Category: Guy Davenport

Guy Davenport

The Face of the Moon John Russell

The Face of the Moon, “painted from nature” by John Russell, 1795

I remember the Guy Davenport story, actually a novella and the first of his three great novellas, which made me a lifelong admirer of his fictions. It was the opening of ‘The Dawn in Erewhon’ from his first collection, Tatlin!

The Dutch philosopher Adriaan Floris van Hovendaal was arranging the objects on his table, a pinecone to remind him of Fibonacci, a snail’s shell to remind him of Ruskin, a drachma to remind him of Crete. He had been thinking all morning of time, which was nothing, or was the direction of being, or was a dimension of the world and therefore spatial, or was the deference whereby an effect followed rather than preceded or was simultaneous with its cause, or was but sequence and nothing more.

This opening stopped me, not because I was flummoxed by the references and learning packed into that single paragraph. My reading in university at the time I discovered Davenport’s fictions was delightfully eclectic and catholic, with the chaotic reverie that comes from youth and wanting to devour all. Along with my assigned readings from professors, I devoured the densest of philosophical works, Schopenhauer to Heidegger, the ancient Greeks to Wittgenstein; high modernists as Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Joyce and Beckett, to name a few, and works science fiction and detective stories.

Davenport’s opening captured the world I was living in at the time and its excitement. As I read on, going to the university library to check upon some person or idea Davenport referenced, I grew enchanted with how Davenport told the story of van Hovendaal, whom I learned Davenport modeled after Ludwig Wittgenstein and the retelling Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. This was not writing, I thought, but writing as a work of art. The novella’s disjunctive style was as important as the story; the juxtapositions of different ideas and thinkers were meant to startle one into new ways of seeing and thinking about things.

Once, reading by a campfire, he had an intuition of the bog men inspecting their bone hooks and written blades by the glow of peat. He had thought of Rembrandt, of the preciousness of glass, the interior smugness of the Dutch. Rembrandt was candlelight, stovelight.

Vermeer was windowlight reflected from canals. Hobbema, the light before rain. The north had all its light sifted through forest leaves, and has never forgotten it. Only Dūrer dreamed of real light.

I cannot look at those painters to this day without Davenport’s illumination of the different kinds of light each painted. No one wrote like this; no one today writes like Davenport.

Each time I read his fictions and novellas, I’m amazed not just at the erudition behind them, but how I’m startled anew by some piece of information Davenport places in this story, linking together thinkers and ideas that brings about some new insight. Davenport often notices something mundane, something that has always been there, but that throws into a new light an artist’s whole work. Take for instance Balthus, whom Davenport has probably written the only good studies of this painter, both in his Balthus Notebook and  the short essay ‘Balthus’ in his collection Every Force Evolves a Form and from which the passages below are taken:

The only clock I can find in Balthus is on the mantel of The Golden Days of the Hirschhorn, and its dial is out of the picture. Balthus’ children have no past (childhood resorbs a memory that cannot yet be consulted) and no future (as a concern). They are outside time.

Charles Fourier concocted an elaborate philosophy to discover human nature and invented a utopian society to accommodate it, a society of children organized into hives and roving bands. Adults were, so to speak, to be recruited from the ranks of this aristocracy.

The linking of Charles Fourier with Balthus is marvelous and revelatory. Balthus and Fourier are utopians.  Both celebrate and revivify the imagination and physical and sensuous life. As if often the case with Davenport, as it is with Balthus, it is those moments of adolescent reverie and imagination, combining Eros and sensuous energies, which remake the world. There is a passage in Davenport’s stunning Apples and Pears that captures this moment and serves as a touchstone for what Davenport hoped to achieve in his fictions and essays:

Rilkean angels, complex essences in a wind of light, fibrous with articulate memories, accidental events enriched into significance, a cherished smile, a long afternoon, a concupiscent dream, disappointments salvaged by courage, are the quiring that Fourier saw as a destiny of attraction. They are harmonies of essences. They are kin to us.

Davenport is not much read now. Many of his books have gone out of print and none of his stories, to my knowledge, appear in collections of American short fiction. He has his admires, students who attended his lectures and classes at the University of Kentucky, and other writers. Samuel R. Delany has written that Davenport is one of a select group of writers who “each reaching in an entirely different direction, achieve a sentence perfection that dazzles, chills and – sometimes – frightens: William Gass, Joanna Russ, Guy Davenport and Ethan Canin.”

What explains Davenport’s near vanishing from the literary scene? Davenport’s fictions feature many instances, sometimes alluded to and sometimes explicit, of boys and young men in homoerotic relationships. This part of Davenport’s works throws up barriers to some readers, although I have found many, who while turning away from Davenport’s work, have no problem with Nabokov’s more morally disturbing Lolita.

What may be going on is that many mistake Davenport’s boys and men as pornographic images, much as Balthus’ paintings are reduced to being nothing more than the work of a dirty old man who liked “young girls showing their knickers,” as one person told me when Balthus’ name was mentioned. As a scholar and translator of ancient Greek, Davenport knew how Eros and philosophy were closely tied. Eros, agapē and love fill Platonic dialogues. The handsome Alcbiades desires to sleep with Socrates only to have Socrates artfully put him off. Still, it is this erotic element in Plato that is turned to the highest of philosophical arguments and speculation.

Dialogue between the master and the student, between the older Socrates and the younger men and boys whom he speaks and debates with, is electrically charged with erotic energies. There is no getting away from that. George Steiner in his Lessons of the Masters puts it memorably: “A ‘master class,’ a tutorial, a seminar, but even a lecture can generate an atmosphere saturated with tensions of the heart. The intimacies, the jealousies, the disenchantment will shade into motions of love or of hatred or into complicated mixtures of both . . . Over the millennia, in countless societies, the teaching situation, the transmission of knowledge, of techniques and of values (paideia) have knit in intimacy mature men and women on the one hand, adolescents and younger adults on the other.” From the Platonic academy to British public schools, from the Athenian gymnasium to seminaries, homoeroticism and education are intimately linked.

Such relationship are fraught with risk. Rousseau knew the dangers of amour proper, that it can become toxic and self-defeating. But if moved in healthier directions, amour proper would help develop rational capacities and more healthy relationships amongst persons. Davenport’s fictions with their Fourierist utopianism are a plea for a healthier relation between both imagination and Eros. Davenport knew that his fictions were likely to be controversial. In his anthology collection Twelve Stories, he wrote that he excluded his longer novella and novel-length works (The Dawn in Erewhon, Apples and Pears and “Wo es war, soll ich werden”) as they were often misunderstood. Too many fixed on elements that are trivial. While never stated outright by Davenport, he could only mean the homoerotic elements of the works. Still, he held onto the hope that there  might someday be a readership for these complex fictions: “Another age, beyond our end-of-century comstockery and Liberal puritanism, may find these works interesting, aber freilich nicht wahrscheinlich.”

The Balthus Enigma

Balthus By Damian Pettigrew (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, known to most as Balthus, remains the most enigmatic of painters. His work seems outside the major visual movements of the past century. His is a modernism of a revival of old masters techniques with the psychological acumen of Freud. His paintings work like a foreign language, the meanings hidden until we learn to read them properly. Yet, nothing is truly hidden in Bathus’s paintings, except the viewer’s own prejudices which causes many to be drawn up short when coming across his work.
Balthus is too often regarded as a painter of prurient eroticism, of young girls in provocative poses. This is mistaking the surface for what the paintings are about. Are Thérèse on a Bench Seat or Thérèse Dreaming really nothing more than paintings of eroticised adolescence? Or is there something more going on? It would be best to contrast these works with Surrealism. Breton in his manifesto described Surrealism as, “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought.” Balthus is very much interested in the psychological. Unlike Dali, Andre Masson or Rene Magritte, however, Balthus is not interested in depicting the mechanisms of the psychic automatism of thought. Balthus is instead a contemporary of the novelist André Gide and Charles Fourier’s 19th century utopianism.

Therese DreamingThérèse on a Bench Seat
For Balthus, adolescence is a time where children come into their own. It has its own dynamism, that frisson of energy when a new self emerges and possesses the world around it. Wuthering Heights is a keystone for Balthus. Emily Brontë’s novel is a depiction, if in hysterical fashion, of how adolescence creates its own customs and sense of time. Thérèse in the paintings is a depiction of that adolescent vitality and psychic emergence, where erotic energy is channeled into what Guy Davenport, in his provocative A Balthus Notebook, describes as an “an endless afternoon of reading, playing cards, and daydreaming.” For Balthus — as for writers Alain-Fournier and Cocteau, as well — children live in their minds and contour the world and themselves around those games, afternoons and daydreams. There is an eerie stillness in emerging adolescence that Balthus captures. We are glimpsing, just for a moment, that interior self-sufficiency of the adolescent, where body, mind and world are united and creating a unique space of possibilities.

Thérèse 1938

Pause for a moment over Thérèse. Balthus paints her leaning back in an armchair. Her face is apparently turned toward the viewer, but not (if one looks closely) focused directly either on the painter, whom she is supposedly gazing towards, or us. Her pose is relaxed and understated. Raised and crossed on top her right leg, her left is relaxed with her left hand placed on the knee. Balthus’s capturing of light on her legs and face, the careful working out of such details as her hands, clothing and Thérèse’s gaze all suggest a girl within her own world. The armchair, the table and its wrinkled covering, the wall behind her are now part of the interior world of Thérèse. Thérèse is wholly within herself, looking at herself. She is far removed from Watteau’s Diana Bathing. Diana, while alone like Thérèse, is never unaware of the gaze of another. Thérèse cares not a wit for another’s gaze. Balthus’s adolescents with their provocative poses are not seeking to be gazed at, but instead gaze into their own world. The world around them is then remade in that interior view. One is reminded of Courbet’s portrait of his sister, Juliette, who possesses the same self-satisfied gaze and glance one finds in Balthus. Balthus obviously was influenced by that work.

Nude on a Chaise Longue 1950 by Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola) 1908-2001

Nude on a Chaise Longue is another painting that captures this moment, a variation, I believe, on the earlier Thérèse paintings. Here a female figure wearing only white knee socks and red slippers is on a chaise longue. She is stretched across the longue with her head back, eyes closed and one arm raised above her and another down towards the floor. Her hair is loose. The colours are muted. The female figure’s age is indeterminate. Like Thérèse, the female figure is within her own world. Body, mind and place are one within the painting. Possibilities of an emerging physical, psychological and sexual realm abound, but never is one realm privileged over another. Balthus’s old master techniques, his chiaroscuro lighting effects, his colour palate and his near architectural placement the objects in the room and the placement of the female figure bring all three realms together.
It is a mistake to see Balthus as focusing only on the sexual. Balthus often said that his paintings had no overt sexuality. I think he was not so much denying such sexuality existed, but that is was not the only thing his paintings were about, or even what they were about at all. The sexuality in Balthus is never vulgar or cheap. It is strangely protective as the gaze of all the girls is private and inward, never outward or beckoning. It is only the person who fails to understand or to truly experience what Balthus is doing and instead forces Balthus into a single meaning — in most cases today one of prurience and admonition against adolescence having any kind of healthy and meaningful interior life that is not circumscribed by adult expectations or worries over innocence and experience — that will miss what makes Balthus important.

What Role The Critic

Books on a Shelf

No one has anything good to say about critics. They are a despised lot, of a lower order to that occupied by the artist. Brendan Behan called critics “eunuchs in a harem.” Kenneth Tynan said of critics, including himself, that they were persons who know the way around, but cannot drive a car. Nabokov’s disdain of critics was only matched by the contempt he had for editors, whom he described as “pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to ‘make suggestions’ which I countered with a thunderous ‘stet!'”

Even the greatest of critics are more commented upon than read. How many today read Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare or his Lives of the English Poets? Or for that matter how many know of Sainte-Beuve’s What Is a Classic? or Coleridge’s writings on Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher? Or Hazlitt’s Lectures on English Poets? All are confined to the connoisseur or literary specialist. It is no better for more recent critics. How many people know of the work of Viktor Shklovsky whose Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar and his essays in Theory of Prose should be on any serious literature student’s desk, next to Auerbach’s Mimesis and Lukács’ Theory of the Novel and The Historical Novel.

One reason why critics are so poorly thought of is that proper criticism has been much diminished. Take a look once more at the small list of names I mentioned. These critics situate their subjects and ideas within larger arguments of history, philosophy and previous and current commentary. They examine how artists work and explicate upon the various strands of thought, criticism, ideas and politics at play in their works. At the same time, these critics show why certain artists are worthy of such sustained attention. They exemplify Hilton Kramer’s argument for connoisseurship, “the close, comparative study of art objects with a view to determining  their relative levels of aesthetic quality.” Criticism today is reduced to statements of preference rather than discrimination, placing all works on the same aesthetic level. Joyce is in no way superior to Henry Miller, Pound to Maya Angelou. This is criticism reduced to Amazon’s starred reviews and comments.

When criticism works, it brings forward not only the aesthetic aspects of the work under study, but the mechanism by which that work makes its aesthetic claims and thereby allow a reader to see why its is aesthetically superior to other works.

William H Gass By David Shankbone (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

William H Gass is one of America’s finest novelist and critics. In many respects his novels and stories and his criticism form a continuous dialogue, building on and developing Gass’ evolving and deepening philosophical and aesthetic insights and arguments. From his earliest essays collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life, Gass staked his esthetic mission on an argument that is difficult to refute, although many have tried, from his late and close friend and novelist John Gardner to most recently James Woods: “Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves out of concepts.” (Philosophy and the Form of Fiction, pg. 4) Shortly thereafter, “The esthetic aim of any fiction is the creation of a verbal world, or a significant part of such a world, alive through every order of its Being. Its author may not purpose this — authors propose many things — but the construction of some sort of object, whether too disorderly to be a world or too mechanical to be alive, cannot be avoided.” (pg 7)

The art of fiction is, at it core, an assemblage of words, shaped by the artist who places them onto a page under mechanisms chosen by them in order to shape those words into a fiction. This can be the either be Joyce’s loose modeling of Bloom’s and Stephen’s wanderings about Dublin on Homer’s Odyssey and the creation of their interiors through various linguistics literary pastiches or to the pared-down prose of Beckett that seeks the clarity and weight of Heraclitus. The landscapes and destinies of characters, the worlds created are “indistinct from words and all their orderings.” (pg. 8) Even the realism so prized by James Woods in How Fiction Works is a mechanism, one of many that can be chosen, by which words are ordered by an author. And what is realism? It should not be forgotten that Joyce was attacked for writing about Bloom’s satisfying bowel movement and the wiping of his arse with bits of his morning newspaper. Joyce’s realism was a step too far, even among readers and critics of the time who read Zola.

Gass’ criticism pays special attention to how writers use words, to how words are ordered and what mechanisms shape that order. Gass is a master in teasing out how writers shape words and sentences to achieve the desired ends. Gass is one of America’s the great masters of the sentence. Take a look at his discussion of Gertrude Stein’s style in “Gertrude Stein: Her Escape From Protective Language.” Written as a review of “Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Works” by B.L. Reid, Gass does not so much review Reid’s book, but examines how Stein’s prose work and how Reid fails to comprehend what Stein is up to. Reid disparages Stein because she embodies principles that upset his notions of art. Gass points out that Stein has had that affect on critics from the beginning; and that is the very point of what Stein is trying to do with her prose. She wishes to challenge in the most direct way possible our notions of art and style, of or received opinions, and she will sculpt language to do so. Sculpt is the right word as I believe that Stein works with language as sculptor works with stone: “It requires us to consider again the esthetic significance of style; to examine again the ontological status of the artist’s vision, his medium, and his effect.” (pg. 87) The language of her early story Things As They Are seems to mock the title, for as Gass points out it is on the first flush or reading, pompous and vague, filled with circumlocutions and pedantic rhetoric.

One’s reaction is to give up and claim Stein a fraud. Many still do. But it is only on closer reading and looking at what Stein is trying to do with this language, especially as developed it in her later works, does one understand her strategies. She is challenging that common aspect of English writing toward what Gass calls protective language, where words — common words, phrases, social speech, simple nouns etc. — are used not as a way to confront the world, but to “gain by artifice a safety from the world — to find a way of thinking without the risks f feeling — is the source of the impulse to abstractness and simplicity in Gertrude Stein as it is in much of modern painting, where she felt immediately the similarity of aim.” (pg. 89) Protective speech is not about finding meanings, but cutting them off and limiting words to mere naming. A writer will say “John loves Mary.” It is a simple, declarative sentence. Only while the writer tells us that the character John, who may be young or old, a stock broker or a construction worker, loves Mary, possibly a teacher or a lunch counter waitress, the writer will never show them loving. Stein wants to show. Gass demonstrates how Stein’s language works to do exactly that: to show rather than to name. If we fail grasp that we fail to see how she works with words; for how Stein works with words, how she arranges them on the page, will show us how she accomplishes her goals. She will challenge how language should operate, how words should be used in order to break out of this protective language. If we fail to see how the writer does what they do, that we come instead with preset notions of what literature should do and how words should be used, then a writer like Stein will always stand as an effrontery. Take this passage from Stein’s The Making of Americans:

Disillusionment in living is finding that no one can really ever be agreeing with you completely in anything. Disillusionment then in living that gives to very many then melancholy feeling, some despairing feeling, some resignation, some fairly cheerful beginning and some a forgetting and continuing and some a dreary trickling weeping some violent attacking and some letting themselves do anything, disillusion then is really finding, really realising, really being certain that no one really can completely agree with you in anything, that, as is very certain, not, those fighting beside you or living completely with you or anybody, really, can really be believing anything completely that you are believing. Really realising this thing, completely realising this thing is the disillusionment in living in the beginning of being an old man or an old woman is being no longer a young one no longer a young man or an young woman no longer a growing older young man or growing older young woman.

Stein loves words, their sound and even their look upon the page. Protective language and criticism banishes this simple fact. Gass in his fictions as with Stein revels in words, in their vitality on the page and in ones mouth when spoken. Gass and Stein should be read out loud, the mouth savouring as one will a fine wine or as once chews a piece of meat. Gass’ criticism forces one to look anew at words and how artists work with words. We may say that characters come alive when we read them. Gass reminds us how the artists is there behind them.

Guy Davenport

Guy Davenport At Poetry Collections (http://collectionofaphorismsandpoetry.blogspot.ca/2015/05/guy-davenport.html)

Guy Davenport is another critic and writer where the dialogue between his fictions and his criticism is constant. Many of his essays and stories should be ready side-by-side to see the sinews between them. Like Gass, Davenport is one of the masters of the sentence. Davenport’s are instantly recognizable. No one writes like him or brings the full weight of learning, lightly worn but ever present, to the sentence.

Davenport said of his stories and novels that they resemble not so much traditional fictive forms but “assemblages.” His is a collage of styles and techniques, calling attention to how the object in question, in this case his fiction, is assembled. It is closer to the Pound’s argument that master artists are those who combine a number of processes together and into a new whole. Davenport’s assemblages, whose closest parallel are Joseph Cornell’s boxes, calls attention to how he creates and assembles his work; at the same time, because of how he assembles the various object trouvés  that make up his works, he forces new ways of reading as well.

One sees the same in his essays, collected in The Geography of the Imagination, Every Force Evolves and Form and The Hunter Gracchus. His essays and commentaries force one to look anew and more closely at how the works of certain artists are put together and how they forge new strategies of reading.

“When a density of learning began to appear in English literature, there came with it the understanding that the author would teach us what we needed to know as we read along,” Davenport write in “The Critic as Artist (Every Force Evolves a Form, pg 99-100) By the time we reach the modernist movement in literature, with Pound, Carlos Williams, Zukofsky, Olson and Joyce and Beckett, the artist is asking for more careful and attentive reading than what many are often willing to give. Most don’t and complain bitterly at the work required. “Everywhere we look in modernist writing, we can see the writer trying to get us to pay attention, to wake us from some sleep into which literacy itself has lulled us.” (102)

Take the opening from Louis Zukofsky’s immense poem “A”:

A round of fiddles playing Bach

Davenport makes us pause over this simple opening. It only reveals its complexity once we begin to understand what Zukofsky is doing throughout his monumental poem, one of the great 20th century works that almost never makes it onto university syllabuses of modern poetry, much as Olson’s Maximus Poems and Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and for good measure Pound’s The Cantos are left off. Davenport tells us that to understand what Zukofsky is doing, we need a new way of reading. We must read the line as: A round of fiddles playing a work of Bach’s, with an appreciation that “playing the fiddle is work for musicians . . . These musicians playing Bach are working at Carnegie Hall in 1929 (both Passover and Good Friday that year), and they are working because union fiddlers are on strike and would not play. Work, said Karl Marx, the tutelary spirit of this part of the poem (before Thomas Jefferson take over later), should be as engrossing as play (an idea from Fourier, an evocation of whom will close the 23rd part of the poem).” (102) The task of the critic, according to Davenport, is to show how to read Zukofsky’s  poem, the techniques used by Zukofsky to explicate his themes and his images.

Each work of art brings with it its own set of rules for reading. How one reads Proust’s double images and symbolism is of a different sort than how one reads Ulysses, which needs its own set of reading mechanisms. Davenport’s great contemporary Hugh Kenner realized that the 20th century’s literature was an complete overturning of the aesthetic direction of the 19th century. We need new ways of reading Beckett, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Olson and Zukofsky. We cannot bring how we read Dickens, Thackeray or Austin to these writers.

This is from Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr:

He slouched and ambled along, neglecting his muscles: and his full-blooded blackguard’s countenance attempted to portray delicacies of common sense and gossamer-like backslidings into the inane that would have puzzled any analyst unacquainted with his peculiar training. Occasionally he would exploit his criminal appearance and blacksmith’s muscles for a short time; however: and his strong piercing laugh through ABC waitresses into confusion. The art-touch, the Bloomsbury technique, was very noticeable.   

One cannot approach this without knowing something of Lewis’s quarrels with Chelsea and Bloomsbury artists, of his Vorticism and his relationship other European avant-gardes and Marinetti’s Futurism, along with his Lewis’ own critical works such as his immense Time and Western Man. Without those, Lewis’ prose will flummox most readers.  Lewis demands a new kind of reading. The same for Olson’s “The Kingfishers”:

I thought of the E on the stone, and of what Mao said
la lumiere”
                    but the kingfisher
de l’aurore”
                    but the kingfisher flew west
est devant nous!
                    he got the color of his breast
                    from the heat of the setting sun!

 

Davenport’s essay on Charles Olson in The Geography of the Imagination shows what kind of new reading is needed for Olson’s poem: “It cannot be avoided that we as readers are asked to become Leskenoi along with the poet, to leave the polychorme images and finely modulated rhythms of the poem, learn some things, and then return as a worth participant.” (Olson, pg 89) The critic makes the reader a participant in reading.