The Role of Religion in a Writer's Life
Yann Martel is the author of The High Mountains of Portugal and Life of Pi, the #1 international bestseller and winner of the 2002 Man Booker (among many other prizes). He is also the award-winning author ofThe Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (winner of the Journey Prize), Self, Beatrice & Virgil, and 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Born in Spain in 1963, Martel studied philosophy at Trent University, worked at odd jobs—tree planter, dishwasher, security guard—and traveled widely before turning to writing. He lives in Saskatoon, Canada, with the writer Alice Kuipers and their four children.
Question: What role does religion play in your life?
Yann\r\n Martel: Broadly speaking on religion, defining the word very \r\nlargely and what that means to me is I choose to believe that life makes\r\n sense. That life is not just chemistry, not just chance. So faith \r\nisn’t necessarily a belief in things, it’s just an openness to believing\r\n something. So it’s entertaining the language of transcendentalism.
So\r\n I choose to believe that life has transcendental meaning, rather than \r\nmere chemical, mere horizontal meaning. I chose to have, to see life \r\nvertically. And to me, it just makes it a richer experience. Is it \r\ntrue? Is it factually true? Well, I don’t know, but no one who has any\r\n kind of faith knows for certain. You fall in love with someone, you \r\nhave no idea what the future holds for you. You have a political faith,\r\n you have no idea if your system will work out. When you have faith in \r\nanything, it’s just a disposition to be open and to trust and to move \r\nforward that way. And I find a view of life that entertains a \r\ntranscendental, that engages with the transcendental, makes things \r\nwealthy. It also, it makes things wealthier in their significance, and \r\nit also, it’s a way that makes suffering more bearable. That’s one of \r\nthe great limits of secularism. Secularism is incredibly powerful at \r\ndelivering things in the here and now. Good governance, science, human \r\nrights, these are all results of the application of reason and their \r\nsecular triumphs. But secularism has nothing to say in the face of \r\ndeath and in suffering.
So reason, for example, is a great blood \r\nsport in a public arena. You know, atheists make for great spectacles. \r\n Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins. In their public performances, \r\nit’s amazing to hear them, but once you leave that spectacle, in the \r\nprivacy of the night, when we all walk away, all on our own, progressive\r\n getting older, you know, subject to disease and to suffering, suddenly \r\nreason is just a tool that doesn’t help you. If you believe it somehow \r\nin a way you don’t fully understand, that doesn’t make logical sense, \r\nsomehow things make sense, then suffering is a small part of the canvas \r\nof a bigger picture that you don’t see. And in that bigger picture, \r\nsomehow the suffering of children is a part of the puzzle and you just \r\naccept that. And it may, so it doesn’t diminish the suffering, but it \r\ndoes put it in a context. So, if only for that reason, you know, an \r\nopenness to it.
Now, I say that I’m religious, I’m extremely \r\ncritical of organized religion. You know, what’s happening... what has \r\nbeen happening recently to the Roman Catholic Church, I’m one of the \r\nones who are delighted at all these revelations of sexual abuse. It’s an\r\n outrage that the Church would value its reputation more than the \r\nsanctity of its charges, of these children. And I think, ultimately \r\nit’s better for the Church to be brought down several, several, several \r\npegs. So I’m as critical about organized religion, you know, the Roman \r\nCatholic Church, of its homophobia, of its patriarchy, of its sexism, of\r\n its history of anti-Semitism, I am totally okay with these attacks. \r\nBut there’s also something more afoot there than just that. And the \r\nsame thing with other religion, whether it’s Judaism, Buddhism, \r\nHinduism, they’ve all had their excesses, but nonetheless, there’s \r\nsomething afoot in that kind of thinking, that I think augments a life.
Question:\r\n How did you come to religion?
Yann Martel: No, my \r\nbackground is totally secular, I’m from Quebec, which is the most \r\nsecular province in Canada, was the most Catholic, then underwent \r\nsomething called the Quiet Revolution, which was in a matter of a year \r\nor two, people left the church in droves. And as I said, it jumped from\r\n the most religious province to the most secular. My parents are \r\nchildren of that revolution, so I grew up in a completely secular \r\nhousehold and I studied philosophy at university, which is a great way \r\nof making you an atheist, a rabid atheist, or at the very least, a rabid\r\n agnostic.
What brought me to religion was, well, writing "Life \r\nof Pi," and what brought me to writing "Life of Pi" was a trip to \r\nIndia. India is this continent civilization, where for better or for \r\nworse, religion is still a, is part of the mainstream of life. You see \r\ntemples, mosques, churches, everywhere. These famous, massive \r\npilgrimages in which, you know, millions of Hindus join into it. It’s a\r\n dazzling site and it makes, it makes India a place that’s both a very \r\nreal place and a completely imaginary place. India is one of these \r\nplaces where, I said, there is a concrete reality, you know, that you \r\ncan experience empirically, and overlaid on it is this extraordinary, \r\nimaginary country... this fictitious, this mythological country. In \r\nmost Western countries, that mythological layer has been completely \r\nstripped away, which is why, I think, India has been generous, not only \r\nto religions, open to it, there’s more religions, I think, per square \r\ninch, in India than anywhere else, for better and for worse, I’m \r\nsaying. But it’s also, it’s been a place that’s extraordinary generous \r\nfor storytelling. All kinds of stories are still possible in India. \r\nWhich I think for the last why for the last 20, 30 years, so much great \r\nfiction has come out of India. And once again, for better and for \r\nworse. You know, Bollywood is the largest cinema industry in the \r\nworld. Now, I think of the 5,000 movies made a year in Bollywood, you \r\nknow, 4,999 occupy the last bottom rungs of the worst movies ever made, \r\nbut nonetheless, stories, that place churns out stories like you can’t \r\nbelieve.
So from someone who comes from a Western background, \r\nwhere we are so taught to be reasonable, we are so pushed to be \r\nreasonable, do things for, you know, rational reasons... it’s \r\ndesiccating, it dries you out, which is why I think so many people go to\r\n India and in a sense go wonderfully crazy. They suddenly want to \r\nbecome Buddhists, they want to become Hindus, they start wearing, you \r\nknow, orange robes and, you know, praying to elephant-headed gods and \r\nthey do yoga and they, you know, do funny things. Well, it’s because \r\nyou’ve been dried out and suddenly you’re drenched in water, it \r\nrefreshes you.
And so it was India that brought me to that, I saw\r\n a face of religion, a side to it that I’d never seen before, and \r\ndecided to sort of investigate, "Well, what would it mean to have to \r\nhave faith? That crazy, crazy phenomenon where you are obdurately not \r\nreasonable, what would that do?" So I posited this character who had \r\nlots of faith, Pi, Pi Patel, who practices three religions. And from \r\nbeing just a conceit, an artistic conceit, I fell in love with my \r\nsubject matter and I started being like him and thinking, "Well, why not\r\n entertain Brahma and Allah and Jesus and Buddha and the gods of Jainism\r\n and, you know, and why not sprites and all these other things? Why \r\nnot? Why not? What’s to be gained?"
I remember for years, I \r\nvolunteered in palliative care, care for the dying. And I remember \r\nthinking, if you are dying in your bed, you know, if your legs are like \r\ntwo little sticks and you have a mountain of a stomach and you’re rotted\r\n by disease, you know, you’re, the flesh on your face is melted away and\r\n you’ve lost your hair, what’s the point of being reasonable? Why not \r\nbelieve in whatever? You know, whatever? Jesus, Buddha, any one of \r\nthese? Why not believe that someone transcendentally loves you? Why \r\nnot believe that? And so why not live that way? To entertain that \r\nnotion that the operating principal of the universe is love? Why not \r\nbelieve that? In the meantime, still be reasonable, you know, still use\r\n reason to improve your life, but once reason fails you, why not believe\r\n in this great plan, you know, this great cosmic plan where ultimate \r\nrealization is this massive act of love. Why not?
Recorded April 13, 2010
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