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Life of Pi

November 28, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Just saw the new Ang Lee 3-D CGI extravaganza ‘Life of Pi’, and while I’ll leave the reviewing to others, the movie had some interesting themes which relate directly to the subjects I cover in multisense realism. It’s a good film, especially in 3D. I’m generally not a fan of CGI-heavy fare, but given the difficulty of filming on a boat with a live tiger, I can see the advantage of the digital option.

First off, the device of giving the two main characters unusual and unintentional names has an interesting symmetry. The boy calls himself Pi for other reasons than the association with arithmetic truth and the Bengal tiger is called Richard Parker because of an administrative mixup. Right away we have an animal with a person’s name and a person with a name of an eternal truth. Then there is a ship named Tsimtsum, which is from the Lurianic Kabbalah interpretation and parallels the idea cosmological I refer to as the ‘Big Diffraction’. This page sums it up as follows:

Tsimtsum (Variant spellings – TZMZUM – ZIMZUM – TZIMTZUM)

The concept of Tsimtsum is a 16th century kabbalistic explanation of how God, if infinite and omnipresent, could form a material, physical world separate from himself.  If God is everywhere and in everything, how could he create a place where he was not?  How could God create a world infused with evil?

Tsimtsum was a concept first taught by Isaac Luria, a kabbalist rabbi, who posited that God vacated a region within himself in order to create the world.  Through this act of “shrinking,” “withdrawal,” or “contraction” (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word tsimstum), God brought into being a vacuum in which to create something other than Himself.  He could then fill this vacuum or empty space by the simultaneous process of self-revelation and creation.

The name Richard Parker has symbolism as well:

Edgar Allan Poe’s uncompleted adventure novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym(1837) is the story of four shipwrecked sailors who find themselves facing starvation in a small lifeboat. The four draw lots to see who will be sacrificed and cannibalized by the other three. In this fictional account, a man named Richard Parker draws the short stick and is promptly stabbed and eaten by the surviving trio.

Ironically, in 1884 four survivors of a factual shipwreck stood trial for the murder of their ship’s cabin boy, Richard Parker, who was killed and eaten in a true to life version of Poe’s story. This real life event occurred some 47 years after Poe wrote his adventure novel.

Martel might be also making reference to a third allusion with his use of the name Richard Parker.  Clifford Richard Parker, 28, was a clerk from Guernsey who was aboard the Titanic as a second class passenger. He was lost at sea and his body was never identified.

I have not read Yann Martel’s book, but even in this blockbuster audience oriented production, the contemplation of philosophical matters is pretty close to the surface. You don’t need to be familiar with any literary references to pick up on the importance of dualism, materialism, and idealism in the story.  The interesting twist of the story, which I think is very much in synch with what I am trying to do here, is that it is constructed so that its message ultimately reflects the mindset of the audience. To the Western minded materialist, it validates the idea that religion is a spoonful of bullshit to help the bitter medicine of life go down, while for the spiritually oriented, the story can be seen to celebrate that metaphor and fiction are an indispensable foundation of the universe and in fact an affirmation of divinity.

This duality is embodied in many different ways in the film which highlight in particular the indifference of nature in its oscillation between carnivorous hostility and heavenly delights. Remarkably, even this indifference itself oscillates along with the cycles, phasing in destiny and irony along with struggle and doubt. The author seems to conclude, as I do, that the universe is both teleology and teleonomy, with each view obscuring the other in nearly equal measure.

To me, this relativistic focus on philosophy of mind is the beginning of a whole new way of understanding the universe. Of course, the idea of relativity in dualism is not new, but what I propose is new is the integration of that understanding into physics. If I wasn’t so wary of delusional expectations, I would say that it seems as if this understanding of mind and matter is gradually coming to a rolling boil from a lot of different directions. All roads seem to lead to the reconciliation of opposites right now, coincidentally or not, in 2012.

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