Posts Tagged ‘Pico Iyer’

Pico Iyer’s book and music recommendations

April 23, 2008

Laila Lalami points to a couple of pieces by Pico Iyer:

  • A recommendation for Graham Greene’s The Quiet American:

    But that’s not why I keep reading and rereading The Quiet American, like many of Greene’s books, and have it always with me in my carry-on, a private bible. Certainly it’s true that if you walk through modern Saigon, as I have done, you can see Greene’s romantic triangle playing out in every other hotel. And if you think about Iraq, Afghanistan, elsewhere, you see the outline of the same story.

    What touches me in the book, though, is something even deeper and more personal. The novel asks every one of us what we want from a foreign place, and what we are planning to do with it. It points out that innocence and idealism can claim as many lives as the opposite, fearful cynicism. And it reminds me that the world is much larger than our ideas of it, and how the Vietnamese woman at the book’s center, Phuong, will always remain outside a foreigner’s grasp. It even brings all the pieces of my own background — Asian, English, American — into the same puzzle.

    You must read The Quiet American, I tell my friends, because it explains our past, in Southeast Asia, trains light on our present in many places, and perhaps foreshadows our future if we don’t take heed. It spins a heartrending romance and tale of friendship against a backdrop of murder, all the while unfolding a scary political parable. And most of all, it refuses the easy answer: The unquiet Englishman isn’t as tough as he seems, and the blundering American not quite so terrible — or so innocent. Both of them are just the people we might be at different stages of our lives. The Quiet American, in fact, becomes most haunting and profound if you think of it just as a dialogue between one side of Greene — or yourself — and the other. The old in their wisdom, as he writes elsewhere, sometimes envy the folly of the young.

  • On songs for a (non-denominational) funeral:

    Nearly all of the above, I’m almost painfully aware, are cliches: solid, mainstream Boomer hits that are pretty much exactly what you’d expect of someone born in 1957 and eager to hear the orchestral fullness of The Arcade Fire (caught in passionate concert in Osaka only a few weeks ago), but not always able to see what their driving vision is. When you watch a Curtis Hanson movie (”The Wonder Boys,” say, or “Lucky You”), you come upon a sudden sequence of songs on the soundtrack — Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen — that has the same effect on many as saying your favorite writers are Updike, Mailer, Vidal and Roth. This is, in short, as far from a Wes Anderson soundtrack, with its rabidly quirky sampling of Nick Drake and everything this side of Tiny Tim, as you could get.

    But that’s the point, at least for a funeral. You don’t want quirk, you don’t want originality. You’re ready to draw on Beethoven, Bach and Handel without shame, and to pull together Psalms, the end of “Hamlet” and (who knows?) the final sentences of “Gatsby.” I’ve spent my life traveling, and I could easily choose the cool Haitian band Ram (who, at least when I was in Port-au-Prince, played knockdown concerts in the lobby of the Hotel Oloffson once a week); Madagascar covers of Merle Haggard (which I happen to love); and the latest grunters I chanced to hear on Easter Island. But the main thing I’ve learned on my travels is that the stuff that travels — and even that lasts — tends not to be too rarefied or even cool (think Lionel Richie, Dire Straits and “Three Times a Lady”). For most of the world Eric Clapton will always be remembered for his swoony balled “Wonderful Tonight” (which I recently saw being played on an ancient Chinese instrument in the 6th century Shinto shrine that stands in the sea off the sacred Japanese island of Miyajima. And under moonlight on a warm November evening, no traditional song — not even “Layla” — could have been more luminous).

    Besides which, Van’s “The Garden” is as transfixing a visit into the “Four Quartets” as the Man has ever made — less rousing than such foot-thumpers as “Whenever God Shines His Light,” but only because it’s more genuinely mysterious, and worthy of the great poets (Donne and company) he’s always mumbling about. “A Case of You” could break your heart into pieces when Joni Mitchell sang it onstage in 1970, and then could harrow you in some far more spooky way when she sang it again, voice ravaged by decades of cigarettes, in her later years. Anyone who doesn’t get touched by Jackson Browne’s tribute to a sister who died too young — symbol for all the kids he saw flame out in 60s California — and who doesn’t ache at the sound of David Lindley’s violin lament doesn’t deserve to hear a solo acoustic version of “Song for Adam.”

    Green Day have to be here, much though I’d like to include the Clash or even the Enemy (this is a funeral, after all, and we need high spirits). Sigur Ros are the modest saviors of our time, ready and willing to take us across to the other shore and recall to us, calmly, our dragons and our angels. As for Jewel, she is one of the startlingly mystical voices of her generation, and only traduced because her first record, made when she was a teenage girl, happened to speak to other teenage girls (who were no doubt looking for a new Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath, or even just a Joni Mitchell for a generation that had outlived many of the older hopes). The only person who can legitimately and convincingly bring Jewel down is Jewel.

    The other items here don’t really need explaining, except by virtue of the stories they bring: Jane Siberry was one of the radical and fearless artists of the ’90s and is now, I’m told, reduced to selling her autograph to survive; Richard Thompson, through all his many lives, has always, always been acclaimed as the most under-rated guitar hero ever, but his sepulchral songs of love gone wrong and droll troubadour despair have never quite shone the way they did when he was singing with his ex-wife Linda, who joined him in bringing Thomas Hardy and Rumi into the same chorus; and anyone who tells you that songwriters shouldn’t be candidates for the Pulitzer, the Prix Goncourt and even the Nobel can take down some Leonard Cohen from the shelf and see what happens when the leading young poet in Canada — winner of his country’s equivalent to the Pulitzer (the Governor-General’s Award) 40 years ago — decides to give his words extra weight and reach by singing them to the sound of a droning backbeat.

    Should I apologize for Springsteen and U2? Only because they have — sad or happy to say — touched more lives and affected more hearts and consciences, more eloquently, than pretty much any writer of their age. And in making the final choice here — well, if it’s 1:21 a.m., and you’re 17 hours out of sync, having just flown across the Pacific, who else are you going to turn to but the Dead, absolute proof (for those who were listening) that Al Gore, longtime Deadhead, wasn’t what he seemed?

Have fun!

On Dalai Lama and his diligent strivings on

March 24, 2008

Pankaj Mishra reviews Pico Iyer’s The Open Road for the New Yorker:

Last November, a couple of weeks after the Dalai Lama received a Congressional Gold Medal from President Bush, his old Land Rover went on sale on eBay. Sharon Stone, who once introduced the Tibetan leader at a fundraiser as “Mr. Please, Please, Please Let Me Back Into China!” (she meant Tibet), announced the auction on YouTube, promising the prospective winner of the 1966 station wagon, “You’ll just laugh the whole time that you’re in it!” The bidding closed at more than eighty thousand dollars. The Dalai Lama, whom Larry King, on CNN, once referred to as a Muslim, has also received the Lifetime Achievement award of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. He is the only Nobel laureate to appear in an advertisement for Apple and guest-edit French Vogue. Martin Scorsese and Brad Pitt have helped commemorate his Lhasa childhood on film. He gave a lecture at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, in Washington, D.C., in 2005. This spring, in Germany, he will speak on human rights and globalization. For someone who claims to be “a simple Buddhist monk,” the Dalai Lama has a large carbon footprint and often seems as ubiquitous as Britney Spears.

As Pico Iyer writes in his new book, “The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama” (Knopf; $24), it is easy to imagine that the Dalai Lama is “the plaything of movie stars and millionaires.” Certainly, like all those who stress the importance of love, compassion, gentle persuasion, and other unimpeachably good things, the Dalai Lama can appear a bit dull. Precepts such as “violence breeds violence” or “the quality of means determine ends” may be ethically sound, but they don’t seem to possess the intellectual complexity that would make them engaging as ideas. Since the Dalai Lama speaks English badly, and frequently collapses into prolonged fits of giggling, he can also give the impression that he is, as Iyer reports a journalist saying, “not the brightest bulb in the room.”

His simple-Buddhist-monk persona invites skepticism, even scorn. “I have heard cynics who say he’s a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes,” Rupert Murdoch has said. Christopher Hitchens accuses the Dalai Lama of claiming to be a “hereditary king appointed by heaven itself” and of enforcing “one-man rule” in Dharamsala, the town in the Indian Himalayas that serves as a capital for the more than a hundred and fifty thousand Tibetans in exile. The Chinese government routinely denounces him as a “splittist,” who is plotting to return Tibet to the corrupt feudal and monastic rule from which Chinese Communists liberated it, in 1951. Many Tibetans in exile grumble that he is too attached to nonviolence, and too much in the grip of Western event coördinators, to prevent the Chinese from colonizing Tibet.

As China grows unassailable, it is easy to become pessimistic about Tibet, and to imagine its spiritual leader becoming increasingly prey to fatalism. The Dalai Lama’s retreat from the exclusivist claims of ancestral religion and the nation-state can seem the reflex of someone who, since he first copied out his predecessor’s prophecy, has helplessly watched his country’s landmarks disappear. The bracing virtue of Iyer’s thoughtful essay, however, is that it allows us to imagine the Dalai Lama as something of an intellectual and spiritual adventurer, exploring fresh sources of individual identity and belonging in the newly united world.

Certainly, Arendt’s “solidarity of mankind,” enforced by capitalism and technology, has become, as she observed, “an unbearable burden,” provoking “political apathy, isolationist nationalism, or desperate rebellion against all powers that be.” There are few things that Tibetans lashing out at the Chinese presence in Lhasa today fear more than absorption into the ruthless new economy and culture of China. Iyer’s book makes it plausible that the boy from the Tibetan backwoods may be outlining, in his own frequently Forrest Gumpish way, “a process of mutual understanding and progressing self-clarification on a gigantic scale”—the process that Arendt believed necessary for halting the “tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody else.” It is hard to see the Dalai Lama bringing about mutual understanding in the world at large when he has failed to bring it about between China and Tibet. Such, however, are the advantages of being a simple Buddhist monk that he is less likely—indeed, less able—than most politicians to compromise his noble ends with dubious means, even as he, following the Buddha’s deathbed exhortation, diligently strives on.

Take a look!

Update: LouisBayard at Salon isn’t very happy with Pico Iyer’s offering (nor with the Dalai Lama himself):

In the warmth of the Dalai Lama’s bespectacled gaze, we can more easily forget the less attractive aspects of his thinking — his endorsement of nuclear weapons in India, his acceptance of contributions from Japanese terrorists. We can also, if we’re really drunk on him, give him credit for changing the world.

But politics is not simply an extension of personality, and the fact remains that, under the Dalai Lama’s watch, one of the world’s great centers of Buddhism has been, in Iyer’s words, “all but wiped off the map.” Not a single nation currently recognizes the Tibetan government in exile, and the Dalai Lama’s long-standing policy of accommodation and nonaggression — he no longer calls for a separate Tibetan state, merely coexistence with the Chinese — has failed to dislodge Tibet’s occupiers by so much as a square inch.

Not all this failure can be laid at one man’s door. You could even argue that the Tibetan cause was doomed from the moment Nixon pressed flesh with Mao. Or still earlier, if we are to take seriously Buddhist principles of karmic retribution. But when Iyer asks the Dalai Lama if Tibet’s sufferings are a result of its “collective karma,” he is greeted with gnomic fragments: “It’s complicated … mysterious.” Which the bedazzled Iyer takes to mean that the answer “belonged to worlds I wasn’t in a position to enter or understand.” I take it to mean that the Dalai Lama lacks a good answer. (How many mountebanks have plied the same line: I could explain, but you wouldn’t understand.) And perhaps it doesn’t matter if he has the right answers anymore. The more vaguely he speaks, the more we fawn on him.

After all, he asks so little of us. For Western audiences, at least, the message boils down to the equivalent of a Benetton ad: Be nice, live happy. No profession of creed. No radical redistribution of income. (Richard Gere did pay for the bathrooms outside the Dalai Lama’s main temple.) Not much self-sacrifice. (Feel free to wave your “Free Tibet” banner at the Chinese Embassy.) Not even much in the way of guilt for the 6 million or so Tibetans under China’s yoke.

Hell, the Dalai Lama has forgiven China, so why shouldn’t we? To hear him tell it: “Our real enemies are our own habitual tendencies toward thinking in terms of enemies … Our terrors are of our own creation. The world itself is not so frightening, if only we can see it correctly.”

With all due respect to His Holiness — and with all due apologies for my Western bias — this is horseshit. And something very close to an insult to those who have lived and died in terror, the Dalai Lama’s compatriots in particular. Would he have dared offer this counsel to the 1 million Tibetans who were directly or indirectly killed by invading Chinese? To the countless others who were raped, sterilized, electroshocked? What about those Tibetan parents who were forced to applaud while their children were executed? Would they be expected to believe their sufferings were merely illusory and passing?

Take a look!

The mysterious other known as woman

November 18, 2007

The classic British public school prepares its inmates expertly for taking on (or over) the world, and not at all for that half of the world known as the opposite sex. Its charges are trained, in effect, to see women as a foreign country (most of the old boarding schools are still all-male), and even as they are taught just how to give or take orders, and how to bring their curious blend of stoicism and fellowship to Afghanistan or Arabia, they receive no instruction in what to do with that alien force that awaits them every night at home. Much of twentieth-century English literature comes, not surprisingly, from products of these half-military, half-monastic institutions (not least because self-discipline and getting things done are part of what they impart), and the result is a grand corpus of books written by men who seem at once fascinated and unsettled by that mysterious other known as woman.

That is Pico Iyer reviewing Judith Freeman’s biography of Raymond Chanlder for The New York Review of Books; link via Amitava Kumar. Take a look!

Saturday very early morning links!

October 6, 2007

[1] Several people have linked to the wild crow tool use videos obtained by attaching video cams to their tail feathers: /. refers to the New Scientist page, while Jenny refers to the NPR page; the Scientific American report is here; and, the paper itself is published in Science, if you have access to the journal, the supporting online material includes the videos.

[2] The other story that is getting lots of attention is the use of YouTube by UC Berkeley, to post videos of the class lectures.

[3] Grrlscientist on the molecular mechanisms of eusociality; and,

[4] Finally, a lit link: Pico Iyer reviews Orhan Pamuk (via Laila Lalami).