Wise Guy

It is hard to believe that Guy Davenport is dead, for few writers in our time have seemed so abundantly alive. For decades a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, he leaves behind an oeuvre that is one long lesson in the history of civilization, and to read any of it—story, essay, or translation—is to be enthralled by his unflagging intellectual energy and engagement. Even the writings of Davenport’s last years (he died in January at the age of seventy-seven) read like the work of an idealistic young teacher, determined to awaken students to the joys of thought, literature, and art.

Yet they are also the work of a sage. For Davenport’s erudition was staggering, his range of knowledge seemingly unrivaled. No matter what he was writing about—Socrates, Joyce, Kafka, Ruskin, Ives, Balthus, Defoe, Santayana, Montaigne, Tchelitchew, Gaudier-Brzeska, table manners, prehistory, the Civil War, Pentecostal snake handlers—he not only appeared to know the subject inside out but seemed to have thought it through with such deep and singular imagination as to make it entirely and excitingly his own. Moreover, he wrote with extraordinary elegance, his prose a model of classical directness, rhythm, vigor, and specificity. If his brilliantly idiosyncratic stories—sometimes less like stories than like Joseph Cornell boxes made of words—attained at their best a remarkable Attic purity, his essays could rise to unself-conscious poetry: “Whitman’s fond gaze,” Davenport reflected in The Geography of the Imagination (1981), “was for grace that is unaware of itself. . . . He wanted in men and women a love that was unaware of itself, as heroism is unaware of itself, as children are unaware of their own beauty.”

Modernism was Davenport’s turf, Pound his hero. But since, in his view, the twentieth century’s genius was that it began “to connect what had seemed to be abrupt discontinuities of culture into whole fabrics,” he did not stay put in his own period but ventured far afield, seeking out and discerning ties across cultures, disciplines, and centuries (Don Quixote‘s influence on Lolita; Conrad’s Chance as “a translation, into another style, of Dombey and Son“), and writing stories (“Christ Preaching at the Henley Regatta”) in which personages from far-flung epochs and places bumped up against one another. For Davenport, civilization was one unbroken text: If Apollinaire “could see the modern,” he observed, it was “because he loved all that had lasted from before. You see Cézanne by loving Poussin and you see Poussin by loving Pompeii and you see Pompeii by loving Cnossos.” Just as the North Carolina poet Lenard Moore had learned to see “tobacco country . . . through the eyes of the medieval Japanese poet Basho,” so was the young Davenport, an aspiring painter, helped to see his native South Carolina countryside by Constable’s English landscapes (“Culture,” as Davenport wrote in these pages last year, “continues“).

Nothing human, then, was alien to him. The world was his subject, and he esteemed hard facts about it, positing that “art is bad when it is poor in news,” praising Louis Agassiz’s “eloquence of information,” and declaring that Thoreau’s “descriptions are beautiful not because he is out to write poetic prose but because they are accurate and meticulously responsible as to information.” He was drawn to the odd, striking detail: The last book Wittgenstein read was Black Beauty; America’s first forks came from Bordeaux, in France; the University of Texas library contains “pioneer Bibles . . . bound in Indian skin.” And he enjoyed making lists of scattered but thematically related data: “The world’s last copy of Catullus was found in the Renaissance, used by monks to bung a wine-barrel. Most of an ancient copy of the book of Isaiah was found by a shepherd chunking rocks into a cave in Israel, by way of boredom. Boswell’s diaries turned up one day in a trunk in an attic.” To read Davenport on anything was to learn about many things: In the first sentence of an essay on E. E. Cummings he tells us that “Ancient Greek poets wrote without spaces between their words, without capital letters, and without punctuation.”

One prized his paradoxes. He eschewed religion (which, he once claimed, “has yet to put down even a tentative root in my soul”), yet often explained artistic creation in spiritual terms; he was the most serious of thinkers, yet was capable of describing seriousness as “ultimately dull and probably inhuman”; he cherished civilization, but found much to admire in the theories of Charles Fourier, “who thought civilization a mistake.” The ultimate classicist, he romanticized youth; an icon of maturity, he exalted childhood play. And although the celibate Shakers fascinated Davenport (he borrowed the title of his 1987 essay collection, Every Force Evolves a Form, from Mother Ann Lee), several of his works of fiction—notably the long and wondrously otherworldly title story of Apples and Pears—set forth ardent visions of utopian carnality.

Davenport was a model of intellectual independence, adopting nobody’s theories and toeing nobody’s line (when he wrote that Lévi-Strauss was too original of mind “to be the expo-
nent of a master or a school,” he might have been referring to himself). Long a contributor to National Review, he mocked academic groupthink—and thwacked the New York Review of Books for having “done more to discourage good writing in the United States than the Litkontrol branch of the Politburo has in the Soviet Union.” But he also railed against conservative orthodoxies, reviling religious fundamentalism and decrying capitalism’s obliteration of American communities.

Indeed, even as Davenport rejoiced in modernism and echoed his idol Pound’s determination to “make it new,” he (who never learned to drive) despised modern technology, comparing the twentieth century—the “most miserable of ages since the Barbarians poured into Rome”—unfavorably to Whitman’s time: “His age walked with a sprier step than ours; it bounced in buckboard and carriage; a man on a horse has his blood shaken and his muscles pulled. A man in an automobile is as active as a sloth. . . . Dullness, constant numbing dullness, was the last thing Whitman would have thought of America, but that is what has happened.” If Susan Sontag called for an erotics of art, for Davenport—whose forthrightly homoerotic fiction celebrated active minds in active bodies—art, ideas, and frank physicality were parts of a single whole (as a character in the title story of The Cardiff Team [1996] puts it, “Finding out about what’s in books and the world and feeling great in my pants were cooperative”). In Davenport’s view, modern Americans, possessed by the twin demons of anti-intellectualism and car lust, had sold both mind and body in return for a mess of pottage—and forfeited their souls in the process. And he saw this Faustian transaction mirrored in the fate of an apple and a pear tree near his Lexington house that “had grown around each other in a double spiral” of breathtaking beauty, only to fall one day to a developer’s chain saw, its cruel scream “the language of devils at their business.”

Though it is good to see The Death of Picasso (2003), a selection of Davenport’s writings, newly out in paperback, most of his books—among them Eclogues (1981), Tatlin! (1974), The Jules Verne Steam Balloon (1987), and The Drummer of the Eleventh North Devonshire Fusiliers (1990)—are, alas, either out of print or hard to come by. One hopes that this problem will be remedied, and that in years to come his wide-ranging curiosity and delight may inspire new generations of bright young people, who will learn from him how to read, how to think, and how to live.

BOOKFORUM, April-May 2005