Alphonso came to Vilnius to speak at the Mythology conference in October,
2019. Ignas recorded the interview in two parts: chatting over the late lunch
and on camera in the TV studio.


How to distinguish a life that is lived and which is not?

Many lives are of no interest. People do nothing in their life. They stay where they were born. They take whatever job there is. Every time I go to the shopping mall, there are so many human beings who spend their lives making all this shit. [Laughs]

All this stuff is of no interest and no value. At least half of the things in the shopping mall are thrown away very soon. The happiness is in fulfilling and enriching others.

Three years ago, I attended a meeting of medical humanities in England. They brought in performance artists, too.

All of those people had something to do with a medical issue. I remember a young man with cystic fibrosis. Almost all of these people die in infancy. Not many have lived for more than 40 years.

The man was performing, too. He cut his lungs with a scalpel, covered himself with oil, and began pounding his chest with a great force for a long time until he was able to bring up horrible yellow-green mucus.

But that’s what they have to do—loosen thick mucus.

Even hurting themselves. That’s the performance part. Was he a medical man?

No.

No. He was just a patient.

Later, I went to London for one more night. I had dinner with three other people and him. He’s so engaging, alive, and engaged—doesn’t look sick. Of course, he often coughs and so on.

In other words, I spent an evening with him somehow without the behavior, without the conversation being with a sick person, who’s going to die very soon.

But you had a conversation with another man, too.

Yeah. About a year later, another doctor asked me to write about people who choose risk for his medical book on risk and regulation in medicine. [Laughs]

Thus, I spent some time reading about extreme sports. The most dangerous one is BASE jumping.

Oh, yeah.

Not with a parachute. Just a wingsuit. That’s the most dangerous sport statistically.

I spent some time writing about these people—the usual explanation is these people have a death wish or are thrill-seekers.

But I found some research where sociologists interview a good number of these people seriously. The consensus is that they do dangerous things, but not dangerously. They check their equipment a hundred times. They study the weather conditions, the wind conditions, the terrain.

The goal is not to risk death, but to do something challenging with total control.

Narcissistic.

I thought about them in terms of Heidegger when you confront your death and mortality, which puts you in charge of your powers and the time you have.

For example, they don’t take risks in driving because that would endanger other people. It’s not a thrill-seeking but a wholly controlled and calm emotion.

They distinguish two emotions—the negative emotion of panic, where you lose control. And the positive fear that makes you focused. They experience fear positively. Their attention is focused.

There was another researcher in Australia who interviewed 65 of extreme sports people who do free-skiing. I’m very confident that they don’t have a death wish.

Okay.

They do something dangerous, but they do everything possible to avoid death. [Laughs]

That’s clear.

They have both great skill and perfect knowledge of their equipment and conditions. They are as calm as possible accompanied, of course, with fear that they control. They all say that doing these activities had a significant influence on the rest of their life. They became skilled in all the other activities.

Makes sense. Also, there is bungee jumping, where you come, they tie you, and what you need is just to take a step forward. They will push you down if you don’t take action, and then you experience everything.

Yeah, but bungee jumping is anti-sport.

Exactly.

It’s an activity with no skill possible. [Laughs]

Yes, exactly. You just need to be alive.

I was going to do it. But people advised not to do it because it’s almost like getting a concussion.

Once in a lifetime doesn’t harm so much. Perhaps it’s not a good idea if you do it every week.

Yeah, New Zealanders tell me that. There’s like a brain concussion. You’re young. [Laughs]

Have you ever had a brain concussion?

No.

Okay. Even a slight one?

I don’t think so.

That’s why you’re so smart. [Laughs] I remember meeting British Professor Theodore Zeldin, who’s written a famous piece of work, “A History of French Passions.”

A friend of mine said to him, “I don’t waste my time on uninteresting people. I only collect conversations with exceptional minds,” and Zeldin replied, “Every human is interesting for me.”

Zeldin established an organization called “The Oxford Muse.” They make conversation dinners. Total strangers are given both menus for food and conversation. They are paired with each other—people don’t know each other before.

They select three topics—one for starter, another for the main dish, and one for dessert. They discuss it while eating. It has a unique effect on the participants. Very nice. Zeldin said, “It doesn’t matter about the education, position or social status of a person. You can meet anyone and honestly discuss the topic with a person, and it always leads to a meaningful conversation.”

Every human soul is interesting. You just need to change your attitude, and then you will discover a lot for your sake, for your life if you are curious about what’s happening in his life—the opposite of the argument that every life is worth examining.

I’m skeptical. [Laughs]

Sure.

Many people don’t have skill and language. Even if they have something interesting, they have difficulty communicating it.

Absolutely, yeah. If one keeps silent, how do you know [Laughs] what one has to tell?

That young man with cystic fibrosis performed naked and coughed into about 12 plastic cups. It took a little more than an hour. Several people left who found it so painful to watch.

And then he took these cups and poured them over himself. He was like a child playing with body fluids. A year later, he said someone was preparing a book on his work and invited him to write about it. I wrote two pages and called it a “Consecration.” The act of pouring all over himself is like the consecration of priests, kings, and so many other cultures.

Even this last act where he poured the mucus from his body on himself was a kind of acceptance of this stuff. He’s extraordinary.

Does he perform regularly?

I don’t know how often—but sometimes he plays for longer than an hour and a half.

Another performance made a big impression on me. Fifty or more people came gathered in a small theatre. A woman who was about 40 years old was waiting, wearing two hospital gowns. One tied in front and one in back. But we could see that she had clothes under it.

She began speaking about how she became a woman. She spoke of having a big poster of Patrick Swayze over her bed when she was 12 years old. The text was wonderful. She discovered that if you give strangers green grapes, they will do what you want. [Laughs]

She had breast cancer when pregnant. Doctors couldn’t do surgery because the anesthesia would harm her fetus. Luckily, the child was born successfully. Then she had the breast removed.

Later, she had the second breast removed. And then she developed ovarian cancer. She said, “I am no longer a woman.” Biologically she is no longer a female.

She removed the hospital gown, and underneath, she is like a cabaret performer. It was very discreet. We could see that she had no breast reconstruction—her chest was flat. And when her performance was over, it was maybe 45 minutes; she went out, then came back with different clothing to speak with the audience. I was very impressed.

Have you ever done any uncommon exercises in your life?

I don’t think so. I didn’t do bungee jumping. [Laughs]

You have to be focused to face some fear and unknown.

After that, I decided to learn paragliding, and became interested in traveling. I started going to Europe every summer. When you go to the rest of the world, you get greedy. You keep thinking Europe is ridiculously expensive.

And Latin America is also cheap everywhere compared with the US and Europe.

Well, that’s for a reason. Somehow people from there want to move to the north, not vice versa, and then it becomes like it is now.

I got more interested in Africa and Asia and Latin America.

But it also illustrates your approach. You are not interested in regular things, ordinary things that are readily available, consensual. You look for extraordinary people, experiences, sights. That makes your life truly lived and worth the change.

Once, I picked up a phone, and it was somebody who identified himself as a son. He was 29, working in Manhattan as an engineer. He met a woman, also an engineer, fell in love, and got married.

They got rid of their apartment, quit jobs, and got on bicycles for a year. [Laughs] They had come down on a bike from New York to my house, and I was awed by them. This is so wonderful. They had very good jobs. They asked themselves, “Are we going to do this for the next 40 years?” They decided no.

I read another interview of a modern biologist from Russia. He raised a question, “What is life?” and came to an answer that people that live by science would be considered dead in his perception.

Living beings need to take unpredictable actions. If you act a predicted life by nature or habits, then you are dead—you are not acting on your own. You do not create anything new.

Even if a system acts unpredictably—it is a living system. Do you find any sense in that?

Instinct contrasts with wilful behavior. A certain kind of bird will come every year to make the same nest.

But it seems to me that birds have to discover the environment, find the material, and find the food so that it’s not a mechanical activity every day. It’s an activity of discovery and exploration and so on. Evolutionary biology is the most undeveloped science that we have.

There’s a type of bird in the South Pacific. The most extreme one makes a pit 26 feet long around like the size of this whole room and maybe 10 feet deep.

The size is similar to a chicken. It then collects all the leaves and organic matter to cover the entire pile with dirt or sand. The bird makes air shafts until the temperature is precisely right.

And then the female comes and lays an enormous egg. Eventually, after several months she lays 30 eggs and then goes away. Baby birds have to dig themselves out of this pile. They hatch one by one and fly away. Neither parent takes care of them.

How did all this evolve? Incredible labor to create this kind of artificial incubator. The female doesn’t want to keep the eggs warm as other birds do. Incredible. The male bird works ten months on this artificial incubator.

What’s your hypothesis?

Darwinian science says that it’s an accidental genetic mutation.

The second type of bird I was looking out was weaver birds. They make these incredibly intricate, and they weave. Each nest takes 1,000 grasses. Females are very picky — it’s a thousand trips, and the male has to make four or five of these nests.

Usually, they make them on the edges of the tree over the water on small twigs that the snakes can’t crawl over there. They even have false entrances so that if a predator tries to get into, it will be the wrong entrance.

These birds somehow spread to the whole species. Every weaver bird does this sort of thing. They make big colonies. You’ll have a tree covered with these nests. [Laughs]

The third kind of bird I looked into was the so-called brood parasites. These are birds who don’t do anything. They don’t make nests, and they don’t take care of their young. They just go to somebody else’s nest, throw out one egg, and lay eggs. [Laughs]

In Europe, you have a cuckoo bird. In America, we have cowbirds. There are species of weaver birds who watch everybody else doing all this work, and then when they’re off the nest, they destroy one of the eggs and put their egg in there. [Laughs]

The more I learn, the more I am baffled how this evolves. According to the Darwinian theory, these birds who make these enormous artificial incubators are certainly not the easiest way to raise a family. [Laughs] If the birds just make nests in trees, it would be easier and safer.

Why bother for diversity?

Biologists talk about hive intelligence. There’s an intelligence in the colony of insects. Let’s take termite hills in Africa. The queen is not a queen. She just lays eggs but doesn’t control the behavior of the colony. Also, these termites are blind. They make these enormous high-rise buildings to raise their food inside.

I found it most strange that they make these air shafts because they bring in cooler air from the bottom and ventilate it out the top, and they draw off the toxic air that’s produced.

Very complex system. Ants, termites, and bees form this complex organization. Some scientists tell the same thing about bacteria.

The bacterial colonies act, maybe not as complex. Their communication is very close to those of neural cells in a brain. Each living creature serves as a neural cell, similar to a neural cell, forming networks, and then one can talk about another level of intellect.

I don’t know how scientific this query is, but it sounds convincing. [Laughs]

I kept bees and learned that fifty-six different tasks are identified in the beehive. Scientists don’t understand how responsibilities are distributed.

One day in Argentina, a dog bitten my leg. Then in the weeks that followed, I’m watching this hole heal, and I’m thinking that these cells over here somehow know that if they keep pushing in this direction, they will meet the one on the other side. [Laughs]

Where is the sense of purpose? Consciousness has nothing to do with it. Indeed, it seems like there is an intelligence in every cell.

Some people say that if you visualize wound healing, it takes less time to heal. [Laughs]

Well, in this case, I didn’t. [Laughs]

What are the limits of life, in your opinion?

Even at the bottom of the ocean and boiling geysers, there are bacteria inside the rocks.

I began to think that the Darwinian explanation is weak, elementary. Theological interpretation is even more inadequate about God, the Father.

One author had the idea that life is an emergence of new things. The living creatures are infinitely diverse. Yet some force all over this planet is in every living being.

Sequoia is the heaviest form of life on the planet. Just a tree weights hundreds of tons. When it died, there weren’t branches or roots that still were alive, and that sprouted up anew.

Often, when the tree is getting older, if you cut down the tree, then the roots are still alive, and you get these sprouts.

Well, trees may die for different reasons affected by disease or damage. But if Sequoia dies, it’s because of age, because the time has come.

There is no natural death of trees, a friend says. He is the son of Canada’s Prime Minister. And he is very interested in trees. What if it dies because of a disease or because the conditions have changed? It can no longer get enough nourishment from this place. I’m not sure if he’s right.

As you know, trees are often hit by lightning and burn out on the inside, but it doesn’t kill them. That made such a strange impression on me.

Yeah, first person singular.

I die when the heart stops, and that’s it. No part of me’s still alive. But it was the same situation with this tree.

The incredible diversity seems to be a great puzzle. Why are there so many thousands of species? Especially with birds. Darwin thought that female birds choose for beauty, and that’s why there is a peacock and not only chickens. And they’ve done experiments.

An African bird called the widowbird is a small bird—but he male has a long tail. A scientist has cut off a third of the tail and fastened it on to another weaver bird. The tail is super long. This one will get all the dates, and this one will be alone.

Indeed.

I have a wall that’s covered with insects. And there’s such an incredible variety of colors and designs. I was in a protected area in Peru in the Amazon, and there’s an experimental station of scientists doing research. They have a few rooms for rent to tourists to earn a little money.

I was allowed to go inside three days. I remember, the scientist asked me, “Do you see there on the tree?” And he touched it. The wings matched the color of the bark of the tree. However, the inside of the wings was very colorful.Then, he says, “that’s camouflage.” Another butterfly had a long tail. At the end of the wings, there was a black spot. He said, “that’s a fake body of the insect, so when the birds attack, it misleads them, but it doesn’t damage the insect.” And I asked him, “Can you explain every design and every color of every butterfly?” He smiled and replied, “We try to come up with some explanation.” [Laughs]

[Laughs] Well, this explanation may lead to universal discovery. I always wonder how all those bugs survive wintertime because it’s frozen. Still, they multiply, they fly away as if nothing happened.

There’s one book about life emergence. The author claims that every living thing has intelligence, even bacteria. The first time I began to be astonished by their intelligence.

Some of them are so poisonous they could kill a human being that weighs a million times their weight. Still, they know they can do this. [Laughs]

There is a joke about two snakes: one snake asks another one, “Are we poisonous or not?” The other one says, “I don’t know. Why do you ask?” The first one replies, “I just bit my tongue.” So, I don’t know. Not like a stingray.

You must have noticed that there’s all this new literature about trees that they communicate.

Somebody did an experiment—covered one tree with plastic and then put some kind of gas in there. The next day he detected this gas in 43 other trees.

It’s incredible about the communication by roots and even by air. It’s like a Wi-Fi network. [Laughs] Some people talk about frequencies among humans. For example, “I feel your frequency, you don’t feel mine, and we drink something to balance our frequencies.” It may sound very esoteric and silly, but the problem is that conventional medicine doesn’t seem satisfying every case.

One day, I was thinking about a particular professor. Somehow he was in my head all day. At the end of the day, I went to a lecture at the university, and I felt a hand on my back, and it was him. I had no idea that he was in Europe.

And then after that, I noticed that very often when the telephone rings, I know who’s calling. Or I go to the mailbox, and I realize that the sender’s name was in my head that morning. I never do anything about it. I don’t try to predict anything. Still, every once in a while, it happens. I think some of these things can be explained by having a certain periodicity in your relationship with people.

Once I lost track of a woman. Fifteen years before, I made an effort to contact her. Somebody had given me the idea that she married a certain Dr. Carlson. I thought doctors wouldn’t disappear. There are always records of them. So, I called the Medical Association. I got a list of all the doctors in the country, and I called every office. [Laughs] He died. However, I didn’t locate her that way.

I thought I would hire a private investigator. I didn’t think about her for another 15 years. Anyhow, I was telling this story to someone at the airport— that I tried to contact this woman. When I came back on Monday, there was a letter from that woman. [Laughs] She sent that letter on the day I was having this conversation at the airport. [Laughs]

You could always say it’s a coincidence, but similar things happened several times to me.

What had happened next? Have you met her?

Yes, on the first occasion. She was in California. I went to visit her.

But it happens quite often that when the phone rings, I know who it is. I find a letter when I go to the mailbox, and then I realize that that person was in my head that morning.

I never tried to manipulate or predict who is going to write me a letter or who’s going to come to visit. It’s somehow these vibrations you were talking about.