Tuesday, July 07, 2015

`Hostages to Vastation'

Walking in front of me as I left the university library was a young man, probably a student, with these words printed on the back of his t-shirt: poder es hacer. I sometimes experience a dyslexia-like condition that turns printed language into an Esperanto-impasto of nonsense. Simple prose is Finnegans Wake-ified. I thought I was having such an attack. What language was this? Dog Latin? Some hipster dialect of English? Back in my office I looked up the phrase, which turns out to be elementary Spanish: “power is doing” or “power is making.” A “Maker” subculture thrives on campus, especially among engineering students, and I suspect the young man is aligned with that tribe.

The night before I was reading Guy Davenport’s Da Vinci's Bicycle: Ten Stories (1979), when I came upon the first sentence of the second paragraph of “C. Musonius Rufus”: “All at first was the fremitus of things, the jigget of gnats, drum of the blood, fidget of leaves, shiver of light, boom of the wind.” I’ve read the story many times before and recall no past confusion. This time, I tripped over the sentence as though it were a log on the sidewalk – proof, if any was needed, that we change as readers across time, that an interesting text is incomplete without a reader and that no reading is ever final.

Davenport’s grammar and syntax are straightforward. His essays tend to be crystalline, readily accessible to literate, book-minded readers. The fiction is more daring, more “experimental,” and in general less successful than the nonfiction, but let’s give Davenport’s sentence a chance. Fremitus is from the Latin for “to roar,” and Davenport was a classicist.  The OED gives “a dull roaring noise” and “a palpable vibration or thrill, e.g. of the walls of the chest.” The most recent citation dates from precisely a century before Davenport published Da Vinci’s Bicycle. The rest of the sentence, a catalog of ambient sounds, proceeds from this word. What of jigget? The OED gives “to move about with a jerky or shaky motion; to jig; to hop or skip about; to shake up and down; to fidget.” One would be incorrect to say gnats “fidget,” but in a swarm they undeniably jigget. It’s a good serviceable word used by one of Davenport’s favorite writers, Rudyard Kipling, in A Fleet in Being: Notes of Two Trips with the Channel Squadron (1898): “At eight knots you heard the vicious little twin-screws jiggitting like restive horses; at seventeen they pegged away into the sea like a pair of short-gaited trotting ponies on a hard road.” Kipling’s prose is strong and vivid – no lapse into Esperanto there.     

“C. Musonius Rufus” mingles three strands of narrative by three narrators. The sentence in question describes a wakening awareness, from sleep or some other dulling of consciousness. The historical Gaius Musonius Rufus was a Stoic philosopher of the first century A.D., the teacher of Epictetus. In “Ezra Pound 1885-1972” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), Davenport writes: “Art is a matter of models; life is a matter of models. In St. Elizabeth’s he remembered C. Musonius Rufus, condemned first to a waterless Aegean island by Nero (he survived by discovering a spring for himself and his fellow prisoners) and finally to swinging a pickaxe in the chain gang that dug the canal across the isthmus of Corinth.” Davenport implicitly suggests parallels between the exiles of Musonius and Pound. The sentences that follow the one quoted above from “C. Musonius Rufus” are transparent:

“The tremor of my cry may have had something to do with choosing this threshold. There are other sills, empty places with intolerable glare, presences, noon quiet, lonely desperate desert wastes. I have died again in them. Those who go to the inhuman to place their hopes upon its alien rhythms, its bitter familiarity with nothing, its constant retreat from all that we can love, are hostages to vastation.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Now, there's an interesting word - vastation. The dictionary gives devastation which is, presumably, Davenport's meaning, but also a kind of spiritual purification in which evil elements are eliminated. Would like to see an example of the latter use.