Saturday, June 15, 2013

`What Culture Survives the Century'

“Apocalypse Next Exit” is not top-shelf Guy Davenport. For his seasoned readers, the themes are familiar – cultural decay, the corrosive ubiquity of automobiles, the growing cheesiness of just about everything – but his jeremiad is shriller and less witty than elsewhere. The essay ran in the Dec. 1, 1970, issue of National Review, where Davenport had been reviewing books for eight years and would continue doing so for another three. It begins: “The automobile, a mechanical termite, has in the last two decades eaten the American town, turning it into a rotten lace of trashy buildings.” Inarguably true, but so what? The sentence, unlike Davenport’s best essays (and essays-as-stories), tells us nothing new, makes no novel connections, leaves us without memorable music. It’s a failed aphorism. By the end of his half-column paragraph, he settles in, the prose improves but it’s the same old tune: 

“The great historical fact of the immediate past is therefore not that Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon or that the century of total war has continued into its seventieth year or that the liberal philosophies of the nineteenth century have become the mandates for terrorism and totalitarianism, but that man has ruined his one design for a community.” 

Davenport moves on to a more congenial subject, literature, which he says “has displayed a nervousness and strange disquiet that needs sharp-eyed interpretation.”  Clearly, times have changed in the subsequent four decades, as when Davenport claims the American writer is “not a political animal.” Today, every mediocre writer is political (as well as a few good ones). He writes: 

“Neither comedy nor satire has attracted the mind of the Left, which has a leaden tendency toward postures of sincerity, ritual wailing, doctrinal propaganda and high-toned seriousness. No sane artist would give up the mobility of his intellect for the frozen attitudes of the Left.” 

The period since 1950, Davenport observes, marks the end of Modernism, the “brilliant modern renaissance that began in 1910.” However, “a cultural period takes its tone as much from what it honors in the past as what it creates,” he says, citing the deferred recognition of  Charles Ives, Louis Zukofsky, Jorge Luis Borges and Robert Walser. Neglected figures include Paul Metcalf, Ivy Compton-Burnett (about whom Davenport writes an appreciation, “The Last of the Masters,” after her death, in the Oct. 7, 1969, issue of National Review) and Charles Doughty. He praises Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews and Kenneth Gangemi. As always, Davenport is a connoisseur of the obscure, unexpected, ignored and devalued. His tastes are never programmatic and seldom predictable. Among critics he remains a non-aligned nation. He says we are entering a decadent period in which “one can detect the autumnal seriousness, a certain ripeness of decay, echoes of the high rot of the end of Rome. Decadence in the arts is always harvest time, the moment of summaries, resignation, retrospection.” 

Davenport is writing here at age forty-three. Most of what we remember him for – fiction, essays, poems, translations – is still in the future. In 1969 he had published his first story, “The Aeroplanes of Brescia,” in The Hudson Review.  His first book of fiction, Tatlin!: Six Stories, will come out in 1974. His private renaissance is already underway. In 1970, Bellow, Beckett, Nabokov, Philip Roth, J.F. Powers, Stanley Elkin, Peter De Vries, John Cheever, William Maxwell, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, Anthony Powell, Charles Portis, Richard Yates, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Kingsley Amis, Thomas Berger and Eudora Welty are working, and that's just fiction. Davenport concludes his essay with these words: 

“It will be the business of literature and the arts to contain and transmit what culture survives the century. If any.”

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