How Deep Is the Surface? (Review of “Life of Pi”)
Self-deception is at times a legitimate enterprise, but one of which consequences will effect not only deceiver but those whom that person comes into contact with. Authentic decisions, such as they are, can only be made based on truth and deception denies truth from being seen. Martel in “Pi” asks the question at the end, when authority figures hear both stories and choose to go with the fantastical one, whether a collective acceptance of deception serves a purpose in a similar way that it serves a purpose for the individual. There are truths which we all wish to hide from, truths which especially in emotionally difficult situations, we may not want to at first if ever know. The parent sees an approaching doctor and collapses, crying out “no, no, I don’t want to hear;” a friend laughs and talks of their goodness despite a string of relationships broken and destroyed declaring a more nuanced reality; a person prepares for sleep and feels the yawning abyss of darkness reaching out promising oblivion and prays they wake up remembering their dreams. We protest and create wonderlands to hide and cover ourselves with rainbows, hoping the image stays strong enough to get us through the turbulent waters. To this end we do, whether individually or as a society, offer up the fantastical and so Martel makes his point in having authority promote the fantastical.
However, as any good writer does, the central point is never merely one-sided. The child Pi is very well aware of the brutal reality of the voyage he undertook, can with cold dispassionate voice recall every minute detail of his undertaking, every scream and gurgle, every gasp of horror and drop of blood. The fantastical story he creates does not ever make him forget his ordeal, it does not expunge from memory the events that shaped the rest of his life. Rather, it serves as a veneer, a veil carefully laid over his experience that if one looks closely the reality becomes clearly seen. The veil exists to give meaning to an otherwise meaningless sequence of events.
Here is where the genius of “Life of Pi” resides, in noting how even in the midst of our creative impulse we never forget what lies beneath and inextricably connected to the story we’re telling. There comes a time in the story-telling where Pi finds an island and almost stays but realizes soon enough to do so would mean death as the vegetation would eat him alive, the island in its entirety being a trap for the unwary. So it is with our stories, if they are dwelled in too long, thought of as the only truth that exists, we succumb to their allure and waste away, eaten by our own energies.
Whether in our individual stories or our socially-created ones, we serve always the need and drive within us to create meaning and thus serve within and as the universe by providing what it cannot do in itself, give it purpose. As we are the universe itself thinking, the stories we create shape our perception, give us values to identify with and fight for, and cast into conscious space an infinite variety potential stages to dance our lives upon. To think that any one story is the sum-total of experience however is to succumb to the ego and fall asleep in the midst of seeming peaceful greenery. To serve life and therefore ourselves and each other, we do well to remember the veil but also what lies beneath. Dedicating our lives to ever greater levels of understanding means always asking how deep the surface goes and at times making peace with our Bengal tigers.