Friday, November 27, 2009

`Not to Waste the Listener's Time'

Moved to read Guy Davenport’s essays by something I had written, Bill Sigler writes:

“This is the first extended reading I've done of Davenport. Besides seeing a little of where you get your sensibility and a lot of how ignorant I am, I see that familiar and particular kind of Southern outcast, the gentleman who likes books. In a society where all manner of mental ailments are considered adorable and normal, this eccentricity is considered suspicious if not downright treasonous, so the road out of it is a combination of graciousness, tall tales, gossip, an obsessive unwillingness not to waste the listener’s time, erudition always served up with a warm snifter of things were better back in the old days, and the certainty of a preacher that he has seen great miracles.”

I spent one morning in Davenport’s company, exchanged letters with him and consider myself an insignificant satellite on the margins of his solar system, though I’ve been reading his work for more than 30 years. Bill’s conclusions, based on a single core sample of Davenport’s words, are shrewd. When I met the essayist in 1990 at his home in Lexington, Ky., I was naively surprised by his Southernness. Not just his drawl, which I had already heard on the telephone several times, but his manners (courtly, but not ostentatiously so, unlike another Southern type), hospitality, humor, devotion to the past (his own, the nation’s, the world’s) and gift for graceful storytelling. I was nervously in awe of him. Here was a writer whose work had helped forge the way I look at the world and who had given me new worlds to look at. It seems appropriate that I write these words on Thanksgiving Day. Bill continues:

“They are very lonely people, this type, which is probably why most of the great American writers (and musicians) come from the deepest, darkest South. He reminds me of no one so much as Poe. Like Poe (or Pound) he has found a generation's worth of windmills to tilt at. But unlike them, he's so gosh-darned funny you scarcely realize you are being indoctrinated to insanity.”

About this I’m less certain. I haven’t been able to stomach Poe since hitting puberty. “Most of the great American writers?” Thoreau? Melville? Whitman? James? Cather? Bellow? And about Pound my thoughts are more conflicted than they are about any other writer. Yes, Davenport is indelibly Southern but also American and cosmopolitan. His tastes and adopted traditions are nobly eclectic. In “Ernst Machs Max Ernst” (collected in The Geography of the Imagination), Davenport writes:

“If I have a sensibility distinct from that of my neighbors, it is simply a taste, wholly artificial and imaginary, for distant plangencies and different harmonies in which I can recognize as a stranger a sympathy I could not appreciate at my elbow: songs of the Fulani, a ntumpan, male and female, of ceremonial elephant drums of the Asantehene, dressed in silk, under a more generous sun and crowding closer upon the symbolled and archaic embroidery of the skirts of God, the conversations of Ernst Mach and William James, Basho on the road to the red forests of the North, Sir Walter Scott at dinner with Mr. Hinze, his cat, sitting by his plate.”

Nothing human was alien to Guy Davenport but meanness and vulgarity.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled — but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.

He had a weak point — this Fortunato — although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine. Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity, to practice imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack, but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. In this respect I did not differ from him materially; — I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.

It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend. He accosted me with excessive warmth, for he had been drinking much. The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells. I was so pleased to see him that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand.

I said to him — “My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met. How remarkably well you are looking to-day! But I have received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado, and I have my doubts.”

“How?” said he. “Amontillado? A pipe? Impossible! And in the middle of the carnival!”

“I have my doubts,” I replied; “and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter. You were not to be found, and I was fearful of losing a bargain.”


“I have my doubts.”


“And I must satisfy them.”


“As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchesi. If any one has a critical turn it is he. He will tell me ——”

“Luchesi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry.”

“And yet some fools will have it that his taste is a match for your own.”

“Come, let us go.”


“To your vaults.”

“My friend, no; I will not impose upon your good nature. I perceive you have an engagement. Luchesi ——”

“I have no engagement; — come.”

“My friend, no. It is not the engagement, but the severe cold with which I perceive you are afflicted. The vaults are insufferably damp. They are encrusted with nitre.”

“Let us go, nevertheless. The cold is merely nothing. Amontillado! You have been imposed upon. And as for Luchesi, he cannot distinguish Sherry from Amontillado.”

Thus speaking, Fortunato possessed himself of my arm. Putting on a mask of black silk and drawing a roquelaire closely about my person, I suffered him to hurry me to my palazzo.

There were no attendants at home; they had absconded to make merry in honour of the time. I had told them that I should not return until the morning, and had given them explicit orders not to stir from the house. These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as my back was turned.

I took from their sconces two flambeaux, and giving one to Fortunato, bowed him through several suites of rooms to the archway that led into the vaults.

To continue to the vault, go here