Guy Davenport: Learning How to Die

Guy Davenport, 1964, as recorded by Jonathan Williams.

 

In his last letter to his sister Gloria Williamson, written shortly before he succumbed to cancer, Guy Davenport wrote, “”I hope you’re as happy as I am.”

In an essay on Gerard Manly Hopkins, Davenport quoted the poet’s last words: “I am so happy.” Another Davenport essay about Ludwig Wittgenstein gives the philosopher’s last words: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Elsewhere Davenport quoted the ancient Egyptian adage “A man’s paradise is his own good nature.”

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George Steiner’s Phony Learning

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George Steiner’s new book.

As a literary critic and essayist George Steiner is distinguished by his erudition, which is not just impressive but even intimidating. A quick glance through his books reveals that he’s a writer confident enough to sit in judgement of a vast range of cultural figures ranging from the poets of antiquity to great composers like Bach and Beethoven to the Russian novelists of the 19th century to modern philosophers like Heidegger. “Is he a man or an encyclopedia?” you ask yourself as you read his essays.

Another question worth asking is, how much of Steiner’s erudition is real, based on actual familiarity with the artists and thinkers he’s writing about, and how much is just name-dropping? Is Steiner just the high-end equivalent of a Hollywood hanger on who has tales of chance encounters with “Angelina” and “Bobby DeNiro”.

I’m a great admirer of the poet, short story writer, painter and translator Guy Davenport, who really was a polymath. I’ve always had a soft spot for Steiner because he once lavishly praised Davenport in The New Yorker, a review that did much to bolster Davenport’s reputation and visiblity. “Davenport is among the very few truly original, truly autonomous voices now audible in American letters,” Steiner wrote. (Steiner’s review was recently republished in the essay collection George Steiner at The New Yorker, published by New Directions).

Recently while reading Guy Davenport’s letters to the publisher James Laughlin, I discovered that even Steiner’s commendable act of celebrating Davenport carried with a whiff of fraud.

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Happy Belated Birthday, Claude Levi-Strauss!

 

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Claude Lévi-Strauss, just celebrating his centenary.

 

This blog has been amiss in not wishing a happy birthday to Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was born on November 28, 1908. Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House when Lévi-Strauss entered this world and he’s lived to see Obama elected.

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Eyebrow Raising Book Covers

I like to read and I like public transit. So I spend a lot of time reading on buses, trains and subways. In general reading in public doesn’t cause problems, although when I was on a subway in New York, a group of teenage boys started pointing at me and smirking while I was making my way through Herman Melville’s most famous novel. “Look at that: Moby Dick,” one of them said. “Dick! Ha!” He was immediately corrected by a more erudite friend: “Don’t be stupid — it’s about a whale.”

In my experience though, there are certain books you’d be well advised to avoid associating yourself with company with, at least in broad daylight and in front of a mob. Generally these are books with provocative titles and covers. Despite the popular adage, most people are willing to judge a book by its cover. A few examples of books that have caused trouble for me (and on occasion my friends).

1. Art Spiegelman’s Maus is of course a modern classic with a very striking cover, appropriately reminiscent of a World War II poster. But I had a student once who said a man on the subway gave her the evil eye for reading it, possibly motivated by the swastika on the cover. (Or could it be that the man was an anti-Semite?) Spiegelman has a real gift for eye-catching images, as evidenced by the many controversial covers he’s done for the New Yorker, including this one.

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Guy Davenport: the writer as cartoonist

(Guy Davenport drawing, from his book Tatlin!) 

Note: This essay is slightly revised from the original version which ran in The Comics Journal #278 (October 2006).

Guy Davenport, cartoonist. Perhaps this is too confident a statement and needs a more tentative punctuation. “Guy Davenport: cartoonist?” After all, Davenport wasn’t mainly known as a cartoonist, and the world of comics has only a peripheral awareness of his existence. Aside from comic book artist Gil Kane’s stated fondness for Davenport’s essay collection The Geography of the Imagination (1981) and a stray allusion that Carter Scholz once made in The Comics Journal, Davenport’s name is rarely bandied about in cartooning circles.

When Davenport died in early 2005, many obituaries and memorial notices paid tribute to him as a man of letters of intimidating range and versatility. Aside from penning many brilliant short stories, Davenport was a premier translator of many ancient writers and sages (Sappho, Herakleitos, Diogenes, Jesus), an immensely erudite literary critic who could expertly explicate difficult modernists like Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound, and a pioneering iconologist who illuminated the symbolic vocabulary of painters like Grant Wood and Balthus. Lost among all the eulogies for Davenport the writer were his achievements as a visual artist: Tucked away in a busy lifetime was an almost secret career as a painter, illustrator, and, yes, cartoonist.

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