Pico Iyer is a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He is the author of several books, including Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, and The Global Soul. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and other publications and his most recent book is The Man Within My Head.
It’s exhilarating to come upon a writer whose moves and positions one can’t anticipate. Writing of Las Vegas in his latest book, Richard Rodriguez dilates a little on Noël Coward’s stay in the Nevada desert (the British playwright found the gangsters there “urbane and charming”); he tells us about the …
Japanese literature is often about nothing happening, because Japanese life is, too. There are few emphases in spoken Japanese—the aim is to remain as level, even as neutral, as possible—and in a classic work like The Tale of Genji, as one recent translator has it, “The more intense the emotion, …
Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) was the first film I saw after I moved to Japan in 1987. I recall how, whenever I’m asked why I left my secure-seeming life in New York City to move to a small room on the backstreets of Kyoto, I say that I didn’t want to die feeling I’d never lived. Perhaps something in me was already moving toward Ikiru even then. I chose Japan as the place to move to in part because it seemed to be a quietly realistic society inclined to see life within a frame of death.
Any of us could list the differences between the two cities of mirages, Las Vegas and the North Korean capital Pyongyang. The one is a shameless efflorescence of capitalism that is, for its enemies, a glittering symbol of the decadence and emptiness of the West; the other the world’s last by-the-book, state-controlled monument to Stalinist brutality. Yet both cities are products of a mid-twentieth-century spirit that saw what power and profit could be found in constructing mass fantasies ab nihilo
Many a Tibetan mystic goes on a three-year retreat and comes back with a sense of stillness and attention that suggests great understanding, but most of these monks are masters of silence more than of the written word. The beauty of Proust is that he ventures into the farthest reaches of self-investigation and reflection, but brings his understandings back into language and episodes that anyone can follow.
Every visitor who goes to India knows how the country refuses to conform to plans or international expectations; the only way to survive is to give yourself over to its way of being. Fight against the Indian way of doing things and the only result will be tears. Just as you have to turn your watch forwards by half an hour when landing in India, just as you have to check in the batteries from your camera as separate pieces of luggage, just as it can prove impossible to find a working Internet connection in a proud center of high-tech like Hyderabad, so every foreigner has to surrender and realize that things will get done in their own, unexpected ways. The very qualities that make India so culturally alive, textured and itself make it uncommonly reluctant to adjust to the economic rules and geopolitical norms of the world.