Sunday, October 25, 2015

`The Gradual Abatement of Kindness'

From Guy Davenport’s eulogy for his friend Hugh Kenner: 

“I had the feeling that Hugh was a displaced member of Samuel Johnson’s circle (Pope was for him the poet for inexhaustible study). I have heard him anatomize a paragraph of Johnson’s, showing how its words consistently answered to their Latin derivations. I don’t know all that many people who have paragraphs of Johnson off by heart.”                                      

Some of us imagine ourselves “displaced members” of Johnson’s circle. We fancy the great man’s wit, ferocity, common sense and learning would rub off. How many of Kenner’s admirers, the Modernist Brigade, share his admiration for Johnson and Pope? How many share a taste for their comedy, rarified and otherwise? I read those eighteenth-century men first in college, with a professor who would crack up while reading The Dunciad aloud. That’s how I’ve read Pope ever since – as a colossal entertainer and one of the greatest poets in the language, one who makes Wordsworth read like a dry-as-dust drudge. 

I was reminded of Johnson’s “Life of Pope” while rereading Kenner’s The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy (1968). It and The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett (1964) were illustrated by Davenport. Each dedicated his masterwork to the other, yet the friendship frayed at the end. I claim no insight into the causes, and Davenport was gentleman enough to write a gracious tribute for his friend of more than forty years. A passage in Johnson’s “Life of Pope” reminded me of their friendship’s end, though not in its specifics. Johnson writes of the quarrel between Addison and Pope after the latter published his translation of Homer: 

“The reputation of this great work failed of gaining him a patron; but it deprived him of a friend. Addison and he were now at the head of poetry and criticism; and both in such a state of elevation, that, like the two rivals in the Roman state, one could no longer bear an equal, nor the other a superior. Of the gradual abatement of kindness between friends, the beginning is often scarcely discernible by themselves, and the process is continued by petty provocations, and incivilities sometimes peevishly returned, and sometimes contemptuously neglected, which would escape all attention but that of pride, and drop from any memory but that of resentment. That the quarrel of those two wits should be minutely deduced, is not to be expected from a writer to whom, as Homer says, `nothing but rumour has reached, and who has no personal knowledge.’” 

Kenner died in November 2003, Davenport fourteen months later. Davenport avoids piety and platitudes. He honors Kenner the writer and teacher, and he might be writing of himself: 

“I have a feeling that most of Hugh’s prose is on two levels. The upper one is as clear and forthright as Hazlitt; the second one is Hugh talking to himself more intelligently than he is willing to share with a half-literate public. He spent years teaching illiterate students, and did not recognize a high degree of literacy in public print of any sort. Not even Bill Buckley escaped his censure. Only Christian charity allowed him to say a good word about my own.”

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