Saturday, April 10, 2021

'Knowledge Rusts if the Mind Can’t Love'

Proof of the Heraclitean axiom that you cannot read the same book twice: 

I have been reading The Geography of the Imagination since it was published by North Point Press forty years ago. Even from essays devoted to writers I detest – Pound, Olson, Zukofsky – I’ve learned something; in particular, the value of curiosity and attentiveness to the world. In everything he wrote, Guy Davenport was a teacher because he never stopped being a student – a philosopher, in the etymological sense.


A friend in New York City has been reading the book and on Thursday sent me a passage from “Jonathan Williams,” about the late poet, publisher, photographer, impresario and longtime Davenport friend. This is an essay I have read many times but these sentences from the final paragraph might have been inserted into my copy last week:  


“Anything worth knowing passes from one person to another. The book is still a viable way of communicating, provided one has taught oneself to find the book one needs to read. It isn't easy. All the electronic media are a flood of noise.”


Originally, the essay appeared as the introduction to Williams’ 1969 collection of poems, An Ear in Bartram’s Tree. In context, Davenport is referring to Williams’ practice of traveling around the country giving readings, showing slides, introducing readers to poets, and poets to other poets. Nicely, Davenport calls this endless wandering Williams’ “goliardry,” and adds: “The color slide, descendent of the magic lantern, is still the most charming disseminator of culture, and Jonathan Williams is its master.”


In 2021, the passage my friend sent me reads like prophecy. We might carelessly read the first sentence as a trivial truism. But then ask, “Why do we share knowledge?” At least in part because we know it is “worth knowing,” it carries an aura of significance. Add to that the pleasure we experience when sharing knowledge, and the pleasure we hope the recipient experiences.


Already, more than half a century ago, Davenport feels the need to add “still”: “The book is still a viable way of communicating.” Perhaps the best, we might add, even after half a century of denigration and assault. The balance of the sentence – “provided one has taught oneself to find the book one needs to read” – reads like a koan, as in that old pop-mystical warhorse: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” But there’s something to it. The Geography of the Imagination was published eight years after I dropped out of college. I had been reading Davenport’s essays, stories and reviews in various magazines and literary journals for several years. By 1981 I needed to read his collection between covers, and promptly recognized the affinity. Davenport reaffirmed many of the values I had fumblingly started forming in childhood. He articulates some of them in another Geography essay, “That Faire Field of Enna,” on the fiction of Eudora Welty:


“Art is the attention we pay to the wholeness of the world. Ancient intuition went foraging after consistency. Religion, science, and art are alike rooted in the faith that the world is of a piece, that something is common to all its diversity, and that if we knew enough we could see and give a name to its harmony.”


When Davenport concludes the passage my friend sent me – “All the electronic media are a flood of noise” – the internet and Netflix were decades away. He most likely meant television (he didn’t own one, just as he didn’t own a car), perhaps movies and radio.  Data has usurped the place once held by knowledge. The one time I met him, at his home in Lexington, Ky., in June 1990, the conversation started before I walked in the front door (“Did you know Kafka’s eyes were blue? I just read that.”) and ended only when I left hours later.


In his book-length poem Flowers and Leaves (1966), Davenport writes, in a characteristic parenthesis: “(Knowledge rusts / If the mind can’t love.)”

No comments: