Tuesday, May 08, 2018

`About as Erudite as a Traffic Cop'

“Curiosity, I'm convinced, is intelligence.”

Guy Davenport’s observation confirms my impression that the dullest people are not so much stupid (smart people can also be dull) as inert. Their world is like bad television, complete with laugh track. I’m thinking of a specific professor but the insight has a surfeit of applications. It reminds me of what Davenport wrote in his introductory note to The Hunter Gracchus (1996): “I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.” Curiosity implies an understanding that one does not know everything, that the world is a web of major and minor mysteries, some of which we can solve. Davenport’s most valuable gift as a writer was his ability to communicate his sense of curiosity to his more attentive readers.

In the Winter 2006 issue of Arion: A Journal of the Humanities and the Classics, Nicholas Kilmer published “Fragments from a Correspondence,” a selection from the letters written to him by Guy Davenport between 1978 and 1983, including the sentence cited at the top.

On teaching the young: “What the young need is to listen to Mozart, look at Chardin, learn geography, and memorize miles of poetry.”

On his working method: “No, I can't fix Aristotle for us. A professorial cuss, that old wheeze. I'm a janitor; I sweep up scraps other people have abandoned.”

On the death of his mother on Valentine’s Day 1980: “She was a lovely (and much loved) person. We wrote each other a nice gossipy letter every Sunday for 35 years. I feel as if the world has been jerked out from beneath my feet. My sister and I have the comfort of knowing that her life was grandly generous and blameless. She had lived all her life in Anderson, South Carolina, so the whole town mourned her passing, and showed us every kindness.”

On his visit to Paris that summer: “Our round of sites is so pedantic that I don't expect any body to share the import of all our darting about like snipes to see where Itard taught Victor, where Proust lived, where Apollinaire died, where Balthus painted the Passage du Commerce (everything just so), where Marat ran his newspaper, and other bees in our bonnets.”

In his letter to Kilmer dated June 18, 1979, Davenport writes: “How can I shake and dispel the awful reputation of being an `erudite’ writer? I'm about as erudite as a traffic cop. I like to know things; what's so two-headed peculiar about that?”

Eleven years later to the day, I visited Davenport at his home in Lexington, Ky., the only time I met him. That morning he was excited to have learned that Franz Kafka’s eyes were blue. It was the first thing he told me after we introduced ourselves and shook hands.

1 comment:

milton said...

What is delightful about the Kafka story is not just the joy of knowledge. It is Kafka in colour, not gaunt black and white.