Monday, 24 June 2013

Pico Iyer's Global Soul

Why was the soul invented?
One theory, I'm thinking of Obeyesekere, is that'Small-scale Societies' used the notion of metempsychosis to reinforce O.L.G bride exchange and notional agnatic kinship ties. State and Tribe formation instrumentalized this for elite coalition stability and the more general political purpose of manufacturing an ethos for ethnicity.
Another theory, suggested by Bruce Chatwin's 'Songlines', is that the soul is linked to a landscape in a manner that invests it with inter-subjective landmarks and meanings of a collectively adaptive type.
Finally, there is the notion that the soul is the locus of a therapeutic practice which itself arose out of mutual grooming and the exchange of marking services. This easily links up with the other two ideas creating a geographically delimited healing community based on the notion that certain maladies and metanoias are group and terrain specific.
However, such a notion would be intrinsically unstable, dissolving by reason of either metic immigration or emigration beyond the pale, and yielding place to a vertical, Euhemrist and Universalising, ontology whereby terrains reincarnate each other by a methexis of something on High which is also the soul's true fountain and bourn of repose.
When did the soul become Global and Historicised as opposed to Universal and Transcendent? My guess is- the second half of the Nineteenth Century when the American fad of Spiritualism, which the Russians called 'Spiritizm' and which Mendeleev vainly battled, gained global currency and suddenly every drawing-room and boarding house harbored some dotty little charmer with recovered memories of having been Cleopatra, a Red Indian Chief, a Japanese Samurai, and, of course, Napoleon, in a previous life.
The Theosophical Society, started by, the Russian, Madam Blavatsky and, the American, Col. Olcott, was perhaps the most successful attempt to institutionalize and define something otherwise inchoate and omnivorous- in short a wild-fire in danger of destroying the fuel by which it spread leaving, in its wake, not just 'burned over districts' but a burned out world.
Annie Besant's conversion to Theosophy and her leadership of this World Movement from Adyar, South India, firmly yoked its propagation in India to progressive ideas, reaching a peak of influence with Besant's election as President of the Indian National Congress in 1917. However, it was Besant's endorsement, in 1909, of the notion that a young South Indian Brahmin boy, Jeddu Krishnamurti, was the new 'Universal Teacher' which gave a sort of extra soteriological force to her support for Indian Home Rule. This was because Besant, whose mother had been a House Matron at Harrow, had wanted to educate Krishnamurti at Eton and Oxford, thus qualifying him to take a leading role in the elite Indian politics of that period (to which Gandhi, a Mahatma of a distinctly non-Theosophical sort, put paid) and combine the twin roles of World Statesman and Universal Teacher.` It was not to be. Besant herself was marginalized within India and Jeddu, who had settled in California, while retaining and returning her love, renounced the role of 'World Teacher'.
Still, Adyar's ambition of producing a Universal Messiah did not die with Jiddu's self-abnegating act. The Tamil Brahmin had tasted strong meat and would not meekly return to thair-shadam. Such was the case with U.G. Krishnamurti- history repeating itself as farce-who at least managed to attend a couple of years of College, though he didn't get a degree and thus qualify himself to be a Nariyal Panee wallah- as in Krishna Iyer Yem Ay- who lifts his lungi to show disco in the film Agneepath.
Around the same time that U.G. was confirming himself in a belief in his own genius, another young Tam Bram- Raghavan Iyer- was sweeping up all the glittering prizes- a first class M.A from Elphinstone at the age of 18, a Rhodes Scholarship, and a long and distinguished career as 'an expert on East-West cultures'. True, his books are shite; you can take the Tam Bram out of his agraharam, you can even send him to University where even he is bound to realize the extent of his own ignorance,  but you can't beat him to death every time he starts talking meaningless high minded shite because that's against the fucking Law so just unhand me, Madam, and go about your business. Mind it kindly.
Anyway, unlike the 2 Krishnamurthis- whose love lives were tangled- Raghavan was the beau ideal of the bloodless Tambram boy. His love marriage with Nalini Nanak Mehta- a sound Religious scholar in her own right- was, from the first, purged of carnality; the couple did not commence marital relations till they were ready to conceive, but that was not in India but the England to which they had returned. The fruit of this immaculate conception was Pico Iyer who amply justified their self abnegating decision not merely by the precocious intellectual qualities he showed but something more which speaks to a strength of character, perhaps even a belief in his own destiny, of a type which must always be rare and unheimlich. I say this because, when his parents moved to California, Pico persuaded them to let him attend Eton and then Oxford despite the fact that every Public School boy in the moribund England of the Sixties yearned for nothing more intensely than South California with its sun kissed blondes and spunk bleached beaches. It seemed that, at last, Besant's dream of an Eton & Oxford educated Theosophical Messiah was on the point of being realized.
However, Pico's self-abnegation did not stop there. Returning to America and gaining instant recognition, indeed a measure of celebrity, for his suave, nay beautiful, Keynesian Beauty Contest, style of journalism, Pico chose not to develop into a Dinesh D'Souza or Fareed Zakaria or Arianna Huffington or even Christopher Hitchens, but, instead, to devote himself to the most meretricious branch of magazine journalism- viz. travel writing, that too of the most superficial and self-regarding sort. Surely, this was a penance, a metaphorical hair-shirt, a deliberate seeking of that which must most embitter the spirit and exhaust the soul, an intellectual inedia, an anorexia of the heart, a shameless junk food bulimia of idées reçues- this is the Magazine columnist being infected by the heroin chic of the cat walk hunger-artistes whose glossy photos punctuate his fluffy pieces and add a pair of dazzled and famished eyes, riddled with the flash-gun's lead, to disclose a point of view which is the blindness of Narcissus now Liriope is as a polluted Love Canal, its waters but flame.
There was a moment when Pico might have changed trajectory and at last lived up to his promise- 'the Lady & the Monk' could have been the germ from which our generation got its own Lafcadio Hearn- but it wasn't to be. Even Steven Segal has Pico beat.
Why? What went wrong?
My guess is that the Theosophical project of a Global Soul was always Knowledge based. The failure of the two Krishnamurthis to run with that ball comes down to their imbecilic Tambram know-it-all mentality. Raghavan Iyer, though bright, also passes up on real Economics, real Internationalism, for Club of Rome shite which shades into witless Gandhism of the stupidest sort.
Behind Theosophy there was the notion that Evolution might have led to a migration, from our physical world to the astral plane, of certain adepts who remain in touch with good people here so as to lead us to a better destiny. Clearly, one can easily abandon Clairvoyance or Jungian shite for a notion of Schelling salience or Canonicity w.r.t  what it would profit us all to agree is the message from these 'Mahatmas' on an imaginary but still Stalnaker-Lewis 'closest possible' Universe. But this immediately makes travel-writing not witless Magazine fodder but central to 'theoria', central to 'teerth darshan', central to Hajj.
England- and Pico is very English- has produced great travel writers. But they do a lot of research before setting out. They learn the language. If they can't do that, at least they'd have the Classical sources at their finger-tips. They identify and interview those people who are making history in that country. They bring something back from their travels which is not mere meretricious ephemera nor sententious spiritual aridity.
Why? How so?
They have been touched by the flames of a Herostratian Pentecost and been transfigured by Heraclitus' patripassian fire. They have brayed with the ass of Apuleius and have snuffled for acorns beside the skirts of Circe; they have gone down to the Sea in ships and, tossed to the Heavens, plunged in the depths, done such great business that they have torn out their own hearts as a sacrifice upon the altar of the Unknown God. They have felt Majnun's shame in the desert and Buddha's humiliation in the jungle.  They have looked upon Ozymandias and known despair. They return, yes, 'untaught by the wisdom they have uttered, the Laws they have revealed', but what is that to them now save a memory of strange music, the sharp stab of a nameless odor, for at home, discovering Poverty, they find Charity and, in an atmosphere of intimate domesticity, that brave and cheerful face put up against every blitzkrieg unleashed by such Evil as ever roosts atop the high places of this World.
This is the realization of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam- the oneness of the Human family- yes- but only via the desert-wandering travails of the vivikta-sevi.
Pico learnt Greek and Latin. Sanskrit, of the above sort, would have been child's play to him. I don't say he should have returned to his ancestral roots, 'to imbibe pure milk of Spirituality, sans Sexy Shanigans, from pulpy breasts of Mother'- us guys are stupid enough on our own; fuck we need more Iyers turning up to lecture us on fucking Advaita and Cow worship or whatever shit it is that our Ancient Culture flings around when in party mood?
Still, Skt. opens doors to Zen, to Sufism, to both Jerusalem and Athens; it establishes a bardo, or barzakh, or 'antarabhaava' between things such that not a boundary, not a limit, but an imaginal passage or isthmus is created and, if only for people with Pico's talent, writing needn't be shite.
Or perhaps it does. I don't know. There's probably some malevolent karmic reason for Pico's almost infinitely foolish and self-regarding 'Global Soul'. Has he really not seen 'The accidental Tourist'? It came out in 1988 dude! Fuck is wrong with you? The answer, of course, is we made him this way. Publishing is a business. We are his market. We dragged him down to our level just so fuckwits like me can sneer at him. Perhaps Heidegger- great Nazi turd that he was- got it right. This is that 'planetary technology' whose 'Global Soul' is the Moloch to which us soi disant savants sacrificed our childhoods in vain.


  1. Oh dear! Yet another tirade against Pico Iyer.
    BTW- what inspired this patch of purple- ' They have been touched by the flames of the Pentecost and emerged from the fire of Heraclitus. They have torn out their own hearts as a sacrifice upon the altar of the Unknown God. They have felt shame in the desert and humiliation in the jungle. They have looked upon Ozymandias and known despair.'
    Indigestion? A hangover? I suggest Alka Seltzer.

    1. I have amended the line you complain of to- 'They have been seared by the flames of a heteroclite Pentecost and scotched by Heraclitus' patripassian fire.' What? You think it too butch & Hemingwayesque? Perhaps you are right. But, what to do, us middle aged Babus are balls to the wall kinda guys.