I’d always wanted to come at art in a vital Davenportian way, which is to say not with pompous stridency—declaiming for my own noteriety, using Hegel and Derrida as petards to enjoyment—but in a cogent, stylistic manner for the aforementioned “people who like to read.” Davenport and the other poet-critics—William Gass, Hugh Kenner, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, and, to an extent, Lionel Trilling—taught me turn and counter-turn in this arena. Though Davenport’s style is not the closest to mine, he is probably the most inimitable, and maybe the most angry—traits handed down by a trifecta of writers who probably formed him most: William Blake (who he almost did his dissertation on), John Ruskin (the writer who, with Thoreau, he most resembles), and Ezra Pound (subject of his dissertation—he visited him a number of times); three people he defined, in that dissertation Cities on Hills, as able “to combine an intense awareness and love of beauty with what seems like a fanatic interest in economics...[and] to combine an interest in the details of practical statecraft with what seem like visionary ideas so impractical that all three men are listed in reference books as insane.” Whether beauty is truth or the other way around, given his essay “What are Revolutions?,” it is clear Davenport had a justifiable antipathy to government, “We are now taxed for every movement we make, every exchange of nickel from citizen to citizen.” In manner, he is most like Ozick, knowing the power of one word, well-applied, transforms mere information into artistry, as in this simple sentence from a review of a Gerard Manley Hopkins biography review: “He was still young when the filthy drinking water of Dublin did him in: typhoid.” Many would have bypassed the use of the adjective “filthy,” but that coloration heightens the fact of decay now in our heads.
I never consciously set out to copy, but the cues slurried through my metabolism while it repeatedly digested Davenport for the last decade. In his non-fiction, Guy Davenport, the person, is sometimes there, but subservient to Guy Davenport, the thinker. His own life filters in at certain points, with a catchy anecdote here or there (in a prescient uncollected piece on the Confederate flag, he writes, “When I see motorcycle gangs wearing Nazi regalia, I know that I’m looking at ignorance and stupidity”), but, like Gass, it is a rare instance to have pure memoir—“Finding” and “On Reading” are the two most notable exceptions. It may be counterintuitive, but I believe Davenport and the others, when writing of Shakespeare or other cultural curiosities, are really dwelling on their own sleepless nights or love’s work or a piss-poor colleague or friend; they can be said to be pressurizing the work in the manner of how Charles Williams, a 20th Century poetry critic, counsels, “Poetry is beginning to write more about things, and less about what the poet felt about things”—meaning the life services the art, which is not at all about itself, but about a person’s experience of it. In “II Timothy” a piece originally in an anthology, Davenport squeezes in his upbringing, “...I was actually raised by my parents to believe that a moral life, polished manners, and an ambition to be moderately well off were the essence of acceptable behavior. Both my parents tacitly agreed with Trollope that a strong interest in religion was a prelude to insanity.” Davenport goes on like this, explicating, with memoir being attendant, yet he doesn’t strain to squelch the primary force of the piece, taking advice he once quoted., when he referenced Menander in “The Geography of the Imagination”: “Talking about oneself...is a feast that starves the guest.”
We live in uber-egoic times, and even such a upright scribbler not to be found on social media, Joshua Cohen, litters his essays with the detritus of Tweet-like pronouncements, though with a nifty campy chrome finish: “So here I am at midnight, sitting in a Barcalounger, reading the Collected Fictions of Gordon Lish while idly masturbating.” There is a tenderfooted line to the insertion of the superficial self into a review of art, a being whom Proust described thus, “What one bestows on private life—in conversation... or in those drawing-room essays that are scarcely more than conversation in print—is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.” The discriminating reader, wondering about the book, film, or exhibition in question, usually will forgive the standard operating procedure of the first-person infused beginning and end, but if too much of the text’s body is that aforementioned paltry feast, it is a very easy and unforgiving click into a new tab that ices the tiresome monologue. But, of course, we don’t think we are inserting that maudlin ego—we are simply using ourselves as a device for more mass appeal and, usually as the bemused (how often writers observe another’s follies) or the victim itself.
In casting a cold eye on my forthcoming essay book, See What I See, I did notice many of these maneuvers, how I often detailed the circumstances of reading or seeing the art, betting on how the revelations may abet interest, but might only be little jibes which entertain me because it is my life dimly on display. What does the reader really want? Information or intimacy? Probably both, but as in most friendships there is a dance around the indices framing what we want, what we expect, and what we’ll put up with. However many times I hear or read someone say, “I don’t write with the audience in mind,” I know people don’t really have that kind of control over what they write—and anyway, they are speaking in that fusty superficial self voice. But there is the rub—how does that drawing-room self get cloaked enough to come off as half-way genuine, something squaring with Gertrude Stein’s “I write for myself and strangers”? The MFA prescriptivists would say, that is when someone finds their “voice,” when one river flows into another and there is an almost undetectable confluence of form working on the matter at hand. Maybe one can’t countenance that moment—it’s like trying to pinpoint the hour you first began to love someone. You go on a blind date with every reader and some will know in the first syllables if they want to be in your company or not; others will know as soon as they see your name.
Here is the first sentence of Davenport’s “Dictionary”: “Some years ago, on a particularly distraught evening, the drift of things into chaos was precipitated by my consulting Webster’s Third International for the word Mauser.” So much is going on here and it’s not all ornate or all plain but a synthesis of the two. It certainly is hypnotic. It could be the beginning of a Sherlock Holmes story, but it quickly becomes Kafka, with “the drift of things into chaos”—something so beautiful, you think Keats wrote it and you want more of that beauty, that voice. Then the humor of the ending and ending on that particular pregnant word. Yet there is also the time frame—you find out things drifted into chaos before you know the source of said chaos. In Davenport, one gets sentences that have it all. This is what I strive to create.
Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things, stories, are both available this autumn from Splice.
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