Tuesday, September 02, 2014

`To Multiply His Experience'

Last week, a neighbor who grew up in our neighborhood told me how he and his brother more than half a century ago discovered Indian relicts, pottery shards and spear points, when a house down the block was being built. Digging the foundation had exposed the treasures. His boyish excitement returned—the thrill of uncovering something old and alien, something he had otherwise seen only in the movies, of finding things unknown and perhaps of little interest to others: “We were a foraging family, completely unaware of our passion for getting at things hard to find.” 

That’s not my neighbor speaking. That’s Guy Davenport, another hunter-gatherer, recalling his adventures as a boy in South Carolina looking for arrowheads with his family. The experience, as recounted in his greatest essay, “Finding” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), was formative: “Our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.” Guy shows up often in my life, one measure of his lasting influence as a teacher even among those of us who never sat in his classroom. He taught us to be, as Keats put it, “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” We make connections, yes, and hear the harmonies, but never assume we have everything, or anything, figured out.apable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason

James Gibbons has written a fine tribute to Davenport in the guise of a review of The Guy Davenport Reader (2013). In a sentence, he distills Guy’s lesson that he was more than simply a writer in the banal sense of stacking words in marketable heaps. The inimitable style is the inimitable man. Referring to the essays, Gibbons suggests their essential teasing mystery: “At their best, they offer a direct road into the heart of his sensibility: omnivorous, alert to unsuspected revelations, but also committed to devoting sustained attention to whatever is under his gaze.” Such qualities are always in short supply, even among writers, for whom they ought to be, in partnership with language, the tools of the trade. Knowledge, not “information” (our age’s substitute), is everywhere if we choose to remain receptive. A life incurious is a great poverty. Though he taught for forty years and was as bookish and well-read as any man I’ve met, we’re never tempted to pigeonhole him as an “academic” writer, a clock-punching drudge.  Guy writes of Wittgenstein: “He read, like all inquisitive men, to multiply his experience.”

Gibbons says, judiciously, “We should hold on to Davenport because he seems to be receding from us.” In a literary culture rooted in novelty and begging for the Zeitgeist’s stamp of approval, his work calls for word-of-mouth endorsement not from critics or academics but common readers. As he writes of himself as a boy in “On Reading,” collected in The Hunter Gracchus (1996): “And then I made the discovery that what I liked in reading was to learn things I didn’t know.”

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