Monday, February 09, 2015

Guy Davenport's journals

Despite years of reading Patrick Kurp's praise for Guy Davenport, I've only very recently started reading him, earlier this month picking up The Guy Davenport Reader (2012). As is my wont, I turned immediately to the ephemeral and unintentional, the writings made for the self or friends rather than for publication: had there been letters, I would have started there; as is, a selection from Davenport's journals sufficed.

Davenport's journals, as excerpted in the Reader, remind me a lot of D. J. Enright's "kind of commonplace book" notebooks: they're collections of fugitive thoughts, often inspired by reading or travel, that have obviously been honed a bit, if not fully polished into aphorisms. The notebook feels less like a storehouse for later writing than a thing in itself, a way of supporting a particular type of thinking: mordant, epigrammatic, hither-and-yon, unconnected. Some quickly harvested gems:
This paradox: that where exact truth must be found the only guide thereto is intuition.

The hope of philosophy was to create a tranquility so stable that the world could not assail it.

Hemingway's prose is like an animal talking. But what animal?

Kinship is one of the most primitive of tyrannies. Our real kin are those we have chosen.

Avoid the suave flow of prose that's the trademark of the glib writer. An easy and smooth style is all very well, but it takes no chances and has no seductive wrinkles, no pauses for thought.
"Pauses for thought" is a good enough way to think of the journal: a considered response to an external trigger, stretched and shaped and stripped down to a judicious jotting.

One slightly longer entry in particular caught my eye:
In our century the great event has been the destruction of the city, and therefore of public life, by the automobile. Next, the obliteration of the family by television. Thirdly, the negation of the university by its transformation into a social club for nonstudents. Finally, the abandonment of surveillance by the police, who act only on request and arrive long after their presence could be of any use. All of this can be blamed on the stupidity, moral indifference, and ignorance of politicians and public alike.
Davenport is right about cars, and TV (to say nothing of smartphones and tablets). I'm a bit surprised that, as a Kentuckian, he didn't also include air conditioning, another innovation that pushed life indoors and closed off avenues of community. But the university has become something different from what he laments: if anything, today's push for relevance and ROI and vocational training could make a person nostalgic for the old assumption that a lot of personal development (and a not-insignificant part of intellectual growth) in young people emerges through socialization.

Finally, there's the line about the police. The journals are, frustratingly, undated, but if we assume that they were written before 2000 (Davenport died in 2005), then Davenport was viewing the question from at best the tail end of the long postwar crime surge. In the years since, that wave has subsided so much that American cities are safer than they've been in living memory (and you could probably mount an argument that Manhattan is right now one of the safest places in the history of humanity). When Davenport was writing, police forces seemed overwhelmed, and, in some locales, resigned to failure; now, if anything, the opposite of his statement is true. Surveillance is common, and, in the face of plummeting crime rates, probably overdone.

None of which is to take away from Davenport, or the pleasures of reading his journals. Just a reminder that even the sharpest-eyed among us are often wrong, either about what we're seeing at any given moment, or about what that sight portends.


  1. I'm glad The Guy Davenport Reader exists, though it's a little strange. The Death of Picasso, from 2003, is another selected works, though it doesn't have any of the journal entries. I'd deeply love to see the journals published in full, though I suspect that won't happen?

    There's a fully developed essay about cars and cities (which I presume the notebook fragment was written before) in Every Force Evolves a Form, published in 1990.

    There are two volumes of letters by Davenport: his letters to Jonathan Williams (A Garden Carried in a Pocket) and, easier to find, his letters to James Laughlin of New Directions. To my mind, the Williams ones are better, though the two had a contentious relationship.

    And if you haven't, you should pick up the essay collections: they're all fantastic books to dip into occasionally.

  2. Thanks, Dan. I grabbed this volume because it was what the Seminary Coop had in stock, but I figured I'd end up moving on from there--this is helpful, especially hearing about the letters.

  3. I've been meaning to read Davenport for ages; I think you'll be pleased to know that this post moved me to order one of his books.

  4. You're right, Matt: that makes the old bookseller in me very happy!