Interview With Dominic Callahan, Ph.D.
“Life of Pi: Faith, Reason, and the Tiger In Between”
The Center for Jungian Studies of South Florida (CJSSF) offers a special event on “Life of Pi: Faith, Reason, and the Tiger In Between” This lecture will take place on Saturday, February 6, 2016 from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Boca Raton, Florida.
Dominic Callahan, Ph.D., is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Coral Springs, FL. A former President of the Center for Jungian Studies, he has presented often for the Center, the most recent being the film Adam Resurrected in April of 2011, The Descendants in 2013 and HER in 2014.
CJSSF: In this modern-day fable, the young hero Pi (whose family owned a zoo in India) has an incredible story of survival at sea with Richard Parker who is a Bengal Tiger. Why are the stories we tell about our lives so important?
CALLAHAN: At the movie’s end, Pi asks the journalist to whom he has told two different stories of his ordeal which one he prefers. When hearing he prefers the first story because it is “the better story”, Pi answers, “And so it is with God.” What makes a story “better” and how does this act of inner creativity reveal and serve an individual’s psychic life? Might not cinema be seen as an effort to offer the collective a “better story” of itself, one able to move from the literal to the literary in a poetic re-telling of our lives?
In everyone’s encounter with brute and unceremonious reality, a process of creation occurs in which imagination intercedes to create a subjective rhetoric that gives our lives coherence and a necessary illusion of control. Once created by the imagination, these stories exist a priori and apart from external reality, drawing that reality through a matrix of selective remembering and retelling that forms the narratives which invisibly hold us together and underwrite our participation in life. The stories we tell about our lives are, perhaps, our most important acts of imagination because they contain and reinforce our basic conceptions of ourselves and others. As a result, they either assist or weaken our resilience and courage in the face of the losses, injuries, and traumatic events that come with every life. Created from a subjective response to reality, they are acts of fiction. As James Hillman points out, however, they are essential fictions which either hinder or deepen an individual’s ability to see through rather than identify with. Having re-storied himself once before from being a victim of merciless bullying to a proud representative of a numinous irrational number, Pi now finds himself alone and adrift on the sea. He is confronted with a brutal reality that is only made bearable by being constantly transfigured into a story able to summon courage and offer meaning. The story he formed of himself as a child nourished a deep connection to a felt sense of God and the sensuousness of life. This inner narrative was crucial to his not succumbing to despair, rendering his outer ordeal into a trial of the spirit in which his search for God’s intent never wavered. The relationships fostered by his story, first to God and then with Richard Parker, were essential to his psychic and physical survival. The story was then further re-imagined and re-told to make it possible to live with the horror that occurred, creating the “fiction” able to facilitate the creation of a new life informed by love, service, and contemplation.
From a Jungian perspective, the story of ourselves that we tell and live within needs, in turn, to serve the daimon, that unique image or psychic pattern which came with our birth and points to our calling in life. The better story helps us to both endure life’s travails and to intuit its invitation through which we can deepen into ourselves and become valuable to others. This calls for the courage to re-imagine our story until the daimon is adequately honored, becoming, along the way, the story most pleasing to God.
CJSSF: What does the tiger Richard Parker represent in Jungian terms?
CALLAHAN: In this film, Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger that is mistakenly given the name of the hunter who brought him to the Pondicherry Zoo in Pi’s childhood, is an animal familiar, a guide that initiates Pi to a new level of awareness and ability. In Indian mythology, the tiger is a symbol of manliness, virility and courage, attributes essential for Pi to locate within himself if he is to survive. Yet this same mythology has the tiger ridden by the goddess Durga, a figure in Hindu mythology who protects against evil and preserves moral order and righteousness in creation. Therefore, Richard Parker has qualities Pi needs to integrate while also remaining aware of Durga’s ultimate power, symbolized in this film by the awesome reality of the ocean. In a poignant scene, Ang Lee, the film’s director, has the tiger hanging on to the boat with his claws, needing Pi to rescue him from waters in which he would otherwise drown. Within the container of the Great Mother, the vast ocean, Pi and Richard Parker must come to terms with one another and form a relationship if they are to survive. In Jungian terms, Richard Parker is a split off part of Pi, a shadow figure carrying his denied aggression, instincts, the willingness to kill, and ability to do what is necessary. He is both Pi’s shadow and spirit guide, his “fierce companion, the terrible one who kept me alive” whom he must engage if life on that boat was to have the requisite meaning needed to still want to live. In order to coexist with Richard Parker, Pi must learn to see him in terms other than the projections of his childhood and develop the respect his father had for the genuine differences between them. Caring for Richard Parker becomes crucial to Pi’s survival and requires a relationship which, in Jungian terms, is marked by ego’s conscious integration of its repressed or denied aspects. At the film’s end, Pi is inconsolable as he watches Richard Parker disappear into the jungle without looking back. Ang Lee shows this moment twice, the second time through our eyes rather than Pi’s. To me, this is a beautiful depiction of the passage from the literal to the symbolic, the tiger that had been captive his entire life walking freely back into the wild in which it belongs. From that moment on, Richard Parker lives in the imagination, becoming an image of what PI, and us, must find the courage to integrate on our own journey.
CJSSF: What have movies meant to you personally in terms of your work as a Jungian-oriented psychotherapist?
CALLAHAN: As I have gotten older, I find myself more susceptible to images and thus increasingly impacted by film. As the primary source of images in our time, movies offer us dreams of ourselves essential to our psychic well being. For me, therapy is greatly assisted by forming an image or images of my patient. I often refer to certain films when working with someone and am very interested in the films that stir them into feeling. Discussing the films which emotionally matter to them often deepens our connection with one another and aids in a mutual understanding of what psyche is trying to metaphorically express through the symptoms, dilemmas, and passions of their lives. We live in a time where directors and cinematographers have unparalleled technology available for the imaging of the natural and human worlds, creating films such as this one whose sheer beauty facilitates an experience of awe. For me, movies offer the invaluable and therapeutic possibility of communal poiesis, that creative act of transforming and continuing the human realm of experience.
Interview by Teresa Oster, MSW, MS, CJSSF board member