Archives: September 2015

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.”

Modernism and Subjectivity: A Brief Essay

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Kazimir Malevich – ‘Suprematist_Composition – White on White’, oil on canvas, 1918, Museum of Modern Art

One reason why there are so few decent books on modernism — pace the often excellent books and studies of individual modernist writers, painters and thinkers — is that modernism is not a term that can be clearly defined or dated. Every attempt brings risk: why this historical period as opposed to another, why this trend and not one that paralleled or preceded it? Can modernism have a specific date and place? Is there one modernism or many?
What is excluded is just as important as what is included. Should Dada and Futurism be included or should they be seen as unique challenges within the modernist movements happening across Europe. Should Vorticism and Russian Futurism be included; how should one place the short-lived collective OBERIU along with Suprematism and the artistic and other literary experiments happening across Eastern Europe and Russia, and in the early years of the Soviet Union? How to they fit into the idea of modernism? And why has modernism today retreated from the scene? Why have we returned to tired forms and nostalgia?
To understand what modernism is, it may be best not to seek a positivist account. It cannot be reduced to a defined historical period, as a part of the natural progression of art and history; or amongst its most implacable foes, as a conspiracy by academics and dealers looking to secure tenure and make money by telling people that plotless novels and blank canvases were superior to good-old-fashioned plot-driven  works and recognizable landscape paintings.
Instead, I would like to propose that modernism can only be understood as a result of the tensions that emerged within the Renaissance the later Enlightenment, in what T.S. Eliot called the ‘dissociation of sensibility,’ where the individual was now in a world were the old verities were gone, or if not completely disappeared were nevertheless under increasing scrutiny. But what was to replace the old certainties was uncertain. At the same time this was happening, there was a growing shift to living in what we would call urban environments, where life was tuned to new kinds of economic, social and political realities.
Hegel in his Phenomenology of Mind outlined the psychic cost of this dissociation. Where Man could once ground the self on what were once universally accepted certainties, that was not the case anymore. In the section ‘Freedom of Self-consciousness: Stoicism, Scepticism and the Unhappy Consciousness,’ Hegel outlines how the self is now not a secure, unchanging thing that can be objectively observed, but is one in dialectical flux:

Sceptical self-consciousness thus discovers, in the flux and alternation of all that would stand secure in its presence, its own freedom, as given by and received from its own self. It is aware of being this of self-thinking thought, the unalterable and genuine certainty of its self. This certainty does not arise as a result out of something extraneous and foreign which stowed away inside itself its whole complex development; a result which would thus leave behind the process by which it came to be. Rather consciousness itself is thoroughgoing dialectical restlessness, this mêlée of presentations derived from sense and thought, whose differences collapse into oneness, and whose identity is similarly again resolved and dissolved — for this identity is itself determinateness as contrasted with non-identity. This consciousness, however, as a matter of fact, instead of being a self-same consciousness, is here neither more nor less than an absolutely fortuitous embroglio, the giddy whirl of a perpetually self-creating disorder. This is what it takes itself to be; for itself maintains and produces this self-impelling confusion. Hence it even confesses the fact; it owns to being, an entirely fortuitous individual consciousness — a consciousness which is empirical, which is directed upon what admittedly has no reality for it, which obeys what, in its regard, has no essential being, which realizes and does what it knows to have no truth. But while it passes in this manner for an individual, isolated. contingent, in fact animal life, and a lost self-consciousness, it also, on the contrary, again turns itself into universal self-sameness; for it is the negativity of all singleness and all difference. From this self-identity, or rather within its very self, it falls back once more into that contingency and confusion, for this very self-directed process of negation has to do solely with what is single and individual, and is occupied with what is fortuitous. This form of consciousness is, therefore, the aimless fickleness and instability of going to and fro, hither and thither, from one extreme of self-same self-consciousness, to the other contingent, confused and confusing consciousness. It does not itself bring these two thoughts of itself together. It finds its freedom, at one time, in the form of elevation above all the whirling complexity and all the contingency of mere existence, and again, at another time, likewise confesses to falling back upon what is unessential, and to being taken up with that. It lets the unessential content in its thought vanish; but in that very act it is the consciousness of something unessential. It announces absolute disappearance but the announcement is, and this consciousness is the evanescence expressly announced. It announces the nullity of seeing, hearing, and so on, yet itself sees and hears. It proclaims the nothingness of essential ethical principles, and makes those very truths the sinews of its own conduct. Its deeds and its words belie each other continually; and itself, too, has the doubled contradictory consciousness of immutability and sameness, and of utter contingency and non-identity with itself. But it keeps asunder the poles of this contradiction within itself; and bears itself towards the contradiction as it does in its purely negative process in general. If sameness is shown to it, it points out unlikeness, non-identity; and when the latter, which it has expressly mentioned the moment before, is held up to it, it passes on to indicate sameness and identity. Its talk, in fact, is like a squabble among self-willed children, one of whom says A when the other says B, and again B, when the other says A, and who, through being in contradiction with themselves, procure the joy of remaining in contradiction with one another.

Later he will add:

Hence the Unhappy Consciousness the Alienated Soul which is the consciousness of self as a divided nature, a doubled and merely contradictory being.
This unhappy consciousness, divided and at variance within itself, must, because this contradiction of its essential nature is felt to be a single consciousness, always have in the one consciousness the other also; and thus must be straightway driven out of each in turn, when it thinks it has therein attained to the victory and rest of unity. Its true return into itself, or reconciliation with itself, will, however, display the notion of mind endowed with a life and existence of its own, because it implicitly involves the fact that, while being an undivided consciousness, it is a double-consciousness. It is itself the gazing of one self-consciousness into another, and itself is both, and the unity of both is also its own essence; but objectively and consciously it is not yet this essence itself — is not yet the unity of both.

An important part of modernism is recognizing this new sense of the self that emerged. While many books about the Renaissance and the Enlightenment tend to place positive weight on the emergence of what we would call modern individualism that arose out of the collapse of the old ways of thinking about persons and their relationship to society and religion, these thinkers and writers have often downplayed or ignored the tensions and contradictions that arose. In the effort to undermine old certainties, Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers often could not ground the new certainties any better. If old certainties were argued to be set on unexamined or arbitrary foundations, the new ones were many times set upon ones that were as unstable and prone to collapse when subjected to the same scrutiny given to the ones now removed. The self and its place in this new world was as uncertain as the foundations on which the new order was trying to set itself upon, hence Hegel’s sense that self-consciousness was unhappy when it became aware of its divided and contradictory being.
Kierkegaard recognized one consequence of this dissociation of sensibility and that is the tendency of persons to seek some basis on which to ground themselves. One way of doing so is by absorption into the anonymous urban mass. Kierkegaard recognized the consequence of this absorption, which in his A Literary Review, he called ‘levelling.’ The danger in this levelling is that it removes the will of persons to examine themselves and gives rise to inauthentic selves based on what is external. As he was to put it in The Sickness unto Death:

A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self…. In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.

By the late-19th Century, this feeling of the self under threat, of the ennui  produced by the self’s perilous relationship to mass society, of at any moment it being swallowed up, was memorably described by Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria as the feeling one gets when missing a step on a darkened staircase.

Heidegger in Being and Time will take this idea of levelling to describe the anonymous ‘they’ of das Man, that of modern urban mass culture that directs persons to superficial externalities:

In this averageness with which it prescribes what can and may be ventured, it keeps watch over everything exceptional that thrusts itself to the fore. Overnight, everything that is primordial gets glossed over as something that has long been well known. Everything gained by struggle becomes something to be manipulated. Every secret loses its force. This care of averageness reveals in turn an essential tendency of Dasein which we call “levelling down” of all possibilities of Being.

We might call this public opinion or received wisdom, an all-to-easy set of prescriptions for our selves and our agency, that are external to us and un-reflected upon. This is why today, in my opinion, there is a nostalgia for the old forms, for novels written in the modes from the 19th century with its comfortable psychology; for serious music that tonally mimics earlier styles.
Modernism brings this tension to the fore, of Hegel’s dialectical self and its relation to the world with the pressures of sinking the self into modern society’s anonymous levelling of spirit. Kierkegaard waned of the dangers of the levelling affect of the public, of which nostalgia is one such consequence :

The public, however, is an abstraction. To adopt the same opinion as these or those particular persons is to know that they would be subject to the same danger as oneself, that they would err with one if the opinion were wrong, etc. But to adopt the same opinion as the public is treacherous consolation, for the public exists only in abstracto.

Modernism resists this levelling of the public, of the treacherous consolation of the old forms.

Harold Brodkey

Harold Brodkey, New Yorker Hcoale, via Wikimedia Commons

Few literary reputations have fallen as precipitously as that of Harold Brodkey.
From the time his first stories appeared in The New Yorker to the publication of his acclaimed collection First Love and Other Sorrows (1958), Brodkey was considered a writer of outstanding promise. When word got out that Brodkey was working on a massive novel, portions of which appeared over the years in several magazines and journals, it was proclaimed by some as a work of genius and Brodkey as important a writer as Proust. As years went by, with his only other publication being Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (1988) and various essays and occasional pieces appearing in such places as diverse as Esquire and Anteaus, critical opinion turned. Brodkey was now more often accused of being a fraud, his much-delayed novel a hoax and his literary skills negligible. Opprobrium was directed at Brodkey’s person, at the advances given to him from publishing houses to which his novel was shopped around and at those who once championed his work. Stories that once were said to be masterpieces, such as “Innocence” and “His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft,” were dismissed with such venom that one suspected the critic making the negative comment had been personally insulted by Brodkey at some private event.
When his novel finally appeared in 1991, having undergone a title change from Party of Animals to The Runaway Soul, as well as going through extensive revisions and stylistic changes from the portions that had appeared earlier, critics and readers responded negatively. Few serious novels, in my memory, have been savaged in the way The Runaway Soul was or how its author was publicly pilloried, with some reviewers leaving the distinct impression that Brodkey had committed some grave moral offense that could not be forgiven.
While he continued to publish after the failure of The Runaway Soul, producing another novel and more short stories, along with a book about Venice and a memoir of his battle with AIDS, by the time of his death in 1996 Brodkey’s literary reputation was in tatters. Now approaching twenty years since his passing, Brodkey’s works are out of print and his name has fallen out literary conversation. There are no planned symposiums on his work or person, or a even biography in the works, that would suggest a revival of interest in his work.

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It is not hard to see why The Runaway Soul did not succeed. Brodkey’s novel is demanding in ways so few novels today are. There are few incidents across its sprawling text and its focus, instead, is on the obsessive and microscopic chronicling of the sensations and shifting consciousness of Wiley Silenowicz, a stand-in for Brodkey, and his coming of age in the American Midwest; and on Wiley’s love, sometimes sexual and erotic, with the various people in his life. The novel is marked by two erotic and explicit episodes that take up a great part of the book’s explorations of Wiley’s consciousness.
Where most novelists will reveal a character’s inner consciousness as it develops over time and in chronologically laid-out incidents, Brodkey has time move at the pace of consciousness. Time becomes pliable, slowing down and speeding up in Brodkey’s focus on closely examining those handful of incidents in Wiley’s life. What fascinates Brodkey is how such incidents can never yield a single final truth, that each remembrance will offer up a new sensation, an additional fact and emotional register. It is the plenitude, excess and complexity of experience within those snapshots of time that most fascinates Brodkey. Think of it as a radical form of phenomenological realism where traditional realism, as developed in the 19th century novel, is unable to go. Brodkey’s realism also requires a new kind of writing , one that can capture the subtle changes happening to Wiley’s consciousness. What Brodkey develops is a writing that captures the different emotional and intellectual registers of consciousness, but one that is not in anyway linear or continuous. It is a style marked by excess, capriciousness and expansiveness. It is a headlong rush that can change on a dime, moving from the portentous to the subtle, from the mundane to the profound. Language is stretched to the point of breaking in the rush to capture every nuance, even if at times, Brodkey has Wiley struggling to find the right words and expression for what is happening, and sometimes failing and flailing in the process. Here is Wiley describing Ora and he in the prelude to having sex:

The way we were doing it ̶ the ironic thing and the physical effort and the showiness and the sincerity ̶ from time to time ̶ and that stuff being shown (rather than the physical mattering most) ̶ well, in body-surfing, you land on the beach and you’re okay and you think back over your recent ride so you can have it in near-consciousness, so to speak (but the memory is all rushed and a lot of what happened is hidden from you inside the sense of wondering pleasure), you have bits of a conscious large-scale stuff, and then being young and bare-fleshed and borne along by the melting green locomotive. Something unhallucinatory, something graspable, the shine of faint sweat on Ora’s face, the faint fakeries of the posture in the first place ̶ I’m not comfortably a showy fucker. I’m hammy. Ora said, Oh you beautiful man . . . But, see, it was proof of a kind of wrongness ̶ which was okay ̶ it went with the thing of sex being softly and oozingly mechanical and breath-driven, and unmechanical, and fitting and suitable, and loving and stupid ̶ and not stupid ̶ and grand really only, sublime, a little ̶ as when you were small and were on a swing and went too high and suddenly the sky was there and light and infinite air and a separation from the world which was infinite, infinite ̶ for a second. That was here judgement ̶ her view. I am guessing at it. It’s the body parts and then the motions of them. And the minds. Glittery, amazed, semi-opaque ̶ like eyes. Two wills, changeable, and then the applause, thunk, thunk, of abdomens. And the permissions, I suppose. The glimmering lights of birth are echoed here, are repeated in a kind of semi-inverted animal talk.

In ‘Grammar and American Reality,’ Brodkey argues that there is no agreed upon and no ‘polite,’ American English. “We have no real over-tongue, no equivalent to hochdeutch or serious standard-British English or Tuscan.” Instead, American English and grammar is marked by a “crudity of spirit (in the sense of not anciently derived spirit) and aesthetic hubris (in the same sense), mark any intelligent us of English . . . We unconsciously admit that a proper use of English is, ipso facto, an eccentric use; and, so, we overpraise proper or seemingly proper writers who write a rather poor but pretentiously schooled English.” And later, in “Language is Articulated Consciousness.’ Brodkey writes, “Let me being with the notion that language is articulated consciousness. Articulated how? Articulated for the purpose of comprehension in real time among the physical laws of breath and hearing or eyes and comprehension.” While neither of these two essays can be called aesthetic manifestos, they do reveal a lot of Brodkey’s own principles behind his writing, especially the shift away from the kind of proper-English, middle-class American realism that so excited reviewers when his early stories appeared in The New Yorker, to the examination of interiority and the stylistic complexity and daring that came about with that shift in focus, and which offended so many.
For those interested in exploration of the personal, of daring and complex writing, there is much to be learned from Brodkey’s work. The question is, will there come a time when Brodkey’s work and The Runaway Soul will be given their due? It is impossible to tell. Literary reputation is difficult to predict and the standing of a writer can be impacted less by the quality and aesthetic daring of a work and more by changes in literary taste and what engages critics at the moment. Literary modernism and experimentalism has been replaced by nostalgia for the 19th century novel and traditional psychological realism in the mode of Tolstoy and Dickens, and works written in the style of the middlebrow fiction popular in the 1950s. Look at the number of novels and short stories being published now to great acclaim that can sit easily amongst the same readers that made Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place a best seller in 1956.
Sometimes what keeps a writer being read is the passionate devotion of a group of dedicated readers and critics who can champion that writer’s work. Brodkey now waits for those readers.