Saturday, May 26, 2012

`Friends Find Each Other Interesting'

On a visit to Poland, to read A Garden Carried in a Pocket: Letters 1964-1968, the correspondence of Guy Davenport and Jonathan Williams, is to be doubly exiled from one’s customary world. Casual exchanges of conversation call for patience and imagination. The Poles I’ve met have been intelligent, polite, amiable and without exception more fluent in English than I am in Polish. They invariably express pleasure when I throw in a shaky kawa, Jak się masz? or Dziękuję. Making oneself understood without ambiguity or insult challenges self-centered laziness. Speaking with Poles, I feel not anxious but revitalized, despite lingering jet lag.
Reading A Garden (edited by Thomas Meyer, Green Shade, 2004) is like overhearing funny, erudite, bitingly satirical conversation between new and still uncertain friends. Williams is aggressively outgoing. His humor is campy and irreverent. Davenport is guarded, a stance he never entirely relaxes, though his humor blossoms with the friendship. Each helped the other professionally with editing, reviews, introductions, free books and publishing connections. Both love gossip. Williams is the life of the party. Davenport remains staunchly private, ever the Southern gentleman. His responses, however Rabelaisian, are carefully measured. As Williams unloads the complications of his love life, Davenport sympathetically hears him out, offers tactfully phrased fatherly advice, and keeps his business to himself. The sexual subtext makes for fascinating reading, an Appalachian translation of Les Liaisons dangereuses.
Davenport died in January 2005, shortly after the publication of A Garden. His brief introductory note must be among the last things he wrote. In it he says:
“The self, as some fancy psychologists have said, is always several selves, a congeries of identities. We like people who make us like ourselves (Jonathan is one of these). We tend to have a different self for all our acquaintances, accomplished hypocrites that we are. Consequently, we never really know another person. What’s going on in a friendship is that friends find each other interesting, appreciate each other’s jokes (this complicates things for the readers of other people’s mail), and enjoy each other’s company.”
Williams died in March 2008. His introduction is characteristically jokier than Davenport’s, but he too addresses the multiplicity of the self:
“My letters to Guy Davenport would be very different from those to R.B. Kitaj, or Kenneth Rexroth, or Ian Hamilton Finlay, or Jesse Helms. The range of his information, his precision and style and `manners’ forced me to try to get the facts `right,’ to try to get the words `right.’”
Davenport would not have placed quotation marks around manners and right. While Williams obsessively socializes, Davenport laments his lack of privacy: “Hermitude, like bliss, is pleasant to imagine since, surely, neither exists for more than fifteen minutes. Which, just as surely, makes them both so attractive.”
While Davenport is reviewing books for Bill Buckley at National Review, Williams serves as poet-in-residence at the trendy Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. In 1967, after Williams mails him a brochure outlining the programs at the Institute, Davenport lets go with his funniest rant:
“Aha, so you have been put upon by the Liberals? I began years ago turning them out of my doors. Had to, to have some peace…Sensitivity is simply the enfranchisement to mooch…Bishop Pike! Norman Cousins! The two silliest one-worlders ever to kiss the hammer-and-sickle. Pike gets about a million dollars per annum of American tax money to pray nightly to Chairman Mao…You are, my friend, enrolled in a Communist Sunday School—ironically of the Liberal Variety, which will be the first to be put in the gas chambers when the Revolution comes.
“Fortunately, there is no known record of a real artist being taken in by the tears and panty-waist Socialism of the Left.”
Now I must catch a bus to take me to a Polish wedding.

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