Monday, January 14, 2013

`Proceed With Daring Synapses'

“Not having read any Davenport before, where should I begin?”

So writes a reader commenting on a recent post devoted to the work of the late Guy Davenport. I’m not comfortable telling people what to read, and resent it when others issue bookish orders to me. Only in the reading life am I a libertarian. Rather than codify a Davenport curriculum, I’ll share some of my forty-year engagement with a writer who, through words alone, became my best teacher. He was passionately curious, learned and generous with what he knew. In his book-length poem Flowers and Leaves (1966), Davenport writes, in a characteristic parenthesis: “(Knowledge rusts / If the mind can’t love.)”

Davenport (1927-2005) was a prolific writer, but a careful one. None of his works is a vanity project, and all, even the least review or introduction, can be mined for gems. I don’t remember the first thing by him I read, perhaps an essay or story in a journal, though it may have been The Intelligence of Louis Agassiz (1963), a selection from the writings of the Swiss-born scientist and friend to Thoreau. In his thirty-page introduction, a sort of credo for all that followed, Davenport hints at his own sensibility:

“Agassiz was a major figure in nineteenth-century American culture, as much a part of our literary history as our scientific. Agassiz assumed that the structure of the natural world was everyone’s interest, that every community as a matter of course would collect and classify its zoology and botany. College students can now scarcely make their way through a poem organized around natural facts [this was half a century ago!]. Ignorance of natural history has become an aesthetic problem in reading the arts. Thoreau, though he wondered why the very dogs did not stop and admire turned maples, knew better what the American attitude was, and was to be, toward natural history. Nullity.” 

Davenport assumes the unity of knowledge, making no hard, mutually exclusive distinctions between science and art. Though he taught in universities for almost forty years, he had none of the academic’s dull, turf-defending over-specialization. He was no careerist. Rather, he was a teacher whose principal mode of teaching was writing. He couldn’t fathom a man who wasn’t excited by a magnolia tree in blossom or a passage in Ruskin. The centerpiece of his published work, its Rosetta stone, remains The Geography of the Imagination, an essay collection published in 1981 by North Point Press. On my shelves sit twenty-two volumes of Davenport’s work, with some overlap among them. Geography, inscribed by Guy the one time I met him (“18 June 1990”), threatens to fall apart from use. Some passages I’ve committed to memory strictly from familiarity. This is from “Ernst Machs Max Ernst”:         

“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.” 

It’s the personal note that carries conviction, yet a reader could never mistake this for memoir. Some people, writing of themselves, write autobiographically in the banal sense: this happened, then this happened. Guy presents you with a core sample of his sensibility. “Distant plagencies” may show up as my epitaph. 

The side of Davenport’s accomplishments closest to my heart is the nonfiction. He was our supreme essayist. The fiction is less central for me, in part because Guy, like Borges, mingled fiction and essay. He was dismissive of his first story collection, Tatlin! (1974), judging it too wordy and explicit. Yet consider the final sentence of “The Dawn in Erewhon,” the final story: 

“On the earthday July twentieth, one thousand nine hundred and sixty-nine years after Omicron Ceti burst bright during a mighty conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, the handsome, blue-eyed Command Pilot of the Eagle, Neil Armstrong, of Ohio, stepped with his left foot onto the dust of the moon.” 

Among my favorite Davenport stories: “On Some Lines of Virgil” (Eclogues, 1981); “Fifty-Seven Views of Fujiyama” (Apples and Pears, 1984); “Belinda’s World Tour” and “The Concord Sonata” (A Table of Green Fields, 1993).  The one book of Guy’s I reviewed during his life was The Balthus Notebook (Ecco Press, 1989). I clipped the review from the newspaper and mailed it to him (we had already been exchanging letters for more than a year), and he was politely pleased with what I had written. Looking back, I see it’s a feeble bit of writing but Guy was never less than gracious. In The Balthus Notebook you’ll find this corrective to theory-driven narcissism: 

“A work of art, like a foreign language, is closed to us until we learn how to read it. Meaning is latent, seemingly hidden. There is also the illusion that the meaning is concealed. A work of art is a structure of signs, each meaningful. It follows that a work of art has one meaning only. For an explicator to blur an artist’s meaning, or to be blind to his achievement, is a kind of treason, a betrayal. The arrogance of insisting that a work of art means what you think it means is a mistake that closes off curiosity [n.b.],  perception, the adventure of discovery.” 

Of few writers can we say to a novice: You can’t go wrong; start anywhere and enjoy yourself. Even Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus. In my experience, I always enjoy and learn something from Guy’s work, no matter how remote it may seem from my putative interests.  In “Ernst Mach Max Ernest,” writing of “the styles I find most useful to study” (Kenner, Mandelstam, Beckett, Wyndham Lewis, Pound, Charles Doughty), Guy writes: 

“All of these are writers who do not waste a word, who condense, pare down, and proceed with daring synapses.”


George said...

How about The Geography of the Imagination, the essay "Finding" for example?

Edward Bauer said...

Dear Patrick, When I asked you the question I never expected this wonderful a response. Thank you for the effort you made to help me, despite your discomfort with recommendations. I have so many gaps in my reading, and following your blog has inspired me to fill in as I can. The specifics I find here are great, but it is the inspiration I appreciate the most. Thanks again. Eddie Bauer