The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise
“‘When Buddhists speak of a lotus in the mud, they’re reminding us that the most beautiful of flowers has its roots in what we regard as muck and filth; it's only grit that makes the radiance possible.’”
Pico Iyer, the renowned travel writer, has lived a life that has gifted him with an enviable viewpoint from which to consider the way the notion of paradise has played out in the world’s faiths and cultures. The son of two “lifelong students of religion born to Hinduism’s priestly class,” Iyer grew up in the U.S. and England, and has been based in Japan since 1992. It is this broad, sophisticated, perspective that he brings to his latest book—a sort of travelogue fueled by an exploration of the idea of paradise, and the way that ideal brushes up against an often contradictory, complex reality, or as he observes while travelling through Sri-Lanka “It’s so easy . . . to place Paradise in the past or the future—anywhere but here.”
Iyer’s wanderings take him to places that combine revered and fanciful conceptions of paradise with very real conflict, human rights abuses, abject poverty, and environmental degradation. Yet he never loses the rare ability to see both sides—the suffering and the spirituality—and he succeeds in depicting the juxtapositions in language that are both even-handed and respectful.
Traveling in East Belfast, for example, in the midst of a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the singer Van Morrison, he muses, “How could the people around him possibly find transcendence when ninety percent of their kids still attended segregated schools and neighbors kept talking about reviving the war? How make sense of the words of a local priest—he lived in a monastery at just the place where Catholic streets met Protestant—that ‘you find God in the midst of the Troubles’? And how keep faith with even the hope of Paradise when nearly all the paradises I’d seen were, sometimes for that very reason, war zones?” He suggests a possible response when, on a visit to Sri Lanka, he notes that “When Buddhists speak of a lotus in the mud, they’re reminding us that the most beautiful of flowers has its roots in what we regard as muck and filth; it's only grit that makes the radiance possible.”
As Iyer travels to Iran, Jerusalem, Japan, India, and other places in search of insight into the pull and power of the paradise metaphor, he creates a collage of images that reflect what seems to be a universal and restless dream of somewhere better. His approach is not that of doubting atheist, nor of an enthusiastic believer, but rather of a traveler, open to experience, curious about the workings of faith.
Those looking for in-depth analysis into theological, anthropological, or psychological explanations may find this book somewhat superficial, as Iyer’s insights generally remain at the level of ponderous observation and the personal associations he draws from what he sees. On the other hand, his smooth, intelligent yet elegant prose style makes this an enjoyable and often thought-provoking read.
Ultimately, his insights lead back to the here and now, and hint at the value of attention and gratitude as our only possibility of transcending what he refers to as the half known life. “The fact that nothing lasts is the reason why everything matters,” he remarks after a trip to Koyasan in Japan.
Finishing the book, one is left with a feeling that is perhaps not unsimilar to what Iyer felt, standing on the rooftop of his hospice in Jerusalem in the early hours of the morning: “From high above, all the dissenting parts made for a kind of whole. Up here, you could forget distinctions between the sects; the narcissism of small differences made little sense at all. I thought of what I had felt on the rooftop of the church of the Holy Sepulcher: Bells are most moving when you don’t know where they’re coming from.”