Sunday, 29 January 2012

Life Of Pi

It's been too long since I posted here, having been seduced by the demands of my daily life, mynew married life in particular, plus the opportunity to do Facebook status updates and notes. I suppose it gives some insight into how my brain works that I choose to write about "Life Of Pi" on a blog called "Tangentville".

In any event, I'm back, having just finished the novel by Yann Martel. As usual, my main purpose in writing is to find out what I think, so this is neither a book review, nor an account of the novel.

If you haven't read the book, and want some clue what I'm talking about, or if you need a memory refresh and some background information, there's a good Wikipedia article here.

To judge from my last Tangentville post, I'm preoccupied by certainty - it's impossibility or dangers for us humans. "Life Of Pi" fed into this preoccupation as I read it. We don't know what is true; we only think we know what is true. To find ourselves worrying about what is true within a work of fiction is absurd anyway. We may have limits set by what we think is plausible, or too implausible to be tolerated, but everyone's tipping point will be different. For me, my implausibility threshhold is more likely to be triggered by behaviour that I find too unbelievable, rather than by events. I like a "believable" response to circumstances, however extraordinary those circumstances might be.

In the book, the central figure tells another version of his story to 2 Japanese officials, attempting to find the cause of the sinking of a cargo ship in mid Pacific on which Pi and his family were passengers. He retells his story in another form because they don't like the first one, finding it too incredible. Unfortunately, they likehis second version even less, because it's concerned with brutal homicide and cannibalism in a lifeboat, including the murder of Pi's mother. In other words, as it struck me, we go for the version of "truth" that suits us.

Interestingly, extreme adversity strengthens Pi's religious faith rather than destroying it. The worse things get, the more he turns to God. God, for him, is the result of his having been born a Hindu, and studied Christianity and Islam when a serious and studious 14 year old (his ordeal lasts for 227 days, and occurs when he is 16). His Hindu roots give him the good sense to draw strength from the different aspects of God which he finds in these 3 major religions. He is appalled when 3 priests from 3 religions find his multi-theological approach unacceptable to any of them. All three of them think that they are the exclusive repository of religious truth.

Even our deepest convictions are based on assumptions. As a totally blind person, I leap out of bed in the morning, confident in my belief that the floor beside the bed will still be there. Fortunately, so far, I have not been swallowed by an infinite chasm which mysteriously opened during the night, but the existence of the floor in the morning remains an assumption. A necessary assumption of course.

There are all kinds of other tangents sparked in my head by this story. The fact that Pi's name, a self-invented nickname in fact, is also a constantly recurring decimal number, at curious odds with his character, which likes order and neatness. This prompts a non-mathematician like me to wonder how something as precisely measurable as a circle's diameter and circumference can be defined by a constant that can't be precisely defined numerically. Maybe that expresses humanity's inability to see things in their real terms. Maybe we're not defining a constant correctly because of our limited tools. If we can't define Pi, what chance to we have with God, seen through a glass darkly?

As Pi says: "And so it goes with God".

1 comment:

  1. Interesting Wikipedia entry. I did not know the controversy surrounding Martel's book. Either way it doesn't take away from the power of the story. I like your theory of pi and the constantly recurring decimal number. Some numbers are said to be infinite, but as you noted in our conversations, this number is finite. We just can't measure it with our minuscule and inexact brains or equipment. Like the Japanese investigators, I like the animal story because a story laced with allegory and meaning is far more attractive than the brutal truth sometimes.