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Posts Tagged ‘consciousness’

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 »

Talk to the Animals, and Other News

April 22, 2015 | by


Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider and the Clown, 1947, color pochoir.

  • Larry Kramer, seventy-nine, came of age at a time when being gay was still illegal; his latest opus, The American People, is kind of a novel, kind of not, very long, and very gay: “a history of hate [from] one among the hated.” “Most histories are written by straight people who wouldn’t know, see the signs that a gay person does when they look at a person’s life,” he says. “I mean, how could you write the life of Mark Twain without realizing that he was hugely, hugely gay? The way he lived, who his friends were, and how his relationships began. And what he wrote about! I don’t know how you could avoid the assumption that he’s gay.”
  • An interview with Atticus Lish, who won our Plimpton Prize this year: “Spoken language is primary, and I want it to be primary. Everything should pass the reading-aloud test; that became a real theme with me before I even was aware of it. I said, ‘Don’t write like a writer; write like a talker.’ ”
  • But how do you write like a talker if the person talking is an animal? Fiction is still grappling with animal consciousness, with varying degrees of success: it may be largely impossible, as Thomas Nagel wrote in his 1974 essay “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?”, reminding us that “acts of sympathetic imagination are fatally restricted by the incalculable difference between human and bat.”
  • In which Kerry Howley follows two boxers: “Sportswriters talk constantly of ‘focus,’ ‘dedication,’ and ‘single-mindedness.’ It is a measure of this cliché’s persistence that, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary, men still use these words to describe Manny Pacquiao. This is a boxer who sidelines as a working politician and a low-budget-movie star, a man who leads Bible study on Sundays and moonlights as one of the shortest professional basketball players in the Philippines. He has recorded two platinum albums, and a hit single called ‘Sometimes When We Touch’ …”
  • And Chris Offutt pursues “trash food,” whatever that may be: “The term ‘white trash’ is an epithet of bigotry that equates human worth with garbage. It implies a dismissal of the group as stupid, violent, lazy, and untrustworthy—the same negative descriptors of racial minorities, of anyone outside of the mainstream. At every stage of American history, various groups of people have endured such personal attacks. Language is used as a weapon: divisive, cruel, enciphered. Today is no different. For example, here in Mississippi, the term ‘Democrats’ is code for ‘African Americans.’ Throughout the U.S.A., ‘family values’ is code for ‘no homosexuals.’ The term ‘trash food’ is not about food, it’s coded language for social class. It’s about poor people and what they can afford to eat.”

Vegetable-snake Undersea Beings: A Belated Correction

January 20, 2015 | by

Ginsberg in May 1965. Photo:

When The Paris Review interviewed Allen Ginsberg for our Spring 1966 issue, he expressed a sense of conflict about hallucinogens. He treasured their effects on consciousness—“you get some states of consciousness that subjectively seem to be cosmic-ecstatic, or cosmic-demonic”—but his body was having trouble tolerating them. “I can’t stand them anymore,” he said, “because something happened to me with them … After about thirty times, thirty-five times, I began getting monster vibrations again. So I couldn’t go any further. I may later on again, if I feel more reassurance.”

Thomas Clark conducted that interview in June 1965; the issue was on newsstands the following spring. A year later, though, in June 1966, Ginsberg sent The Paris Review the following letter, which recently resurfaced in our archives: Read More »


Notes from the Milk Cave

July 17, 2014 | by

Breastfeeding and boredom.


Detail from Stanisław Wyspiański’s Motherhood, 1902.

“You are an animal,” my husband told me. We were in bed. The context was not what you’d expect. A baby was latched onto my right breast while the left leaked an opalescent waterfall of milk.

“I’m a mammal,” I said. This is about as deep as our conversations got in the first month of parenthood. We were upstairs in what we have dubbed the milk cave—the dim bedroom of the nineteenth-century log cabin in southeastern Ohio, where we are currently living. I spend the better part of my days here, watching as my baby’s eager, sucking mouth goes rooting, and then latches on with the force of a heavy lid sealed shut on an overflowing container. There is nothing soft or gentle about my baby’s latch. It is the precise enactment of its definition: a clamping on, a fastening of two bodies. I feel a sudden tug of suction, a rasp of thirst, then sleepiness. I listen for the ker, ker, ker of her swallowing.

Before I gave birth, I knew breastfed babies needed to eat every two hours. But knowing this did not prepare me for the sheer amount of time breastfeeding would demand. Even if someone had told me “twenty minutes per breast per feeding,” it would still have taken sitting down every two hours for forty minutes for me to understand, because just like every other aspect of pregnancy and motherhood—morning sickness, contractions—the imagined experience turned out to be laughably unlike the experience itself.

I was hunkered down in the milk cave in a mess of sheets, sticky with an overabundance of milk, balancing the baby in the football hold and watching her eyes blink slowly open and closed with the rhythm of sucking. I’d finally finish, set her in her Baby Björn, and start digging into e-mails and then, again, she’d shove her fist in her mouth and start smacking her gums with comic franticness. Whole yellow and green summer days slipped by between the milk cave and the breezy porch, gazing at baby on the breast, at the whirring fan and the sheets with their pattern of roses, at the pastures of wavering grasses incandescent in afternoon light. Nights I awoke at two, at four, at six, and in the grainy coffee black, I’d hold the warm parcel of her, feel the eager pressure of those small gums, our animal bodies pressed together, the trickle of milk, the darkness undulating a bit in my delirium. I’d try not to fall asleep, have half-thoughts, then enter a space of no thoughts at all. Read More »