Wednesday, August 12, 2015

`With All Their Obdurate Beauties Intact'

“My late friend and longtime pen pal Guy Davenport—essayist, classicist, modernist scholar, artist, teacher, and Calvinist pagan—gave conclusive evidence throughout his life and work that all harmony (aesthetic, social, or spiritual) is based on both balance and distance . . . Undue closeness, argued Guy, invariably leads to discord, meanness, and sentimental `wetness’—all failures of harmony, all opposed to the dictum of Heraclitus (one of the seven Greeks Guy famously translated) that `a dry light is the best soul.’”

Michael Alec Rose is a composer who teaches composition at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music. In other words, he practices the human gift I envy most. (As Davenport writes in a letter to Rose: “I eat music. It feeds me.”) That a composer should single out harmony for attention would have pleased Davenport, an inharmonious man (“Calvinist pagan”) who valued the quality nearly as much as he valued imagination, its natural complement. The word concludes one of the loveliest paragraphs Davenport ever composed (in his essay on the fiction of Eudora Welty, “That Faire Field of Enna,” in The Geography of the Imagination, 1981):

“Art is the attention we pay to the wholeness of the world. Ancient intuition went foraging after consistency. Religion, science, and art are alike rooted in the faith that the world is of a piece, that something is common to all its diversity, and that if we knew enough we could see and give a name to its harmony.”

Rose’s “`Another Acre or so of Being’: Letters from Guy Davenport” appears in the spring 2015 issue of Literary Imagination. He takes his title from a sentence in Davenport’s “Ronald Johnson” (The Geography of the Imagination): “The poet is at the edge of our consciousness of the world, finding beyond the suspected nothingness which we imagine limits our perception another acre or so of being worth our venturing upon.” “Another Acre” consists of an introduction, five letters from Davenport written in 1988, at the beginning of their correspondence, and one from Rose. Davenport’s letters recall those I received from him – learned, playful, balanced and distanced, gentlemanly but happy to admonish professorially. (In his first letter to me he corrected my use of the prefix “Ur-” and my shameful spelling of Edgar “Allen” Poe –mistakes I’ve never repeated, which was the whole point.) In his introduction to the letters, Rose says he “still has not forgiven” his friend, but it’s unclear whether that’s because Guy died of lung cancer in January 2005 or because he never told Rose he was dying. Rose continues:

“In the same way, I can never `forgive’ Joyce or O. Henry, Picasso, or Burchfield, for being so drily distant from my wet and easy grasp. I am able to love these figures because of Guy, who took all things exceptionally unyielding to the human heart—poems, novels, paintings, death itself—and delivered them as gifts of ongoing understanding, with all their obdurate beauties intact.”

A portion of Rose’s introduction appears in the afterword to his Audible Signs: Essays from a Musical Ground (Continuum, 2010). Rose says six people, including Davenport, made his book possible: “Each has worked wonders in the world, delivering beautiful obdurate things as gifts of understanding, with all their difficulties intact.” They are the violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved, the mathematician Bill Rosenthal, his mother Ryda Rose, the photographer Brian H. Peterson, and his wife and proprietor of Bible Belt Balabusta, Joanna Brichetto (all are concerned with attention, harmony and education in the broadest sense). In one of his essays, “An Intimate Iconography of Music,” Rose usefully misquotes Davenport’s essay on the incoherent poet Charles Olson: “Knowledge is the harvest of attentions.” Guy actually writes:

“Knowledge to Olson was a compassionate acquisition, an act of faith and sympathy. He meant primarily that knowledge is the harvest of attention, and he fumed in great rages that the hucksters prey on our attention like a plague of ticks.”

Again, “attention”: “Art is the attention we pay to the wholeness of the world.”    

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