Thank you so much for Ruth L. Schwartz’s stunning, beautiful essay on loving someone who is sick [“We Don’t Know What It Is,” February 1996]. How different her work is from the sterile, antiseptic information doled out by well-meaning health-care professionals, or the self-help messages reassuring “healthy” partners that it’s OK to have ambiguous and conflicting emotions. Schwartz knows that deep intimacy and love raise questions far beyond the simple solutions our society so readily offers.
We who are sick or disabled live not only with our own fears and limitations but with the fears and limitations of friends and lovers. There are no solutions, other than to risk the pain, disappointment, sacrifice, and wonder of each relationship; to be open and vulnerable to the entire reality of the other person. To live like this is to come into the presence of Christ, who embodies “the idea of extending . . . compassion to everyone I see, to the terrible, redeeming truth of each person’s story.”
Reading Chris Bursk’s matter-of-fact acknowledgment of the sexual aspects of a son’s awe for his father [“A Father’s Kiss,” February 1996] and Ruth L. Schwartz’s sensual appreciation for the body of her ailing woman lover, I know you’re gonna get it yet again from the how-dare-you, cancel-my-subscription set. Such emotional truth and naked tenderness is shocking to some in this time of tired titillation. These works startled me out of my abstract callousness. Please keep on telling secrets and taking chances. I have never seen you do it for a cheap thrill.
What’s this on the cover of your February 1996 issue? Grown men in black hats embracing in the street? A hand across a shoulder in an unmistakable gesture of love? Subliminal Stars of David in the background? Maybe your other subscribers can be duped into ignoring your blatant political incorrectness, but not me. I refuse to stand idly by and watch you ride roughshod over the sensitivities of homophobes, antisemites, fascists, fashion police, and others whose rights are being so graphically assaulted.
Please extend my subscription for two more years. Someone has to keep an eye on you people.
My favorite page in the January 1996 issue was “Sy Safransky’s Notebook.” In this election year, we who are guided by our hearts as well as our heads need to get serious about electing good people and curbing the power of money and private interests. Without forfeiting The Sun’s readable style, aren’t there ways to open it up to more direct discussion of political ideas between now and November?
I’m a traveler. I know the lure of movement and adventure, as well as the painful conflicts a restless soul endures. I have learned, though, not to travel just to move. In this regard, Scott London’s interview with Pico Iyer [“Global Villager,” January 1996] felt hauntingly empty. Iyer has an amazingly facile mind. Unfortunately, he uses it only to skate nimbly over the surface of things; he thinks the way he travels. Upon beginning the interview, I wanted to believe he had something constructive to say. By the end I’d discovered that he’s ultimately uninvolved in the world.
What Iyer does reveal is the emptiness and despair that dominates this technologically addicted and increasingly crowded world in which we find ourselves. The affluent and self-indulgent global citizen that Iyer describes seems mostly intent upon avoiding any moral involvement, any statement of values, or much in the way of feeling, all at a time when our planet desperately needs people to be involved as never before.
Here, for your pleasure and edification, is my rant. I do not want to cancel my subscription; I do not think that you have become morbid; nor am I proclaiming my own morals superior to yours. This is merely a hyperbolic rant, absent hysterics.
Scott London’s interview with Pico Iyer is what has gotten me so angry. I don’t like to criticize people for the way they earn their living, especially if they do something as innocuous as travel writing, but Iyer is such a pure expression of modern privilege I must comment on his widely read but perversely selective perceptions.
Iyer makes glib observations about the fabulous and liberating mingling of cultures, using the airport as a metaphor for the multinational polyglot. How suitable, since it is only the most affluent 3 to 5 percent of the world’s population that will ever depart from one. When Iyer suggests that Tibet could be a destination for “you or me,” he is, of course, speaking to this privileged sector, not to the five-billion-plus residents of the planet who earn less than six hundred dollars a year.
Iyer is a darling of the affluent airport crowds because he writes with postmodern irony and banality, with a sarcastic wit and a keen eye. Most importantly, he uses this style to obscure the less entertaining consequences of “multinationalism” as perpetuated by the global corporations that, with the collusion of national governments, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, etc., are concentrating wealth, ravaging the natural environment, monetizing traditional cultural relations, and pitting communities against one another in a race to the bottom: lowest wages and the externalization of corporate costs onto the environment and community.
Iyer speaks with seeming disregard for the grim reality being visited upon communities subjected to “economic structural adjustment” in return for loans to build up their nation’s export sector. While indigenous societies are pushed from ancestral lands to enable mining, logging, and cropping for export, their social environment is bombarded by sophisticated marketing designed to create a desire, and ultimately a need, to join the monetized and materialistic global economy. Perhaps if there were some prospect that the people losing their traditional ways of life might eventually enjoy the affluence known by globe-trotters like Iyer, this invasion and cultural hegemony could be justified. But in reality the shantytowns ringing each Third World metropolis are more likely destinations for those new residents of the global village.
It is no surprise that the United States is where Iyer feels most at home. Community traditions here are weak and highly permeable. Iyer quips that Los Angeles offers the opportunity to “view the future landing with a bump all around you.” The reality in LA is twenty years of declining real blue-collar wages and an increase in walled enclaves of the wealthy.
London provides Iyer ample opportunity to address the issues of exploitation and inequity, but Iyer declines. Yet, one senses he is not totally ignorant of these matters. After puzzling over this, I concluded that Iyer is a refined reflection of the vacuity of those who, while not oblivious or uncaring, are also not about to put anything before their own satisfaction. For these people, he camouflages the ruinous results of the multinational casino economy’s looting of the Third World, but then that’s not exactly the stuff of travelogues, I suppose.
Pico Iyer responds:
In response to the letters from R. Glendon Brunk and Larry Martin, I can only say, feebly, that I couldn’t agree more, at least when it comes to the world’s afflicted. For me, the only purpose of travel is to broaden one’s moral horizons and confront some of the social and political issues that our lives of relative comfort shield us from. I travel primarily to encounter, be changed by, and contribute my small amount to the billions of people in the world who face, every day, life-and-death issues that the rest of us are lucky never to have known. And, as Brunk and Martin say, global communications and technology are only widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots: of course it’s obscene to worry about fax machines when half the world’s people have never used a telephone. And of course it’s absurd to give sympathy to the privileged “homeless” of the world when 800 million of the world’s children are living without adequate food. As Thoreau, my guide in these matters, famously said, “It is not worthwhile to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.”
At the same time, I believe that the obvious realities and disparities of the world may blind us to more subtle problems. Problems of starvation and pollution are so evident that we may forget to attend to the psychological ozone layer and the spiritual ecosystem in more affluent parts of the world. I believe, further, that tourism, for those lucky enough to be able to fly, is often a help as well as a handicap to developing nations, since we from abroad are the eyes and ears and hopes of people in closed societies like Cuba and Tibet. I believe that to wish that others should be without the amenities we find so invaluable is itself a form of imaginative imperialism. And, while it’s true that not everyone can fly off to Tibet tomorrow, it’s also true that many of us, even if we never leave home, and even if we live in Bombay or Havana, have an access to Tibetan culture and wisdom — and to Tibetans — that was inconceivable just a generation ago. The sorrows of technological development are so apparent that I believe there is virtue in highlighting some of its possibilities.
I was heartened to find the posthumous chapter from Lawrence Rudner’s Memory’s Tailor in your December 1995 issue — heartened, and shocked, and shamed.
Larry Rudner directed my thesis at North Carolina State University in 1990. Between teaching classes, advising students, and attending faculty meetings, he found the time to read what I had written. He had a wife and children, and a novel in the works, yet he found time to give me the smile and the nod and the nudge I craved. How could I return such a gift? Now I discover I will never have the chance.
I have only lousy, inadequate excuses for losing touch with him since then. Selfishly, I realize he could have helped me further; and I never even gave him the chance to refuse help from me. The best tribute I can give him now is to hear what he was trying to tell me — to tell all of us — in his work.