Pico Iyer: Channeling Graham Greene and the World Spirit


“Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals… and the march of civilization is a train of felonies, – yet, general ends are somehow answered… the world-spirit is a good swimmer, and storms and waves cannot drown him. He snaps his finger at laws: and so, throughout history, heaven seems to affect low and poor means. Through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson Essays: Montaigne, or The Skeptic.

 “God save us always from the innocent and the good…”

The voice of Graham Greene, spoken by the British journalist Fowler in Greene’s prophetic novel of Vietnam, The Quiet American, published in 1955. Quoted anew in Pico Iyer’s The Man Within My Head.

Pico Iyer — my monitor on the global spirit in conversation and books — hears voices: of the Dalai Lama, Henry David Thoreau, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell among others. But the strongest dialog in Iyer’s busy brain seems to run between Emerson and the late English novelist Graham Greene (1904 – 1991), the Catholic agnostic who prayed to a God he wasn’t sure he believed in, and the subject of Pico Iyer’s shivering introspection, The Man Within My Head. Emerson is “the God within,” as Harold Bloom has said, a companion in the daylight hours. Greene is “the fallen man within,” who keeps turning up in dreams and the subconscious. “Graham Greene is more of a warning than an illumination,” Pico Iyer is telling me. “Thoreau and Emerson and the American Way have shown me where I want to go; Greene is pointing to all the ditches and the cracks in the road along the way.”

I am wondering: where’s our American Graham Greene when we need one? Greene’s peers in school after World War I, Pico Iyer writes, “were learning strength and how to go out and administer Empire, already in its first stages of dissolution. Greene, meanwhile, was learning the opposite: how to take power apart, how to do justice to its victims, on both sides of the fence, how to make a home in his life for pain and even fear. As classmates set about making the official history of their people, he began picking at its secret life, its tremblings, its wounds.” Greene, in Pico Iyer’s line, was “an Englishman in flight from English-ness.” So I am asking: who are our exemplary strong antidotes to American exceptionalism and heedless folly in the world?

The names that immediately come to my head are Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Thomas Pynchon, perhaps. Robert Stone is almost a direct heir to the Greenian legacy: a troubled Catholic who goes to the warzones of the world to see the soul in peril in all senses but also to see what America is up to in these shadowy corners… But the other thing is that American literature is currently being written and re-written by the latest newcomers from Russia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Korea — … think of Chimamanda Adichie, Gary Shteyngart, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lee Yun Hee and many others. And what they’re doing, among other things, is they’re remaking America… importing the wisdom of their ancestral homes and making new combinations. So that’s all promising. The American soul is taking on new colors now, and our President is another example of that. If nothing else, no matter how you feel about Obama, I would say we’ve never had a President who understands life in Indonesia as he does. We’ve never had a President who knows the complications of interacting with Kenya and therefore with many other impoverished nations, at least on the human level, as he does. He hasn’t always managed to translate that into policy but it’s certainly a step forwards because in terms of global understanding which is the currency of the moment, he has it.

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