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The 23 Enigma and the Life of Pi

Life of Pi

Still from Life of Pi (Photo credit: GBPublic_PR)

I recently saw the movie Life of Pi. I didn’t want to see it, because I read the book and the ending upset me greatly (that is, the alternative story Pi gives when the insurance investigators don’t believe his tale of being cast away with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker). But my daughter wanted to see it and Ang Lee directed it so I went. This time the most upsetting event, the scene that is still distressing me 2 days later, is when Pi and the tiger, aboard their little boat, are caught in a huge storm. Massive waves, thunder and lightning and heavy rain. They are in immediate, enormous danger. At sea for weeks now, however, Pi has become a bit delirious. He sees a shaft of sunlight breaking through the clouds in the midst of the storm and is so moved by the sight, so taken with what he sees as the grace of God, that he pulls the tarp off the tiger’s makeshift den. “It’s beautiful, Richard Parker! You have to come out and see it!” But the tiger is terrified, trying desperately to remain inside the boat being wrenched by the waves (which is harder to do, now that his tarp is lifted), trying to get away from the noise and rain. He paces all around, a few hundred pounds of anxiety unable to find haven on this little boat in this scary world. Pi realizes that Richard Parker is not comforted by the one glorious spot of sun (tigers are not ones for symbolism) and starts shouting at God, angry. “Stop it! You’re scaring him! Why are you scaring him?”

Perhaps this scene upsets me because it depicts an innocent creature’s terror at things beyond its control or understanding. Perhaps as a cat owner, I am more susceptible to feline distress. Perhaps the anguish in Pi’s voice as he asks “Why are you scaring him?” reveals his sudden crushing doubt in the benevolence of God—a benevolence he has been counting on to get him through this ordeal.

Ultimately Pi remains secure in his faith. He consciously chooses to remain devout in his worship of a Creator throughout his life, just as he chooses to believe a particular version of his lifeboat experience. That such a Creator exists is for him “the better story,” overall. He can choose to believe whatever he wants to believe about what he experienced on that boat; the readers/viewers can make that same choice, within the context of his narrative and in their own lives.

So is author Yann Martel likening religion to a fantasy concocted to make life bearable for all of us castaways? Or is he conveying that reality is merely what we decide it is? Are those of us who look for—and find—evidence of a Higher Power in our daily lives tuned in to a higher frequency or just acting out confirmation bias?

These same questions are asked about the 23 enigma, which is “the belief that most incidents and events are directly connected to the number 23” (per Wikipedia). Does that belief sound silly? The details of most religions sound silly to me, but that doesn’t make them less credible to the believers. If you look hard enough, you can find connections anywhere you look; the human brain is designed to seek out and recognize patterns. Here are some examples of the 23 enigma* as provided by science fiction writer Robert Anton Wilson:

In conception, Mom and Dad each contribute 23 chromosomes to the fœtus. DNA, the carrier of the genetic information, has bonding irregularities every 23rd Angstrom. Aleister Crowley, in his Cabalistic Dictionary, defines 23 as the number of “life” or “a thread”, hauntingly suggestive of the DNA life-script. On the other hand, 23 has many links with termination: in telegraphers’ code, 23 means “bust” or “break the line”, and Hexagram 23 in I Ching means “breaking apart”.

Some people are clusters of bloody synchronicities in 23. [William S.] Burroughs discovered that the bootlegger “Dutch Schultz”…had Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll assassinated on 23rd Street in New York when Coll was 23 years old. Schultz himself was assassinated on 23 October. Looking further into the Dutch Schultz case, I found that Charlie Workman, the man convicted of shooting Schultz, served 23 years of a life sentence and was then paroled.

Humans like synchronicity, we like coincidence, we like to think some sort of order is at work. We don’t want to be like poor Richard Parker, out of our element and tossed about on a sea for no apparent reason, a sea that then calms for no apparent reason (tigers don’t watch the Weather Channel). But does this desire for order originate from the actual source (the Order itself), or merely result in creative origin stories?

As a Reiki practitioner, I’ve had spiritual experiences that leave me no doubt that the Force is indeed with us. I’ve seen examples of a Creator’s influence in my life and the lives of those around me. I understand that mystical experiences can be attributed to neurochemical reactions, but no atheist will ever be able to convince me that those chemicals are the source rather than the result of God’s presence. A novelist or filmmaker, however, can evidently make me doubt. Am I telling myself I had those experiences because I want to believe a better story? Am I identifying more with the justifiably frightened tiger rather than the delirious boy who seems dangerously out of touch with the immediate peril he’s in, crowing about God’s grace? Maybe I should have just skipped the movie and stayed home to give my cat a bath; either way I’d get to see a wet, angry feline.


*For the record, here’s what happens in Chapter 23 of the novel. As a boy, Pi becomes an adherent of 3 religions at once: Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. He tries to practice all 3 religions at the same time without anyone finding out. In Chapter 23, he is with his family in the park when they encounter his village’s priest, imam, and pandit, and now Pi’s secret is out. The 1 thing all 3 religious leaders agree on is that Pi has to choose just 1 religion to practice. He doesn’t agree, noting that “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.'” His family is amused by his situation, and they have a laugh over ice cream sandwiches. So which religion wins here? The religion of family, the sacred flow of daily life.

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