Sunday, November 23, 2014

`Turning Them Out of My Doors'

A sure sign of intellectual independence is a skeptical refusal of the pigeonhole urge. It’s usefully human to categorize pieces of the world and stow them in labeled bins. The alternative is, as Hume put it, “perpetual flux and movement.” The trouble begins when the bins are labeled with indelible ink, locked in a vault and jealously guarded. That’s when a faith of iron replaces reason and questioning, and understanding comes to an end. So too do curiosity, a capacity for wonder and the gift of learning from our mistakes. When you think you understand the world, it’s no longer alive and you’ve embalmed it. Guy Davenport’s most lasting legacy to me, thanks to his books, letters and our single meeting, is a bent toward non-alignment, a commitment to Bartleby-esque abstention. Not that he was “broad-minded” in J.V. Cunningham’s satirical sense. He was as principled as anyone I’ve known. He simply refused to join any herd, literary or political, even the most fashionable and no matter how temptingly lucrative it might have proven. 

Some readers remain offended that Davenport for eleven years reviewed books for the National Review. He violates the Law of the Pigeonhole: “How can he be a [fill in the approved adjective: avant-garde, postmodern, etc.] writer and work for Bill Buckley, that horrible man?” Or, later, for The New Criterion? In A Garden Carried in a Pocket: Letters 1964-1968 (Green Shade, 2004), his correspondence with Jonathan Williams, Davenport is writing for Buckley while Williams is serving as poet-in-residence at the trendy Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. In 1967, after Williams mails him a brochure outlining the programs at the Institute, Davenport lets go with an amusing rant: 

“Aha, so you have been put upon by the Liberals? I began years ago turning them out of my doors. Had to, to have some peace…Sensitivity is simply the enfranchisement to mooch…Bishop Pike! Norman Cousins! The two silliest one-worlders ever to kiss the hammer-and-sickle. Pike gets about a million dollars per annum of American tax money to pray nightly to Chairman Mao…You are, my friend, enrolled in a Communist Sunday School—ironically of the Liberal Variety, which will be the first to be put in the gas chambers when the Revolution comes. 

“Fortunately, there is no known record of a real artist being taken in by the tears and panty-waist Socialism of the Left.” 

If Pike and Cousins are unfamiliar names, substitute Jesse Jackson and Bill Moyers. Davenport’s point is that, even more than Hollywood stars, writers are comically, dangerously ignorant when it comes to politics. Politics was not central to Davenport’s life or writing. Joseph Epstein has made a useful distinction between being right-wing, whatever that means, and being anti-Left. The nuance is lost on many. In the best of his essays, “Finding” (Davenport favored the present participle – he would never title an essay “Found”), collected in The Geography of the Imagination (1981), he formulates his moral and aesthetic credo: “Our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.” 

Davenport was born on this date, Nov. 23, in 1927 in Anderson, S.C., and died on Jan. 4, 2005, in Lexington, Ky.

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