The character of Pi, in Yann Martel’s novel the “Life of Pi” is to my mind a brilliant subversion of the standard (bland) liberal thesis on the freedom/equality of religions. Not content with the belaboured tolerance of modernity -to each her own, I have my truth you have yours etc – Pi becomes the dedicated devotee and practitioner of not one but three very distinct traditions- Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. In each case Pi experiences a profound and dramatic conversion tied to a specific social reality and community. The son of secular Hindu parents Pi a re-discovers his ancestral tradition and its epic narratives. Through a friendship from a chance meeting Pi is moved by the power of the Muslim life ordered around daily prayers. And through the Christian school system in India he is drawn to the dramatic personalism of Christianity. In each case Pi’s conversion are a result of specific situations, particular practices, and real friendships. Each encounter also carries with it a history, thousands of years of choices, customs, conflicts and alliances converging to form the present that is Pi. To these three we must hastily add a fourth encounter, that of Pi with his atheist biology teacher, in whom we find, perhaps, the unspoken truth of Pi’s conglomerate belief system.
Superficially we might assign one of these areas to each of Pi’s “religious” encounters respectively. It is the artistry and power of the Hindu epics that sways Pi to embrace Hinduism, it is the love and prayerful devotion of his friend Satish Kumar the invisible Muslim, the political urgency of the meteoric “God in a hurry” Christian faith, which is, not insignificantly, a part of the colonial education system. Finally, the other Satish Kumar, that ebullient polio-suffering atheist, bequeaths to Pi a hearty scientific enthusiasm.
There is more going on, of course. Hinduism makes truth claims about love and politics in the story, necessarily so given its context. The invisibility and devotion to prayer of the one Satish Kumar reflects the obvious over-abundance and naturalism of the other suggesting that the one is somehow the truth of the other. Religion, science – it’s complexified. More than simple relationships, more than systems of truth and meaning, out of the multitudinous chaos an event has taken place and persists in a subject called Pi.
This is where the comparison with Badiou gets really interesting. Piscine Molitor Patel is the name given the central character by his parents. Pi is the name he dramatically gives to himself in order to avoid the teasing of his classmates. This renaming we could call the Pi -Event. Pi = 3.14 etc. Pi is a transcendental number and moreover an irrational number. The implications of this, taken together with a philosophy that propounds mathematics as the science of being qua being, are interesting if nothing else. Transcendental is the name Badiou gives to the concept which allows intensities of identity of a given world to be measured. And Pi, as the ratio of any given circle’s circumference to its diameter, as well the ratio of a circle’s area to radius squared, is precisely the transcendental index measuring the world of circles. How far one can take this comparison I am neither certain nor qualified. But to say that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter can be taken as a metaphor for a human subject is definitely possible. Certainly this is where Pi found himself, as a disappearing constant or ratio that judged/measured his surroundings not from the position of a space outside, but at the very core of the truth which he sought.
The second part of this story takes place in a small coffeeshop in Winnipeg and involves a Mormon with an eyepatch, a New Age lady, and, as the title of this post suggests a coffee drinker who couldn’t keep his ears to himself. The upshot of the conversation I overheard, which I now largely forget though it was what provoked me to write this post in the first place, was basically that each of the two participants sought to show how tolerant they were and how there respective philosophies of religion were very expansive. Thus the pirate Mormon confessed to the arrogance of baptizing the dead because in the afterlife they could be converted – an eternal mission field. The New Age lady responded saying that she was the more arrogant because she made room in her beliefs for his way of believing, and every other belief system. The conversation was polite, heartfelt, and genuine and, given the context- a yuppie intellectual coffeeshop, gave me the sensation of having partaken in something rather sinister. Religion, clearly, in this context was nothing more than a mind game, maybe a set of principles or a fascinating bit of history that we cling on to for nostalgic reasons, but certainly not a matter of life and death, and certainly not the result of an Event that staggeringly altered the very fabric of reality.
We’ll be laughing together and having a pint in the afterlife they said in that cafe… but the lesson of Pi is that we have to face tigers on the open sea to know about this life.