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Arts & Culture

Culture Is a Wonderful Fiction

November 23, 2015 | by

From the cover of The Guy Davenport Reader.

From Guy Davenport’s journals, as published in The Guy Davenport Reader (2013), edited by Erik Reece. Davenport was born on this day in 1927; he spent most of his life in Lexington, Kentucky, where he taught at the University of Kentucky. “My notebooks have subjects and information for which I’ve not yet found a workable technique,” he told The Paris Review in 2002, three years before his death. “I think ultimately, as Joyce felt, that we know nothing, and that what we call culture is a wonderful fiction, and that we live inside this fiction, and as long as it’s articulate we’re successful. And we add to it, or subtract from it, but we really don’t know anything else. And I think a hard scientist, the people who are working on consciousness now, would have to admit the same thing. We don’t know what consciousness is, we don’t know why we’re here.” —D. P.

To sit in the sun and read Columella on how to plant a thorn hedge is a pleasure I had to teach myself. No, I was teaching myself something else, and the thorn hedge came, wisely, to take its place. They’re longer lasting than stone walls and have an ecology all their own. Birds nest in them and snails use them for a world. Hedgehogs, rabbits, snakes, spiders. Brier rose, dog thorn. There are some in England still standing from Roman times.


Being ought to have a ground (the earth under our feet) and a source. It seems to have neither. The Big Bang theory is science fiction. It may be that the expanding universe is an illusion born in physics labs in Paris, Copenhagen, and Berkeley. It is also too eerily like Genesis (being in a millisecond) and other creation myths. It is partly medieval, partly Jules Verne. From a human point of view, it has no philosophical or ethical content. It is, as a vision, a devastation, an apocalypse at wrong end of time. It is a drama in which matter and energy usurp roles that once belonged to gods and angels. It is without life: brutally mechanical. It is without even the seeds of life, or the likelihood. Read More »

Kilroy Is Still Here

November 12, 2015 | by

In wartime, the walls of the latrine provide a rare opportunity for self-expression.

Photo: Lee Cannon

“It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech,” as a patriotic poem by Charles Province has it. That presumption is a point of pride among service members, who defend civilian rights and privileges they’re often not afforded themselves. You don’t have the right to foment a strike in the military. You don’t have the right to a trial with a jury of your peers. You can’t sue the military. You don’t have the right to peacefully assemble. There is no such thing as freedom of speech. But self-expression is like hydraulics: plugging one hole only builds more pressure somewhere else. In my own experience as an infantryman in Iraq, the only place where the stress of combat found unfettered freedom of expression was on the walls of the latrine.

You begin to notice it as soon as you hit the staging area in Kuwait. At places like Camp Buehring, a crossroads where battalions came and went on their way to different operating areas in Iraq, American troops are sheltered under the anonymity of massive logistical bureaucracies. A port-a-potty next to a chow hall could be used by any number of soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines passing through. Unlike a permanent duty station, where bathrooms are assigned to specific companies and any defacement is easily traceable, there simply wasn’t any way to catch someone scrawling on the walls of a well-trafficked latrine. The situation wasn’t very different once one finally got to Iraq, where the bases were just as large and sprawling, and combat outposts were constructed in the half-destroyed hovels of what had been private residences. In the former, the anonymity was conducive to getting away with latrine graffiti; in the latter, no one cared if you wrote on some walls. Read More »

Ode to La Pagode

November 11, 2015 | by

La Pagode.

I should have known that La Pagode, maybe the most distinctive cinema in all of Paris, was on its last legs when I was turned away at the ticket counter last month. The heat wasn’t working in the grand Japanese room, and although there were a few blankets available for patrons, the woman at the ticket counter really didn’t recommend I stay. I caught a glimpse of the cashmere throws in Chanel red, piled behind the counter—this was, after all, the Seventh arrondissement of Paris, the same Faubourg Saint-Germain where Balzac’s Eugène Rastignac went sheepishly to his first soiree.

La Pagode looks like a Japanese temple, or at least a kitschy world’s-fair version of a Japanese temple, replete with gold lacquer, intricately carved birds and flowers, and elaborate ceiling murals. It was built in 1896, a few blocks from the Bon Marché department store as a trinket for the owner’s wife, but apparently it wasn’t novel enough: soon after its construction she left him for his partner. Abandonment, you might conclude, is its destiny. Read More »

Paris of the Plains

November 5, 2015 | by

Baseball and Hemingway in Kansas City.

A Kansas City postcard, date unknown.

Ninety-eight years and twenty-one days ago—October 15, 1917—a kid moved into a boarding house in Kansas City. He was a nobody, then, but his uncle, Alfred Tyler Hemingway, had gone to school with the Kansas City Star’s main editorial writer, and, through the magic of nepotism, had secured his nephew a job. The young reporter was to cover fires and crimes, as well as the General Hospital and Union Station—a beat known, colloquially, as the Short-Stop Run.

This Tuesday, as many as eight-hundred-thousand people turned out to celebrate the Kansas City Royals’ World Series victory at that same Union Station where Ernest Hemingway once met the Chicago Cubs on their way to spring training. Fans pressed up to barricades as the parade unwound along its two-mile route. Confetti cannons blasted blue and white paper into the sky. People applauded for the ballplayers whose names and call numbers were stitched on thousands of shirts. They yelled for Royals manager Ned Yost and for Mayor Sly James. Among the people northwest of Washington Square Park, my wife and I could hardly move. Read More »


November 5, 2015 | by

Albert Bierstadt, The Burning Ship, ca. 1871.

How riveted I was by the illustration entitled The Burning Ship! Is a sinking frigate not phenomenal?

If, by the way, velvet footstools and the like can be whacked free of dust and brushed on Sundays, then authorial activity must be permitted as well.

Do I not feel, when I am exercising my intellect, exactly as if I were sitting in church? Drafting a prose piece puts me in a devotional frame of mind.

How terrifying a ship on fire is. Gazing at the picture, I said to myself: The mariners find themselves faced with the necessity of fleeing the fire; but they have nowhere to escape to but the water, and soon enough they’ll be trying to escape from that as well; yet they have no choice but to take refuge in it. Beautifully spread out, the water lies there like a meadow; not the tiniest wave disturbs this mirror that conceals unfathomable depths. The mirror’s expansiveness poses a threat to the ones in peril, those desirous of rescue. Beneath the water, unknown mountain chains extend. This fact is surely known to the better educated among the mariners, and this precise knowledge makes them feel significantly more forsaken than those who enjoy perfect ignorance in this regard. Education, though reliable and helpful, is also treacherous. Read More »

Come Here, Beloved
 New Fresh Beautiful Tale of a Painter

November 4, 2015 | by

Gustav Klimt, Die Freundinnen (The Girlfriends) (detail), 1916.

Come here, beloved new fresh beautiful tale of a painter, let me pacify you. I should like to bring up certain sensitivities with you. I do expect to elicit indignation. The painter’s wife wore wondrously pretty little knickers and had the most enchanting wrists and kneecaps. Her limbs were of a shimmering smoothness, slenderness, and purity, and now this marvel of a painterly spouse encountered the lady of a manor. “Oh, my dear girl,” said the lady, “won’t you please show me your assuredly darling sweet knickers?” The wifey instantly responded to this request, displaying her knickers, whereupon the tiller of the soil took it upon herself to reciprocate, displaying in her turn that which had been carefully hidden. The two exhibitrixes and assuagers of curiosity threw themselves with expressions of delight upon each others’ breasts. The lady of the manor said to the painter’s wife: “Do introduce me to your husband so that he can paint me in all my manor-lady splendor.” As the painter, whose name was Zahler, beheld these two knickerbocktrixes knickering in his direction, it dawned on him at once that a commission might be forthcoming. The gran’dame threw herself imposingly upon a velvet armchair that, with its presence, adorned the painter’s studio. “Your so amiable wife,” said she, “will frequently be found in my vicinity, and you, my dear portraitist, will frequently be moved to sigh a bit on this account, to calm yourself.” At once the painter set to work, valiantly swabbing away, and one can certainly declare his picture of the manor lady eminently successful with regard to color and form. A knickers anthem rang out jubilantly in the agricultural soul. The painter patiently embraced the sound. And the charming specimen of painterly wifeliness smiled.

This piece appears in Robert Walser’s Looking at Pictures, out this month from Christine Burgin / New Directions. Walser wrote it in October or November 1924; it was unpublished in his lifetime. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

The New Museum will host a celebration of Robert Walser on November 12.