.
The faulty assumption underlying all of these quests is that the Eastern wisdom is fundamentally unified—that all of it must lead to a single font of primal wisdom, a single name of God. They ignore the fact that Asian and Middle Eastern traditions, though often related, are not the same. Like Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which also sees a young man taming animals and undergoing trials to attain enlightenment, Life of Pi falls into the trap of what Edward Said christened “Orientalism”—the notion that the entire East, in its infinite variety, can be reduced to a single essence, which is unchanging and alien to the West.
Perhaps the most beautiful distillation of this popular Orientalism is a poem that many of us read in high school, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Reportedly written during an opium dream in 1797, it presents a vision of the Mongol emperor’s palace, sitting, like Solomon’s Temple, atop an underground river with sacred powers. Coleridge’s vision of Xanadu combines indescribable opulence with crudest nature: “It was a miracle of rare device / A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” What unifies these disparate layers is the sense of primal mystery—that no matter how splendrous its cities, the Orient is the remnant of Eden. In the poem’s narcotic haze, the Khan’s palace at Xanadu merges with legendary sites in Greece and in the mountains of Ethiopia, which had long been considered a possible location of the Garden. This geographic blurring is not accidental. By 1797, Europeans had access to reasonably good information on Asia and East Africa, yet Coleridge based his descriptions on Marco Polo’s reports and on sketchy travel accounts from the 1600s. “Kubla Khan” harkens back to an age when Europeans knew that much greater and richer civilizations than their own existed to the East, but heard of them only indirectly, reflected in the distorting mirrors of memory and imagination.
Likewise, in Life of Pi, we are presented with a possibly unreliable narrator whose accounts grow progressively less credible, as meanwhile the patterns of light and color we see onscreen grow more dazzling and dreamlike. In the film, the technological sophistication of computer graphics is used to expose to us to the angler fish and giant squid prowling the deep ocean, the terrible and wondrous life forms of Coleridge’s “sunless sea.” The forward march of civilization is turned downward and inward, in a quest for the primitive and primal.
The Orientalist longing for Eden expresses itself not only in visions of the East, but also in fascination with the animal world. Samuel Purchas’s 1613 account of Xanadu, which Coleridge read, describes the emperor’s large enclosed field, housing “all sorts of beasts of chase and game.” Whereas the sumptuous menagerie does not appear directly in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” it serves as the starting point for Life of Pi. The fascination with animals and the narrative structure of Ang Lee’s film follow much more closely that of Coleridge’s longer masterpiece, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in which the sole survivor of a disaster at sea recounts his tale to a younger listener. The Ancient Mariner brought bad fortune to his ship by killing an albatross, which his shipmates then forced him to wear around his neck in shame. The poem clearly served as an inspiration for Melville’s Moby Dick, wherein Captain Ahab’s life is consumed by his obsessive vendetta against a whale.
In all three tales, sailors are burdened by animals—or rather, by their own confused and ambivalent feelings towards animals. The uncanny beauty and human-like qualities of beasts give them a disturbing moral ambiguity, calling into question beliefs about the soul. Pi’s father, the zookeeper, has taught him that an animal’s apparent expressions are “just your own emotions reflected back at you”; yet in his lifeboat, Pi insists that he sees more than that in Richard Parker’s eyes. This ambivalence can be temporarily quelled by religious sacrifice: in one scene, after the starving Pi clubs a fish to death, he cries out in his guilt, “thank you, Lord Vishnu, for appearing in the form of a fish and saving our lives!” Similarly, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner is only able to return to civilization after he comes to appreciate the beauty of the bottom-feeding worms and snakes surrounding his ship and prays for their souls. In Life of Pi, with a Bengal tiger cast in the role of the beast, the mystery of the animal world is married to that of the exotic Orient.
This marriage is entirely one of convenience, and was arranged by Western matchmakers. Life of Pi is based on the novel by Yann Martel, a Spanish-born author of French-Canadian extraction—the obvious basis for the novelist character in Lee’s film. Before writing the book, Martel spent more than a year in India, which he bluntly calls “a country with a lot of animals and a lot of religion.” He felt lost, and went in search of “a story, not only with a small ‘s,’ but sort of with a capital ‘S’—something that would direct my life.” The irony is that the story he eventually created was based not on any Hindu epic, but on a short Brazilian novel, Max and the Cats, about a Holocaust refugee who crosses the Atlantic in a boat with a jaguar. Martel enlarged the cat, and named it after a character in a shipwreck story by Edgar Allan Poe. He was admittedly influenced by many other stories of survival at sea (and I would not be surprised if he had read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor). Martel’s recasting of the shipwrecked survivor as an Indian mystic allows the author to draw on his own Asian experience, as well as to drape the narrator in the mystique of the guru—and to give his story an air of profundity, that coveted capital ‘S’.
Ultimately, Martel’s pseudo-Oriental musings about God are not very important to the film—they are just framing for what is at base a gripping story of survival, in the tradition of sailor’s yarns. When “Kubla Khan” was printed, Coleridge claimed that he had written the bulk of the poem while still in a semi-dream state, then was interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock,” causing him to forget the rest of his vision. Frustrated, he added a final stanza describing an “Abyssinian maid” who had appeared to him, “singing of Mount Abora.” Could he only remember her music clearly, he insisted, he would be able to reconstruct Xanadu in all its awful glory—
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
The poem concludes with the overwhelming and dangerous need to remember and recreate one’s own ecstatic experience. In “Kubla Khan,” the Orient merely serves as the half-real backdrop over which the Westerner can sketch the world of his own imagination before giving it artistic form. The dreamer’s urge is not merely to live in the imaginary world, but to share it with others, to become the vehicle by which it enters reality. This is the impulse that elevates storytelling to prophecy. In Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” too, the sailor returns to his home country, but is beset with an overpowering urge to recount his story, which he must retell everywhere he goes in order to stay alive.
Ultimately, Life of Pi is just another expression of this urge to storytelling. It was not caring for Richard Parker that kept our narrator alive, but rather his own drive to share his story. The novelist in the movie is compelled to serve as the mouthpiece for Pi, as Coleridge wishes to serve as the mouthpiece for his Abyssinian maid. Yet ironically, it is Martel who created Pi, and hence Pi is the mouthpiece for Martel’s vision, not vice versa. And the story Pi tells is a mishmash of eighteenth-century shipwreck accounts, Poe stories, and a Brazilian tale of World War Two. The entire journey’s connection to India is as superficial and distorting as Coleridge’s placement of Mongolia near the ocean.
But we Westerners must not expect the East to quickly and easily solve the existential problems that we have created for ourselves. We are easily tempted by the search for Eden, the promise of Eastern answers to our Western questions; however, the story with a capital ‘S’ that so many of us seek may just as easily lie in our own lives or our own traditions.
Samuel Biagetti is a graduate student and teaching assistant in American history at Columbia, currently researching the Freemasons. He has a bachelor’s degree in history from Brown University.