A Life in Airplane Mode: Pico Iyer’s “Autumn Light”

June 6, 2019   •   By Madhav Khosla

Autumn Light

Pico Iyer

FOR A TRAVEL WRITER constantly on the move, Pico Iyer’s journey has taken a somewhat unexpected path. After spending time in places ranging from Los Angeles to Iceland to Bhutan, finding ways to interpret cities and their surprising rhythms, he has discovered the “art of stillness.” Iyer has been all over the map for decades, but recently he adopted a different kind of exploration. He has stumbled upon the private life — a domain where one’s inner self and immediate surroundings are witnessed with unusual intensity. For Iyer, who never had any clear home, the capacity to notice what lies before us provides the liberation he has long sought. The lesson is especially potent at a time when technology conspires to make it impossible to be alone. Indeed, in an age of ceaseless interaction and imagined urgency, Iyer’s quiet observations have had loud resonances. His recent TED Talks alone have been viewed by millions.

Iyer’s new book, Autumn Light, captures his evolving perspective with astonishing grace. A gentle account of Japan’s autumn, it depicts the unfolding of individual lives in a season marked by transition. This theme is powerfully unveiled in the book’s disquieting beginning. Iyer, asleep in a hotel room in Key West, Florida, receives an unexpected call from Japan. It is his wife, Hiroko, who speaks few words but expresses a great deal. She is concerned that her father has suddenly become unwell. The situation appears serious. Two days later, Hiroko calls to report his death. The conversation is brief. Neither has very much to say, but Hiroko recognizes that she must create a “new life.”

The inevitability of loss animates much of Autumn Light. The death of Hiroko’s father is a true occurrence, but it also serves as a kind of metaphor. There are, of course, events that accompany the death, such as the sorting of belongings, the relocation of Hiroko’s mother to a nursing home, and the last rites. Yet what is striking is not how much the death unsettles but how easily it fits into the general mood of Japan’s autumn. This is the season when the maple leaves switch colors and the feeling of change overwhelms, a season when Iyer finds himself wondering “[h]ow to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying.”

Through a description of Iyer’s life — which gives us glimpses into his Saturday ping-pong games, visits to the post office, conversations with family and friends, and solitary musings — Autumn Light provides a sensitive portrait of the shifts and restraints that constitute a season. The period Iyer chronicles is a delicate one, a time when reality is acknowledged if not always understood. In the early parts of the book, for example, we are introduced to Hiroko’s estranged brother, Masahiro. After Hiroko’s decision to exit her previous marriage and choose a life with Iyer, Masahiro turned away from his family and ignored their pleas for reconciliation. Every family suffers from such troubles, and Hiroko’s pain is understandable precisely because one can easily relate to it. Yet her response is more singular. Though there are moments of real sadness, of sudden tears and unexpected recollections, Hiroko is able to see that it is presumptuous to attempt to fight or master the loss.

Iyer’s Japan is by no means uncomplicated. He witnesses the subtle tensions between wooden homes and Western-style residences and the uneven contest between large patches of wilderness and unassailable concrete. More significantly, he is aware of the country’s emotional realities. The quiet acceptance of the world we inhabit has its costs. When Iyer and Hiroko’s daughter, Sachi, returns from Spain after her grandfather’s death, she is asked by her Spanish boyfriend to remain in Japan until he sends word. And she does, staying away and questioning neither his intentions nor the situation.

The idea of “not looking for answers and ascribing difficulty to something in the heavens” can also breed a kind of loneliness. As the individuals in Autumn Light silently take stock of their lives, as when Hiroko’s mother must accustom herself to living without a family, they come to internalize their realities by themselves. To understand one’s situation through the aid of others seems like a way to challenge it. Iyer, too, is in many ways out of place. Japan has offered him more peace than any other location, but his presence is a mystery to others and, on occasion, even himself. After all, as a freelance writer pottering around Nara, he is “the only male in the neighborhood who doesn’t put on suit and tie and go out to the bus stop every morning before dawn.”

But coming to terms with one’s state of being is, we are shown, a kind of craft. And in a place where one’s life is so highly visible, authenticity is as inescapable as the autumn itself. In New York, where Iyer spent many a year in a previous incarnation, much could be experienced but little could be truly felt. In Japan, on the other hand, there is nowhere for feelings to hide. Like the possibility of death, our emotions are with us at every moment, as Iyer realizes when Hiroko suddenly suffers from global transient amnesia, only to fall asleep and awake to a reality where nothing is different.

Iyer often writes of learning to master death, a challenge heightened by the onset of Japan’s autumn. In the passing of the season, he is keen to remind us of just how fragile and transient everything is. It is precisely in acknowledging the momentary quality of our being that we can achieve some kind of comfort. When, as a child, Sachi was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, she “cried for a few minutes, and then she picked up her culture’s sense that an argument with reality is one you’ll never win, and never cried again.” What Sachi grasped was an insight often associated with a spiritual sensibility: freedom can be realized through surrender.


Autumn Light appears nearly three decades after The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto (1991), a book that documented Iyer’s first encounter with Japan. In that earlier work, we were exposed to a place where the modern world was being negotiated on different terms. Somewhat fittingly, Iyer had reached Japan — a place that would become his home — without planning to be there. A disruption in flight schedules placed him at a hotel near Narita airport. With some hours to spare, he chose to visit the city, and he was soon filled with fascination and bewilderment. He found himself surrounded by a vision of perfect order, which was manifest even in the arrangement of shoes, the silence of tranquility, whether in temples or coffee shops, and an undemonstrative character in adults and children that could only arise from contentment. Iyer’s “first fleeting taste of Japan felt like the answer to some unspoken question.” It is hardly surprising that, in time, he returned for a longer visit. In Japan’s experiment with living, in its world beyond the bullet trains, Iyer had chanced upon a place where he could conduct his own experiment with solitude.

The Lady and the Monk told the story of Iyer’s seasons in Kyoto, from his arrival as a stranger with a small suitcase standing outside a temple to his gradual appreciation of the city’s patterns. Over the course of the book, we were introduced to an unfamiliar world. Iyer encountered kind monks who enjoyed drinking beer and watching television, homes with low tables and floor cushions and screen doors, mothers and little children who adored one another’s company without any drama, cafes with Beatles posters and other foreign imports, and people with perfect manners. Iyer did not quite know what to make of such a world, and one of the many charms of the book was its privileging of observation over theory. If the reality of the place was its somewhat odd relationship with the outside world — the global triumph of its industries alongside its insulation from global culture — this was not lost on its inhabitants. Iyer was often approached by locals with questions and views about the United States and the wider world, curiosities that revealed profound gaps in mutual understanding.

The most significant feature of The Lady and the Monk was, of course, Iyer’s chance meeting with Hiroko. While attending a private initiation ceremony, he found himself sitting next to “a seamlessly elegant Japanese lady in a flowing dress.” Through the friendship that evolved, Iyer saw more of Japan — its temples and its zoos — but, more importantly, he was offered a window into its personal realm. There he discovered a replication of much of the world outside the home — for instance, a fierce commitment to organization and responsibility — but also more peculiar elements, such as the strict demarcation of gender and generational roles. Separated by language and much else, Iyer and Hiroko’s interactions were not always smooth. They often amounted to “the most troubling of riddles.” Yet any reader can grasp how easily they acquired a sense of meaning. From bonding over Hermann Hesse to climbing hills in Kurama to ruminating over the differences between American and Japanese families, Iyer and Hiroko were engaged in cross-cultural exchanges filled with possibility. And The Lady and the Monk ended with precisely that sense of possibility. Like the perfect Chekhov tale, the book’s close was wonderfully ambiguous, with Iyer resisting the temptation to reveal where their friendship led.

Now, with Autumn Light, we have the answer. Almost 30 years on, the exchanges between Iyer and Hiroko are not much more descriptive than those in The Lady and the Monk, but the change is clear. If previously Iyer and Hiroko had sought to perfect their mutual understanding, they have now arrived at a place where things no longer need saying. Their relationship has come to exemplify the very quality of self-containment that drew Iyer to Japan. The Iyer of Autumn Light is, of course, a different man, and he naturally experiences Japan differently. He can no longer enjoy the comfort of being an anonymous foreigner, and he is no longer as surprised by his surroundings. During his earlier period of stay, he was “so taken by everything that was different, full of drama, so distinctly Japanese.” Now he realizes that “it’s in the spaces where nothing is happening that one has to make a life.” And yet, in terms of what matters, so much remains the same. The transitions in Autumn Light — the passage of time and the departure of those we love — are reminders that very little in life proceeds according to plan, a lesson Iyer understood long ago when he arrived in Japan to be alone and left having found Hiroko.


The defining feature of Iyer’s work in recent years has been a turn to the private life. He has held up for consideration the possibilities of solitude, the promise of quiet optimism, and the value of the present. In a frenetic age where we are overwhelmed by interaction, Iyer wants us to take a moment to stop. His own journey — from perpetually chasing new adventures to learning to be stationary and deliberate — has been in search of an alternative way of being. His path provides an acute sense of reality — of the normalcy of suffering, the ordinariness of alienation, and the certainty of loss. But by the same token, it has given him perspective. In remaining silent, he has been able to realize just how much is noise.

Autumn Light is in many ways a deeply personal book, but it is part of a larger project that asks some of the hardest questions. In much contemporary writing, attention has focused on the decline of the public sphere, the crisis of democracy, the absence of civic responsibility, and the rise of polarization. We have, it is feared, lost a sense of shared meaning and mutual purpose. Studies of our present maladies have diagnosed a variety of causes for our ills, ranging from technology to globalization to capitalism to identity politics. Yet amid this analysis of the decline in our collective political projects, far less has been written about the corresponding change in the private realm. If a generation ago the profound philosophical fear was that we had become atomized individuals, we have now arrived at a moment of permanent interconnectedness, of constant exchange, surveillance, and identification. The collapse of the public sphere has been accompanied by a deterioration of the private life. To put the point simply, we have lost both the capacity to have a shared life and to be alone.

While the private life has been a subject of less attention than we might have supposed, this was not always the case. The great political theorists who conceptualized a shared realm of activity and agency were sensitive to the freedoms that lay beyond the public domain. Benjamin Constant’s early 19th-century essay on modern liberty, to cite a prominent example, took freedom from politics to be a key feature that made the modern world so different from the ancient one. Figures ranging from Montaigne to Rousseau to Thoreau saw solitude as central to achieving clarity, exercising judgment, and discovering our true selves.

In modern liberal thought, the idea of the private domain has not involved a rejection of the public sphere. Rather, a kind of complementarity has existed between them. The public sphere was conceived as a site where we could relate to one another, where collective arrangements could be voluntarily organized for mutual benefit, while the domain of the private would release us from both interpersonal pressures and public responsibilities. The private realm allowed us to pursue personal interests and aspirations and enabled a connection with the self unmediated by society.

Iyer’s recent works — Autumn Light, his short book on stillness, his wide-ranging essays — underline, to borrow a phrase from D. W. Winnicott, the “positive aspects of the capacity to be alone.” The focus is not on repression or solipsism but on the value that can emerge from enjoying solitude. However — in addition to reminding us of the importance of the private life and its altered, diminishing character — texts like Autumn Light force us to ask how such a life can be recovered, if it can be recovered at all. It is tempting to imagine a life of freedom and license, to conceive of oneself as a lone dancer, much like the character in a recent Patti Smith story who, in “twirling about giddily,” experiences “the melancholy luxury of solitary joy.” But it is far from clear whether such gestures lead to a genuine renunciation of the world or are merely forms of escapism. More fundamentally, they may not in fact capture the private life that we truly desire. In the same way that detachment is not at odds with action, seeking out the value of internal resources may not involve a rejection of external needs. “[T]he human powers that the Stoics valued,” as Martha Nussbuam once observed, “are more dependent on the world than the Stoics maintained.”

A recovery of our private life might necessarily go hand in hand with recovering our public one. It is thus understandable, and perhaps hardly fortuitous, that Iyer has come to appreciate the private life and has found his authentic self within the territory of a highly functioning and organized state. Iyer does not have an answer to the question of the relationship between public and private domains; indeed, that is not really his question. At a time when most of us are preoccupied with the public sphere, his turn to the private realm calls on us to not only recognize the promise of this realm but also to consider the relationship between both domains. An appreciation of this relationship is an ambitious task, but books like Autumn Light encourage such an inquiry, and simply posing the question holds more promise of understanding our world than the solutions that are usually on offer. In reading Iyer, one is persuaded of the power of a life lived in airplane mode, even if we must determine the extent to which such a life only makes sense in the context of the technology that enables it.


Madhav Khosla is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows.