Friday, November 19, 2010

Guy Davenport

Another extract from a fascinating interview I found in the Paris Review archives, this time with Guy Davenport [link]:
[...]

INTERVIEWER

Is it the application of the theory that you take issue with?

DAVENPORT

No, I think what upsets me is that I know good and well that these academics are sheep following the sheep in front of them, and I doubt if the people who throw around the names Bakhtin and Foucault have really read more than four or five pages of either or understand what's going on. The French adore ideas. They've been playing with them since Thomas Aquinas. They sit in their cafés, and the more outrageous, the more clever you can be (like Derrida or whoever else at the moment), the more you are loved. But they don't really take these things seriously. The young French student at the Sorbonne, excited by Lacan and Bakhtin and whatnot, his whole idea is to outdo these people, you know, in two or three years to publish his own book, explaining that everything we think is rightside up is actually upside down. Americans don't possess this sense of play.

[...]

INTERVIEWER

Let's move on to your own books. You have experimented quite a bit with formal design—the stanzaic paragraph, for instance. I think for one of your books you actually inked in rows of identical black rectangles on sheets of paper and wrote only what would fit inside them. Can you talk about what draws you to these arbitrary constraints?

DAVENPORT

Not unless I talk for the rest of the day. About abstraction as scaffolding in any work of art, about the Dogon concept of toy (the ideal shape of a house, or village, of which the actual house, or village, is an approximation). The Shaker “love to lay a good foundation in the line of outward things.” When Albert Barnes was showing his collection of paintings to Horace Pippin, Pippin said, “That Matisse, he put the red in the wrong place.” At a showing of Clouzot's film about Picasso at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, a child's voice could be heard in the audience: “Mama! He's ruining it!” Such sound criticism is hard to come by, and has absolute authority. So there are all sorts of comments about works of art. Maurice Leenhardt said that the intelligible is first of all beautiful. I would say interesting or attractive. I doubt that there are more than two people who can read the first page of Ulysses; that is, give an account as to what's going on, who's doing what, yet it's a beautiful, magical page with as much on it as Rimbaud could pack into a poem. No illustrator could paint it, nor a film depict it. It is a new way of writing, approached afterwards only by Eudora Welty. For all Pound's saying that Joyce's technique was une affaire de cuisine, it's ultimately the technique that's making it all beautiful. Getting the red in the right place.

[...]

INTERVIEWER

What about this interest in utopias, which is everywhere in your work?

DAVENPORT

I don't think it's there, in the abstract. My interest is in Fourier, who I think was one of the great analytical sociologists of all time. Practically everything Freud got hold of Fourier had already divined, and drawn different conclusions. So I became fascinated, and this percolated and percolated. Every once in a while, of an evening, I will take down one of the volumes and read around in it. You always find delightful things, such as parades of four-year-olds riding on German shepherds.

Fourier's great word was harmonie, and his perception was that we have made a mess of what we had absolutely no need to make a mess of, that we can live far more successfully in human relations. First of all we must decide on a unit in which to live. He said the family is a suffocating, murderous unit; a biological unit, he called it, for begetting and feeding children, which could be done much better by a “phalanx.” He approved of all the vices. Greed, for instance, could be a marvelous thing. He saw that religion was a childish myth. Yet the Harmony had a church in it, for those people who wanted a church. The church was facing a theater. He felt that somehow the church and the theater were answering the same need. The thing that made him so interesting to nineteenth-century Americans was work. Work should be play; work should be the supreme joy.

He's a very complex person, and of course he is not coherent. There is really no scholar who has sat down and tried to figure it all out. Tony Vidler, a professor at Cooper Union, came to visit once; we had a lovely time talking about Fourier's architecture, which Vidler says is the most revolutionary ever known. Vidler had been to the Bibliothèque nationale, and they'd shown him a room of cardboard boxes. In the boxes were manuscripts of Fourier's, unpublished, unread. They showed him a page that laid out which houseplants you were to put in your windows in the Harmony, 365 days a year. For each day he'd prescribed the appropriate plant.

The whole world, he said, is a correspondence. And everything comes in a chord. The chord contains eight items. The center of the chord is the pivot. At one end of the chord is the avant-garde, and at the other end is the arrière-garde. In a fruit chord, let's say, you have at one end the ripest golden pear, and at the other end is the quince, which never ripens. It remains as hard as a rock. And all of these corresponded with personalities (I've know plenty of quinces). Fourier felt that monogamy is simply one mode in the sexuality chord; I don't think it's even in the middle. At one end is what he calls the butterfly, the man who has to have a different woman every hour. And at the other end is chastity, which he correctly saw as not a denial of sexuality but another of its modes. For Fourier there were people who could live a life perfectly satisfied with a best friend, with whom they'd play checkers, and there was a place for this as there was for prostitution, which he considered a noble trade.

Fourier was constantly saying, “I do not want to change human nature,” while saying under his breath, “because it's impossible.” He simply wanted to accommodate it. Everybody has different desires. And in the Harmony, you have a society that is either tolerant or wise enough to allow for that. One of the really satisfying dimensions is his belief that all children are geniuses, and that in the world we live in we systematically stifle the little Beethovens and Einsteins. But in the Harmony their talents would be spotted, and the little Beethoven would be given a violin. Every Harmony is run by a twelve-year-old boy and a twelve-year-old girl, and they have to retire at thirteen. I think he was right that at twelve the mind is as bright and intelligent as it will ever be.

He was very, very lonely. There are people who say he had no sex life at all apart from masturbation. He lived with his plants and his cats, and was desperately poor. He worked as a clerk, like Bartleby, in Lyon. He died in Paris, where he had begun to collect disciples, including lots of young socialists. Both Marx and Lenin read Fourier.

[...]


The Paris Review interviews are always prefaced by a short, idiosyncratic biography written by the interviewer (I assume), which act as a introduction. Guy Davenport's profile is so good that I want to repost it here:
On first picking up a copy of Guy Davenport's Tatlin! (1970), his first of eight volumes of stories and the book that initiated the major (and ongoing) phase of his career, you find on the cover a lovely, rather conventional telescopic photograph of the moon, three-quarters full, its craters and mares starkly discernible. Yet when you flip the book over, before so much as cracking the spine, you read—beneath a photograph of the author seated at a Greek ruin, his face, like that of the moon, partly obscured by shadow—this note: “front jacket: The Face of the Moon, 'painted from nature' by John Russell, c. 1795. Birmingham, The City Museum and Art Gallery.”
You will have stumbled, unwittingly though not by accident, onto the author's method, for this is a writer who, in the classic modernist style, is incessantly sending us back, reminding us that what seems newest is old, if not beyond time, and that what appears, or is, most radical in art and culture often has for its source “the archaic,” as Davenport has said in a previous interview, “the dawn of things, before betrayals and downstream mud.”
Davenport has published forty-six books of fiction, essays, and poetry, not counting the many to which he has contributed chapters and introductions, and for fifty years he has supplied magazines and newspapers with articles and reviews. He has translated Archilochos, Sappho, Alkman, Herakleitos, Diogenes, Anakreon, Poliziano's Stanze, the Mimes of Herondas, and in his fiction one can find translations of Rilke, Cocteau, and others. He is also an accomplished visual artist. Six years ago Erik Anderson-Reece's A Balance of Quinces, a study of Davenport's graphics and paintings (and one of the most useful and perceptive introductions to his writing), was published by New Directions.
Despite threats of giving up writing after his receipt of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1992, Davenport has continued during the past decade to generate, if less prolifically, short stories and essays. His books have never been widely read, by popular standards, but they tend to be deeply read by those lucky enough to find them; he is perhaps as close to being a cult writer as one can come while having been singled out for praise by George Steiner in The New Yorker, yet his work has none of the thinness of the cult writer. For all its strangeness, it seems destined to endure.
Born in South Carolina in 1927 and having lived the past thirty-nine years in Lexington, Kentucky, Davenport has spent most of his life in the American South, but it would be hard to imagine a writer for whom the regional tag embraced by, or forced upon, so many of his contemporaries is less appropriate. His milieu has always been the world, his period the span of time between the Aurignacian, when the first daubs of pigment were applied at Lascaux, and this morning; his characters come from wherever people have fought to assert feeling and intelligence against tyranny and “illiteracy,” a word that Davenport repeatedly uses in the somewhat specialized sense of cultural oblivion. These characters, with few exceptions, are artists and philosophers, but Davenport's heroes are most often the crushed, the silenced, the annihilated, those whose triumph consists solely in the survival of some fragment of their ideas or of their example.
A painterly perception is one of the constants in his writing. It is Davenport who notices that if you set any of James Joyce's books on its spine and let gravity open it to the center, you will find a verbal allusion to “The House that Jack Built” and thereby (as Davenport shows) to the Labyrinth. It's he who writes, in A Balthus Notebook (a short volume singled out by the painter himself as “an exception among the texts about him” for its sharp, non-moralistic eye), that “in all of Balthus I find no clocks.” He is a master of the idiomatic sentence that seems commonsensical until it is read with the concentration that went into shaping it, at which point it reveals its depths, as when he writes, in the postscript to his Twelve Stories, “Making things is so human that psychology and philosophy have gotten nowhere in trying to account for it.” Another recurrent Davenport theme: that what is most essential to humanity lies at the point furthest from conventional scrutiny, where it remains inaccessible to minds bent on categorizing and, in the end, controlling it—safe, and sacred, in its unknowability.
This interview took place over the telephone and during three evenings in front of the fireplace at Davenport's house in Lexington, throughout which he drank black coffee and smoked Marlboro Reds, “not inhaling.” His tomcat, Ejnar (the name reflecting Davenport's confessed “Danophilia, or -mania,” a regular feature of his work) spent the hours in Davenport's lap or weaving through his legs. The living room is well described by Erik Anderson-Reece as “a monument to high modernism.” Books and paintings go from floor to ceiling, and several times during our conversations Davenport suddenly popped up from his chair, pulling down a book from one of the shelves in order to illustrate a point. Off to the right, as one enters the door, is an open study containing a table built according to a Rietveld design, on which sits an electric typewriter. Also in the study is the color copier used by Davenport in making his illustrated letters, a custom he borrowed from his old correspondent, James Laughlin. (The first page of a letter from Davenport will typically have, in the place of letterhead, a photograph or drawing—either one of his own or an image from somewhere that has interested him—followed by a short caption expanding on or explaining it.) 
A politely but stubbornly private man, Davenport's reluctance to express himself publicly other than in his work could account for the relatively few published interviews with him. Frequently, when some question strayed too close to what he deemed personal, he would interrupt by saying, matter-of-factly, “I thought we were talking about my work,” a boundary that was respected throughout. “Live unknown” (Epicurus) is one of his mottoes. Suffice it to say that he is not married but has been sharing his life for the past thirty years with Bonnie Jean Cox, whose name pops up occasionally in the books. He maintains a vigorous and far-flung correspondence. Davenport's tone in conversation tends to be not pedantic but didactic, as befits a man who made his living lecturing to undergraduates. In spite of that, he does suffer fools, as demonstrated by his graciousness and cooperation during the months it took to complete this interview.


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