Friday, April 13, 2012

`Education Carried on By Curiosity'

Readers and critics can be ruthlessly parochial and turf-minded in their literary tastes. Some read nothing pre-Hemingway; others, nothing post-Trollope. Some eschew translations and others claim to read nothing in their native tongue. Who reads Stevie Smith and Ivan Goncharov? Jane Jacobs and Bashō? Martial and Italo Svevo? The reader who demonstrated for me the self-defeating nature of de facto literary segregation, and the wisdom of an open-all-borders reading policy, was Guy Davenport. He favored the ancients and the Modernists but as a reader, writer and teacher, he was the opposite of a specialist. What counted was literary excellence, not pedigree as defined by space, time and other contingencies. 

Born on this date, April 13, were Samuel Beckett, in 1906, and Eudora Welty, in 1909. In “The Faire Field of Enna” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), Davenport writes: 

“Eudora Welty shares with Samuel Beckett the mastery of English prose among writers now living; she is one of the greatest of American writers in all our history…” 

Even today (perhaps today more than ever), few critics possess the imagination to link their names. Welty was a woman, after all, and a Southerner, Beckett an Irishman who sometimes wrote in French – writers of different species without a shared scrap of literary DNA between them. Asked to name six “books of the highest achievement, perfect in their way and of their kind,” Davenport included Welty’s The Golden Apples and Beckett’s Molloy. Writing of Flaubert’s exacting prose, Davenport refers in “Narrative Tone and Form” to 

“…his immense care to animate objective description with damning detail that can be trusted to speak for itself. This is the style of Joyce (including Finnegans Wake), Beckett, Eudora Welty. It becomes a twentieth-century norm…” 

I was always eclectically bent, being too selfish and pleasure-seeking to reject books out of hand because of their provenance, but my longtime reading of Davenport, and our correspondence and one in-person meeting, confirmed my omnivorous tendencies. The world’s bounty is too generous to be snubbed for reasons of timidity, snobbery, fashion or ignorance. In an online interview, when asked about the breadth of his interests, Davenport says: 

“My range of interests may be accounted for by my being 75.  It's really a very narrow range.  There ought to be a psychology that studies indifference, the `flat affect’ of non-response.  Response is, beyond the usual culturally-trained and biological reactions to the things of the world, the result of education carried on by curiosity.”

1 comment:

BJ said...

The Geography of the Imagination is one of my favorites. Love this entry. (Melissa K. introduced me to your blog a year or so ago, but I just found a link to this entry on Brian Sholis's Twitter feed!)


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