06 March 2012

The Better Story: Notes on Agnosticism and "Life of Pi"

I've been meaning to write down some thoughts about faith, religion, and "Life of Pi," by Yann Martel but haven't gotten around to it until now. I'm going to discuss the ending and twist of the book, though, so I suggest you stop reading now if you don't want to get spoiled.


The premise of "Life of Pi" is that Pi, the shipwrecked son of a zookeeper, must use all he knows about animals to survive sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, for goodness knows how many days (in the end, they number over 200). The story seems pretty straightforward; Pi narrates his early life, his finding and practice of three religions, his family's departure from India, the sinking of the ship, the 200+ days at sea, and, finally, his arrival in Mexico.

In the first few chapters about being a castaway, Pi says that aside from the tiger, there were three other zoo animals aboard his lifeboat: a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan, and a hyena. The hyena eats the zebra and the orangutan, and then the tiger eats the hyena. Pi then works to establish himself as the alpha animal on the boat to avoid getting eaten or attacked, and the boat becomes a new kind of zoo enclosure, with feeding and performance routines established by Pi.

Later, there's an interesting interlude about a carnivorous floating island inhabited by meerkats. This was my favorite part, but I can see how some people might find it unnecessary to the story.

"Life of Pi" is supposed to be an incredible story about survival, wits, and faith. And it is, right up until Pi's arrival in Mexico. Then it gets a lot darker, when we read the transcript of Pi's post-rescue interview with shipping officials.*

The officials don't believe Pi's story and ask for a more believable account. So he tells them that instead of animals, a sailor with a broken leg, his mother, and the ship's cook were the survivors who made it onto the lifeboat. The cook resorts to cannibalism and kills first the sailor, then Pi's mother, and eats them. Pi himself kills and eats the cook out of rage, then survives the rest of his journey in much the same way he did in his first story—minus the tiger and the carnivorous island. The officials note the parallels between the two stories and, between themselves, believe that the tiger actually represents Pi.

The boy then asks them which of the accounts they found to be "the better story," and the officials agree that it is the one with the tiger. They also realize that neither story can actually be proven (Pi is the only survivor of the wreck), so they decide to publish the tale with the tiger in their official report.

I enjoyed the castaway story and Mr. Martel's writing style, but I have a problem with two of the novel's claims. First, the author is led to Pi after Pi's uncle hints that the story "will make you believe in God." Second, Pi finds that theists and atheists alike practice a kind of faith, but agnostics, by choosing to neither believe nor disbelieve, "miss the better story."

Let's talk about the first claim first. At first, we assume that the story "will make you believe in God" because of the sheer miracle of Pi's survival. Perhaps this is indeed how Pi's uncle, and those who have heard only the tiger version of the story, see the account—God must have been looking out for Pi during all those lonely days at sea.

I think it's more accurate, though, to say that the story makes you believe in faith itself. If not for the strength of Pi's faith, he would have given in to despair and given up all attempts to stay alive, tiger or no. His reaching for God and life, without certainty of a reply—and at no time during the journey does Pi think he receives one—is what sustains him.

That's all fine and dandy, but now, let's talk about the second claim. I'm a theist myself, but to say that agnostics "miss the better story" demands that there be a "better story." So, is it believing in a supreme deity/pantheon, or that there is no divinity, and reason is supreme?

To claim that belief or unbelief is the better story undermines Pi's earlier observation that both theists and atheists have their own brands of faith. It also undermines something he said toward the end of the interview; when the officials note how both stories end the same way, Pi says, "And so it is with God," or something to that effect.

While Pi recognizes the value of doubt for both theists and atheists, I wonder why he never considered doubt itself to be a kind of faith. I know it sounds contradictory. But when you think about it, agnostics haven't chosen to believe nothing. Not at all. They actually believe at least one thing—it is impossible to be certain about what else to believe in.

So, to me, it seems unfair and perhaps even hypocritical for Pi to endorse (poly)theism, atheism, and, implicitly, universalism, but not agnosticism as yet another brand of faith. This especially when we consider that agnosticism has its own brands as well. There are agnostic atheists, who believe there is no God yet acknowledge that they cannot prove it, and there are agnostic theists, who believe there is a God yet acknowledge that they cannot prove it. There are also the so-called strong agnostics, weak agnostics, ignostics, and the apatheists.

I wondered if, by thinking all this—and by making all the religious choices I've made so far—I somehow missed the better story myself. But now that I've written it all down, I know I haven't. I have my doubts, sure, but I also, still, have my beliefs.


* There is a third thing that I wanted to discuss, but I wasn't sure where it belonged in this post.

If you scroll back up there to the image of the cover, you'll see that the LA Times Book Review declared the novel, "a story to make you believe in the soul-searching power of fiction." Actually, the LATBR said it was to make you believe in the "soul-sustaining" power of fiction.

There is something insidious in the fact that nobody asks Pi which of the stories he himself believes is the better one. It's possible that this is to prove his point, that all stories lead to the same ending, just as all (his) faiths lead him to the same God, so it shouldn't matter.

But the idea of "the soul-sustaining power of fiction" makes me wonder, did Pi invent a fiction to save his own soul? Does he himself believe the tiger story, because acknowledging the cannibalism story means acknowledging the horrors he both witnessed and committed? Does he himself think that factuality doesn't matter—all that matters is that he lives and is able to live with himself?

The original reviewer, Francie Lin, seems to think so, too; here's the quote in full, taken from the review:

[T]he ending contradicts the statement, made twice in the book's introduction, that "Life of Pi" is "a story to make you believe in God." Like Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful," it is instead a story to make you believe in the soul-sustaining power of fiction and its human creators, and in the original power of storytellers like Martel.

Those of you who've seen "Life is Beautiful" *SPOILERS AHEAD* (but if you've gotten this far, you don't care about spoilers, do you?) know that the protagonist is able to shield his son from the horrors of the Holocaust and the concentration camp by telling the boy that they are in a complex game of hide-and-seek.

What happens, then, when we view our religions (or irreligions) as stories we tell ourselves? We are forced to be agnostic about our own beliefs and acknowledge that we can't be sure of their factuality. And after that, we can only decide whether to keep reaching for our gods when we find ourselves lost at sea.