Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Kabbalistic Musings on "Life of Pi"

On the first page of the novel, Life of Pi, the main character, Pi Patel, states that one of his two academic majors was in religious studies, with his thesis focused on "certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed."  Luria, also known as the "holy Ari" (Lion), is still revered as one of the greatest of all Jewish mystics.

In the movie, Pi does not mention Luria by name, but he does say that he lectures on Kabbalah at the university. Given this reference (and a few others I will explain below), I feel justified in assuming that there are Jewish mystical themes encoded in the story, even though they are presented mostly in terms of Hinduism.  As I am a visual-oriented person (one of my autistic gifts), I will focus primarily on the movie, while using the book for more background references as needed.

(Warning: If you read beyond this point, you will encounter spoilers, so if you have not read the book and/or seen the movie, stop here or proceed at your own risk!)

In both the book and the movie versions, Pi Patel's father owns a zoo, so he grows up with a lot of practical knowledge about animals.  He is also very interested in religions. In addition to his mother's Hinduism, he  explores Christianity and Islam, finding truth in all three paths and combining their practices in his daily life. His brother ridicules him for this, while his father tries to convince him that "religion is darkness" and that rational thinking -- science -- is the way of "the new India."  Pi replies with the words of Mahatma Gandhi: "All religions are true."

The book goes into considerable detail about the three theologies and the differences among them, while the movie relies more on visual scenes of worship to get this point across. The book has a poignant -- if hostile -- marketplace encounter, with Pi's three religious teachers each claiming him for their own faith.  The movie leaves this scene out, perhaps because it might offend viewers, or else be over the heads of children in a PG audience.  It is well worth reading if you haven't already.

Pi is especially puzzled by Christianity, because he cannot understand why God would allow his innocent son to suffer for the sins of the guilty.  To him this makes no sense at all. The question of suffering recurs throughout the story.  How can a God who loves us still allow us to suffer?

The shipwreck

Because of political changes in India (during the administration of Indira Gandhi), Pi's father decides to close the zoo, sell the animals, and move the family to Canada. They will travel with those animals headed for North America on a Japanese-owned freighter named the Tsimtsum.  Which brings us to the second Kabbalistic reference in the story.  Although Tsimtsum might look like a Japanese name, it is in fact Hebrew, and means "contraction" or "withdrawal."  It refers to the teaching of Isaac Luria which says that, before the Creation, everything was infinite God-essence.  In order for God to create the universe as we know it, God first had to create a vacant space -- a void -- for it to exist in.  God did this by withdrawing -- contracting  -- Him/Herself.  Within this void, God is hidden, allowing for free will and for independent creatures like us to exist. 

That's all very interesting, but why did author Jann Martel name the ship Tsimtsum?  

In a blog article on this topic, David Sanders quotes Martel on this question: “I wanted a representative scoop of religions in the book – Hindu, Christian, Islam. I would have loved to have Pi be a Jew, too, but there are no synagogues in Pondicherry [where the family was from in India]. So I chose Tsimtsum as the name of the Japanese cargo boat because, although it sounds Japanese, it is a Hebrew word.”

 So my intuition was correct: Martel wanted to include Jewish mysticism in the mix, but like God in the cosmic tsimtsum, it is hidden. However, I think the symbolism goes deeper than that.  Genesis says that the world was "void and formless," with the spirit of God moving upon "the deep," often visualized as a vast ocean. The Zohar describes Creation as beginning with a primal point (singularity?) within the void, which then expanded.  When the ship sinks, Pi's world is contracted into a single point -- the lifeboat -- on a vast formless ocean, reversing Creation to chaos, so to speak. The imagery in the movie shows this in several scenes, with Pi's boat a mere speck upon the ocean. Director Ang Lee has stated that he specifically researched the philosophy of Isaac Luria to understand the concept of tsimtsum and incorporate it into the film. (source)

"As above so below" -- the clouds reflecting in the water
make it appear  as if the boat is in the sky
The movie also uses another common Kabbalistic theme: "As above, so below." This is the idea that the physical world "below" is a reflection of the higher spiritual world "above."  In numerous scenes we see the sky reflected in the water to the point that there is no horizon, no differentiation between the two. In the contraction of Pi's world, everything blends into one.

In one scene, Pi looks into the ocean and sees the whole universe reflected -- reminiscent of a childhood story told earlier by his mother, about how the Hindu god Krishna opened his mouth and the universe was seen within it.  (The CGI graphics of the two scenes are very similar.)   Once again, we are reminded of the spirit of God moving upon the waters in Genesis. 

The voyage

Pi makes it to the lifeboat, along with four animals: a wounded zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger named Richard Parker, a name he got through a mix-up of paperwork.  There is a lot of focus on name changes in this story.  Pi's first name is Piscine, from the French. But the bullies in his school take to mispronouncing it as "Pissing," so he re-names himself Pi. (In the movie he impresses everyone by writing out the number Pi to hundreds of digits.)  The Tiger was supposed to be called "Thirsty," but ended up as Richard Parker instead. In both cases, a less dignified name was replaced by a better one.  In the Bible, a number of characters are given new names to reflect a new status.

The zebra and orangutan are killed by the hyena, which in turn is killed by the tiger.  This leaves Pi alone with a vicious, hungry predator.  At first Pi is terrified, but he soon realizes that he and the tiger must co-exist.  He therefore works to establish his dominance and define their territories, using the methods of a circus trainer.  Various interpretations for this relationship have been put forth, most centering on some form of the tiger being his animal self.  This also fits with Jewish thought, where we have both a good side (yetzer tov) and a bad side (yetzer ha-ra.)  One cannot destroy the bad side, but one can learn to control it, as Pi does with the tiger.  In the book he considers various ways to destroy the tiger, but comes to realize that they need each other to survive.  "My fear of him keeps me alert, tending to his needs gives my life purpose," he explains. Jewish mysticism would say the same thing about the yetzer ha-ra.  Properly controlled, it motivates us to keep going in this world.

The carnivorous Island

One of the strangest episodes in Pi's voyage is the floating island full of meerkats.  Safe by day, the island becomes carnivorous at night.  This is so weird that many readers see it as pure fantasy.  I would like to suggest it is a combination of reality and imagination.  No, there are no ecosystems like the one Pi describes. However, there are many small islands in the Pacific, and floating islands of volcanic pumice -- some with trees -- have been reported. (Read more...) Carnivorous plants also exist in some places. So these elements do have a ring of truth.

By the time Pi gets to this island, he and Richard Parker are so close to death as to be delirious. In the movie they have just gone through a terrible storm where Pi cries out to God, "I lost my family, I lost everything. I surrender. What more do you want?" He has reached the depths of despair, the deepest dark night of the soul.  He fully expects to die.  So why couldn't there be a real island with some sort of animals on it, that Pi mis-remembers in this state of confusion?  If you compare the images of the island trees with the banyans he walked among back in India, they are very similar. And the meerkats do look more ratlike as they run up into the trees.

Screen shot of The Island, enhance by me to make the
reclining Vishnu shape stand out more clearly. 
Another aspect of the island is mystical. In the beginning of the movie, we are told that the Hindu god Vishnu "sleeps on the boundless ocean of consciousness" and the universe is his dream.  After Pi learns about Christianity, he thanks Vishnu for leading him to find Christ, and touches a small statue of Vishnu reclining.  When we see the island from afar, it has this same shape, formed by the outline of the trees. This suggests the possibility that the island may be some form of miracle, that God is watching over Pi and Richard Parker even if hidden. 

But although the island suggests sweet repose, it is a false peace.  All that the island gives in the daytime, it takes away at night.  And it is lonely.  Pi could have stayed there forever, eating plants by day and sleeping with the meerkats in the trees by night, but it was an empty existence. When he finds a human tooth embedded in a fruit (which opens like a lotus in the movie) and realizes that some previous castaway had died there, he decides to leave and takes the tiger with him.

The two stories
Richard Parker walks off into the jungle

After 227 days of survival on the high seas, Pi is washed ashore in Mexico.  As he lies exhausted on the beach, Richard Parker walks off into jungle without even looking back  The tiger is never seen again. This deeply saddens Pi, who even years later wishes there had been some sort of final look or growl in parting.  

In the book, during the first part about life in a zoo, Pi told the story of a black panther that escaped the Zurich zoo in winter and survived on its own for several months.  Now we know this was to lay the groundwork for the possibility that Richard Parker also survives in the South American jungle. Still, Pi misses him deeply.

Once back in civilization, parts of the voyage sound too strange to be true. The two Japanese insurance investigators don't believe him, and ask for an ordinary story to put in their report, one that their company will believe. So he obliges them and tells a more common type of lifeboat survival tale, one of treachery, murder and cannibalism, in which only he survives. In this second story, the zebra is a wounded sailor, the hyena is a barbarous cook, the orangutan is his mother, and he is the tiger.  In its own way, this tale is also hard to believe, because his mother and father can't swim, his brother refused to get up to investigate the loud noise or explosion, and all three were down below when the ship sank. Only Pi was on deck because he went up to see the storm.

So which story is true?  In both stories the ship sinks, Pi loses his family, suffers for 227 days at sea and is the sole survivor.  In the end, neither story explains why the ship sank. Neither explains Pi's suffering. Neither can be proven true or false.  The only witness other than Pi is Richard Parker, who disappeared into the jungle, so Pi cannot prove he ever existed. On a pragmatic level, does it really matter?

Pi then asks, "Which is the better story?" The writer who is interviewing him says that the one with the tiger is better.  The Japanese insurance men apparently agree, because in the end, they include the tiger story in their report. I myself also agree: the first story is the best one. 

As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov once said, "Not all the stories are true, but when the people tell them, they are holy." One cannot prove religion one way or another.  Is rationalism really better than mysticism?  What if life really is a random jumble of meaningless events?  Can we live with that?  It is the nature of human beings to seek meaning in life, to bring order out of chaos.  Whether or not Richard Parker was real, without the tiger, Pi would not have survived.

"Above all things, don't lose hope," read the survival manual in the lifeboat. 

"Never despair!" taught Rebbe Nachman. 

The better story is the one with hope.

(This post was updated by the author on 11/1/2017)