Douglas Dalrymple at Afield Notes shares a pertinent reminder from William Herschel (1738-1822), the German-born British astronomer and composer: “Seeing is in some respects an art, which must be learnt.” Not a surprising observation from the man who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781. For a splendid account of Herschel’s life and work see Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (2009). In this Age of Distraction, when screen-rapt people walk into traffic, seeing may well be a dying art, like letter writing and growing an edible apple. Herschel’s warning arrived the same day Edward M. Burns wrote to say he is editing the correspondence of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, and that a small selection of the more than 1,000 letters in their exchange is published in the current issue of The Hopkins Review. Burns is tentatively titling the book Questioning Minds: The Letters of Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport.
The preeminence of vision, of attentive and retentive observation, is everywhere in Davenport’s work, and here it is in a letter he writes to Kenner on March 30, 1970: “Strategy to be recommended to any bright young mind: stray, wander, and meander, and pay attention to what things look like not only from here, but also from there.” That reads like a fine-tuning of Herschel’s admonition – observe, yes, but not from a single, limited perspective (one of the lessons of Cubism). Consider that in the adjacent paragraphs Davenport sorts through Hilaire Belloc, the Abbé Henri Breuil, Picasso, R. Buckminster Fuller and Samuel Beckett. At age forty-two, Davenport was entering his decade mirabilis. In his finest essay, “Finding” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), he recounts his family’s Sundays spent searching for arrowheads near their home in Anderson, S.C. He writes: “Our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.” Then he adds, sadly, of those denied a fully conscious life:
“It took a while for me to realize that people can grow up without being taught to see, to search surfaces for all the details, to check out a whole landscape for what it has to offer.”