Sunday morning Pico Iyer and Barry Lopez took the stage at the San Carlos Institute with a conversation entitled “Wonder: Entering and Exiting the Great Mystery.” Both authors travel frequently and extensively to write about their discoveries in humanity as outsiders in foreign lands.
As an introduction, Iyer noted the difference in their styles, explaining that Lopez travels in search of the past to places like Antarctica and Afghanistan, while his own travels are in a quest for the future, visiting Hanoi, North Korea and even spending two weeks inside the Los Angeles International Airport.
However, he explained that their common bond was expressed through their means of correspondence, letter writing. Iyer famously does not use a cell phone, computer, TV or car in the remote Japanese village he’s called home for 27 years, explaining, “I’m looking for the human, the homemade, the wonder.” Lopez has lived in rural Oregon since 1970, and coincidentally they both retreat to the same monastery on the California coast.
Lopez opened the conversation with a reading from his essay 6,000 Lessons, a sort of credo on why he travels: “Witness is what I was after, not achievement.”
Amongst the lessons of the frequent traveler is “the heresy in believing that one place is not so different from the other.” He criticized the use of collective nouns to describe a culture or a people. “What makes a community memorable is the sense of autonomy and deference in order to minimize strife,” Lopez said. “To ignore the differences [in the world] is unjust.”
Both men noted the humbling that comes with frequent travel and the importance of shedding the pretense of sophistication in order to experience the world with awe. “There are two ways to approach a place,” Lopez said, “Analysis and awe.” He prefers the latter.
Iyer confessed, “The more you travel, the more things you don’t know.” He sees the world not as getting smaller, but “bigger and bigger and bigger.” He adds, “I always travel as an everyday, ignorant tourist. I don’t speak the language. I haven’t studied the city.” His strategy is to choose destinations that we ought to know about, but don’t.
They both spoke critically of the media, Lopez calling television “cultural nerve gas with its inutility in telling us what we all know and what we all believe.” But he also stated that the responsibility is on him and others within the media to be the first to reform it.
He finds the predicament that many writers are in—the need to make a living from their work—results in “mangled, disturbed, veiled storytelling.” Iyer explained that he writes essays for Time Magazine and other publications as a “desire to communicate with everyday people.” Simultaneously, Iyer noted this wisdom: “When I make a decision to make a living, it’s almost always wrong, but when I make a decision to make a life, it’s always right.”
Iyer finds that in the Age of Information we are actually more uninformed, and as we grow “more connected” on social media, the stranger we really are to one another. He’s in search of the “silence, ambiguity, and mystery” molded into language, and there’s no “high-faluting technology that can translate.”
Lopez is chiefly concerned with his ethical obligations to humanity as a writer and traveler, but even more so as an emissary. “You learn to shut up and apprentice yourself.” He’s in search of humanity on behalf of his own people.”I want to bring it home, give it away. I want to be the conduit.”
The conversation circled back to the subject of wonder, and Iyer explained that wonder cuts through knowledge, noting the tremendous difference between these statements: “I know…” “I think…” and “I wonder…” He joked, “All you need to travel is wonder and a Swiss army knife.”
Similarly, Lopez finds fault in our culture’s adoption of empirical knowledge as the foundation of truth. “It makes theater, art, literature irrelevant,” he said. “We’ve unlearned the importance of art, thinking of it as merely decorative or for sophisticates. Art has saved as many lives as the empirical formula.”
To conclude the conversation, Iyer conjured Ralph Waldo Emerson who famously said, “Traveling is a fool’s paradise…” if you think you’ll discover something abroad that you can’t find at home. He urged the auditorium to simply go outside and take a walk down Duval Street to capture humanity and wonder.