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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

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 »

Rimbaud Ascends the Alps

October 20, 2015 | by

Over the Gotthard, an engraving by Wilhelm Rothe after a drawing by Johann Gottfried Jentzsch, 1790.

From a letter by Arthur Rimbaud to his family, dated November 17, 1878, and sent from Gênes. After a disastrous affair with Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud, born on this day in 1854, left France to travel the world, eventually setting up shop in Ethiopia, where he sold coffee and arms before falling gravely ill. This note chronicles his harrowing journey through the Gotthard Pass, in the Swiss Alps. It’s translated from the French by Wyatt Mason, from I Promise to Be Good: The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud.

As for how I got here, it was full of wrong turns and sporadic seasonal surprises … for after a certain point no carriage could get through with an average of fifty centimeters of snow and a storm brewing. The Gothard crossing was supposed to be the route; you can’t get through by carriage in this season, and so I couldn’t get through either.

At Altdorf, on the south side of lake Quatre-Canton along the border of which we strolled through steam, the Gothard road begins. At Amsteg, fifteen kilometers from Altdorf, the road begins to climb and follow the contours of the Alps … At Göschenen, a village that has become a market town because of the affluence of its workers, you see the opening of the famous tunnel at the back of the gorge, the studios and canteens of businesses. Moreover, this seemingly rough-hewn countryside is hardworking and industrious. Even if you can’t see the threshers going in the valley, you can hear the scythes and mattocks against the invisible heights. It goes without saying that most of the local industry manifests in wood. There are many mining operations. Innkeepers show you mineral samples of every variety, which Satan, they say, buys on the cheap and resells in the city. Read More »

The Honeymoon Package

October 13, 2015 | by

Pál Szinyei Merse, Balloon, 1882.


She said that my good qualities were my bad qualities—this I have come to realize is true of everyone. On the one hand, I was game, eager and perfectly ready to see what was in front of me. On the other hand, I had no sense of direction or destiny. —Laurie Colwin

Those of us without a sense of direction have never known anything else; its absence is more annoying to others than to us. Actually, to us it seems normal to be marooned in a mysterious landscape, reliant on technology, at the mercy of others. Maps are of course inscrutable; they depend on an essential understanding of space. It is interesting, and sometimes enviable, that other people should have an internal compass. But also strange, and maybe even sinister. How do they know? Read More »

At the Whispering Gallery

September 28, 2015 | by

Photo: thenails

Last time I went to the Grand Central Oyster Bar for a quick pre-train chowder, there was a particularly large group of Italian tourists blocking the door. I couldn’t understand their guide’s monologue, but I could only assume she was instructing them on one of New York’s worst kept secrets, the Whispering Gallery.

There are whispering galleries all over the world—enclosures in which, by a trick of acoustics that I could relate but never understand, whispered words can be heard clearly from another distant point. Notable examples include Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the U.S. Capitol, the Mormon Tabernacle, and the Mapparium at the Mary Baker Eddy Reading Room in Boston.

The Grand Central gallery gets a lot of visitors because Grand Central itself is a tourist attraction, and along with the constellation ceiling, FDR’s secret train track, the Campbell Apartment, and (I guess) the clock, the gallery is a focal point of any tour. Kids love it, of course. I like that it’s in such an incongruous location, with busy lunchers and commuters forever rushing past to gobble oysters and make trains, completely indifferent to the miracle of acoustics surrounding them. Read More »

Travel Souvenirs: An Interview with Joanna Walsh

September 22, 2015 | by

Joanna Walsh

Joanna Walsh’s writing enacts what Chris Kraus has called a literal vertigo—the feeling that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space—by probing the spaces between things.” Walsh, a British writer and illustrator, is fascinated by liminal spaces, especially in the many varieties encountered by tourists. She’s sometimes known by her French nom de guerre, Badaude, loosely translated as “gawk,” and suggesting the perambulatory figure of the flaneuse. Her work trades on the literary genres of the miniatureshort stories, essays, even postcardsreminiscent of Marcel Schwob, Clarice Lispector, Roland Barthes, and Lydia Davis. Her 2014 Twitter initiative @read_women is an archival who’s who of modern female writers, extolling in its tweets the distaff works of everyone from Leonora Carrington to Elena Ferrante.  Aside from her abundant online presence,Walsh’s prolific output includes three new books: Hotel, Vertigo, and Grow a Pair: 9½ Fairytales About Sex, all of which run from the bantam lengths of fifty-five to 170 pages.

Among her seemingly disparate subjects are hotel architecture and etiquette, sexual politics in twentieth-century psychoanalysis, the perils of family vacations, the fantasias of cinema, and fables of transgendered witches. In Walsh’s feminist cosmogony, all are brought to bear as inscrutable souvenirs of the everyday mundane. She elucidates the slippery, gendered in-betweenness of everyday ritual in a manner reminiscent of Derrida’s disquisition on the chora—that most mysterious and mundane of spaces, not unlike the anonymous corridor of a hotel.

I reached Walsh, appropriately enough, at a hotel in Mexico. She and I shared a lively discussion about hotel culture and theory, travel fantasies, and the contemporary potential of fairy tales.
Read More »

Salton Sea Notes

September 18, 2015 | by

Soda fountains, rest stops, barber shops, motels: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s California travel journals, 1961.

A drawing by Ferlinghetti.


Sailing, Water Skiing, Swimming, Seaside Dining—

—promotional brochure


October 28, 1961

Henry Miller was right. “Some other breed of man has won out.” Some strange breed has taken over America. I sit in a soda-fountain on the main street of El Centro, California—inexplicably I have ordered & have eaten a Mexican Combination Plate—tacos, enchiladas, and all that. Outside, at the curb, sits the junk of American civilization—cars, cars, cars. On the jukebox inside, a Mexican crooner with a tear in his voice … An hour north of here lies the Salton Sea. I have not figured out what “El Centro” could be the center of. Not the universe. The Salton Sea may offer a clue. The Salton Sea is in America. In California, in fact. Very strange. I still have to get there.
          I have two hours before the bus to that Sea. I go to the public library. It’s Saturday afternoon, and it’s closed. Naturally. People that work during the week naturally have no time to go to the library on their day off. I must think of something else. I go to a barber’s, that should take at least half an hour, maybe more if I divert the barber with witticisms or dirty jokes. No luck. He whips me thru in a little over ten minutes, including a swipe at my eyebrows and sideburns, which I duck. He drops the comb on the greasy floor several times and wipes it off on his pants and continues. In the meantime I listen to him haranguing the other barber (who looks like a local football player) about how to skin a buck & how to remove its horns & how much you can count a full-grown buck coming to in net weight after it’s skinned. The other barber keeps saying “Yeah—yeah” like a little halfhearted football cheer. I have a feeling that if I had got this young football barber instead of the old geezer and had a hunting license to show him, he would have cut my hair for free. As it is, I have to pay for my scalping. (The old geezer keeps nicking me every time he gets to a good part of the description of how to skin a buck.) When I am down to “net weight” he steps back with a sour grin, as if to say it’s a pretty sad carcass. Read More »