How Deep Is the Surface? (Review of “Life of Pi”)

by Philosophy

At the behest of several friends of mine I recently read “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel. For those who haven’t read it or seen the recent movie adaptation, I will refrain from coming out with a complete spoiler but hints are inevitable so be forewarned. The story follows a young Indian man who, after a childhood amongst animals in his family’s zoo and exploring several facets of religion through the instruction of a Muslim cleric, a priest, and a minister, finds himself shipwrecked and adrift on the sea in a boat with a Bengal tiger. The story is fantastical, melancholy, and brimming with insight into the human condition as only a child through harrowing experience can tell it. The ending is, so as not to spoil it completely, quite unlike the story that comes before it and yet provides a new depth which requires another read-through, to look upon the fantastic with eyes wide open though now a heavier heart. The story is not, an apologetic, for any particular religion or definition of god. When confronted by the cleric, the priest, and the minister, Pi can only stammer in affronted confusion “I only wish to love god.” To this succinct and largely empty response (since we have no idea what the boy means by “god”) the three custodians of their particular religious mysticism have no reply and instead go about their lives, though now with a wary eye on their former student. Juxtaposed with the ending, where the fiction is replaced with a horrific reality, one can see the author attempting not to make a case for the existence of any particular god but pointing the reader towards an appreciation for the story-telling need in humanity to give meaning where none is immediately present. Out of this inevitable projection comes not a deity but religion and spirituality in general, not a judgmental being ready to define the world for us, but an intrinsic quality of the human person to make life more palatable especially in the midst of tooth and claw.


Self-deception is at times a legitimate enterprise, but one of which consequences will affect not only the 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 of potential stages to dance our lives upon. To think that 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.

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