Max Cohen is a mathematics and technology whiz, holed up in his small Chinatown apartment obsessed with finding the underlying numerical pattern he believes the global stock market rests on. Max’s particular genius, along with his insecurities and growing paranoia, are fuelled by the conviction that everything in the universe can be, indeed, must be, reduced to purely mathematical terms. Given the necessary intellectual exertion and the right formula, Max is convinced it’s only a matter of time until he unlocks the secret.
Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant debut film provides us with a disturbing glimpse into the human condition at its most extreme. The lens he uses focuses on our deep fear in the face of the eternal void, and on the equally deep need to create life-jackets of meaning that keep us afloat amid the swirl of uncertainty. If Aronofsky’s film is a commentary on the human condition, it is also a critique of the West’s belief in salvation through the now hypermodern ideals of mathematics, science, and technology – the tools of rational autonomy.
In Max’s case, the self-sufficiency of human reason, coupled with his belief in the unifying power of mathematics, allows us to see what happens when we put all of our apples in one cart; when we invest all of our money in a boat that leaks; and when we put all of our faith in something that’s not meant to save us, only serve us.
So what happens when we sell our souls to something creaturely, something finite? Inevitably it leads to disappointment, disillusion, and finally despair which often leads to a breakdown of beliefs and values not completely disconnected from psychosis. At such times we begin to spiral downward and out of control. We begin to “fall,” as it were, and experience a kind of vertigo that might be called, among other things, a worldview crisis, or a crisis of faith.
Pi shows us that hanging on to anything with a tight grip actually causes one to lose their grip. But letting go enables one, paradoxically, to come to terms with what all humans struggle with and yearn for at the same time: namely, our profound fear in the face of what we cannot know for certain, and our profound need to know the truth, connect the dots, and make sense of it all.