Pico Iyer Journeys

The Light I Found

When I walk out of the little apartment where I live, for much of the year, in Japan, I have to shake myself and tell myself I’m not in southern California. The little lanes are straight, and run between two-storey Western houses with two-car garages and name-plates on their front walls to commemorate their owners. Many of the cars parked outside of them are Jaguars, BMWs, even Cadillacs, clearly never meant for streets as narrow as these. There’s no hint of tatami in the area; there are no temples or shrines or neighborhood sushi bars or jagged lanes in the entire neighborhood. We are living in a sanitised, synthetic world here, in the shadow of the ancient capital of Nara, Stephen Spielberg’s suburbia polished to a high, strange sheen.

And then I notice that the maples, in our small park, are turning with a five-pointed brilliance in the warm October days. There’s an almost indefinable sense of elegy, of gathering chill in the blazing aftrernoon, a suggestion of what the Japanese call “monoganashii,” or an exquisite sadness.

The little children are playing neatly in their school uniforms, their grandparents seated on benches taking in the stately sorrow of the scene. But the mix of elegy and celebration in the air, the sense of coming darkness and even death, under skies more exalted and cloudless than any I have seen in California, remind me that I’m on the far side of the earth, and caught up in a frame that sings a faintly Buddhist tune of impermanence and loss.

And then–since I am an Asian at heart, Indian by blood, if not by residence–I go back to Santa Barbara to visit my mother (who lives alone there) following the ancient logic that parents are more to be listened to than pleasure. And when I get there, I find myself surrounded by Japanese gardens, the small pieces of stillness and meditation that friends have built in their back yards, stepping stones to tiny ponds of koi, or stone lanterns set next to hermits’ sheds, and I see how the people in the New World try to escape their immediate surroundings through these little splashes of the East, like a single foreign term thrown into a sentence (wabi, sabi, Zen). There are many more sushi bars in Santa Barbara than I ever see in Kyoto, and my friends are all talking there of giving things up, going back to the country, finding a self that my Japanese neighbors have never had a chance to lose. It’s a song of homesickness they’re singing silently, perhaps, and sometimes it seems to rhyme with the songs of longing, or restlessness that surround me on the far side of the globe. The person yearning to put a frame around his freedom, the woman wishing she could find more room for her destiny than the tight grid around her allows: sometimes they meet and find that their impulses are reflections of one another’s.

I think of all this whenever I see the work of Isamu Noguchi, and especially when I lose myself in the roaming, fascinated works he made between 1949 and 1956 on a series of trips across the globe funded by the Bollingen Foundation (named, appropriately, after the little village in Switzerland where Carl Gustav Jung made his personal retreat). Each side of the world longs for the other, and occasionally the longings meet in mid-air, in the place where transformation happens. Japan is Japanese enough to take in large swatches of America without losing its soul or its sense of continuity. America is American enough to call judo and origami and green tea its own now. The son of a Japanese poet (who wrote in English, in San Francisco), the husband of one Yoshiko Yamiguchi, depicted in many of his photographs (sometimes known as Shirley, sometimes as Li Xanglan), Noguchi could afford to move ceaselessly around the globe because everywhere was equally foreign to him, and unforeign. “My longing for affiliation,” as he wrote, “has been the source of my creativity.”

It’s a commonplace now, but it wasn’t when Noguchi was born, that East is West to some, and the frustrations of one culture the possibilities of another. In the age of frequent fliers and multinationals, we take it for granted that our identities will be assemblages, makeshift things drawn from this world and that one and the children of them both. You can’t place nationalities on art any more than you can on fire or water or grass; the passports they carry are as irrelevant, finally, as their patent numbers.

Noguchi intuited all this, I always feel, and lived it by always remaining on the move, not allowing his art to settle down, and playing games with our expectations of it (and of his name), long before we had heard of Issey Miyake or Kazuo Ishiguro or Arata Isozaki. He took on his father’s name when he went to Europe in 1923, knowing that it would open some doors and close others. He kept the company of artists from Mexico and India and Europe, knowing that his own work “had to be universal or nothing at all.” Later he would move from the Pyamids to Sri Lanka to Stonehenge to Burma, always on the lookout, one senses, for whatever could link cultures and steady them beneath the presence of borders. Movement, the converging of traditions, became the slab of granite out of which he would shape a life.

At the time he took off with his first thirty-six month fellowship from the Bollingen (on what is now known as “The Bollingen Journey”), he was clearly anxious to repair something in himself and the world around him that had been broken, it might have seemed permanently, by World War II. A sense of trust, perhaps, of connections across boundaries. At 45, he was half way through his life; and as the world stumbled into what would be called the atomic age, it was obviously searching for new certainties to protect it from new fears. The dropping of nuclear bombs by America on Japan could only have reverberated strangely inside a shifting soul who was born in Los Angeles and raised in Tokyo, never entirely a part of either place.

Noguchi arrived in 1949 in his adopted home of Paris–home to his adopted father, Brancusi, who had told him to forswear decoration–and from there looked in on Italy and Spain and Greece, before hurling himself into Egypt and then India, Bali, Angkor. Looking at the many drawings and photographs he brought back from the trip, one can see something of what he was after. Faces that are wild, untamed, in an unbroken continuity with the spirits around them and the landscape that has made them; movements of the body that had withstood the sudden propulsions of the nuclear age and spoke in the ageless language of water and springtime and wind. Buildings that seem to be hewn out of the earth, and statues that sit next to children as if each is a part of the same unchanging story.

It wasn’t exactly serenity he sought, or the pristine, but, rather, something aboriginal, uncontaminated, that stands in our midst as opaque and irreducible as the monuments of Stonehenge in the Wiltshire countryside. The eyes he caught in his images are often unquiet, and at the edge of what look like ruins; many of the people look to be marginals, tribals, like himself, peering out at the modern world with a stare of defiant bewilderment. But most of all, these spirits are dancers, sculptors, craftsmen, players with masks, as seen by someone with a familiarity with all those arts; compare his photographs with those Henri Cartier-Bresson brought back from India and Bali at around the same time and you see focus, intensity, fear where the French master delighted in something human. Noguchi’s faces are often half-veiled.

In some ways, it is a touching image, the one we imagine behind the camera or with his sketchpad: a universal Other who, in every work, seems not entirely inside the culture he describes, and yet never entirely removed. The restless soul who will never be tourist or resident. When Noguchi had volunteered his services to America in the wake of the shocking attack on Pearl Harbor, he had been dismissed as a “half-breed,” and yet when he had taken himself to an internment camp for Japanese in Arizona, to teach, he had felt himself “completely alone” even there, neither captor nor captive. In the West he would be called a “wily…semi-oriental” by critics, while in Japan, with his blue eyes, he would always be a “gaijin,” or outsider person. Returning to Japan on the Bollingen Journey, for the first time in 19 years, the man who had previously been looked on with suspicion as an “irregular verb,” in his own nice formulation, was now hailed as an emissary from the conquering West (he is commemorated these days on Japanese postage stamps). The traveller who listened to such praise no doubt acknowledged that it was not he who had changed, but the world around him. As fast as he was going around the world, the world was making its own strange counter-revolutions around him.

But what makes Noguchi’s work lasting, and original, and what lies behind his Bollingen works is, to me, what he made of his permanent outsiderness. He looked, at every turn, for those moments in art and worship and expression–in ocean and tree and stone–that make a mockery of the divisions we impose on things. He mixed up East and West so thoroughly that it became impossible to tell one from the other, as it was inside himself. He kept out every trace of national division, or imposed distinction, from the art he brought back from his travels; it celebrates, in fact, that part of humanity that will always be larger than its institutions or labels. Out of his predicament he conjured possibility.

Scroll to top