The Existentialism of Life of Pi: Chaos, Meaning and The Absurd

by Philip Damico  /  @philipsdamico
this article is also available as a video essay.

There is a moment in Life of Pi when the titular protagonist, having recounted the same story twice, asks a novelist which version he prefers – the fantastical, surreal one or the dark, hopeless one. The novelist chooses the fantastical version without pause and by doing so, the meaning of the film is laid plain for us. Today I want to examine both my own relationship to the film and what it can teach all of us about purpose and the absurd.

I am Volksgeist and this is a story. a story about a story that held my hand through one of the darkest times in my life. Life of Pi was integral to my growth as a teenager and it helped me face ideas and questions that, at the time, terrified me.

My Personal History of Existential Depression

Like many people that are watching this video, my adolescence was markedly affected by confusion at the nature of the universe. Even at a young age I obsessed over the existence of God and, somewhat like Pi, found myself switching between faiths or trying to synthesize those which weren’t designed to do so. The story of Pi Patel carried me through one of the darkest times I had yet experienced by offering me solace, companionship and a profound insight on a feeling that at the time, I couldn’t even hope to explain.

Like I said before, I’m sure that many of you watching this video have confronted existential angst in your lives. You must know the feeling of having the meaning in your life stripped away by a sudden reconsideration of fundamental values. The feeling of being completely alone, isolated from friends and family who go on with their lives seemingly unaffected by the cold, empty nature of reality you’ve suddenly uncovered. This struggle with meaning marked and permeated my high school experience and  

The Existentialism of Life of Pi

It was in this state of confusion and fear that I found it easy to take comfort in Life of Pi. For me, the vast ocean Pi finds himself alone in mirrored not only his spiritual state but mine as well. Like Pi I was without friend or family to help me or be with me at this time. Not because I had lost them but because I had lost the ability to relate to them. Except for Richard Parker. But you see – I think, for the viewer, Richard Parker functions as a part of Pi himself. There’s even a scene in the movie that discusses Richard Parker’s function in this way, but not exactly how I see it.

Richard Parker is Fear

The ocean is the void we’re left floating across in the wake of existential revelation. We are Pi – we try to survive, we make do. And Richard Parker is fear, the fear that exists inseparable from existential depression. He kills off those who are close to Pi just how we disconnect from society when we begin to question the meaning of life. And it’s important to note Richard Parker’s true nature as a wild animal. Just like fear, he cannot be tamed. The only way for the fear and danger represented by Richard Parker to subside is for it to go away. It can’t be reasoned with or transformed. When Pi discovers a mysterious island in the ocean it causes the threat of Richard Parker to disappear for he becomes preoccupied in the wealth of resources offered to him by the island. I remember when I was younger spending heaps of time escaping my fears rather than facing them because, like Pi, I lacked the tools to do so.

Ascent

The latter half of the film illustrates Pi’s ascent from the existential abyss. In the flying fish sequence, a stroke of luck finally empowers Pi with the confidence to take back control of his situation, something that I found extremely difficult while I was preoccupied with issues that I could not see or touch – the purpose of the very universe itself. But like in reality, Pi’s road to freedom is a rocky one. Just minutes later he experiences devastation and a test of his faith when a passing ship fails to notice him but I think one of the most important and revealing scenes in the story comes when Pi finds himself caught in a tempest, losing his possessions and spirit to the violent waves. He believes the heavens have opened and surrenders himself to God, only to lose his raft of supplies and subsequently experience near starvation.

It is in this way that Life of Pi serves as the perfect companion to an existentialist who finds value in works such as The Stranger or The Myth of Sisyphus. It is an acting, practical story that deals with the philosophical concept of the absurd. Absurdism is the conflict between the human instinct to seek meaning in life and the human inability to find any. Pi himself is seen reading an important book of the absurdist movement at one point in the film, Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Not until years later would I realize the truth of the story, for me, was that Pi is an existentialist. When reality is bleak he chooses to survive and live to tell the tale. Indeed this is the meaning of Pi’s life – he adheres perfectly to Jean Paul Sartre’s term “existence precedes essence”. The meaning of the phrase is that you must confront the absurd to transcend it – blissful ignorance is worthless. Pi faces his situation head on  In the spirit of existentialism, Pi confronts the absurdity of the universe and chooses to go on, telling stories, creating meaning in the wake of the abyss. The very premise of the film reinforces the meaning of Pi’s life. After all, which story do you prefer? In each story, a ship sank and a boy loses his entire family. He spends hundreds of days in a lifeboat before safely reaching the Mexican shore. But one story inspires while the other disgusts. When I learned at the end that the animals in Pi’s lifeboat are an allegory for a much darker yet structurally identical tale, I learned an invaluable lesson. That meaning and chaos are not mutually exclusive. I learned that the only way I could ever find meaning would be through first acknowledging the fragility of my own existence.

I firmly believe that Life of Pi was written those for who find themselves in the throes of existential depression. I will never forget all that Life of Pi did for me. It found me when I was at the peak of experiencing confusion and terror towards a world I did not yet understand and still do not understand. From the beginning of the film we learn that Pi has still not fallen into a conventional system of beliefs even years after the events of the film and at the time I did not realize that I too, years after my confrontation with the chaos of the universe, would not believe anything different than what I did at that time. The difference between my past and present self lies in my perspective, not in a change in any fundamental facts. I still believe that life is fleeting, meaning is constructed and the universe is absurd. But I also now believe that humanity is beautiful, worthwhile and I have so much to live for. I will forever have Life of Pi to thank for holding my hand through a dark time and reminding me that when confronted with the absurd, the only true option is to keep moving. And so, like Pi, I find meaning in telling the good story.

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