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.