The Geography of His Imagination

by Guy Davenport
New Directions.  160 pp. $21.95.


He’s hardly a household name, but for a small company of literate readers, Guy Davenport is almost a household god.  His Greek translations, essays about cultural figures ranging from Homer to Pavel Tchelitchew, and densely allusive short fiction mark him as the sort of consummately learned and reflective writer that any defender of Western values would consider an ornament of civilization.

            Yet several Davenport stories, beginning with “The Dawn of Erewhon” (1974) and including two longish yarns in his new collection, A Table of Green Fields, make this highly disciplined classicist look, from some angles, like a hyperromantic hedonist.  Typically set in Denmark – or, rather, in a not-quite-realistic land of robust health and perfect tolerance to which he gives hat country’s name – these stories feature a cast of bright young people whose personal attachments are impossibly free of envy and rancor and who have plenty or time to create art, discuss ideas, and make love.  Yet what these stories celebrate is not primitivism, as such, but the often primitive-seeming ardor with which bright young people discover their minds, bodies, and environment and which is the prelude to practically all artistic and intellectual accomplishment – in short, to the creation of those things we identify with civilization.

            In “Gunnar and Nikolai,” the bright young person in question is Nikolai, a boy modeling for a painting of Ariel.  “Why was Ariel naked?” he asks the artist, Gunnar, who replies: “He as a spirit of the air.  Like an angel.”  For Davenport, an ardent modernist and Ezra Pound disciple who reveres Emerson and Thoreau (and often mentions angels), nudity is simply natural, and only good things flow from nature: Art emanates from and responds to nature; intellect is a means of understanding it; and love is its purest expression.

            Don’t look here for conventional plots and climaxes.  Davenport’s longer stories are chatty chronicles, the short ones essentially anecdotes.  Meaning emerges largely from calculated echoes and surprising juxtapositions: One never knows when he will slip in a quotation from some obscure theologian, or a page-long entry from a botanical encyclopedia, or an episode set in another country or century.

            The book’s title is a variation on a line from Henry V in which a character, reporting Falstaff’s death, says that he “babbled of green fields.”  That line has been read as a possible mishearing of a reference to Psalm 23.  Several things about this title – among them the literary source, the pastoral image, and the psalm’s affirmation of divine goodness – make it appropriate to the book.  And its status as a variation on a possible garbled secondhand quotation points to Davenport’s interest in language’s mysteries, signification’s uncertainties, and the gaps, ambiguities, and apocryphal elements that exist in texts both literary and historical.

            That interest manifests itself here in a number of ways.  Kafka, it is said, consoled a girl who had lost her doll by sending her letters signed with the doll’s name; those letters having never surfaced, Davenport supplies them in “Belinda’s World Tour.”  Another story, “The Concord Sonata,” juxtaposes various interpretations of a cryptic Thoreau passage.  And “The Kitchen Chair” explicates a sentence from Dorothy Wordworth’s journal while reimagining the moment in which she penned it.  Throughout, Davenport ponders language’s ability to connect past with present, self with other.

            Not surprisingly, given his concern with the question of textual verity and the idea of the sacred, two stories here draw on apocryphal gospels.  The longer, “August Blue,” consists of four parts which, in turn, imagine Jesus as an upstart schoolboy; show students at the University of Virginia harassing America’s first Jewish professor, an antebellum mathematician named Sylvester; describe the island of Ely, where Wittgenstein lies buried; and envision the meeting that led to the painting of T.E. Lawrence by Henry Scott Tuke. 

            What connects these sections?  The language theme, for one thing: Davenport’s Jesus savors the alphabet, sees words as containing worlds, views language as a creative tool – for man, like God, is a creator.  Sylvester, we learn, introduced Hebrew letters into mathematical annotation, employing the letter alef “as a symbol of the transfinite.”  Wittgenstein, the influence of whose reflections on words, mind, and reality permeates these pages, saw language as a game – and Davenport actually plays name games here, calling Jesus Yeshua (the name’s Arabic equivalent) and referring to Lawrence as Ross (one of his post-Arabia pseudonyms).  All three narratives also involve boys being boys – innocent scamps here, menacing scoundrels there.  The concluding mention of World War I reminds us that those much-exalted youthful energies can eventuate not only in art and love but also in war.

            This book does have its problems.  There’s too much onanism and underwear; more than its predecessors, it feels like a grab-bag.  Yet its artistry redeems it.  Neither a fast nor an easy read, it draws one in with its austere, beautifully formed sentences, its rich patterns of meaning, and its compelling, idiosyncratic vision.  In a literary culture insufficiently aware of its own past, saturated with banal and familiar notions, and overengaged with the self and the feebly comprehended present moment, Davenport’s audacious originality, erudition, and historical imagination continue to impress and inspire.