NOTE: The following is an abridged and edited version of an article I wrote published in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Volume 27, Number 1, Spring 2015, pp. 1-15 (University of Toronto Press). The full article can be found right here. Sources for all borrowed photographs and artwork are linked to via each individual image. If you click on the image, it will take you to my source.
At one point in the novel Life of Pi (2001), sixteen-year-old Pi Patel finds himself and his parents trapped between a Muslim imam, a Christian priest, and a Hindu pandit, each of whom was initially cordial and inviting when he believed Pi was one of his own (71-77). However, after the religious leaders discover Pi’s simultaneous practice of all three of their religions, they turn on each other.
The imam declares both Hindus and Christians idolaters, claiming also that Hindus are caste-system slave drivers and that Christians are pig-eating cannibals. The priest denounces Hindus for worshipping cows and believing in cartoon strip myths and then denigrates Islam’s Prophet for being little more than an illiterate epileptic. For his part, the pandit accuses Muslims of being uncivilized polygamists and Christians of kneeling before a white colonial God. Through all of this, Pi’s parents, also unaware of their son’s multifaith practice, watch bewildered. This moment of religious multiculturalism turned upside down, while certainly humorous, is also quite aggressive and intolerant. Yet Pi has the last word, reminding everyone, ‘‘Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true’ ’’ (76). Although what he calls his “introduction to interfaith dialogue” (77) is transformed into the epitome of interfaith bigotry, Pi reminds his three mentors that religion is supposed to be about loving God.
Later, lost on the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat and blind from near starvation, Pi encounters a blind man in another boat and engages him in an odd conversation about food (267–84). At first Pi dismisses the meeting as a figment of his imagination; but after the man describes his love of beef tongue, tripe, pancreas, and calf ’s brains, Pi wonders if he might be conversing with his own carnivorous lifeboat companion, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. After noticing his French accent, however, Pi realizes the man is not a tiger. As part of this journey into what will quickly become a cannibalistic theatre of the absurd, Pi tells a parable about a banana that grew and grew until it fell from a tree and was eaten by a person who felt better after eating it. In fact, he tells that parable twice (278, 281–82). But after Pi apologizes for no longer having the banana (because an orangutan distracted him), the man leaps onto Pi’s boat to strangle and eat him. Luckily for Pi, Richard Parker kills the man first. The next day, his sight returned, Pi reluctantly uses strips of the man’s flesh to fish, later eating some of that flesh himself. As Pi apologetically confesses, his suffering was unremitting and his madness was “driven by the extremity of [his] need” (284).
As it happens, although the parable Pi tells appears benign, it actually points to another act of cannibalism, one far more traumatizing than the eating of murderous French flesh.
Neither of the above “scenes” are visualized in Ang Lee’s film, Life of Pi (2012).
They appear only in the novel written by internationally raised Canadian Yann Martel. However, I want to suggest that these moments do exist in Lee’s film because they pervade it as its filmic unconscious. In spite of Lee removing them, each is so central to understanding Martel’s tale that Life of Pi (hereafter referred to as LoP) would lose much of its power without their psychic energy.
The interfaith conflict scene underscores the multicultural hope underlying both novel and film. The blind Frenchman scene reveals the cannibalism that Pi cannot admit,
which he must use faith, love, and sublimation to ‘‘reverse-transubstantiate’’ into interfaith communion. In short, in spite of the claim that LoP will make you believe in God (viii), Yann Martel’s tale is really a story about why Pi Patel still has faith even though he had no choice but to eat his own mother to live.
In the first of two stories Pi tells about his ordeal, he shares his lifeboat with four animals—a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger—three of whom perish: the hyena kills and eats the zebra and then kills Orange Juice, the orangutan, but the hyena is killed and eaten by Richard Parker, the tiger.
Pi spends the rest of his journey alone with Richard Parker, whom he trains using techniques common to circuses, zoos, and behavioural psychology.
After resting for a time on a carnivorous algae island full of meerkats, Pi and Richard Parker eventually land in Mexico, where Richard Parker disappears into the forest and Pi leaves for Canada (Martel 2001, 107–318). Pi tells his second story because his first is not believed by two Japanese officials charged with investigating the sinking of the ship Pi nearly died on. However, he precedes his second story by accusing the investigators of only wanting something that will not surprise them, something which will confirm what they already know and will not make them think differently: “You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry,yeastless factuality” (336).
Pi then tells a story in which he shares his lifeboat with a wounded Buddhist sailor, a French cook, and his mother (337–45). In that story the cook kills and eats the sailor and then kills Pi’s mother, throwing her body overboard. The cook is subsequently killed and eaten by Pi. After that, Pi remains alone until he reaches the shores of Mexico. If we accept the second story as the truth, then psychoanalytically the first story is an allegory of projection and displacement: the zebra is the sailor, the hyena the cook, the orangutan Pi’s mother, and Pi Richard Parker.
Several writers acknowledge a psychoanalytic logic at play in LoP in which allegory operates through displacement and projection as sublimation to mask the trauma of Pi’s cannibalism (Scherzinger and Mill 2013; Mensch 2007; Stratton 2004). They treat Pi’s displacement and projection of his own cannibalism onto the character of the cook, who is further displaced onto the character of the blind Frenchmen, as properly unconscious. That allows them to diagnose repressed cannibalism and promptly end their analyses. But as we know from both the second story and the blind Frenchman scene, Pi is all too aware that both he and the cook engaged in cannibalism. There is nothing unconscious about it; he admits it to the investigators (Martel 2001, 337). To understand what is really displaced, projected, and sublimated in that scene, we must ask: What exists in the gap (in the unconscious) between Pi’s stories that he cannot say? The answer can be found in the novel more easily because the film buries it very deeply indeed, but it exists in both representations as the return of the repressed, in the form of sublimated narrative slips and symbolic disparities.
When Pi describes how the cook killed his mother, he says that her body was thrown overboard. In the novel the details are gruesomely described, whereas in the film Pi trails off without finishing. He relegates the following details to the film’s unconscious (but not his own): after the cook kills Pi’s mother, he throws Pi her head and Pi drops it in the ocean in fear and shock; the cook then drinks her blood and only after that throws her body overboard. The problem is, gruesome details included or not, his story makes little narrative sense. In both the novel and the film the cook is portrayed as a dominant, greedy, extremely hungry man who wastes nothing. When the sailor dies, the cook takes his time stripping the body of all its flesh before throwing the carcass overboard. In the novel he even greedily swings his arms “in a holy terror of hunger” just for flies (Martel 2001, 337), and in the film he eats a rat when there is still food on the boat. Thus, according to the logic of Pi’s own story, the cook would never have thrown anything overboard, animal or human, dead or alive, without first stripping it of everything edible. Pi cannot say what really happened on that boat but neither can he construct a logical, consistent alternative; at least not in the second story, where he is forced to be literal. In the first story, however, in the animal story, he is able to sublimate what really happened, first via the tale of the blind Frenchman and then via the story of the carnivorous island.
A beautiful vegetative paradise inhabited only by small, furry meerkats through the day, at night it undergoes a chemical reaction and becomes carnivorous, devouring anything alive on the ground or in its pools of water.
Pi discovers the island is carnivorous after he finds a complete set of human teeth wrapped in leaves like fruit, evidence of a person the island once devoured. In the novel, the investigators cannot make sense of that. After they determine the allegorical relationship between the humans and the animals, they ask, “what about the island? Who are the meerkats? . . . And those teeth? Whose teeth were those in the tree?” (Martel 2001, 346). The correspondences between zebra and sailor, hyena and cook, orangutan and mother, and tiger and boy are all made explicit; but the island and the teeth, like the blind Frenchman scene, are asymmetrical in Pi’s allegory. Both segments need to be understood psychoanalytically as sublimation, and as radical projections and displacements in the form of pure dream logic. Appearing immediately after Pi admits (in the novel) to cannibalizing the blind Frenchman, the island is the transformed version of the most socially unacceptable part of Pi’s ordeal, the one thing he cannot say or think, even to himself: Pi Patel did not just skin and eat the cook; he ate his mother as well. It is that which is repressed in the gap between Pi’s stories. In order to survive, he had no choice but to commit maternal cannibalism.
There is an image in the film that appears to contradict this interpretation. After Pi discovers the tooth wrapped in leaves, the film cuts to an extreme long shot of the island shaped like a human body; however, it is a non descript human body, appearing neither male nor female.
This image supports the island representing cannibalism in general, but it could be argued the island is the cook projected and displaced. Such a reading would seem consistent with the island appearing in the novel immediately after Pi admits to eating a piece of the Frenchman. But the island cannot just represent the cook, if it does at all. In the novel, Pi describes the island as “Gandhian” (300), thus invoking the religious inclusivity he defended when confronted by his three angry mentors and two bewildered parents. But there is nothing Gandhian about the cook. In both novel and film the cook is described as disgusting, a monster, an animal, and a brute: “His mouth had the discrimination of a garbage heap” (337). The island, however, is described as a vegetative paradise, a Garden of Eden: “brilliantly green, a green so bright and emerald that, next to it, vegetation during the monsoons was drab olive” (285). Pi adds to this, invoking his multifaith beliefs, “Green is a lovely colour. It is the colour of Islam. It is my favourite colour” (285). He reminds us, in fact, that the Garden of Eden is an interfaith parable common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Also, whereas the cook has monstrous appetites (flies and rats) and the bloody dishes enjoyed by the blind Frenchman (beef tongue, tripe, pancreas, and calf’s brains) disgust Pi, the island offers delicious vegetarian seaweed for him to eat, connecting it to the Hinduism of his mother. The island is multicultural and vegetative, whereas on the ship before it sank, the cook bullied everyone, even the young Buddhist sailor, into eating meat and gravy.
Furthermore, the island is filled with gentle, unaggressive meerkats for Richard Parker to eat, animals that almost willingly offer themselves to the tiger: “they . . . were jumping up and down on the spot, as if crying, ‘My turn! My turn! My turn!’” (298).
Although killed and eaten, the meerkats do not represent the cook’s cannibalized flesh. They are Pi’s mother displaced onto Orange Juice, who is then displaced onto them. In the novel, when Orange Juice climbs onto the lifeboat, Pi describes her as “gentle and unaggressive her whole life,” offering herself to him like the meerkats, “her never-ending arms surrounding me” (143). Even when Pi finds the tooth, a symbol of the island’s worst, he explicitly acknowledges it might be a woman’s tooth: “How much time had he—or was it she?—spent here?” (313). In other words, it is not just the meerkats who are his mother, but the whole island, although it is also Pi himself. After realizing the implications of the tooth, Pi says, “Bitterness welled up in me. The radiant promise it offered during the day was replaced in my heart by all the treachery it delivered at night” (313). Here treachery is Pi’s displaced guilt, but not the guilt of having eaten the cook because Pi already admits to that. It is Pi’s shame for having done the unthinkable, for having eaten his own mother; the tooth is the warning that such a meal cannot be sustained. The island as an artistic creation of beauty is double displacement and pure sublimation. In fact, in the first story Pi and Richard Parker are given two big meals: first the flying fish and then the island of algae and meerkats. The cook is displaced onto the fish, not the island; Pi’s mother is displaced onto the island.
But the final and most compelling proof of Pi’s maternal cannibalism lies not in the symbolism of the island, there for all to see in the film as well as the novel, but back in that scene which the film buries so deep in its unconscious. As a doubled example of the return of the repressed, Pi tells his banana parable not once but twice to the blind Frenchman in the other lifeboat: “Once upon a time there was a banana and it grew. It grew until it was large, firm, yellow and fragrant. Then it fell to the ground and someone came upon it and ate it [and afterwards that person felt better]” (278 and 281–82, with the phrase in brackets only appearing in the second version). In both novel and film, Orange Juice floats up to Pi’s lifeboat on a raft of bundled bananas and, as we know, Orange Juice is Pi’s mother.
In other words, once upon a time there was a boy who loved his mother, but then she fell to the ground and he came upon her and ate her and afterwards he felt better. He felt better but he had to repress that feeling because it is not culturally acceptable. The book represses it too, burying it beneath symbolism. The film represses it even deeper.
In a traditional psychoanalytic reading it would be very hard to avoid the obvious oedipal conclusion of Pi engaging in maternal cannibalism. I do not deny that such a reading can easily be justified by the text. However, while it is certainly tempting to imagine especially pre-oedipal cannibalistic greed in LoP given the circumstances of Pi’s trauma, in the logic of Martel’s story the traumatic event Pi defends against occurs as the result of violence and alimentary need from when Pi is nearly an adult. With respect to the ordeal that this story outlines and asks us to engage with, Pi does not repress childhood psychic desire; he represses adult psychic trauma. For that reason it is not possible for oedipal desire to lead us to the “better story” of Pi’s experience. It may very well be that Pi has unresolved oedipal issues in this story; but if that is the case, it has little to do with why he ate his mother or why he constructed an elaborate tale about animals to hide that he ate her.
The better story of Pi’s maternal cannibalism represents not early childhood desire but an interfaith form of Christian communion.
Although the question of the “real presence” of Christ in communion has been debated for centuries and not all Christians accept the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation—in which the substance of communal bread and wine literally changes into the body and blood of Christ—there is a general understanding that Christian communion is “highly sublimated” (Test 2011, 100). That is to say, even when thought of as entirely symbolic, the ritualized eating of the body and blood of Christ to achieve union with God cannot really escape the concept of cannibalism. In fact, in From Communion to Cannibalism (1990), Maggie Kilgour states bluntly that the metaphor of the host reveals “a potential for cannibalism in the sacrament of the Eucharist” (15).
in LoP, in both novel and film (especially in the film), Pi’s maternal cannibalism is sublimated so deeply, under so many layers of projection and displacement, that it nearly disappears. However, much like when communion is just “a memorial of the suffering of Christ” that only metaphorically points to his sacrifice (McGrath 1997, 514), Pi’s story of cannibalism operates as a memorial of his mother’s suffering that metaphorically points to her sacrifice: a Hindu mother’s Christian sacrifice offered in answer to her son’s Islamic prayers. By offering her body and blood so that Pi may eat and live, his mother gives herself as a communion host to her son. The twist is that Pi reverse-transubstantiates her flesh and blood into symbols and metaphors rather than the other way around.
Although communion is visually absent in the film, it is referenced twice in the novel: once when the Muslim imam accuses the priest of being a cannibal and once when Pi adjusts himself to life at sea with a tiger: “I practiced religious rituals that I adapted to the circumstances—solitary Masses without priests or consecrated Communion hosts, darshans without murtis, and pujas with turtle meat for Prasad, acts of devotion to Allah not knowing where Mecca was” (231). His communion hosts may not have been consecrated by a priest, but they were offered in sacrificial love. In Christian theology, Christ offered his body and his blood in communion out of love. By dying to protect him, Pi’s Hindu mother does the same. And although the symbolism of the sacrifice is Christian first, the communion with God that it represents is multifaith. The Muslim who teaches Pi to pray is a Sufi mystic who seeks “fana, union with God, and his relationship with God was personal and loving” (67).
The Hinduism through which the universe makes sense to Pi offers “the gentle pull of relationship” (53) in part through Prasad, “that sugary offering to God that comes back to us as a sanctified treat” (52).
In the novel, the adult Pi living in Toronto still practices all three of his religions; in the film, the adult Pi in Montreal still practices all three faiths and he teaches a course on Jewish mysticism at the university. Even his name, Pi, the irrational and “secular” number 3.14, situates him in communion within an infinite universe where God exists beyond the reason/faith dichotomy.
The novel initially had a rough start because of an unfortunate release date of September 11, 2001; but following a marketing campaign that claimed the book would “make you believe in God,” and after winning multiple awards, Martel’s tale did become an international best-seller. The coincidence of the novel’s publication occurring on September 11 combined with the reality of the film being released after a decade’s worth of increased global religious tension creates a context in which the multiculturalism and interfaith communion celebrated in this story become all the more appealing. Part of the reason the interfaith conflict scene is so easily removed from the film yet still pervades its unconscious is precisely because of how prevalent religious conflict is in the world today. The brutal, verbally violent assaults Pi’s three wise men unleash on each other in their attempts to convert Pi solely to their own faiths underlies both novel and film, but they also pave the way for LoP to offer a unique solution to religious intolerance. Interfaith communion does not hybridize different notions of religious relationship; it reveals them to already be the same thing: love.
The horror of Pi’s ordeal does not discount that love, even when expressed in a brutally absurd and violent scene wherein the cannibalisation of a murderous carnivore is used to mask the unremitting suffering and madness of having to eat one’s own mother. There are very good psychological reasons why Pi cannot fully acknowledge the sacrifice his mother made for him, but that neither discounts her sacrifice nor the multifaith symbolism surrounding it. It also does not mean that Pi’s cannibalism represents the horror of a taboo form of savagery. Under the circumstances, Pi could not have done otherwise; and understood as a form of communion, Pi’s horror is easily sublimated into a story about a boy, four animals, and a vegetative island. Pi may never be able to literally understand his Hindu mother’s Christian sacrifice offered in answer to his own Islamic prayers, but he does not need to understand her sacrifice literally.
In both novel and film he cannot understand the horror of Christ’s sacrifice either: “What a downright weird story. What peculiar psychology. I asked for another story, one that I might find more satisfying” (59); but he receives the same explanation repeatedly: “Love. That was Father Martin’s answer” (60).
So it goes with Pi’s mother. So it goes with Pi’s multicultural faith. Love.
Kilgour, Maggie. 1990. From communion to cannibalism: An anatomy of metaphors of incorporation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/9781400860784.
Martel, Yann. 2001. Life of Pi. Toronto: Vintage Canada.
McGrath, Alister E. 1997. Christian theology: An introduction. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
Mensch, James. 2007. “The intertwining of incommensurables: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.” In Phenomenology and the non-human animal: At the limits of experience, ed. Corinne Michelle Painter and Christian Lotz, 135–48. Dordrecht: Springer.
Scherzinger, Karen, and Colleen Mill. 2013. “Allegory, the fantastic and trauma in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.” Scrutiny2 Issues in English Studies in Southern Africa 18 (1): 53–66.
Stratton, Florence. 2004. “‘Hollow at the core’: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.” Studies in Canadian Literature 29 (2): 5–21.
Test, Edward M. 2011. “‘A dish fit for the gods’: Mexican sacrifice in De Bry, Las Casas, and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 41 (1): 93–115.
Life of Pi book cover art owned by Vintage Canada
All photographs from Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi are the property of Fox 2000 Pictures.
Pi’s Three Wise Men illustration, Orange Juice Floating on Bananas, and Pi’s Mother Floating on Bananas by Tomislav Torjanac
The Other Blind Man slide by Giant Thinkwell, Inc using a photo by A Guy Taking Pictures
Life of Pi-Struggle illustration by Laura Bifano
Animals from Life of Pi illustration by Sam/Isolated-Scetch
Animals as People illustration by Hyuthefish
Communion illustration by unknown; posted by Alex Steward
Communion/Cannibalism meme by unknown; image taken from OurCatholicPrayers.com
Krishna Shows Yasoda Vishvarupa by the Hare Krishna Society
Pi’s Three Religions illustration by gilesm
Internet sources for all the above images can by found by clicking on the image.