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Hurtling Away
from Home
Pico Iyer's The Global Soul:
Jet Lag, Shopping Malls,
and the Search for Home

by Charlie Onion

When it comes to contemporary global issues, Pico Iyer isn't a happy camper. While admitting that the notions of exile and abandoned homes pre-date Homer, he writes in The Global Soul that


what is changing, surely, is the speed at which the world is turning, and sometimes I feel as if I'm going through the existential equivalent of that game I used to play as a child, in which I'd spin myself around and around where I stood, till I collapsed in a dizzy heap on the floor. The two great engines of our age--technology and travel (now the largest industry in the world)--give fuel to each other, our machines prompting us to speed as an end in itself, and the longing for speed quickening a hunger for new technologies.

The external effects of this are everywhere--1 million transactions every minute on the New York Stock Exchange, and the speed of silicon chips doubling (as their price diminishes) every eighteen months. Yet the internal effects may be even more disquieting, as memory itself seems accelerated, and yesterday's dramas become as remote as ancient history. At times, it can feel as if the whole planet is joyriding in somebody else's Porsche, at ninety miles an hour, around blind curves. As even Marshal McLuhan, the hopeful (if somewhat absentminded) godfather of the "electronic cottage," confessed, "You get going very quickly and you end up in the wrong place."

The Global Soul:
Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home

Pico Iyer
Alfred A. Knopf
320 pp.
$25.00 order now logo


Wrong place indeed. Unlike in, say, the British Empire, that divided a person's identity "between the home he carried in his blood and the one he had on paper," Iyer argues that


in the modern world, which I take to be an International Empire, the sense of home is not just divided, but scattered across the planet, and in the absence of any center at all, people find themselves at sea. Our ads sing of Planet Reebok and Planet Hollywood--even my monthly telephone bill in Japan speaks of "One World One Company"--yet none of us necessarily feels united on a deeper level.


Our very souls are at risk in the global age, Iyer says, quoting Simone Weil: "No human being should be deprived of his metaxu, that is to say, of those relative and mixed blessings (home, country, tradition, cultures, etc.) which warm and nourish the soul and without which, short of sainthood, a human life is not possible."

Of course, these sorts of complaints aren't original to Iyer. American Renaissance writers like Emerson and Thoreau made the same sorts of arguments, as Iyer himself readily points out. (Indeed, The Global Soul's title is an ironic reference to Emerson's notion of a universal soul "that is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its; we are its property and men.") And the general concern over the costs of progress wasn't unknown to British social philosophers of the nineteenth century either. Think of William Morris's socialist rage-against-the-machine drive behind the Arts and Crafts movement, for example. (Click here for a WAG article on the Arts and Crafts movement.) Among more recent popular essayists, Witold Rybczynski is strikingly close to Iyer in many of his central arguments; both men point out the dehumanizing aspects of modern life while casting a prescriptive eye on what we can profitably take from the past. (Click here for WAG's review of Rybczynski's A Clearing in the Distance.) Iyer's interest in the concept of 'home' shows up in some of Tracy Kidder's work as well, particularly Kidder's Home Town, although Kidder spends more time exploring the sense of belonging to a place than he does lamenting its loss or absence. (Click here for WAG's review of Home Town.)

Iyer's most original contribution to the tradition may lie in what he makes of his own sense of dislocatedness:


I know a little about the Global Soul in part because, having grown up simultaneously in three cultures [Indian, English and American], none of them fully my own, I acquired very early the sense of being loosed from time as much as from space--I had no history, I could feel, and lived under the burden of no home; and when I look at many of the most basic details of my life, I realize that even though they look hardly strange to me, they would have seemed surreal to every one of my grandparents. Growing up, I had no relatives on the same continent as myself, and I never learned a word of my mother's tongue or my father's (because, coming from different parts of India, they had no common language save that of British India). To this day, I can't pronounce what is technically my first name, and the name by which I go is an Italian one (though often mistaken for Spanish, Portuguese, female), mostly because my parents, realizing I'd be living among people foreign to Indian polysyllables, named me after a fifteenth-century Italian neo-Platonist whose name was easy to spell and to pronounce.


Lacking Rybczynski's centralizing focus on architecture, Iyer often uses himself and his equally multi-national (or perhaps post-national) friends as his points of reference--perhaps not a great tradeoff, but given his background, it's justifiable as an essay device, if not a scientifically accurate one. Most people, for instance, have only a few phone numbers at which they can be reached, I think. Iyer's friend who carries a veritable card catalog of around-the-world phone numbers is hardly representative of the rest of us and really can't be used as more than an impressionistic suggestion of how extreme the 'global soul' syndrome might become for the rest of us.

On a more troubling note, one can't shake the feeling that Iyer is a little skittish, with all his constant flitting among his exhaustively catalogued examples; 'restless' would be a charitable word for Iyer's narrative style. It's hard to feel comfortably at home in Iyer's text, paragraph by paragraph, and The Global Soul as a whole has the disjointed feel of a series of previously written essays being forced together. Of course, some of the rootlessness can be justified as an impressionistic portrayal of the book's subject itself. But the same material seems to pop up in slightly different forms throughout the book without the text gaining much from each new appearance, and often one feels that Iyer could have done his readers a worthy service by deleting some of the repetitions. In this context, the opening and closing chapters of the book are the strongest since Iyer lingers over individual places longer there and keeps the fact-offerings to a minimum. As he demonstrates in those two chapters, Iyer is an engaging essayist who can capture and hold his reader's attention easily, and one wonders how much stronger The Global Soul might have been if he'd used those chapters as models for the bulk of the book.

Still, The Global Soul's central arguments are engagingly presented from a unique vantage point, and the book is well worth reading closely as both a wide-ranging social history and a prescient piece of contemporary cultural criticism.
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