Friday, November 23, 2012

`Like Words You Had Never Heard Before'

In life and on the page I most enjoy the company of knowledgeable people, not trivial pursuers but those with a ready grab bag of bright shiny bits. I mean generalists, hunter-gatherers of fact, proudly messy non-specialists, foxes over hedgehogs. On the writing of one such: 

“It is, in a beautiful sense, thinking aloud, at its most congenial, conversational, richly anecdotal, and always observant. He is the world’s best companion for looking at a Venetian building or Gothic carving. He can tell you that the stone flowers that seem to be mere decoration at the top of a cathedral column grow wild in the fields round about. He takes nothing for granted; his readers are children to be taught, to be beguiled into learning.” 

This is Guy Davenport on John Ruskin, and on Guy Davenport, and I number myself among the children to be taught. An amateur Davenportian digression: Pedagogy, from the Greek παιδαγωγέω (paidagōgeō), literally “to lead the child.”

I met Guy only once and exchanged letters with him, but he remains my most lasting teacher, the one who shared not only what he knew but how he knew it. No mere professor of English, he lived and taught omni-directional curiosity. The night before I visited his home in Lexington, Ky., in June 1990, I shared a campground with several busloads of young Mormon musicians. When I relayed this information to Guy, he digressed on Joseph Smith, the fecundity of religion in upstate New York in the nineteenth century, and the geology of Utah, among other things. With some people, such a disquisition would quickly have turned pointless, pedantic and ponderously boring. Guy conveyed it with the pointed efficiency of a one-liner. The rest of the paragraph on Ruskin (The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writings, 2003): 

“For one of his Oxford lectures he brought a plow, to make certain that his students knew what one looked like. (The lecture was on sculpture.) He could make passages from the Bible sound like words you had never heard before. A lecture that began with Michelangelo ended with the proper shoes for little girls; one on landscape painting ended with the industrial pollution of rivers and what to do about it.” 

Guy Davenport was born on this date eighty-five years ago, on Nov. 23, 1927, and died Jan. 4, 2005.

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