The Paris Review

Object Worlds and Inner States

Mughal dynasty, Jahangir and Prince Khurram Entertained by Nur Jahan, ca. 1645, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Look! Look! If you look really hard at things, you’ll forget you’re going to die,” an American actor is supposed to have once said. In a writing class I occasionally teach, this injunction to just look—out of the window or down the street—is sometimes met with boredom, not a seasoned ennui necessarily, just impatience with what one presumably already knows. We are prone to treat the outer world as a source of information, new and old, when it is actually a font of emotion. We describe things not because they are there but because our life depends on it.

Take Raymond Carver’s story “The Cabin.” A man called Mr. Harrold drives to a lodge in winter for a couple of days of river fishing. His wife has recently left him and he is suffering her absence, but this we know only through the occasional flashback. Most of Mr. Harrold’s feelings are expressed subliminally, through the delineation of things—furniture and furnishings in a room, the interplay of clouds and hills on the horizon, what people wear and how they look. Mr. Harrold is intent on enjoying himself, but it’s

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