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18 August 2004

On Fear

From Life of Pi, by Jann Martel:

    I must say a word about fear.  It is life’s only true opponent. 
Only fear can defeat life.  It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I
know.  It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy.  It
goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease.  It begins in
your mind, always.  One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. 
Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind
like a spy. Doubt meets disbelief and disbelief tries to push it out.  But
disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier.  Doubt does away with it with little
trouble.  You become anxious.  Reason comes to do battle for you.  You are
reassured.  Reason is fully equipped with the latest weapons technology.  But,
to your amazement, despite superior tactics and a number of undeniable
victories, reason is laid low.  You feel yourself weakening, wavering.  Your
anxiety becomes dread.
    Fear next turns fully to your
body, which is already aware that something terribly wrong is going on.  Already
your lungs have flown away like a bird and your guts have slithered away like a
snake.  Now your tongue drops dead like an opossum, while your jaw begins to
gallop on the spot.  Your ears go deaf.  Your muscles begin to shiver as if they
had malaria and your knees to shake as though they were dancing.  Your heart
strains too hard, while your sphincter relaxes too much.  And so with the rest
of your body.  Every part of you, in the manner most suited to it, falls apart. 
Only your eyes work well. They always pay proper attention to fear.

    Quickly you make rash decisions.  You dismiss your last
allies:  hope and trust.  There, you’ve defeated yourself.  Fear, which is but
an impression, has triumphed over you.
    The matter is
difficult to put into words.  For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your
foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal
end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene:  it seeks to rot everything, even
the words with which to speak of it.  So you must fight hard to express it.  You
must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it.  Because if you don’t, if
your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to
forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly
fought the opponent who defeated you.

And I’ve long admired Ryan‘s review of the book:

…this is not a work of fiction which exists simply for our pleasure- it aims a bit higher. This novelist has a point,
a morality of stories which is the moral of the story. It’s simple and
challenging: If we can function with either of two stories, why not
choose a better story? The moral is stated with brutal precision in
Chapter 22, which I quote in full:

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white!
L-L-Love! My God!”–and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the
agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden
to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light
bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the
b-b-brain” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better

This is a provocation both of serious believers and of skeptics,
both of whom feel that much more is at stake than a simple aesthetic or
literary choice. It’s also a point that could only be made in our
modern West, this singular space where we indeed have the choice of our
faiths. The mockery of the narrow minds of the priest, the pandit, and
the imam in Chapter 23, the cheerful ecumenical universalism of Pi,
this whole notion of the capability of choice, the very concept of
mapping faith onto story– all these allow us to locate Martel
squarely in the present, in the consumer-consumed marketplace of
believers and faiths. All this could have made the book a tiresome
rehashing of the “All you need is faith: any faith will do” genre of
literary and cinematic works. (Signs, anyone? Dogma?)

But Martel does something amazing in Life of Pi. He exposes
his readers to a world of doubles, and he leaves us with terrible
choices. All of the choices in the work, all of the stories offered to
the reader are full of savagery and horror, the naked power of death,
the remorseless brutality which underlies every will to live. If this
book fulfills its brash promise, if it does convince anyone
to believe in God, to choose the better story, the reader will also be
confronted with the inescapable terror of that choice, the fundamental
darkness. No matter which story we choose, we are hopelessly trapped on
Pi’s floating island of algae, that occult land on which we were always
already standing, that paradise of food and comfort and danger and
all-consuming death. It is this layer of persistent danger, amorality,
and darkness that saves Life of Pi from being yet another vacuous exhortation to faith, and transforms it into a nuanced, provocative, and delightful work.

Posted in Books on 18 August 2004 at 11:28 pm by Nate