Wednesday, January 06, 2016

`Alert, Foraging Sensibility'

One day after the eleventh anniversary of Guy Davenport’s death, I reread Mark Scroggins’ “One Last Modernist” (Parnassus, Vol. 32, Nos. 1 and 2, 2011), his generous essay/ memoir devoted to the author of The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays. The title is a bit of a goof on the critical cliché “last modernist,” already used to describe Samuel Beckett, Henry Green, Italo Calvino and J.G. Ballard. Scroggins recalls a professor in the nineteen-eighties loaning him a copy of Geography and saying, “I think you’ll be interested in some of these essays,” which sums up Davenport’s enduring appeal. Word-of-mouth enthusiasm is the best criticism. Davenport once wrote that “what I liked in reading was to learn things I didn’t know.” He said he wrote not for critics but for “people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.” Though a longtime academic, Davenport prized knowledge. His stance before the world was as a perpetual learner. The one time I met him, in 1990 in his home in Lexington, Ky., Davenport was giddy from learning in a biography that Kafka’s eyes were blue. Scroggins quotes a wonderful passage from his essay “On Reading” (The Hunter Gracchus, 1996):

“I can therefore report that the nine years of elementary schooling, four of undergraduate, and eight of graduate study were technically games of futility. If, now, I had at my disposal as a teacher only what I learned from the formalities of education, I could not possibly be a university professor. I wouldn't know anything.”

The truest way to honor a writer is to read him with devotion, with the attention we bring to the Bible or a good dictionary. A writer without readers, or with stupid readers, is dead, as Melville was for decades, and as Edward Dahlberg, Stevie Smith and J.V. Cunningham probably are today. This has nothing to do with canon- or career-building. Davenport describes his “alert, foraging sensibility.” Devoted readers are hunter-gatherers of knowledge. Scroggins, too, while researching his biography of Louis Zukofsky, Davenport’s friend, visits the house on Sayre Avenue and reports:

“If anecdotes dotted Guy’s essays like currants in a pudding, they dominated his conversation. It was in talking with Guy that I came to realize the value such brief stories held for him: They were not merely diverting tales, but `luminous details; that (in Pound’s words) give `sudden insight into circumjacent conditions, into their causes, their effects, into sequence, and law.’ That’s perhaps a bit highfalutin—but an eyewitness story, Guy felt, could sometimes offer something unobtainable from books.”

Guy was one of the reasons this blog was christened Anecdotal Evidence, along with a remark by Dr.  Johnson and something Irving Howe, of all people, wrote. Guy taught that words, like star-matter, are dense and can pack a lot of energy. Scroggins, who is sometimes stricken with a tin ear and is unable to resist the allure of a cliché, closes his essay like this:

“Like his modernist forebears, Davenport had his eyes firmly fixed on the past, forever seeking out its shards. There is perhaps too little of the future in his vision, aside from a Utopia of a childhood.  All his works are founded on a few deeply pursued insights, a limited gamut of themes rehashed in dozens of variations. What makes them enthralling, ultimately, is their coruscating richness of detail, their precision of language, and their almost evangelical enthusiasm.”

After Scroggins, I read Guy’s finest essay, “Finding.”   

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