Wednesday, November 23, 2022

'Culture Is Shared Analogies'

Guy Davenport’s custom when dating a letter was to add the names of notables born on that date. This was pre-Wikipedia, and Davenport was a walking encyclopedia of such minutiae, without being tediously pedantic about it, as readers of his essays and stories already know. In his October 3, 1990 letter to James Laughlin, for instance, he notes Henri Alain-Fournier (author of the wonderful novel Le Grand Meaulnes) and Thomas Wolfe. To the latter’s name he appends a scholarly footnote: 

“(Wolfe’s brother was manager of Dixon’s Blue Bird Ice Cream in Anderson SC when I was a child, and his sister lived on the corner of Franklin and Main, two blocks from our house, at a nice place called Seven Oaks, now replaced by Bubba Shiflett’s Used Car lot)”


On April 15, 1989 (and 1993) he gives us Leonardo da Vinci, Henry James Jr. (that is, the novelist, not Henry James Sr., the noted crackpot) and Robert Walser. December 1, 1994: Rex Stout. February 2, 1997: “Ulysses anno 75.” Not every reader will be charmed by his bountiful knack for trivia.


I’ve been reading Davenport for almost fifty years. We corresponded for several years, I visited him at his home in Lexington, Ky., and I own and have read most of his books. I owe much of whatever sensibility I possess to him. He remains a teacher in the truest, non-academic sense. In the Winter 2002 issue of The Georgia Review, Davenport published an essay, “The Illuminations of Bernard Faucon and Anthony Goicolea,” which to my knowledge has never been republished. It is among the last long pieces he wrote – eighteen pages of text, eight of photographs. In it he writes, in a casual aside:


“The arts are cultural voices. It was Santayana who said that it doesn’t matter what people read as long as they all know the same books -- that is, share a pervasive culture. If you don’t know who Gulliver, Robinson Crusoe, and Don Quixote are, you are from Mars and have your own paragons of naïve credulity, ingenuity, and anachronistic chivalry.”


And this, a marvelous explanation of how artists and their cultures work:


“The watchworks of any art is a grammar of analogies. At its most abstract, an analogy belongs to geometry and therefore to mathematics: the inch on the map corresponds to a mile. In poetry, remembrances of things past can be summoned as witnesses to testify at a session of a law court. Culture is shared analogies. Cultures have long ago forgotten the origin of their analogies: fish have no notion what water might be. They are aware, however, of the surface of air above them, as they have to negotiate it swimming upstream, for insects. The artist works at the surface of cultures, finding nutrients, moving against the current.”


Such clarity is rare. Davenport was born on this date, November 23, in 1927, to which he might have added the names of co-birthday boys Pope Clement IV, Franklin Pierce, Boris Karloff, Harpo Marx, Nirad Chaudhuri, Run Run Shaw and Paul Celan. He was that anomalous sort of writer in whom scholarship, stylishly precise prose, curiosity, wide-ranging interests and a gift for entertaining his readers all came together. He writes in his introductory note to his third essay collection, 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.”


[Davenport’s dates and names can be found in Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (W.W. Norton, 2007).]

1 comment:

JJ Stickney said...

The blog The Big Other had a feature on Guy Davenport