Friday, June 29, 2012

`You Get Yourself a Shell or Else'

Two weeks ago my car failed the state inspection because of the smog pump, a device I’d never heard of and couldn’t identify if it fell on my foot. Seven-hundred dollars later, the Olds failed a second time for reasons two sets of mechanics can’t explain. All of this confirms my lifelong aversion to automobiles, a distaste compounded by my dependency on them. Hating something but knowing you need it must be among Job’s unrecorded torments. My sympathies have always been with Guy Davenport, who never learned to drive and never failed in his essays to take potshots at automobiles and our abject reliance on them. In “Whitman” (all quotations from The Geography of the Imagination, 1981) he writes: “A man in an automobile is as active as a sloth,” and “The largest American business is the automobile, the mechanical cockroach that has eaten our cities; that and armaments.” 

In “The Symbol of the Archaic” he refers to “the automobile, the machine that stole the city’s rationale for being, and made us all gypsies and barbarians camping in the ruins of the one unit of civilization which man has thus far evolved.” In “Hobbitry” he writes: “In the sad list of things that will always be beyond me, philology is toward the top, up with my inability to drive an automobile or pronounce the word `mirroring.’” And this, from the masterpiece among his essays, “Finding”: “I walk everywhere, rejecting the internal combustion engine as an effete surrender to laziness and the ignoble advantage of convenience.” 

On the one occasion I met Davenport, twenty-one years ago this month, I parked my Toyota in front of his house on Sayre Avenue in Lexington, Ky. He made a comment about my driving all the way from upstate New York – how had I endured the noise, stink and tedium? I wasn’t surprised, having read his essays, but kept a flare of defensiveness to myself, not wishing to acknowledge my embrace of “the ignoble advantage of convenience.” He was right, I knew, but he wasn’t right. Reluctantly, almost self-loathingly, I have to agree with the always contrary Karl Shapiro in “Man on Wheels” (Selected Poems, 1968): 

“Cars are wicked, poets think.
Wrong as usual. Cars are part of man.
Cars are biological.
A man without a car is like a clam without a shell.
Granted, machinery is hell,
But carless man is careless and defenseless.
Ford is skin of present animal.
Automobile is shell.
You get yourself a shell or else.”


Roger Boylan said...

And I love my shell....

George said...

Yet in Davenport's essay "Finding" (I think it's called) he speaks warmly of riding in his father's cars out of town to look for arrowheads and other artifacts in the fields.

As it happens, today I scanned the essay "The Small Cars", collected in Randall Jarrell's Auden, Kipling, & Co. to email to a friend.