Monday, April 11, 2011

Favorite Passages: Yann Martel on Suffering, Faith, and the Universe

photograph by Dominic Kamp

Often during the most difficult times in my life—bleak nights when I realize that whatever outcome I've been fighting against is inevitable, and I fall out of myself, helpless—my mind wanders back to this passage from Yann Martel's Life of Pi.

It's one of my favorite passages from all contemporary literature, in part because it reminds me of what I have always known: that this world is wild and unpredictable and enormous and ultimately beautiful and good. Oddly, in reminding me that I am insignificant, it makes me feel powerful enough to carry on.
The moon was a sharply defined crescent and the sky was perfectly clear. The stars shone with such fierce, contained brilliance that it seemed absurd to call the night dark. The sea lay quietly, bathed in a shy, light-footed light, a dancing play of black and silver that extended without limits all about me. The volume of things was confounding—the volume of air above me, the volume of water around and beneath me. I was half-moved, half-terrified. I felt like the sage Markandeya, who fell out of Vishnu's mouth while Vishnu was sleeping and so beheld the entire universe, everything that there is. Before the sage could die of fright, Vishnu awoke and took him back into his mouth. For the first time I noticed—as I would notice repeatedly during my ordeal, between one throe of agony and the next—that my suffering was taking place in a grand setting. I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant, and I was still. My suffering did not fit anywhere, I realized. And I could accept this. It was all right.
What quotes do you return to again and again?


  1. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there- there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were - No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it-this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity- like yours - the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you- you so remote from the night of the first ages- could comprehend. And why not? The mind of a man is capable of anything - because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage - who can tell? - but truth - truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder - the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as there on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true stuff- with his own inborn strength. Principles? Principles won't do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags- rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No, you want a deliberate belief. An appeal to me in this fiendish row - is there? Very well; I hear; I admit, but I have a voice too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced!'
    - J. Conrad being bad ass.

  2. Found you via The Intern. Nice bit of insight over there. Thanks. :-)

    (Interesting header on the blog here, sort of a Steampunk Alchemist theme.)

  3. Joe: that is indeed a sweet quote -- and a disturbing one! It's even more troubling now after years of studying all the crazy racial/sociopolitical prejudices Conrad was tackling (and in some ways maybe perpetuating). Thanks for bringing it back to my mind.

    Josin: Good to meet you! And thank you for the header compliments; the designer is just phenomenal. You can find her work here: