Bright Lights Film Journal

The Life of Pi: A Politics of the Imagination

“The Life of Pi is a paean or homage to the imagination and its salvaging power (we were shipwrecked in the Great Recession and in need of salvaging) not in cyberspace but in the real conditions of a troubling offline world inhabited by our own troubled human nature.”

Why does Pi’s situation in that boat remind me of us and our American ship of State?

President Obama and Congress are the ones in a bitter, seemingly never-ending struggle on this vessel. Far different plans for survival are being offered. We in the audience know how the battle lines are drawn:

We could get the Federal government out of regulation, privatize whatever is now a public operation as well as incentivize the 47% Moocher class by taking away their entitlements, and allow our entrepreneurial champions to do battle in the global lists without hindrance of any kind.

Or, we could use the Federal government to tame the sort of economics that ran us into the Great Recession, diminish the wealth gap and move us away from plutocracy and back to some semblance of an egalitarian democracy, and stop pretending that “market forces” will do something about our toxification of the planet.

Now when I imagine this sort of analogous sea adventure, I see the rest of us in the audience, all watching the screen, and certainly not all are making my connection to the Washington scene. There may in fact be no end to the personalized imaginative parallels or analogs that the film may evoke. I want to privilege my political one firstly because it’s not personally designed and chosen but broadly cultural (including the social, political, economic, historical). My analog is in the offline world we all share, though of course not equally.

Secondly, I want to privilege my analog because I think what the film reveals about imagination and forbidding darkness and threat in the real world offers us a recuperating tactic, a rescue plan, if you will. I mean that the way imagination in this film translates or more precisely transforms a profitless clash, a destructive opposition and anger into salvation reintroduces imagination itself into an American cultural imaginary which is now lost in an almost solipsistic trance, or, as disastrously, confined itself to an imagining within the boundaries of personal experience.

Very few now believe there are any boundaries to personal experience simply because the “personal” has just about consumed the public and the social and extended itself to the limitless realms of cyberspace where one is free to design boundless virtual experiences. You could say that the imagination is no longer needed here in cyberspace because realization and actualization can be programmed and achievable. When the world, the Great Outdoors, is conflated to a personally designed cyberworld, then “just doing it” replaces all imagining. I mean that if imagination typically comes into play when the offline world of the Great Outdoors (call it reality) frustrates or threatens, what need is there of it — imagination — if that reality is no more than what you personally design online? If thought like this prevails there is nothing to be feared in confining the imagination within the boundaries of personal experience.

To recuperate the imagination under these prevailing illusions requires a recognition of obstacles, animosities, threats that exist outside the scope of one’s own self-empowerment, a clear-eyed view of who and why our boat is in jeopardy on a sea that, as Thoreau describes, “be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed.” When there is no hope of turning the world your way — which is the spot Pi finds himself in — simply because the world is heading the other way mindless of your design, then imagination finds a window by transforming what is resistant and unreachable into an “as if” world of possibilities.

The Life of Pi is a paean or homage to the imagination and its salvaging power (we were shipwrecked in the Great Recession and in need of salvaging) not in cyberspace but in the real conditions of a troubling offline world inhabited by our own troubled human nature. The present cultural surround of this film — our political warfare — makes a lack of sufficient imagination the pressing and pertinent conflict or opposition the film poses. Our Ship of State is in danger because those on board cannot extend sufficient imagination to effect a mutuality of understanding and purpose. The imagination that Pi relies upon makes its way into the identity of his adversary, Richard Parker, and achieves a rapprochement, a progression in empathetic understanding.

This is more the Romantic poet Shelley’s idea of a sympathetic imagination that has political consequences. Opposed to this is what we privilege now, which is this illusion that what we personally imagine rules all and excludes nothing. Call it a play land imagination of self-design of reality in cyberspace. The imagination is not employed in working toward some grasp of the perceptions and reality making ways of others, some reaching into the lives of antagonists, but rather only in reproducing what your resident knowing makes imaginable. We are then free to imagine as we are free to choose which means only that the constraints upon our freedom — the turbulent seas and bloody survival game on our boat — are ignored but nonetheless constrain both our choosing and our imagining.

The fictional world of Pi is not such an escapist play land but quite obviously a microcosm of bitter contesting not limited to politics but extending to all human confrontation with the world. The Life of Pi makes this imagining itself its subject rather like the way a Zen koan is both a description/explanation as well as a practice/exercise, both in turn elucidating the other. The film, in the majesty of its cinematography and the depiction of all as truth but what is in truth imaginary, allows us to exercise that faculty which is its subject — the imagination.

How then finally can this glorified notion of the imagination be extended to our seemingly hopeless political battles?

Begin with the human story: We are on a boat adrift in the ocean and with us is someone we love, someone who represents love — a mother. There is also someone wounded who will need our help. But there are also two who see immediately that survival is a zero sum game on this boat: to win, others must die. So one predator kills and eats the wounded sailor. The mother, Pi’s mother, tries to stop him but she also is killed and eaten, and Pi cannot save her. Human nature has a dark, bestial side, but it also can fall apart, lose all its defenses, all its resistance. Consider that when Pi sees his mother killed, he is in a state of psychic collapse. Then the strongest on this boat awakens from whatever collapse he has suffered, and he kills the weaker predator and now sees Pi as his next victim. He must eat to stay alive on this boat. It is dog eat dog. It is a game where for one to win, another must die. It sounds familiar; it sounds like our economic system of choice.

It is at this moment that Pi is able to project an imaginary power that transforms the human drama, the human actors that are unbearable to him for now nothing human can be represented in other than a horrific way. He can no longer imagine the possibility of dealing with human nature. He is no longer able to deal with his mother’s death, but he can deal with the death of the orangutan. The tiger takes over the boat, and Pi retreats to a small raft he ties to the boat. He is barely hanging on. And then he finally imagines that he can restrict the domain of the tiger, that they can share the boat. The tiger, however ferocious it may be, is reachable, is manageable within Pi’s stricken mind. He can deal with it; he can imagine the possibility of dealing with it. He imagines, and the imagining enables him to keep his sanity and ultimately to survive.

The analog world that his imagination has created — an “as If” world — has enabled a “dealing with” situation. He strategizes within both what Martin Buber called an “I-It” and an “I-Thou” relationship, a dealing with others as discrete from ourselves — a growing Millennial problem — but with the intent of finding a living relationship between ourselves and others. The tactics that then follow alter a life-threatening situation into a livable détente situation.

I won’t spell out the implications of Pi’s politics to our present Conservative Right vs. Liberal Left animosities except to say that the wider the divide between classes becomes in the U.S., the greater need for each to imaginatively reach into the lives of the other and find a living relationship that replaces the present mutual demonization. However, it makes no sense and is untruthful to look at the boat we are in and say all occupants are equal. It seems undeniable that there now exists in the U.S. only a very unequal power relationship analogous to Pi and the Bengal tiger. A few have disproportionate ownership of the boat and therefore have little incentive to imagine a different power distribution or evoke imagination when real-world conditions are so favorable to them. The many, for their part, imagine they will soon be the Bengal tiger of ownership but are, quite to the contrary, slowly becoming aware that they are in Pi’s boat.

If the political analog to this film is true, and I think it is, what a political use of the imagination requires is a ranging into an existing reality and a confrontation with the turbulence we face. The animals on Pi’s boat are his illusions, but he is not deluded in his imaginative transformation of what they represent. He is not fancifully escaping the deadly and bloody situation in which he finds himself. That truthfulness of the imagination is what politics is required to hold on to. Thus, we cannot imagine predators and peace seekers are divided evenly in power, or that such asymmetry in power — whether it is Pi and the Bengal tiger or what Occupy Wall Street refers to as the 99% and the 1% — is nonexistent because we have not personally designed it. Pi finds through his imagination a place to reconcile such asymmetry and salvage lives that seemed bound for their own shipwreck. There’s a useful and hopeful politics to that.