The Relativity of Truth in Life of Pi
There are many reasons to read Life of Pi and one of them, perhaps a significant one, is to understand the concept of “truth” and its relevance in our lives. The book blends reality and fiction to take us outside the two. Right from the beginning, you start to wonder if the author is cooking up a story or did it really happen? It’s hard to pick a side. Whether the author really met Pi Patel, the protagonist, or not — you could never tell that with certainty. This is one theme that continues throughout the book.
Before we get to the heart of the philosophy, let’s just start with a basic question. What is truth? “Truth,” Yann Martel says, “is a way to explain the reality.” There can be many ways to perceive or explain the reality — and hence, just as many ways to tell a truth. For instance, when you look at the ocean, you may say that you are looking at the ocean — that’s one way to do it. But you may very well say that you are looking at water, or H20, or a vast contour of blue, or even God. As Pi Patel says:
Doesn't the telling of something always become a story?... Isn't telling about something -- using words, English or Japanese -- already something of an invention? Isn't just looking upon this world already something of an invention?... The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?Doesn't that make life a story?
In a series of rhetorical questions, Pi makes a number of important arguments. Let’s untangle them, one by one. First, the moment we look at the outside world, we create an image of it through our perception. This means, we have already moved away from the true reality. Once perceived, when we talk about it, there is an obvious gap in the perceived reality and the narrated reality. Thus, we move away further.
In other words, he is making a case that the truth will always be relative and never absolute. This does not mean that we are lying all the time ( read the philosophy of lying). No. It’s just that our conception of truth is limited and often lacks depth. There is hope, though. As long as we have that thirst to seek the truth, we’ll wade — literally and metaphorically — through the ocean, as Pi did.
The truth about God
Pi extends the idea of truth to the question of God. First of all, he suggests, that like any other idea, the idea of God is introduced to us by someone else. Through stories, mostly. Which means, there will be an element of story, an element of invention in it. This is what religions do so brilliantly. They selectively twist the reality and make fantastical stories in order to bring out the real essence of the life itself.
All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways.
This leads to another interesting philosophical point — which is a key part of Christian theology. Just like the protagonist was separated from his father and mother, we are also separated from God. We are fated to be lonely in this world. But even here, in the depth of all misery, loneliness, in you and me, there is God. That light shines within us.
Last but not least, the concept of death. Here, the idea of reincarnation, or life after death, is suggested to the reader. As hinted towards the end, the tiger symbolises the physical dimension of Pi. The tiger has many sides, good and bad. It is pragmatic and serves him well. It is Pi’s companion… but only for the time being. Until the moment of separation arrives (symbolising death). Pi knows, he has to let the tiger go. There is a sense of pain as there has been attachment, and so is with our lives. But, in the end, the journey does not stop there — it goes on!
The relativity of truth in Life of Pi teaches us so many things, above all, it shows us the depths of our own identities.
Originally published at https://kalampedia.org on May 2, 2022.