The Life of Pi and Getting a Dog: The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Contemplates the ways that Life Imitates Art

The Life of Pi

We live in an urban neighborhood, one that was once grand, and still is, but it is now surrounded by decidedly mixed neighborhoods and ours becomes, periodically, the target for individuals or groups.  Most recently a group of teenagers has been going around the neighborhood, casing houses, and returning to those that are not well protected to rob them.  I stupidly left a basement door open after a weekend of working in the yard, and these kids discovered that and returned to rob us.  The reluctant wife was, understandably, furious about this (as was I).  She also felt violated and concerned about our well - being.  So she decided that we should act on a long held notion of getting a dog - not someday, but now.  She fell in love, on an internet website for adopting dogs saved from the pound, with Mack, a two year old bull mastiff mix who is, in person, a handful.  He is a delightful, exuberant dog who has, in the words of our dog trainer, not learned his manners, and our job is to teach them to him.  But to do this, we have to establish dominance and maintain it on a consistent basis.

That is also the task of Pi, in the book and now movie Life of Pi.  Named Piscine Molitor Patel after a beautiful swimming pool his Uncle enjoyed in Paris, Pi shortened his name when Piscine, which sounds like pissing when pronounced, became a way for his schoolmates to snicker at him.  The aggressive reclaiming of his identity by transforming it and owning it is a beautiful foreshadowing of what will be the center of the later narrative.

Born and raised in French Colonial India, an economic downturn leads the late adolescent Pi's family - he has an older brother, his mother who is the botanist in the family business, a zoo that his father, a business man, runs - to leave the country on a freighter with the animals from the zoo which they will sell to establish a new life in a new country.  They never get the opportunity to do that because the freighter sinks in a terrible storm and Pi ends up on a lifeboat inhabited by himself, an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra, a rat, and Richard Parker, a bengal tiger.  The zebra has a broken leg and is eaten, shortly after the rat, by the hyena, whom the orangutan hits.  The hyena then kills the orangutan and Richard Parker emerges from below the canvas, where he has apparently been sleeping off the effects of the seasickness medicine he was overdosed on, to kill the Hyena, leaving only he and Pi to face over two hundred days together on the open sea as they drift across the Pacific to finally make landfall in Mexico.

Pi was initially taken by Richard Parker when he shows up at the zoo.  He imagines that he sees some intelligence in his eyes and tries to connect with him.  Pi's father disagrees and asserts that Pi is merely seeing the reflection of his own soul in the eyes of the tiger.  Being stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger and a bunch of crackers let's Pi test his father's theory and discover how we mirror each other - as humans and as animals - as we engage with each other and, in the process, discover who it is that we are.

As harrowing as this story is - and it is harrowing, and here I offer a spoiler alert, it is not nearly as harrowing as the alternate plot.  Pi reveals this alternate to a writer who has come to hear his tale at the urging of Pi's Uncle.  After telling of surviving with Richard Parker, and Richard Parker disappearing into the Mexican jungle without so much as a look backwards, Pi tells the alternate version - that he was not on a lifeboat with animals at all, but with a sailor, the surly and subhuman cook from the freighter and his mother - oh, and a rat.  The sailor, like the zebra, had a broken leg.  The cook, after eating the rat, killed the sailor, in part to use his meat as bait - and perhaps to dine on him - and then kills Pi's mother in rage when she slaps him for his barbarian behavior.  Pi, a vegetarian pacifist, is horrified and angry.  When the cook leaves the knife that he used to kill the sailor unguarded, Pi murders him, unleashing a part of himself, portrayed by Richard Parker in the first version of the story; a wild, unbridled part that he is absolutely terrified by, but that also gives him the will to survive on the open sea as he struggles with and tries to protect and save himself - a person who is more complicated and dangerous than he ever had any idea.

The book and now the movie are brilliantly done.  The images in the movie powerfully bring to life a representation of the inner world that is rarely attempted on screen.  And it does so by persuasively telling the story of a boy surviving on a lifeboat - and the raft that he makes of life-preservers that he makes to float alongside the lifeboat - with a tiger - for over 200 days.  The boy must learn, in very tight quarters, to master the tiger.  To create separate spaces; his raft, but also places that he pees around on the boat; to kill fish (despite his abhorrence of killing); to leave an island they discover that would house them indefinitely, but that would also consume him; to wrestle with this animal and to care for it - despite his fear of it and his anger at all that it has destroyed.

The book and movie work on this level.  My struggles with Mack, while not as dramatic, mirror Pi's struggles with Richard Parker.  When Mack, who initially was friendly and more or less willing to go along with the program, first objected to a command, took a nip at me, and then growled and barked, I was both scared, but also angry and ready to assert myself; to become, in the current vernacular, the alpha dog.  I think that, when I do that in the rest of my life, I do it in such a cleverly hidden way that I can delude myself into thinking that I am not being aggressive.  I can, for instance, ask my son if he wants to take out the trash when what I am really saying is, "Take out the trash."  But with Mack, when he jumps on my bed and starts pulling at the covers with his teeth, my grabbing him in an instant by the scruff of the neck, lifting him into the air, then dropping him to the floor and forcing his neck to the ground to show him who is boss, all while saying quite firmly (bystanders might say shouting) "No, bad dog," there is no hiding my own aggression, my assertion, my commanding the situation.  For Pi, this is magnified, both by the contrast with his consistent, deeply held pacifism, and by the extreme aggression with which he has to engage a tiger - not to mention the fear that he will become his next meal.

I can return my Richard Parker to the pound.  The thieves have been caught, and, for now, there is no imminent threat.  Pi could, theoretically, kill Richard Parker, until we remember the other version of the story.  The only way to kill Richard Parker is to kill himself - an act of violence that will require Richard Parker's cooperation - meaning he will need to engage his own violence to bring about his death, but he is working to tame - to limit - to humanize - the very primitive force that he would need to kill himself.  And the convolutions in that last sentence illustrate the wonderful thing about this narrative device:  Yann Martel, the author of the book, and Ang Lee, the director of the movie, have figured out how to portray internal, psychological struggles, struggles that are ineffable and difficult to witness, even or especially from the inside, in vivid, concrete fashion.  Because it is through our engagement with the world, whether talking with our friends (or analyst), training a dog (or a tiger), or surviving in an open craft in the Pacific, that our unconscious selves emerge, guiding the (somewhat) conscious actions of engaging with, battling, anticipating and parrying to maintain our physical and/or psychological well being.  And thus the story of Richard Parker brings to life what would otherwise be a dramatic but invisible story, one that we would not be able to follow - the struggles between a man's conscience and his knowledge of the actions he engaged in when enraged as he is swept across the ocean by wind and waves.


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 Post script:  We did ultimately return the dog.  When it was continuously threatening and scaring the children - jumping on their beds and growling at them - and tearing up whatever was in reach while we were out of the house and it was caged - it was too much even for the the reluctant wife.  Much later we did a sweet dog that was found after it had survived one of the coldest winters on record on its own.  It is small enough that I can comfortably return to being largely unaware of how frequently I assert my alpha dogness.

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