I managed to miss Rod Dreher’s meditation on the movie, “Life of Pi” from this past December, so I’m glad we did this Oscar recap thing to bring it to my attention. And I only saw the movie this past weekend, so it’s on my mind.
In any event, what occurred to me on leaving the movie theatre was: does the frame story make “Life of Pi” a better story, or worse?
To recap for those unfamiliar with the story: “Life of Pi” – the movie, not the book, which I haven’t read – is a story told by the adult Pi to a writer who has been told to seek him out because he has an incredible story, one that will make him believe in God. Pi, now living in Canada, tells a story beginning with his childhood in India, raised by a rationalist father who is a zookeeper, and a sentimentally religious Hindu mother who tends the gardens around the zoo. The heart of the story takes place at sea. Pi’s family leaves India by ship with their menagerie, intending to sell the animals in Canada and start a new life. The ship is wrecked in a storm, and only Pi and four animals make it to the raft – a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a tiger (the last an animal Pi has been intensely curious about since he joined the zoo). Quickly, the hyena attacks and kills the zebra, and then the orangutan, only to be killed in turn by the tiger. This leaves Pi and the tiger alone in the vastness of the Pacific for much of a year, as they drift, learning to survive, and to survive each other, until they reach the Mexican shore.
When the adult Pi is finished telling this story, which we, of course, see depicted (stunningly – all its awards were thoroughly deserved), he adds a coda. Japanese investigators into the shipwreck (it was a Japanese ship) visit the young Pi in the hospital in Mexico, and ask him what happened. Finding his story frankly unbelievable, they demand a story that is less fantastic. So the young Pi tells another story: that no animals survived, but humans: the ship’s cook (a brute we met briefly on ship, played by Gerard Depardieu), a sailor with a broken leg, and Pi’s mother. The ship’s cook, “a resourceful man,” figured out how to survive – catch fish to eat, for example – but he also mercilessly kills the injured sailor (with Pi’s help), and then kills Pi’s mother in an argument. Pi, enraged, then kills him (easily – he feels too guilty to resist), and thus emerged the only survivor.
Back in the present, the writer thinks about the correspondences between the animals and the people in the two stories: the orangutan is Pi’s mother, the zebra the injured sailor, the hyena the brutal cook, and the tiger Pi himself – or Pi’s animal instinct for survival, with which he was trapped, but also saved by, on his journey. Then the adult Pi asks the writer which story is better, the one with the people or the one with the animals. And the writer says: the one with the animals. And Pi says: so it is with God.
The usual direction discussion takes at this point is to ask: what does that say about religion? And that’s where Rod Dreher goes (ably, I might add). But I want to go another place. What does this say about stories?
The story we are told, after all, is neither the story of the tiger nor the story of murder on a life raft. The story we are told is the story of telling a story – or telling two stories, rather – a story which ends with a question about which story is better. Is that metafictional story a better story than a story about a boy trapped on a boat with a tiger? Is it better than a story that contains two stories, but that doesn’t ask you which story is better?
Watching the story with my son, he was wrapped up in the story itself. He identified with the boy. He mourned the boy’s extravagant loss. He loved and feared the tiger. He laughed at the flying fish, gasped at the whale – he was in the experience. If that were the whole story, and I, an adult, were to set out to interpret it, I might, possibly, have come to a similar “interpretation” as Pi’s writer interlocutor does. That is to say, I might conclude: this isn’t really a story about a tiger. It isn’t really a story about a shipwreck. It’s really story about survival. Pi’s tiger is his own savage survival instinct. That’s what terrified and attracted him, and that’s what he mourned when it left him upon his return to land.
But the metafictional story we are told contains that “meaning,” and frames it as another story. It’s not an “interpretation” – something on a different plane as the story with the tiger. It’s on the same plane – both stories, and one or the other is better.
The metafictional frame has an alienating effect. It tells us: don’t forget, this is only a story I am telling. But the meaning undermines the logic of the frame, because “what the story means” is that the better story is the one with the tiger. The one that we react to with primal pity and fear. Which means that the creator of the story, on some level, believes that he himself made the story worse in order to teach us something.
And it seems to me there’s something about religion there, something that connects back to the young Pi’s naive refusal to choose between religions. Religion, it has always seemed to me, is a natural human behavior, and it serves a variety of functions for people. One of the most fundamental functions is didactic – it teaches us who we are, what we do, why we do it. But another fundamental function is to provide us with stories within which our own stories – our life narratives – can play out as subplots.
It seems to me that when religion performs the first function, when it becomes didactic, it necessarily hobbles the second function. It makes the story worse, by pointing us in the direction of the meaning and purpose of the story, and taking us out of the story itself.
One of the points that James Kugel makes at the beginning of The God of Old is that when you read the Hebrew Bible with your eyes open, after peeling away the layers of interpretive interference that built up over millenia, you see how strange the text is. How unlike the God of the Hebrew Bible is from the god of the philosophers – but also how unlike the God of the rabbis or the God of the Christian theologians. And how unlike the Israelites’ response to that God is to our response to what we call “religious experience.” They were in the story.
Can we be? If we can, does it help to think about which story is better? Or, if we find ourselves doing that, have we already missed the point?