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Pebbles in the Shoe: Pico Iyer’s Encounters with “Mystery”

November 2, 2008 by · No comments

Barry George

Photo: The Wandering Angel

About midway through his essays in Sun after Dark (2004), Pico Iyer refers to the Tibetan travels of the early-twentieth-century adventurer Alexandra David-Neel. According to Iyer, the French woman described herself as “a Westerner, a disciple of Descartes,” an expression which Iyer paraphrases by saying she was “committed, in her way, to what others have called the empirical study of another world” (129). A recurring theme in the essays of Iyer, who clearly also identifies with a Western and empirical viewpoint, is his encounter with experiences that seem to defy the assumptions of “sense,” and to exist “far beyond our apprehension” in the realm of what he calls “mystery” (219).

This theme is most important in three of the essays—“In the Dark,” “On the Ropebridge,” and “The Pebble in the Shoe”—where Iyer variously attempts to reconcile his exposure to “mystery” with his empirical view of reality. Although his accounts are highly suggestive in their details and allusions, he nevertheless stops short of concluding that the experiences have fundamentally challenged his worldview.

“In the Dark” describes the island of Bali as “a magical world for those can see its invisible forces and read the unseen currents in the air” (116). It is a place where, by many accounts, foreigners see ghosts in the night and natives communicate with their kin through telepathy. Most importantly, for Iyer’s purposes, Bali has the reputation of “a magic island…where people fall in love with the first Other that they meet” (117).

No sooner does Iyer arrive on the island than a woman named Wayan “emerge[s] out of the night” on the beach and asks him to walk with her. They have a romance lasting “some days,” after which he decides to leave Bali without telling her. Remarkably, she is there at the airport ready to bid him farewell. Even more remarkably, when he returns to Bali eighteen months later, again without tipping off Wayan, she is waiting for him outside his guest house on the first night “as if by prior arrangement” (118).

They talk briefly on the beach that night, and again the next day, when Iyer expresses disinterest in a further relationship. Almost immediately, he becomes bedridden with a strange ailment, which lasts until he leaves Bali three days later.

Iyer, who admits his “skepticism” (117), finds the experience so unusual that he wants a reminder—“proof, of a kind”—that these events have happened, and so he brings home the mask of an owl. However, in his Manhattan apartment, where the owl hangs on the wall, it attracts the attention of other owls, whose nightly “chatterings and hauntings” are so unsettling that he takes the mask down and puts it in the closet (118).

What does Iyer make of the experience? In this essay, his conclusion is cryptic: “You go into the dark to get away from what you know, and if you go far enough, you realize suddenly, that you’ll never really make it back into the light” (119). Clearly, the events in Bali have unnerved him. But in what way he has been troubled, and with what specific consequences, he doesn’t say.

In “On the Ropebridge,” Iyer recounts his experience in another mysterious world, Tibet, or more specifically, in an obscure Tibetan Buddhist monastery. As with Bali, Iyer acknowledges Tibet’s reputation as a place of extraordinary phenomena: “Monks who can run two hundred miles at a stretch,” “raise their body temperatures,” and even levitate (128).

As such, he notes, it has attracted Western psychic explorers such as Madame Blavatsky, Gurdjieff, and Paul Brunton. Additionally, Iyer seems to credit the report of a friend who claimed, upon arriving in Tibet and seeing the great stone Buddhas carved along the highway, that she’d already dreamed the experience (130). He also writes about the mystical visions of the invading British Colonel Francis Younghusband, and describes at length how the early-1900s movie, Lost Horizon, proved uncanny in predicting various events later in the century. Finally, Iyer describes how, at the monastery, his attention is drawn to an especially graceful monk who seemed “as if he were sculpted out of light” (123).

At least at one point he seems to imply that the extraordinary spiritual and psychic phenomena attributed to Tibet are as real as the phenomena of the Western world. Specifically, he cites “the news that Americans have walked on the moon, that people can speak to one another across the globe on little instruments they carry in their pockets, or that the Chinese god, ‘Wang Dao’ (or Michael Jordan, as we call him) can be seen flying over a basket ten feet above the ground” (129). Such Western commonplaces, he posits, must seem as implausible to Tibetan villagers as various aspects of the Tibetan experience seem to us.

However, that exercise in reverse logic is as far as he is willing to go. Clearly, he does not view the extra-rational, or supernatural, forces at work in Tibet as a power capable of influence in the larger world. For Iyer, the mystery evident in Tibet is something connected inextricably with the past, with poverty, and with a lack of education and healthcare; as opposed to the “modern” world of technology and progress. A traveler like Iyer can indeed walk between the two sides—“as across one of the ropebridges that famously span the gorges of the Himalaya”—but he cannot live in both worlds simultaneously (124-125). The “real Tibet,” Iyer concludes, is something “that lives mostly in a place that can’t be seen” (142).

The third essay, “The Pebble in the Shoe,” begins with the remark of a Port-au-Prince restaurateur to the effect that “this place, it is not Cartesian” (215). Iyer does not have the man elaborate, but the surrounding details play up Haiti’s chaotic, dark, and sometimes violent side. Iyer experiences such chaos, for example, at the airport terminal, where his suitcase disappears, and on his trips to and from the airport, both of which result in mishaps (218).

Iyer again posits two realms: a Cartesian world characterized by order and light, and a mysterious world of chaos and darkness. He compares his experience of Haiti with “the same dialogue the Puritans had known [wherein] the protagonists of their drama were two: God and the Wilderness,” which he says is “a dialogue that takes place inside every being—‘redskin’ and ‘paleface,’ as the literary critics used to say, the genteel tradition and the barbaric yawp” (219).

Referring to Forster’s A Passage to India, he further associates the mystery of Haiti with “horror, the shadow-world…[what] we call the primitive or the jungle….” (220). He writes that when a “quester,” like Forster’s character Adele Quested, encounters the mysterious, “she ends up, very often, with some disease, inward or external, from which she will never recover” (220). The passage recalls Iyer’s own illness after the experience with Wayan in Bali.

Iyer nevertheless gives no indication that the maladies which he has suffered as a result of his travels in mysterious realms, to date, are especially serious or enduring conditions. Nor does he seem to see the mysterious as an important part of the planet’s—or his own—present and future; he relegates it to the exotic locations he has visited, and to the past. He is both fascinated and discomfited by what he has encountered.

As with the owl mask from Bali and the serene Tibetan monk, his experiences in Haiti have revealed, in his words, “grains of the unknowable” which linger in his soul “the way a pebble may get inside one’s shoe” (220). Whether that pebble remains a mere annoyance to the empiricist in him, or prompts further, more far-reaching travels and speculations, is a question one hopes his next collection will take up.

Works Cited
Iyer, Pico. Sun after Dark: Flights into the Foreign. New York: Knopf, 2004.

Categories: Critique · Frontpage


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