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The wind carves shapes into the beach sand

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#2167 - Tuesday, June 7, 2005 - Editor: Jerry Katz  

Photo: Pico Iyer (the best unposed photo of him I could find; lots of posed photos in which he's very good looking)  

Pico Iyer, an introspective novelist and travel writer, is one of the most highly regarded writers of our time. In this issue are two articles by Pico Iyer. One is about Leonard Cohen: "...with Cohen, one feels that he knew who he was and where he was going from the beginning, and only digs deeper, deeper." And the other article is about silence: "Silence, then, could be said to be the ultimate province of trust..."  

In his most recent book, Sun After Dark, Iyer writes: "The beauty of any flight, after all, is that, as soon as we leave the ground, we leave a sense of who we are behind."  

Sun After Dark is steeped in what remains when the known is left behind. What remains is neither the "I Am" ticket that Nisargadatta Maharaj hands out, nor is it the "this" of direct experience (which can't be handed out or torn in half upon entry). What remains is the unknown that nondualists make nothing of. That is, the important point of attention is not what was or what remains, but, "Who is having the experience of 'leaving a sense of who we are behind'?"  

Iyer's book is a light/dark composition that parallels the light and dark relationship of nondual expression, such Papaji's: "'I AM BRAHMAN.' Continuously expose the MIND to this thought. In a flash, special knowledge will remove ignorance." And the book is consumed by other nondual confession: "There is no world and no dweller in it" (Papaji, again).   

Moments in this book by Iyer, a longtime resident of Japan, evoke haiku qualities, but I don't feel emptiness bringing emptiness. This book doesn't show Iyer standing alongside Basho, Whitman or Thoreau at their most non-separate with the real. Rather, in this book I am proceeding through a painting done in language by a master who understands light, and has internalized the color chart of dark: "I get into a car and we drive down Roxaas Boulevard, sudden fireworks of silent lights around the gaudy discos and the karaoke parlors, and then the dark returning all around."  

--Jerry Katz

(I'll write a more extensive review of Sun After Dark in an upcoming issue. I love the book. It's great counterpoint to on-target nondual expression, and I do assume the role of placing my book reviews in the context of nondual expression.)   THE ESSENTIAL LEONARD COHEN

by Pico Iyer

Melody Maker, June 20, 1970

Rock & Folk # 92, September 1974

Rock & Folk # 114, July 1976

Goldmine # 328, February 1993

Live (Saarland) # 2, February 1993

Les Inrockuptibles # 1, March 1995

Shambhala Sun, September 1998

Optimum, October 2001

There is a poetic rightness in having an essential Cohen, in part because he's always been so essential to the rest of us (keeping one eye firmly on the times and one eye on the timeless), but even more because essentials are what he lives off. There are almost no clocks in Cohen's work, and even though the details ("It's four in the morning, the end of December") are often scrupulously exact, they're always there to take you to something deeper: love, jealousy, the imminence of loss. No distractions, nothing extraneous.

Cohen has always made a practice of defying every category--he's a community of one--even as he has moved from poems to novels to songs: the only writer I know who managed to become an international singing sensation, the only #1 performer who's also been a prize-winning poet. He tops the charts in Norway and Malaysia, and you hear his spirit behind every new generation of poet-songwriters (there are 12 tribute albums to him worldwide). He defined the Sixties for many of us, with songs like "Suzanne" and "Bird On a Wire"; he caught the bravado of the Eighties ("First We Take Manhattan"), and, having already plunged deep into the time out of time ("Night Comes On"), he then summarized the Nineties ("The Future"). When everyone had counted him out, he looked in on us again, from his cabin high up at the Mount Baldy Zen Center, and told us what was essential in the 21st century too.

Yet what strikes me most, listening to these songs all at once, is how little in some sense he's changed; the changeless is what he's been about since the beginning. If you think of some of the other great pilgrims of song (Bob Dylan, say, or Van Morrison or Joni Mitchell), you see them pass through philosophies and selves as if through stations of the cross; with Cohen, one feels that he knew who he was and where he was going from the beginning, and only digs deeper, deeper. Listen to the "Master Song" here, and recall that it was written six years before he fell in with a Zen master, Joshu Sasaki-roshi; lose your heart, 35 years later, to "Alexandra Leaving," and remember that he was writing of "Alexandra's double bed" 23 years before, at the beginning of "Death of a Lady's Man." The moon passes through different phases--shows us a different face every night--but it's always the same moon.

I went once to visit Cohen in his lonely perch atop the mountain, and what I remember, more even than the mellifluous and elegant presence (the most articulate writer I've ever met), was his stillness: beneath the words, deeper than that figure in black walking around a pine tree in near-snow after midnight, was someone else, lost in meditation. Leonard Cohen has been famous in the public eye as actor, agent provocateur, lay theologian and courtly lover; but beyond all that, the person from whom the songs issue is unknown even perhaps to himself.

When I called Cohen to ask him about this new collection, he said it was "crammed with stuff" (chosen by him, and, you will notice, flowing like one steady stream--a dark river seen by moonlight--through nearly every one of his ten albums, equally distributed between the riddled ballads of the searching young man and the composed verses of the monk of 67). Yet most of us who listen to it will find our minds crammed with all the songs that could have been here--"The Stranger Song," "The Window," "Light as the Breeze." It's hard to pick an essential Cohen because he's already done it for us; the songs he presents for our nourishment are never half-formed or unconsidered. Large notebooks are compressed into six tight verses meant to last.

You will hear, perhaps, that "Hallelujah" was recently chosen as the greatest Canadian song of all time and you will catch the echo of songs like "Democracy" and "If It Be Your Will" every time you go to the movies or enter a cafe. The Zen monks of Kyoto devour his work, late at night, while the women in Iceland dream about this elusive gypsy. Cohen takes us, at heart, into a mythic place, an ageless space alight with goddesses and God, where we see a lone figure walking down the road, in dark Buddhist robes, with a Torah in one hand and a picture of a woman in the other. Always in our sight even as he disappears into the dark.

Pico Iyer
Nara, Japan
August 2002

2002 Pico Iyer and Sony Music
Reprinted with permission
All Rights reserved

Magazine covers from the
collection of Jarkko Arjatsalo

Click for more magazine
covers of 2001!    


Pico Iyer: The Eloquent Sounds of Silence

Eclectic writer Pico Iyer is best known for travel writing and fiction but has published articles and essays in a variety of venues. "The Eloquent Sounds of Silence" is from the January 25, 1993 issue of TIME.

The Eloquent Sounds of Silence

Every one of us knows the sensation of going up, on retreat, to a high place and feeling ourselves so lifted up that we can hardly imagine the circumstances of our usual lives, or all the things that make us fret. In such a place, in such a state, we start to recite the standard litany: that silence is sunshine, where company is clouds; that silence is rapture, where company is doubt; that silence is golden, where company is brass.

But silence is not so easily won. And before we race off to go prospecting in those hills, we might usefully recall that fool's gold is much more common and that gold has to be panned for, dug out from other substances. "All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence," wrote Herman Melville, one of the loftiest and most eloquent of souls. Working himself up to an ever more thunderous cry of affirmation, he went on, "Silence is the general consecration of the universe. Silence is the invisible laying on of the Divine Pontiff's hands upon the world. Silence is the only Voice of our God.'' For Melville, though, silence finally meant darkness and hopelessness and self-annihilation. Devastated by the silence that greeted his heartfelt novels, he retired into a public silence from which he did not emerge for more than 30 years. Then, just before his death, he came forth with his final utterance -- the luminous tale of Billy Budd -- and showed that silence is only as worthy as what we can bring back from it.

We have to earn silence, then, to work for it: to make it not an absence but a presence; not emptiness but repletion. Silence is something more than just a pause; it is that enchanted place where space is cleared and time is stayed and the horizon itself expands. In silence, we often say, we can hear ourselves think; but what is truer to say is that in silence we can hear ourselves not think, and so sink below our selves into a place far deeper than mere thought allows. In silence, we might better say, we can hear someone else think.

Or simply breathe. For silence is responsiveness, and in silence we can listen to something behind the clamor of the world. "A man who loves God, necessarily loves silence,'' wrote Thomas Merton, who was, as a Trappist, a connoisseur, a caretaker of silences. It is no coincidence that places of worship are places of silence: if idleness is the devil's playground, silence may be the angels'. It is no surprise that silence is an anagram of license. And it is only right that Quakers all but worship silence, for it is the place where everyone finds his God, however he may express it. Silence is an ecumenical state, beyond the doctrines and divisions created by the mind. If everyone has a spiritual story to tell of his life, everyone has a spiritual silence to preserve.

So it is that we might almost say silence is the tribute we pay to holiness; we slip off words when we enter a sacred space, just as we slip off shoes. A "moment of silence'' is the highest honor we can pay someone; it is the point at which the mind stops and something else takes over (words run out when feelings rush in). A "vow of silence'' is for holy men the highest devotional act. We hold our breath, we hold our words; we suspend our chattering selves and let ourselves "fall silent,'' and fall into the highest place of all.

It often seems that the world is getting noisier these days: in Japan, which may be a model of our future, cars and buses have voices, doors and elevators speak. The answering machine talks to us, and for us, somewhere above the din of the TV; the Walkman preserves a public silence but ensures that we need never -- in the bathtub, on a mountaintop, even at our desks -- be without the clangor of the world. White noise becomes the aural equivalent of the clash of images, the nonstop blast of fragments that increasingly agitates our minds. As Ben Okri, the young Nigerian novelist, puts it, "When chaos is the god of an era, clamorous music is the deity's chief instrument.''

There is, of course, a place for noise, as there is for daily lives. There is a place for roaring, for the shouting exultation of a baseball game, for hymns and spoken prayers, for orchestras and cries of pleasure. Silence, like all the best things, is best appreciated in its absence: if noise is the signature tune of the world, silence is the music of the other world, the closest thing we know to the harmony of the spheres. But the greatest charm of noise is when it ceases. In silence, suddenly, it seems as if all the windows of the world are thrown open and everything is as clear as on a morning after rain. Silence, ideally, hums. It charges the air. In Tibet, where the silence has a tragic cause, it is still quickened by the fluttering of prayer flags, the tolling of temple bells, the roar of wind across the plains, the memory of chant.

Silence, then, could be said to be the ultimate province of trust: it is the place where we trust ourselves to be alone; where we trust others to understand the things we do not say; where we trust a higher harmony to assert itself. We all know how treacherous are words, and how often we use them to paper over embarrassment, or emptiness, or fear of the larger spaces that silence brings. "Words, words, words'' commit us to positions we do not really hold, the imperatives of chatter; words are what we use for lies, false promises and gossip. We babble with strangers; with intimates we can be silent. We "make conversation'' when we are at a loss; we unmake it when we are alone, or with those so close to us that we can afford to be alone with them.

In love, we are speechless; in awe, we say, words fail us.

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