Wednesday, January 06, 2010

`An Entertaining Companion'

Monday marked the fifth anniversary of the death of Guy Davenport. I’d forgotten until Tuesday, when, in a review of a new life of Montaigne, I found this sentence:

“Montaigne is, in truth, an entertaining companion rather than a therapist or a prototypical Miss Lonelyhearts.”

The essayist was among Davenport’s favorites, and he would have endorsed the reviewer’s characterization and probably recognized himself in it. Like Montaigne, Davenport prized companionship and its constellation of related virtues – loyalty, amiability, trust. He could have spontaneously rattled off the etymology I had to go looking for:

“…1300, from O.Fr. compaignon `fellow, mate,’ from L.L. companionem (nom. companio), lit. `bread fellow, messmate,’ from L. com-`with’ + panis `bread.’ Found first in 6c. Frankish Lex Salica, and probably a translation of a Gmc. word (cf. Gothic gahlaiba `messmate,’ from hlaib`loaf of bread’). Replaced O.E. gefera `traveling companion,’ from faran `go, fare.’”

A bread fellow, messmate, traveling companion – Davenport remains all of these for me, and not only because I corresponded with him and visited his home in Lexington, Ky., but because the words of no other writer have so indelibly marked my thinking and remained fresh within me as I’ve gone and fared. In 1983, Davenport wrote the introduction to a reissue of Montaigne’s Travel Journal, later collected in Every Force Evolves a Form (1987). In that essay he writes:

“We all lead a moral inner life of the spirit, on which religion, philosophy, and tacit opinion have many claims. To reflect on this inner life rationally is a skill no longer taught, though successful introspection, if it can make us at peace with ourselves, is sanity itself. The surest teachers of such reflection, certainly the wittiest and most forgiving, are Plutarch and Montaigne.”

A young person, in or out of school, English or business major, cabinetmaker or grill man at Burger King, couldn’t pay for a better education than he’d earn by reading and taking to heart Davenport’s collected works and finding in their author “an entertaining companion.”

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