Thursday, May 31, 2012

“. . . a shape it is chiefly . . .”

David Jones, “Self-Portrait,” 1928

What I have written has no plan, or at least is not planned. If it has a shape it is chiefly that it returns to its beginning. It has themes and a theme even if it wanders far. If it has a unity it is that what goes before conditions what comes after and vice versa. Rather as in a longish conversation between two friends, where one thing leads to another; but should a third party hear fragments of it, he might not know how the talk had passed from the cultivation of cabbages to Melchizedek, king of Salem. Though indeed he might guess.

        —David Jones, out of the Preface, The Anathemata (1952)

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”

        —Lewis Carroll, out of “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” Through the Looking-Glass (1871)

It wasn’t without a certain pleasure that I surveyed my ruined espaliers, all my flowers torn to pieces, the disheveled vegetable garden. As I contemplated all these factitious little man-made arrangements which five minutes of nature had sufficed to destroy, I admired the way the true order had reimposed itself on the false. These things so tormented by us—trees pruned and shaped, flowers growing where they don’t want to, vegetables brought from other countries—they all found a kind of revenge in this atmospheric rebuke . . . It is too generally believed that the sun has no other function here below than to help the cabbages along. Now and then we must restore God to his pedestal.

        —Gustave Flaubert, out of a letter to Louise Colet (1853)

A yak is a prehistoric cabbage: of that, at least, we may be sure.
But tell us, sages of the solarium, why is that light
still hidden back there, among house-plants and rubber sponges?

        —John Ashbery, out of “Notes from the Air,” Hotel Lautréamont (1992)

Or when someone places a cabbage on a stump
I think I am with them, I think of their name:

        —John Ashbery, out of “The Suspended Life,” The Tennis Court Oath (1962)

And it is Inness on the meadows and fruit is
yellow ripening in windows every minute
growing brighter in the bulblight by the
cabbages and spuds—
                                          And all there is is won

What are black 4 a.m.’s after all but black
4 a.m.’s like anything else: a tree
a fork, a leaf, a pane of glass—?
                                          And all there is is won . . .

        —William Carlos Williams, out of “Struggle of Wings” (1926)

      [cabus, Fr. brassica, Lat.]

A plant.

The leaves are large, fleshy, and of a glaucous colour; the flowers consist of four leaves, which are succeeded by long taper pods, containing several round acrid seeds. The species are, 1. The common white cabbage. 2. The red cabbage. 3. The Russian cabbage. 4. The flat-sided cabbage. 5. The sugar loaf cabbage. 6. The early Battersea cabbage. 7. The white Savoy cabbage. 8. The green Savoy cabbage. 9. The boorcole.10. The green broccoli. 11. The Italian broccoli. 12. The turnep-rooted cabbage. 13. The cauliflower. 14. The turnep cabbage. 15. Curled colewort. 16. The musk cabbage. 17. Branching tree cabbage, from the sea coast. 18. Brown broccoli. 19. Common colewort. 20. Perennial Alpine colewort. 21. Perfoliated wild cabbage, with a white flower. 22. Perfoliated cabbage, with a purple flower . . .

Cole, cabbage, and coleworts, are soft and demulcent, without any acidity; the jelly or juice, of red cabbage, baked in an oven, and mixed with honey, is an excellent pectoral.
      Arbuthnot on Aliments.


An insect.

        —Samuel Johnson, out of A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

                  Place of importance as in the old days
stood on the ramparts of the fort
                                                      the open sea outside
alone with water-birds and cattle
                          knee-deep in a stream
grove of reeds
              herons watching from the bank
      whole fields honeycombed with souterrains
                      bones through the gloom
        whose sudden mouth
surrounded my face
                    a thread of blue around the coast
                                                      feathery moon
eternity swallows up time
                                    peaceable as foam
                      O cabbage gardens
summer’s elegy
                      sunset survived

        —Susan Howe, out of Cabbage Gardens (1979)

Johnson said, that Dr. Grainger was an agreeable man; a man who would do any good that was in his power. His translation of Tibullus, he thought, was very well done; but “The Sugar-Cane, a Poem,” did not please him, for, he exclaimed, “What could he make of a sugar-cane? One might as well write the ‘Parsley-bed, a Poem;’ or ‘The Cabbage-garden, a Poem.’” BOSWELL. “You must then pickle your cabbage with the sal atticum.” JOHNSON. “You know there is already The Hop-Garden, a Poem: and, I think, one could say a great deal about cabbage. The poem might begin with the advantages of civilized society over a rude state, exemplified by the Scotch, who had no cabbages till Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers introduced them; and one might thus shew how arts are propagated by conquest, as they were by the Roman arms.” He seemed to be much diverted with the fertility of his own fancy.
The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.
James Boswell, Esq.

                                                        He lost one of his shoes
                                                        among the cabbages.
                                                                            Peter Rabbit
                                                                            Beatrix Potter

        —Susan Howe, out of Cabbage Gardens (1979)

There are, however, many others to whom I may be as, or more, indebted. Who should say how much may be owing to a small textbook on botany; a manual of seamanship; various items in the magazine Wales edited by Mr Keidrych Rhys; a guide to the Isle of Wight; a child’s picture-book of prehistoric fauna; a guide-book to the parish church of Cilcain, Flintshire, by a local antiquary, 1912; a glossy 1949 bookstall purchase on the pontifex Isambard Kingdom Brunel; a brochure on the composition and permanence of colours; a pamphlet on the prevention of collisions at sea; a paper read before a London conference of psychologists; the text of a guide to a collection of Welsh samplers and embroideries; a catalogue of English china or plate; a neglected directive from Rome on the use of the Chant; a reference in The Times to the cry of a bittern in Norfolk, or to the bloom on a thorn-bush in Herefordshire, or to an Homeric find on Karatepe ridge?

        —David Jones, out of the Preface, The Anathemata (1952)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Short History of the Fragment

Sappho Papyrus
(Lobel-Page Fragment 98)
ξανθοτέραις ἔχη [/] ταίς κόμαις δάιδος
. . . has hair more yellow than a torch . . .

Reluctant Eliot with those “fragments . . . shored against . . . ruins”—pushed to it by Pound. Hugh Kenner, in a chapter (“The Muse in Tatters”) of The Pound Era, tracing a short history of the fragment, the modern onslaught seemingly to begin with scholar-salvaged bits (“thin scrapings . . . : single stanzas, . . . stray lines, stay phrases, single words, cited by Alexandrian commentators in passing illustration of meters, or of Aeolic forms”—here he’s talking of Sapphic pieces—“we know how she would have spelled the word for carbonate of soda”) tendered out of “masses of illegible papyrus scraps that came to Berlin from Egypt in 1896.” Swinburne’s approach to the fragment, along with countless others: “to dilate . . ., to reduplicate, to amplify, to prolong” with “cumbrousness of detail.” Kenner reports how one Sapphic fragment—the “tautly paced disclosure” “I loved you once, Atthis, long ago”—
roused Swinburne into eight lines of slow-motion re-enactment:
I loved thee,—hark, one tenderer note than all—
Atthis, of old time, once—one low long fall,
Sighing—one long low lovely loveless call,
Dying—one pause in song so flamelike fast—
Atthis, long since in old time overpast
One soft first pause and last.
One,—then the old rage of rapture’s fieriest rain
Storms all the music-maddened night again.
Kenner, kindly, calls it a “champion expansion.” Swinburne is “never at a loss for more words.” Against that rhapsodic sumptuousness with its glut of rehash, its aesthetic hyperventilating, Kenner posits the Poundian approach: fragment comme “radiant gist.” Against any such stuffed and overweening aesthetic, any gussying up of the implicit, “an aesthetic of glimpses,” of ellipses rooted in the fragment’s own reticence, the ringing plausibility of its hints. (Kenner points to one source of such restraint in Walter Pater: “To such a tremulous wisp constantly reforming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense of it, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our lives fines itself down.”) An arrangement, then, of intensities—
Spring . . . . . . .
Too long . . . . . .
Gongula . . . . . .
(Kenner quotes Pound in 1950 saying: “Points define a periphery.” And, noting a sensibility that is constantly re-emergent, quotes Eliot speaking of Byron’s “imperceptiveness to the English word—so that he has to use a great many words before we become aware of him.”)

Reading all that, and thinking of the current use of the fragment, ubiquitous, largely untheorized (“as they say”), or copping to simple mimickry (“a broken way of attending calls for broken forms.”) The tendency is toward pure fragment, a undifferentiated slurry of brokenness, fragments to be churned through, used up, a glut of fragments. Look:
Words torn, unseen, unseemly, scene
some far suburb’s mall lot
Summer’s theme: this year’s humid
—to sweat is to know—
pen squeezed too tight yields
ink as blood or pus
so the phrase scraped, removed
offending thine eye: “Outsource Bush”
Against which, insource what? Who
will do it? Most terrible
predicate—high above mountains snow-capped
even in August in-flight motion
picture Eternal Sunshine of the
Spotless Mind
infuriates many No
action, no funny, plot too
dense to follow, unless (unless!)
mind’s eye gives attention . . .
Out of Ron Silliman’s “Revelator.” No radiant gists in that wash—verbiage, broken and current, is all. A leveling occurs: “some far suburb’s mall lot” equals “to sweat is to know” equals “ink as blood or pus” equals “‘Outsource Bush.’” Not exactly “champion expansion”—but in a similar realm, hyper-attending to a pandemonium of bits makes its own dull rhapsody wherein naught shines. Or look:

Horror of senior liquidity managers, aversion to strategy consultants, disgust at lead auditors, impatience with industry relations directors, shrinkage from financial modellers, fear of property loss adjusters, suspicion of corporate accountants, distrust of branch compliance officers, antipathy for growth managers, nausea at contract administers, distaste for equities client service heads, abomination of senior enterprise application architects, dread of heads of international payments, dismay at dispute consulting vice presidents, chagrin at directors of pricing strategy, detestation of reporting and valuations accountants, irritation at fund controllers, mortification at renewables project finance associates, hostility to high yield analysts . . .

and so on for an equal stretch, with all the fun of the cumulus, the humor (and implicit critique) in such pointed excess, and hence veering into

. . . denial of structured credit surveillance analysts, mockery of assurance managers and illness of disposition toward regulatory affairs consultants getting social housing means that you don’t really want communism, but you needn’t be ashamed only of that; your ear of shredded lichen is disproved din the kitchen salesroom, one made to resemble a mock kitchen, try it on as a polite form of fuck-up, down-payment or even for only the least, last or least lost scrap, no luck, shred or speck of kitchen, it is a good ear and has been licked but it will not pay for the annealed ultimate fragment of empty fridge or glossy glory spigot to glut on lately sublimed into a loss leader whose loss is implicitly infinite, in instalments, for in your defence it emerges that the kitchen was always and on purpose unsalable, whatever sort of incredibly weird noise you made in peace signs.

Out of Keston Sutherland’s “Ode to TL61P 3” in the new “Crisis Inquiry” issue of Damn the Caesars (Concilium Plebis: Richard Owens). Isn’t there a severe drain-off of attending (and ferocity) at the entry of the quasi-surreal “ear of shredded lichen” and its diminuendo into a frazzle of fragmentary dolings-out? (That precise intent is one likelihood: a new paragraph begins: “Since not a single song I made is comprehensible to you, I fear I must be too bourgeois or indigent to praise you . . .”) I can’t help but read Sean Bonney’s “Letter on Spectres” (dated: Saturday, August 20, 2011) as an indirect response to Sutherland (or, more precisely, to any claim to political efficacy in the distressed gamut—fragment to fragment—of experimental style that runs currently rampant (and unheeded). Bonney:

Yours was such an obvious bourgeois response. Pandemonium is suburbia, pure and simple. The rioters are speaking in perfect English. Its the middle-class, the magistrates, and you, who are all talking some weird, ignorant slang. All of your mouths are stitched up with some kind of weird gaffer tape. Your laboratory is a slum. Sorry. I don’t mean to be rude, but things have been pretty stressful. You know how it is when you read an account of a situation you’ve been directly involved in, but each one of its constituent parts has been extracted, polished, entirely rearranged?

And, at the end: “Each syllable is a different tonal cluster, penned in with police-wire and used electricity. I hear you’re thinking about becoming a bailiff. In any case, I’m glad they burnt your laboratory down. Now send me some fucking money.” Against the ubiquity of a poetics of fragments unleashed helter-skelter, consumed without pause, without particularity, without “gist”—“churned through” in unwholesome resemblance to capital and its endless “goods”—the “rioters are speaking in perfect English.” In arrangements, that is, of intensities, Pound-finicky holdouts against mere gush and glut.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

John Ashbery / Henry James

John Ashbery

Hugh Kenner, in The Pound Era (1971), going Jamesian in a decoding of how James’s own “geomancer’s response to impalpabilities—tones and airs, surfaces and absences— inaugurated a poetic of the mute . . ., a poetic of eschewals and refrainings, working round the margins of a voiceless theme, a theme voiceless because not yet public, not yet specified, not resolved by its apperceivers to agent, action, acted-upon. That one cannot say, or else may not blatantly say, just who did what to whom, is the premise of the kind of situation that fascinates him.” Claiming, rightly: “James’s effort to articulate such matters within the shape of a formal English sentence yielded the famous late style, where subject and verb are ‘there’ but don’t carry the burden of what is said.” (A chapter later Kenner reports James—“even in his Notebooks”—“flushed with orgies of reticence”—a lovely phrase, feverishly filling every hole it empties itself into—“divulging even to himself no more than he must know to get on with the job.”) All of which made me think of Ashbery. Ashbery’s own Jamesian coding of impalpabilities, his own balance of fraught (burgeoning) eschewals. A debt to James so suddenly (seemingly) obvious I wonder if I ain’t suckering for a gaffe. A sentence out of Ashbery’s “The System”:
. . . so blind are we to the true nature of reality at any given moment that this chaos—bathed, it is true, in the iridescent hues of the rainbow and clothed in an endless confusion of fair and variegated forms which did their best to stifle any burgeoning notions of the formlessness of the whole, the muddle really as ugly as sin, which at every moment shone through the colored masses, bringing a telltale finger squarely down on the addition line, beneath which these self-important and self-convoluted shapes added disconcertingly up to zero—this chaos began to seem like the normal way of being, so that some time later even very sensitive and perceptive souls had been taken in: it was for them life’s rolling river, with its calm eddies and shallows as well as its more swiftly moving parts and ahead of these the rapids, with an awful roar somewhere in the distance; and yet, or so it seemed to these more sensible than average folk, a certain amount of hardship has to be accepted if we want the river-journey to continue; life cannot be a series of totally pleasant events, and we must accept the bad if we also wish the good; indeed a certain amount of evil is necessary to set it in proper relief: how could we know the good without some experience of its opposite?
Kenner, writing of the Jamesian voice “that pursued so many refusals and eschewals, and built so magisterially suspensions and resolutions out of things only half-named, only present by way of analogy” might, too, have pointed to such a chaos, its disconcerting additions, its sum. James, “The Future of the Novel”:
. . . as regards the tangible type, the end is that in its undefended, its positively exposed state, we continue to accept it, conscious even of a peculiar beauty in an appeal made from a footing so precarious. It throws itself wholly on our generosity, and very often indeed gives us, by the reception it meets, a useful measure of the quality, of the delicacy, of many minds. There is to my sense no work of literary, or of any other, art, that any human being is under the smallest positive obligation to “like.”
And, later:
There only remain infatuations that we envy and emulate. When we do respond to the appeal, when we are caught in the trap, we are held and played upon; so that how in the world can there not still be a future, however late in the day, for a contrivance possessed of this precious secret? The more we consider it the more we feel that the prose picture can never be at the end of its tether until it loses the sense of what it can do. It can do simply everything, and that is its strength and its life. Its plasticity, its elasticity are infinite . . .
“It can do simply everything”: I find that completely brash and thrilling. Out of, notably, inextricably, the necessary loss of “the sense of what it can do.” Ashbery at the upshot end of “The System” (beginning, “The system was breaking down”): “this incommensurably wide way leads to the pragmatic and kinetic future.” Kenner quotes, too, James’s percept in The American Scene (1907) of America with its “air of unmitigated publicity, publicity as a condition, as a doom” and how “nothing, accordingly, no image, no presumption of constituted relations, possibilities, amenities, in the social, the domestic order, was inwardly projected.” Recalling, inevitably, Ashbery’s product-glut—“a mint-condition can / Of Rumford’s Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy / Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile / Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged / Stock . . .” out of “Daffy Duck in Hollywood”—and surface-insistence--see, say, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”—opening with that constant “swerving easily away, as though to protect / What it advertises.” And, later:
                                        But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.
There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves . . .

Friday, May 25, 2012

Guy Davenport (Stray Notes)

Guy Davenport, “Self-Portrait,” 1983

A dalliance, marauding, in the archive. Subsequent to an insomniac toss in the humidity, tempered, toward morning, by the sweet yank-yank of a nuthatch probing the oak crevices of the tree out my window. Attending (waiting for) the eventual gathering of Guy Davenport’s letters, some pulled out of The National Review. Out of the October 26, 1973 issue:
Correction . . .
In my obituary of J. R. R. Tolkien [Sept. 28] the sentence “It was the rule of Tolkien's art that he invented nothing cynical” should have read “. . . he invented nothing; he transmuted into the loveliest vision the world as he knew it.” The obituary was phoned in and recorded on a Dictaphone. What a New Yorker’s ear heard a South Carolina voice say was not “cynical” but “semicolon.”
                                                                                                                        Guy Davenport
                                                                                                                        Lexington, Ken.
Out of the March 26, 1968 issue:
Wonderfully accomplished as your compositor is, he has not improved my remarks on Wittgenstein [Mar. 12] by committing the great philosopher to absolute analysis, or by having Niels Bohr crack the atom bomb. My manuscript said that Wittgenstein was committed to absolute honesty, and that Bohr cracked the atom.
                                                                                                                        Guy Davenport
                                                                                                                        Lexington, Ky.
An exchange with one Anton S. Beliajeff, out of the February 25, 1969 issue:
Valentinov on Lenin
It was quite surprising to find very obvious mistakes of fact in Guy Davenport’s review of Nikolay Valentinov’s Encounters With Lenin [Jan. 28]. First of all, Valentinov did not write this memoir in the Sixties, but before the death of Stalin. The Russian edition came out in 1953. Second, the paper, which caused the conflict with Plekhanov, was not about Mach and Avenarius, but about revolutionary work among sectarians, an interesting thing in itself. Third, Valentinov mentions that Gusev, in order to play the fool, once sang for Lenin a romance of Tchaikovsky on his knees, not “always” on his knees. In addition, the reviewer got the titles of Tchaikovsky’s songs mixed up. Even though many years passed before Valentinov set down his memoirs, even though conflict with Plekhanov involved Mach and Avenarius, even though Gusev got on his knees, one should not change the facts through carelessness or by intention.
                                                                                                                        Anton S. Beliajeff
                                                                                                                        Hanover, N. H.

A Reply
Valentinov’s Vstrechi s Leninym was published in New York in 1953, so my “36 years later” should have read “26 years later.” Frank Meyer, best of editors, called me about the chronology of Valentinov’s political allegiance and exiles before going to press, and as I was in the hospital flat on my back, I achieved the splendid muddle as it appears, deferring wildly to Frank’s extensive knowledge of things and all the while winking at a nun who was pursing her mouth and shaking her head at all the Russian names flying through the air. As for the encounter with Plekhanov, I can only ask Mr. Beliajeff to read pages 178-179 of the book again. And as for Lenin and the songs, it seems to me that Valentinov was immensely amused by the rather silly sentimentality of these lugubrious occasions; and so was I. I had space only to catch the essential muflisme of the comedy. If a more meticulous cultural historian can inform us how many times Comrade Gusev (alias Drapkin) sang Tchaikovsky to Lenin on his knees, the pages of National Review are open to him.
                                                                                                                        Guy Davenport
                                                                                                                        Lexington, Ky.
(Muflisme: Gustave Flaubert’s term for the nineteenth century onslaught of pettiness, impertinence, love of mediocrity, banality, lack of ambition. “La muflisme, évidemment, continue dans notre siècle.” Mufle is French for “snout.”) Out of the June 9, 1972 issue:
Nobel Prize for Idealism
Mr. Max Geltman’s lively essay on the inscrutable taste of the Swedish Academy [“Some Reflections on the Geopolitical Nature of Nobel Prizes,” May 12] makes the common mistake of assuming that the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded for excellence. Nobel’s will specifies that the prize is to go “to the person who shall have produced in the field of Literature the most distinguished work of an idealist tendency.” Karl Gjellerup, the Danish theologian and novelist who embraced Darwin and Spencer (and who wrote a book called En Idealist), and Henrik Pontoppidan, who also fled bis pulpil to participate in tbe post-Ibsen Scandinavian rage for the élan vital, were more obvious candidates for Nobel’s Prize for Idealism than Conrad or Proust.
      What idealism is and how the Swedish Academy detects it in one writer more than another are matters to be revealed when Gabriel sounds the great ear-filling flourish in C-sharp and the scrolls are unfurled, but the terms of Nobel’s will make it plausible that next year’s prize will go to Rod McKuen.
                                                                                                                        Guy Davenport
                                                                                                                        Lexington, Ky.
(Out of Max Geltman’s reply: “Wouldn’t you know it! If there was one man on earth who was sure to have read both Gjellerup and Pontoppidan (in the original Danish, no doubt) it would be Guy Davenport of Lexington. Ky.”) Out of the July 7, 1972 issue, an lengthy exchange regarding a Davenport review* of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s North and Jean Giraudoux’s Lying Woman:
For almost a decade I have been one of your assiduous readers, one for whom National Review has been, on the whole, a delightful source of information and perspective. Never has National Review offended my taste or irked me in my principles. Never . . . until I read Guy Davenport’s review-article entitled “The Ways of the French” [“Books,” March 31].
      Ninety per cent of this piece is so banal as to lead one to believe that it was culled from ordinary textbooks or, worse, biographical dictionaries. As for Mr. Davenport’s opinions (the remaining 10 per cent), one can only say that they are grossly wrong because they are based on mere “assiduous skimming” of the works he attempted to review, and on evident prejudice, in this case Francophobia or perhaps simply know-nothing isolationist nationalism (ça existe). True, Céline is a most unusual writer, even in the context of French literature. He was not destined to appeal to many readers. Having lived in the United States for many years and knowing my fellow Americans fairly well, I can easily understand that Céline is doomed, perhaps forever, not to be understood or appreciated here. Incidentally, Mr. Davenport fails to comment on the quality of this translation. Such information is expected in a reliable review of a book in translation.
      But, if Mr. Davenport cannot be objective in his comments on Céline, he did not have to hypocritically cast aspersion on Molière, Diderot, Montaigne, Voltaire (Genet deserves it ). Nor did he have to make a gross statement such as “Céline’s refusal . . . to write a readable prose is very French.” Such comments betray a bias that, I like to hope, is unworthy of National Review, for it is based on excessive carelessness, pettiness and ignorance, as exemplified by a statement such as “naturalism is a mode of fiction.” How about naturalist drama? Obviously, Mr. Davenport could not care less. In fact, to him, “there are few things more pointless and silly than the modern attempts at drama.” (One would hope Mr. Davenport used the word “modern” carelessly. Even if he did use it to mean twentieth-century drama, what know-nothingism!)
      Céline was too queer, or vulgar, or French, as a result, to please Mr. Davenport. (Incidentally, he who repeats vulgarities is himself vulgar.) Toward Giraudoux, who was a distinguished gentleman, he is merely condescending. “Giraudoux is, to be sure, a charming writer. He shines. He spins. . . .” He is perfectly free to dislike Giraudoux as anyone is, of course. But why again generalize on the French people and the whole of French literature? Why say that adultery spoiled French literature? This, as almost all of Mr. Davenport’s extrapolations, is an insult to any cultured or merely rational reader, as is his conclusion: “How strange are the customs of France!” How strange are Mr. Davenport’s reviews! How surprising to find them in National Review! Mr. Davenport’s conservatism is probably orthodox enough, but it does not qualify him to comment on French literature, especially when, as he says, he has neither the time nor the inclination to do so. You know what happens to enterprises when compliance to an ideology is preferred to competence.
                                                                                                                        Easton, Pa.

My review of Céline’s North is not based on skimming. I said that Céline’s style tempts readers to skim, as indeed it does. It is an eccentric style, extremely difficult to follow, and wearying to the eye. I made my remarks about it immediately after quoting Céline, who says that he ought to be ashamed to write in the way he did.
      My source for the biographical details (which I assume readers are interested to have) is the Dizionario universale della letteratura contemporanea, Vol. 1, Verona 1959.
      If my opinions of Céline (and what else did Monsieur C. expect to find in a review?) are wrong, they are not wrong because they are derived from skimming the book. They are wrong because after reading Céline I think as I have stated clearly in my review and not otherwise. I do not suffer from Francophobia, never having feared anything French in my life, with the possible exception of the notorious stinginess of that people. I have traveled in France many times and have an ardent love of French painting, literature, cooking, cities, clothes and culture in general. I’d always thought I was a rather sentimental Francophile. Nor am I a know-nothing isolationist. I even know that Céline’s prose style is as abominable in French as in English translation.
      Nor have I in my review cast a single aspersion on Molière, Diderot, or Genet. I said that they are frank in a particularly Gallic way. They are. And I’d always thought that to praise a man for his candor was praise of a high order. It is amazing to learn that my admiration of Montaigne and Voltaire is an insult to the French.
      My remark that Céline’s refusal to write a readable prose is very French is derived from Céline himself. Céline hated his times and his fellow countrymen: that’s what he’s writing about. He was a man sick to the teeth of the moral degeneracy of the twentieth century, and his disgust is reflected in his annoying prose.
      I deny categorically that I have in this review been careless (wherein is the carelessness?), petty (how so?), or ignorant. And I stick by my guns that modern French drama is weak and an awful falling away from its own superb standards. I except Beckett and Ionesco, as they are Irish and Rumanian respectively. If it will make Monsieur C. any happier, I think even less of modern American and English drama. These opinions are based on the sad experience of knowing what I’m talking about.
      I cannot find anywhere in my review a reflection of what JPC thinks is my antagonism toward Céline. I think he is a powerful, rich, highly imaginative writer.
      And incidentally, he who repeats vulgarities is not himself vulgar.
      “How strange are the customs of France!” is a quotation from The Bab Ballads, a satiric attack earlier than mine on the bedroom in French literature.
      My conservatism, such as it is, is not orthodox in any sense, and I have plenty of time and inclination to comment on French literature, which I do without any ideology whatsoever, three times a week to helpless sophomores.
      And by the way, to notice that adultery as an overworked theme has spoiled French literature is not an extrapolation. The word extrapolation does not mean that.
      Nor can I figure out how I dislike Giraudoux when I say that he is charming and fascinating. But the trouble seems to be that JPC doesn’t read English very well. When he objects to my saying that “naturalism is a mode of fiction,” he does not see that I am contrasting naturalism and Céline’s biographical frankness. My point was that naturalism, for all its claim to be utterly objective, remains a way of telling a story and therefore adheres to all the rules of fiction. This is a paradox. Nobody has said, or can say, anything about naturalist drama in this context: not, anyway, if he is paying attention to the discourse.
      So it looks terribly as if Monsieur C., irked and offended, has irked and offended himself.
                                                                                                                        Guy Davenport
                                                                                                                        Lexington, Ky.
A mystery. Listed in Joan Crane’s Guy Davenport: A Descriptive Bibliography, 1947-1995 (Green Shade, 1996), an essay called “Obscurum per Obscurius,” purportedly in “National Review 20:52 (31 Dec. 1968), pp. 1368-9.” Ain’t there. I looked.
* The review:

      “What a way to write!” Céline says of his flocculent prose. “I ought to be a shamed!” He ought, indeed. It is wearying to read phrases linked by dots (“I open one eye . . . I see her . . . it’s almost dark . . . she’s looking out through the slit . . . I go over . . . movements”), yet Céline wrote all his books this way. The result is a dyslectic hiccough, inspiring the reader with better to do to skim assiduously. Obviously Céline never read his own books, and as for the reader, he held him in contempt as une espèce de merde.
      Reading Céline is the same as falling in with a mad old man of glittering and feverish eye whom, he will shout in your face, the world has treated unfairly. He rambles, borders on an inspired inarticulateness, repeats himself, spits, insults, rolls shoelace-loosening obscenities on his tongue, and damns everything in sight except his wife, his cat Brébert, and himself. He is a thoroughly unsavory old cooter, and he meant to be.
      Moreover, his novels are not novels at all. They are raging accounts of Céline knocking his frail shins against the world. They are maddeningly detailed indictments of a humanity rotten with viciousness, drunk with stupidity, blinded by ignorance and cruelty. Fall in with this wild old Timon, and you will end up convinced that man is the opposite of humanity.
      Céline complains ungraciously in this account of his miseries during the war that we have mythologized the Nazi years, making a saint of Anne Frank (of whose fame he is openly jealous) and devils of the SS. He existed in the moral shambles which he can discern between the innocent and the guilty, and he insists that practically everyone else did, too. In three novels which form a trilogy—From One Castle to Another, North and Rigadoon—he attempted in his old age to record with naked honesty and tragic bitterness what it felt like to be an antisemite skeptical of the Nazis, disgusted by the French, and wholly cynical about the human race’s being able to succeed at anything more complex than wiping its nose.
      Céline was not primarily a writer. He was a doctor specializing in children’s diseases, an authority on typhus. He was also an idealist whose idealism was buried under heavier and heavier disappointments. He was born in 1894 as Louis-Ferdinand Destouches. His father was a clerk in an insurance office; his mother made lace. He began life as a messenger boy. In 1914 he was wounded hideously.
      He took his college degree by reading on his own. He went to Africa and almost died of dysentery and malaria. In 1924 he became a physician, writing his thesis on Semmelweis, the doctor who had died insane because he could never convince midwives that they must wash their hands before delivering a baby. Like Semmelweis, Céline became a crusader. The Rockefeller Foundation sent him to Geneva, to Liverpool. He went back to Africa, visited the United States, Canada, Cuba. Then he decided to become a humble general practitioner in Clichy. He took the name Céline and began to write his digression-ridden, sputtering, angry books.
      Voyage to the End of the Night (1932) and Death on the Installment Plan (1936) made him famous. He went to Russia, and denounced Communism on his return. He also abandoned the official humanism of Europe in favor of a muddled racism. The war made a refugee of him. The French assumed he was a collaborator. The Nazis jailed him when he went to Berlin, He wandered across Europe, he and his wife and cat.
      After the war the French first condemned him and then exonerated him. He withdrew to a Parisian slum, continued to practice medicine among the poor, and wrote more books. His death went unnoticed in 1961; he was secretly buried. He was one of the most anguished souls ever to set pen to paper.
      Reading him, one soon gets over the impression that he is a moral monster. The French are particularly good at dispensing with hypocrisy in a thoroughly nasty way. Look at Molière’s misanthrope, at Diderot, at Genet. The relentless candor of Montaigne and Voltaire can still bite. Céline’s refusal to play to our decency, to allow us any sympathy with his misery, or to write a readable prose, is very French. Critics used to praise Céline for his naturalism, meaning, I suppose, his brutal frankness. Naturalism, however, is a mode of fiction. Céline transcribed reality, and may therefore be the last exhausted voice of the Naturalists.
      His significance remains to be seen. He was an angry old man talking, talking. It will take a critic more patient than most of us to sift through his ravings and decide if there is anything in it.

      Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944), “an ideal middlebrow’s highbrow” as an English critic called him, was one of those French elegantii who must have made Céline barf all over his shoes. There are few things more pointless and silly than the modern attempts at drama, and it was here that Giraudoux committed half his sins. The other half he saved for the novel, where he spread the same wit and sentimentality with which he so liberally caramelled his plays.
      Lying Woman, written in 1936 and found among Giraudoux’s papers only recently, is a fluffy enough tale. It is about a woman of some social standing who tries to please a distinguished lover by lying about her past. He has slept with so many high-class ladies, she argues, that he will find a nobody refreshing. (Giraudoux’s idea of a nobody is somebody whose town car is a Daimler rather than a Rolls.) Naturally, the dear thing lies badly to her fawn-skin-gloved gentleman, and then she has to lie to her regular lover (in Giraudoux’s world every lady has at least two lovers), until both lovers suspect her of trifling with their affections. Both get on their high horses and ride away. Our heroine then marries a nice old baron who breeds racehorses. Avez vous vu le chausse-pied?
      Giraudoux is, to be sure, a charming writer. He shines. He spins. He fascinates. But he does it all with cotton candy and tinsel. His characters bear the same resemblance to people as the shills in perfume and cigar advertisements. They are musical-comedy princes, princesses, and beaming peasants. Whoever invented the bedroom—the French, I imagine—spoiled French literature. Adultery is a French game; better still, it is their folk art. It is their madness. Perhaps it is a triumph for Giraudoux to transmute a hackneyed theme into one more piece of fluff. He misses idiocy by the thickness of a coat of paint. Perhaps that’s the point, the mastery, the swirl of the cape. How strange are the customs of France.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Guy Davenport (Stray Notes)

Guy Davenport, 1927-2005
(Photograph by Ralph Eugene Meatyard)

Guy Davenport, out of “A Stereopticon” (being a review of Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius and Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings):
There are butterflies in Egyptian frescoes (eyed by a tabby cat climbing through reeds). Dutch still lifes are rich in butterflies. There’s a Red Admirable (not Admiral, as Nabokov was forever correcting this misnomer) smack in the center of Seurat’s Sunday on La Grande Jatte, and a fritillary (it looks like) dead center in Tchelitchev’s Cache-Cache. Shakespeare knew his butterflies (six images, all focused on their beauty). Keats’s “fly” is a butterfly. Whistler used one for a monogram. The Bible mentions only the butterfly’s cousin, the moth.
Out of Davenport’s story “The Haile Selassie Funeral Train”:
Moths quivered on the dusty panes, Mamestras, Eucalypteras, Antiblemmas. And O! the gardens we could see beyond walls and fences. Outside Barcelona, as in a dream, we saw La Belle Jardinière herself, with her doves and wasps, her sure signs in full view among the flowers: her bennu tall on its blue legs, her crown of butterflies, her buckle of red jasper, her lovely hair. She was busy beside a sycamore, pulling water out in threads.
Out of Erik Anderson-Reece’s A Balance of Quinces: The Paintings and Drawings of Guy Davenport (1996):
In a collage from Apples and Pears, Mondrian’s perpendicular lines compartmentalize a perfectly balanced three tiered composite. Each image is a symbol of productivity and attraction in either nature or culture: the playfully phallic pear at the top right is the seductive shell of the seed, the coin at the bottom left is an emblem of desire and production . . . The fish . . . one of D’Arcy Thompson’s favorite examples of how nature-as-artist always knows what it’s doing, however aberrant the form may appear. The butterfly is nature’s most realized emblem of symmetry and metamorphosis. In Davenport’s gridded composite, the “natural” and the “cultural” are balanced, as pear, butterfly, and fish are contrasted with erotic and economic “fetishes”—a pair of boy’s briefs and a coin. The coin is society’s seed. Underwear is the seed’s seducing flower. Nature and culture need not be antagonists. Fetishes are healthy symbols until we metonymically mistake them for our real desires.
Out of “The Hunter Gracchus”:

Gracchus explains to the mayor of Riva that he is always in motion, despite his lying as still as a corpse. On the great stair “infinitely wide and spacious” that leads to “the other world” he clambers up and down, sideways to the left, sideways to the right, “always in motion.” He says that he is a hunter turned into a butterfly. There is a gate (presumably heaven) toward which he flutters, but when he gets near he wakes to find himself back on his bier in the cabin of his ship, “still stranded forlornly in some earthly sea or other.” The motion is in his mind (his psyche, Greek for “butterfly” as well as for “soul”). These imaginings (or dreams) are a mockery of his former nimbleness as a hunter. The butterfly is one of the most dramatic of metamorphic creatures, its transformations seemingly more divergent than any other. A caterpillar does not die; it becomes a wholly different being. . . .
Out of “Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier”:
For is not a house a still animal, needing a soul? What man touches God has first touched. A man's seed is yala, the baby in the womb is tonu, the baby is born when it has become toy. So with seed, plant, and fruit. Nit, caterpillar, butterfly.
Wasps in an Ohio orchard, fat black bees in an English garden, butterflies at Fiesole. Wasps drunk on nectar grabble into a yellow umble licorice and lavender, bourrée and gigue. Ant tells the poppy when to bloom, and sleeping lions make mimosa spread.
Out of “A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg”:
I was at Waldau before I came here, into the silence. And before that—look at the rabbit standing on its hind legs!—I was variously a student, a bank clerk, an actor, a poet, a sign painter, a soldier—I have seen those white butterflies as thick as snow over clover—an insurance salesman, a waiter, a vendor of puppets, a bill sticker, a janitor, a traveling salesman for a manufacturer of prosthetic limbs, a novelist, a butler, an archivist for the canton of Bern, and a distributor of temperance tracts. . . .
Out of “C. Musonius Rufus”:
A man rots when the child in him dies.
      The genius philosophers urge us to heed is but a grasp of one’s childhood, any moment of which unrelinquished to the demons of time is sufficient to keep the god Apollo near enough, near enough. One touch of virginity can sweeten the sourest vinegar of a ravaged soul, one touch of liberty still green, one unforgotten chill at looking at a moth on the back of the hand. Savage folly in a turm of white butterflies, a quitch shot with crickets, hide and seek in the barley awns!
Out of “The Antiquities of Elis”:
We had an onion and some hot wine with sage in it at Herakleia, and looked at the sanctuary of the nymphs, scaring a heron as we approached. I admired the butterflies and lizards, Pyttalos found a trefoil which he picked, and we moved on toward Letrini.
Out of “Tatlin!”:

Tatlin rattled the sifter of his porcelain stove, turned the damper up, pulled on his heavy brown sweater, settled down by the tall window against which snow was boiling like an insubstantial surf, a sea of weightless hexagonal crystals blown from Finland, snyeg, always snyeg, and opened his Leskov to The Tale of the Cross-Eyed, Left-Handed Gunsmith from Tula and the Steel Flea, imagined the museums of England with their cast-iron-strutted plate-glass ceilings allowing pink sunlight to fall together with the delicate shadows of nightingales upon Mr. Babbage’s brass-and-walnut calculator, cases of minerals, butterflies, samurai swords, Islamic coins, tertiary fossils, Merovingian bees, T’ang horses, Andaman wicker shields, and the tanned and stuffed corpse of Jeremy Bentham in its wide-awake hat, stock and alpaca coat. Snyeg, always snyeg.
Out of “The Owl of Minerva”:
Lunch is in my backpack, supper in yours.
—Word has gone around among the butterflies that we’re here.
—Who have told the mosquitoes and gnats.
—It’s their place. We’re intruders.
—No we’re not. We’re going to fit in. Everything’s a matter of learning how to belong. Two specks of brint and one of ilt join up to be water. And way up in the clouds goes in for being hexagonal crystals.
—I saw you wandering off, a thing you do, to pee or get a better look at a butterfly, and you saw this house and said absolutely fucking nothing about it.
Out of “Wo es war, soll ich werden”:
Behind him arrived an older boy in a beret and red briefs, a mop-haired spadger in sneakers and shorts, carrying a butterfly net, and their scoutmaster, who seemed nineteenish, sturdily athletic, with cropped blond hair and smiling green eyes.
We’re from Tarm, Sven Berkholst said. We’re out for butterflies, and some elementary marine biology around the shore. Nice meeting you, and we’ll push off. Troop, about-face. I’ll keep the boys away from up here.
Out of “The Bicycle Rider”:
They could see through the grime of the barnloft windows, Anders and Kim, how far the field of sunflowers they’d walked across stretched down to where the sawgrass begins back of the beach, sunflowers higher than their heads, bitter green and dusty to smell. They could see yellow finches working the panniers, butterflies dipping and fluttering, the glitter and lilac blue of the sea where they’d been horsing around on the sand.
Stitch of bronze midges over daisies, bees working wild hyacinths, butterflies yellow and white nuzzling clover at the meadow’s edge, Kim and Anders glistening wet rolled their shoulders and stretched like limbering gymnasts to dry in the hot light and sweet air from the river.
Out of “That Faire Field of Enna”:
The completed painting depicts a girl standing with her face to the tree, the It of Hide and Seek. Stand back, and her body makes the face of a winking demon: a butterfly near her right arm serves for his left eye; her left arm, his half-crossed right eye. Her dress is his nose, her legs his Viking moustache.
Out of “Ishmael’s Double”:
Queequeg was neither “caterpillar nor butterfly,” neither civilized not primitive.
Out of “The Cardiff Team”:
—One of the things I learned at your age was that finding out about what’s in books and the world and feeling great in my pants were cooperative. I though it was just me, the way I was. Mind and body are alive together. And here we are with the ants, midges, and ground spiders.
—Grasshoppers and butterflies.
—The sun is delicious. A warmth with kindness in it.
—I like this. It’s now and it’s books and paintings.
A specimen box, hugely incomplete. Lepidoptera—in its commonality, no distinct species sought—in Davenport. A fling, sprightly and serenely idiotic (meaning private, own, peculiar).

Guy Davenport, “In Adriaan van Hovendaal’s Notebook,” 1984
(Drawing for
Apples and Pears)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Guy Davenport (Stray Notes)

Stanley Spencer, “The Resurrection, Cookham,” 1924-7

Somewhere Guy Davenport notes: “What keeps our conversation going is writing itself, the art of arranging words on a page.” (And Herodotus, in the History: “As for the stories told by the Egyptians, let whoever finds them credible use them. Throughout the entire history it is my underlying principle that it is what people have said to me, and what I have heard, that I must write down.”) A conversation inevitably extending to the dead. “Vitalized by mortality itself.” I am thinking of Davenport’s sweet obsequies for deceased Imagist John Cournos, a piece that graced the pages of The National Review (XVIII: 40, 4 October 1966):
John Cournos, RIP

“The good healer, Time,” John Cournos wrote in one of his novels, “wears pain down to beauty.” But Time had gathered most of his friends before he became the wonderfully peppery old man, with more disarray to his patriarchal hair than Einstein, that his young friends will remember. Cournos wrote—novels, an autobiography, poetry, reviews, books about John Adams and Roger Williams for children. At 85, he was still rising before dawn to write. The times have paid no great heed to his writing, which was always sincere and diligent, always generated by an idealism that in our days seemed impossible and perhaps helplessly old fashioned. It was, however, a pure idealism; he kept his flame. Those of us who cherished his talk knew that he had introduced that brilliant and tragically slaughtered sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska to Ezra Pound, thereby germinating much of what will last of American art in our time. We knew that he had dined with Amy Lowell, Richard Aldington, John Gould Fletcher, F. S. Flint, Ford Madox Ford, Allen Upward. It was to him that Hilda Doolittle turned in her distress. As the literary biographies appear, we find John Cournos everywhere, always as a friend, always as a quiet but persistent force, helping, arranging, reviewing. He came to the United States from Russia when he was ten. At 35 he was in the thick of the London Vorticists, the Imagists, the New Poetry. He outlived the fame that he acquired in the Twenties and Thirties—he was too normal, healthy, and sane to figure in the essentially melodramatic account of belle-lettres maintained by the American press. Though he kept in the thick of things right to the last—reviewing for Philadelphia and New York papers, compiling anthologies, writing poems as out of date as a kerosene lamp—he was to most of us a spry gentleman known to have read every word published about Shakespeare, known to have moved in a world that is by now officially historical and a bit legendary, the world of H.D. and Yeats and Eliot and Wyndham Lewis. At 86, a few weeks before his death, he responded to an article in Time on the perils of middle age by dashing off a letter to say that he rose at four every morning and got ahead with his fifty-eighth book. Privately he sent word to his friends that he was a bit shaky but that the exhilaration of sitting down to a clean sheet of paper, pen in hand, was greater than he had ever known before.
“Poems as out of date as a kerosene lamp”—recalling Davenport’s own phantasmagoria and homage to English painter Stanley Spencer’s brash and enormous “The Resurrection, Cookham” (1924-7), “The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard.” Beginning (with an affable poke at Eliot?):
The Cookham dead began to rise
When God with April in his eyes
Ended in O its midst the night.
To dogwood flowered hard and white,
To rain and violets overhead,
Sharp music lifted up the dead,
In cuckoo song and silence born,
A silver brilliant hunting horn.
Through opened grass Sir Jonas Moore
Swims upward to the chapel door.
Broken earth in her ancient hands,
Here Sarah Tubb the prophet stands.
In pleated light and diamond bone
Comes Petronella Elphinstone.
Sir Edward Coke in rotten lace
Sits up with wonder on his face.
Michael Ventris surfaces near
The round and pious Edward Lear.
Thoda Pigbone with the stick-pin
Finery she was buried in,
All cackle, warts, and raddled gums,
From troubled earth triumphant comes.
Karl Marx so white, so rich of beard,
By Richard Porson stands upreared.
The drummers of Tobruk climb out,
The buglers at the Dunkirk rout . . .
War dead and classicists, seduced maid servants and jurists, surveyors and prophets, all assembled higgledy piggledy (though not without grace, the simplicity of the rhyme keeps a calm and gravid tenor to the proceedings ), summoned to the arrangement. (One thinks of Sherwood Anderson’s lines—talking of Gertrude Stein’s voracious and omnivorous assembling of words—how readily she accepted “the little housekeeping words, the swaggering bullying street-corner words, the honest working, money saving words and all the other forgotten and neglected citizens of the sacred and half forgotten city.”) Davenport’s Ruskin becomes a holy landscape—
From fiery mouth to spindle shins,
John Ruskin, resurrected, stood,
Resumed the gallop of his blood,
Resumed his stare, and all but spoke
When marigold and sifting smoke
His flesh became, and fell, and where
The vineyard of his ribs was bare
Sat Jerusalem in his breast
That seemed Siena from the west,
But Venice east and Sparta south,
And north, on Thames beyond Thame mouth,
O crystal fold of years and shires,
Grey Oxford with her silver spires . . .
Davenport’s Clare a Lennie Small: “John Clare and in his hand that friend, / The only one he could abide, / Who, in his waistcoat when he died, / Went with him to God’s splendid house, / His Inniskillin pocket mouse.” And if “time . . . wears pain down to beauty,” time, too, is for Davenport a kind of soul to space’s body, the two inextricably commingling in the resurrectionary fealty to work, that delivery, the whole signaled by an onslaught of “diligent audacious sound,” several musicks uproariously interspersing in the sweet burn of hosanna, end and upshot of the ordinary sun’s grand unending O:
Did not my Herakleitos say
Under the noon Cycladic sun
All is other and all is one?
Now finished time becomes a place.
Time, time was psyche unto space,
And space was time within my hand.
Move near. . . .
. . .
Now shall I, that your light abide,
Take mortality from your side.
And blare the trombones on a ground
Of diligent audacious sound
Both Persian dance and B flat prime
Presbyterian four four time,
Viola, harp, and Shaker hymn,
Te Deum from the Cherubim.
Gabriel’s shofar thunders out,
Dominions, thrones, and powers shout
Hosanna! Adoremus O
The silver C sharp trumpets blow.
Pertinent, serendipitous. In one of Davenport’s workbooks—one entry on the page is dated “27 XII 1990”—one reads (impeccably put down in Davenport’s crookedly gorgeous hand):
Time is the mind of space —Samuel Alexander

All living things have a mind.

Alexander tried to calculate the amount of passivity in a sense encounter / the activity in the object perceived, and to place perception as an event between the two. Had Rilke read Alexander?

‘Knowledge increases ignorance’ —Peter Russell.
All tidily writ next to a large capital A, half-serif’d, half sans . . .

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Guy Davenport’s “The Bowmen of Shu”

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, “The Red Stone Dancer,” 1913
(Davenport, under the title “The Red Stone Dancer”:
“Nos fesses ne sont pas les leurs. Il faut être absolument moderne.”)

“The Bowmen of Shu” begins with a letter from Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, written from the trenches in 1915, that John Cournos showed me one evening in Haverford, taking it from its envelope, while remembering introducing Gaudier to Pound fifty years before.
That’s Guy Davenport, in the “Postscript” to Twelve Stories (1997). Prior mention of the story led recently to some exchanges with Marilyn Schwinn Smith, who alerted me to Davenport’s letterpress printing of the Gaudier-Brzeska letter in 1965 under the title Ezra’s Bowmen of Shu. Joan Crane, in Guy Davenport: A Descriptive Bibliography, 1947-1995 (Green Shade, 1996) lists the item (“Double broadside; two sheets stitched to the inner sides of a single folded cover sheet” with a “nude male drawing by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, printed in blue”) and details its colophon thus:
[Lowell House escutcheon: argent, three arrows proper, grasped in a dexter hand, couped; the crest, a stag’s head caboshed with the riband motto, “Occasionem cognosce” (Know thy opportunity” or “Strike while the iron is hot”)] | Both the drawing and the letter are here printed for the | first time—the drawing through the generosity | of the Fogg Art Museum, and the letter through | the generosity of Mr. John Cournos. The text | is printed in 14-point Bulmer Roman and Italic | by the | Adams House & Lowell House Printers | in Harvard Yard, March, 1965. | This is No. [number supplied by hand in red ink] of eighty-seven copies. | [Adams House escutcheon: five oak branches, single-leafed and fruited with acorns, proper]
(Later that year Davenport joined up again with collaborator Laurence Scott—under the “As Sextant Press” imprint—to complete the first printing of Ezra Pound’s Canto CX. Crane: “According to GD, Pound had given this and several other late cantos to Donald Hall with the injunction to ‘touch them up and print ’em.’” As Sextant Press, with Davenport editing Pound’s work, and Scott drawing a frontispiece portrait, thus printed 118 copies of the canto for Pound’s eightieth birthday.)

Davenport’s 1983 story “The Bowmen of Shu”—“in 42 individually titled short sections”—begins:
27 December 1914

Here we are picking the first fern shoots and saying when shall we get back to our country, away from das Trommelfeurer, the gunners spent like winded dogs, white smoke and drizzle of sparks blowing across barbed wire in coils, the stink of cordite. 27 December 1914. Avalanches of shrapnel from field guns firing point-blank with fuses set at zero spray down in gusts, an iron windy rain. Here we are because we have the huns for our foemen. It’s with pleasure, dear Cournos, that I’ve received news from you. We have no comfort because of these Mongols. You must have heard of my whereabouts from Ezra to whom I wrote some time ago. Since then nothing new except that the weather has had a change for the better. We grub the soft fern shoots, the rain has stopped for several days and with it keeping the watch in a foot deep of liquid mud, the crazy duckwalks, hack and spit of point guns.

Hooge Richebourg Givenchy

The smell of the dead out on the wire is all of barbarity in one essence. Also sleeping on sodden ground. The frost having set it, we have the pleasure of a firm if not warm bed, and when you have turned to a warrior you become hardened to many evils. When anyone says return the others are full of sorrow. Anyway we leave the marshes on the fifth January for a rest behind the lines, and we cannot but look forward to the long forgotten luxury of a bundle of straw in a warm barn or loft, also to that of hot food, for we are so near the enemy and they behave so badly with their guns that we dare not light kitchen fire within two or three miles, so that when we get the daily meal at one in the morning it is necessarily cold, but like the chinese bowmen in Ezra’s poem we had rather eat fern shoots than go back now, and whatever the suffering may be it is soon forgotten and we want the victory.

Sculptural Energy Is the Mountain

Sculptural feeling is the appreciation of masses in relation. Sculptural ability is the defining of these masses by planes. The Paleolithic Vortex resulted in the decoration of the Dordogne caverns. Early stone-age man disputed the earth with animals.
(Out of Gaudier-Brzeska’s “Vortex,” out of Blast (1914). Davenport’s assemblage, too, is a vortex. Crane quotes a Davenport letter (25 February 1984): “The text is a collage of all sorts of things: Gaudier’s letters, Cathay, Rodin’s notebooks—one would never identify all the pieces. The history of Sophie reads like satire, but is simply the facts as she told them. The last two sentences are two lines of Rimbaud, from different poems.”*) Later in the piece:
Smoking Rivers of Mud

We say will we be let to go back in October. There is no ease in royal affairs. We have no comfort. Our sorrow is bitter. But we would not return to our country. What flower has come into blossom. We have time to busy ourselves with art, reading poems, so that intellectually we are not yet dead nor degenerate. Whose chariot, the General’s horses, his horses even, are tired. They were strong. We have no rest. Three battles a month. By heaven, his horses are tired. The generals are on them, the soldiers are by them. If you can write me all about the Kensington colony, the neo-greeks and neo-chinese. Does the Egoist still appear? What does it contain? My best wishes for a prosperous and happy 1915. Yours Sincerely Henri Gaudierbrzeska.
With no, or minor, fuss, just to see what Davenport rearranged, what he added, what he put down straight, one assembles some of the sources.** Davenport’s own editing (with prefatory note) of John Cournos’s original 27 December 1914 letter to Gaudier-Brzeska, the letterpress document “Ezra’s Bowmen of Shu: A Letter from Henri Gaudierbrzeska”:
      The Renaissance of 1910 was the springtime of our age. All that comes from that clear and virile year is still bright: Brancusi, Strawinsky, Picasso, Ives, Pound, Cocteau, Lipchitz, Modigliani, Epstein, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein, Gaudierbrzeska, whose hard, clean imagination was the firmest the world had seen since Paolo Uccello. He was the first sculptor in a thousand years to work in modes that had been all that Homer, Ptahotep, Confucius and Sappho knew as beauty in stone. He worked but a few years, leaving us The Red Dancer, The Stags, The Birds, the Ezra Pound, the Boy with Coney, the Imp. He died, still an adolescent though master of his difficult art, a corporal in the French army, on 5 June 1915, fighting back the German attack on Neuville Saint Vaast.
      This letter, published for the first time, was written to the young Russian poet and journalist who had introduced him to Ezra Pound, John Cournos. The Kensington colony he asks about are those artists who called themselves Vorticists and sought to make an art formal, direct, and objective, and to oppose that evasiveness which still blights the arts in our time. Never has so clear a springtime been withered by a bitterer frost.

                                                                                                            Guy Davenport
                                                                                                            Lexington, Kentucky

27 December 1914

Dear Cournos—

It’s with pleasure that I received news from you. You must have heard of my whereabouts from Ezra to whom I wrote some time ago. Since then nothing new except that the weather has had a change for the better. The rain has stopped for several days & with it keeping the watch in a foot deep of liquid mud, also sleeping on sodden ground. The frost having set it we have the pleasure of a firm if not a warm bed & when you have turned to a warrior you become hardened to many evils. Anyway we leave the marshes on the 5th January for a rest behind the lines and we cannot but look forward to the long forgotten luxury of a bundle of straw in a warm barn or loft—also to that of hot food for we are so near the enemy and they behave so badly with their guns that we dare not light kitchen fire within 2-3 miles—so that when we get the daily meal at one in the morning it is necessarily cold but alike the chinese bowmen in Ezra’s poem we had rather eat fern shoots than go back now & whatever the suffering may be it is soon forgotten and we want the victory. In between we have time to busy ourselves with art reading poems etc.—so that intellectually we are not yet dead nor degenerate.

      If you can write me all about the Kensington colony the neo-greeks and the neo-chinese. Does the Egoist still appear? What does it contain?
      With my best wishes for a prosperous & happy 1915

                                Yours Sincerely
                                                            Henri Gaudierbrzeska
There is, at Houghton Library, a single typed sheet containing the 27 December 1914 letter (differing in some minuscule particulars—“frost having set in” for “frost having set it”; “Chinese” for “chinese”; “neo-Greeks and the neo-Chinese” for “neo-greeks and the neo-chinese”; “Gaudier Brzeska for “Gaudierbrzseka”; &c.) and an earlier letter to Cournos dated 5 November 1914. The provenance of the sheet isn’t clear. If Cournos had typed it for Davenport’s use, or if Davenport had typed it for himself, wouldn’t it be likely that Davenport would’ve used it for context in “The Bowmen of Shu” and “Ezra’s Bowmen of Shu”? The letter:
5 Nov. 1914

Dear Cournos,

I have not had much opportunity to write lately. I have been going in and out of the trenches and have spent many nights out patrolling. I nearly got made prisoner 3 days ago by 15 Germans but I escaped & led them to one of our trenches where 4 got killed 4 prisoners and 7 did a bunk. Patrolling makes one very tired and leaves no mind for writing but I hope you had news thro’ Ezra. I have also written to Richard a few days ago. Tell Richard I should be very glad if he could send me a few old Egoists & to know something about your artistic activities. I shall write from time to time. I have escaped death many a time since I have started the campaign on 20 Sept. & will continue to do so.
                                            Yours ever,
                                                          Henri Gaudier.
For ease in examining Davenport’s distribution of energies and harmonies in the early sections of “The Bowmen of Shu,” here’s Pound’s “Song of the Bowmen of Shu”—with its tag that reads “By Kutsugen / 4th Century B.C.”:
Here we are, picking the first fern-shoots
And saying: When shall we get back to our country?
Here we are because we have the Ken-nin for our foemen,
We have no comfort because of these Mongols.
We grub the soft fern-shoots,
When anyone says “Return,” the others are full of sorrow.
Sorrowful minds, sorrow is strong, we are hungry and thirsty.
Our defence is not yet made sure, no one can let his friend return.
We grub the old fern-stalks.
We say: Will we be let to go back in October?
There is no ease in royal affairs, we have no comfort.
Our sorrow is bitter, but we would not return to our country.
What flower has come into blossom?
Whose chariot? The General’s.
Horses, his horses even, are tired. They were strong.
We have no rest, three battles a month.
By heaven, his horses are tired.
The generals are on them, the soldiers are by them.
The horses are well trained, the generals have ivory arrows and quivers
      ornamented with fish-skin.
The enemy is swift, we must be careful.
When we set out, the willows were drooping with spring,
We come back in the snow,
We go slowly, we are hungry and thirsty,
Our mind is full of sorrow, who will know of our grief?
Richard Sieburth, in the notes to Pound’s New Selected Poems and Translations (2010), points to the “heavy tan wrappers” of the “1915 edition of Cathay” possibly alluding to the “military apparel of World War I.” Of Pound’s “Song of the Bowmen of Shu,” Sieburth writes: “When Pound sent this poem together with ‘Lament of the Frontier Guard’ and ‘South-Folk in Cold Country’ to his friend the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska who was stationed at the French front, the latter wrote back: ‘The poems depict our situation in a wonderful way. We do not yet eat the young nor old fern shoots, but we cannot be over-victualled where we stand.’” (In Gaudier-Brzeska, Pound dates that letter 18 December 1914.) Later, Gaudier-Brzeska writes Pound: “When we took to the trenches after the march it was a sight worthy of Dante, there was at the bottom a foot deep of liquid mud in which we had to stand two days and two nights.” And out of a letter dated 11 April 1915, addressed “to Mrs. Shakespear”: “E . . . has sent me the Chinese poems. I like them very much. I keep the book in my pocket, indeed I use them to put courage in my fellows. I speak now of the ‘Bowmen’ and the ‘North Gate’ which are so appropriate to our case.”
* Mightn’t any story (or person) be read as a vortex? See the deft enumeration of Gaudier-Brzeska’s traits and sources in “The Bowmen of Shu.” Under the title “Vortex”:
From Rodin, passion. From John Cournos, courage. From Alfred Wolmark, spontaneity of execution. From Epstein, the stone, direct cutting. From Brancusi, purity of form. From Modigliani, the irony of grace. From Africa, the compression of form into minimal volume. From Lewis, the geometric. From Horace Brodsky, camaraderie de la caserne. From Ezra Pound, archaic China, the medieval, Dante, recognition. From Sophie, love, abrasion, doubt, the sweetness of an hour.
** I note that Hugh Kenner, in The Pound Era (1971), connected the Gaudier-Brzeska letter to Pound’s Cathay poems:
The Cathay poems paraphrase an elegiac war poetry nobody wrote (though “Exile’s Letter” is like an elegant “Tipperary”). Perfectly vital after 50 years, they are among the most durable of all poetic responses to World War I. They say, as so much of Pound’s work says, that all this has happened before and continually happens. He even interpolated his 1911 version of The Seafarer between “Exile’s Letter” and “Poems of Departure,” noting that “Rihaku” and the Anglo-Saxon poet were approximately contemporaneous, and allowing the reader to find parallels . . . —to which we may join another letter of Gaudier’s.
Quoting, hence, the 27 December 1914 letter.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Leonardo da Vinci, “Allegory on the Fidelity of the Lizard,” 1496
(“Script reading from right to left:
ilramarro . fedele allomo vede[n]do quello adorme[n] / tato . co[n] batte . cholla bisscia esse vede no[n]lla potere / vincere core sopra ilvolto dello mo . ello dessta accioche / essa . bisscia nonoffenda loadorme[n]tato . homo— The lizard faithful to man, seeing him asleep, fights with the snake, and as he [the lizard] sees that [he] cannot conquer her [the snake], he [the lizard] runs over the face of the man to wake him so that the snake may not harm the sleeping man.”)

Out of the tenuous weekend, its foibles and repairs, its trajectories and retreats, a thin memory:
Near the close of the 15th century
the wine-dresser of Belvedere caught a lizard,
which he presented to Leonardo da Vinci,
who constructed out of the skins of other lizards
two miniature wings, filling them with mercury
so that they moved and trembled when the lizard walked.
And he made for his pet a little beard and some horns,
and kept it in a box; and it gave him pleasure
to offer his friends this grotesque creation.
To think deeply right now would terrify me.
Evan S. Connell, Jr.’s Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel (1962). The final line a recurring tag. (I recall reading it originally in a Mary Ruefle piece in Life Without Speaking (1987), epigraph to “Gigantic Brazen Head”: “Woebegone, / if only I were free / to be a tugboat. / Woebegone, the word, / if I were only the word—”) Connell’s story out of Vasari:
Leonardo, therefore, having composed a kind of paste from wax, made of this, while it was still in a half liquid state, certain figures of animals, entirely hollow and exceedingly slight in texture, which he then filled with air. When he blew into these figures he could make them fly through the air, but when the air within had escaped from them they fell to the earth. One day the vine-dresser of the Belvedere found a very curious lizard, and for this creature Leonardo constructed wings, made from the skins of other lizards, flayed for the purpose; into these wings he put quicksilver, so that when the animal walked, the wings moved also, with a tremulous motion: he then made eyes, horns and a beard for the creature, which he tamed and kept in a case; he would then show it to the friends who came to visit him, and all who saw it ran away terrified. He more than once, likewise, caused the intestines of a sheep to be cleansed and scraped until they were brought into such a state of tenuity that they could be held within the hollow of the hand, having then placed in a neighbouring chamber a pair of blacksmith’s bellows, to which he made fast one end of the intestines, he would blow into them until he caused them to fill the whole room, which was a very large one, insomuch that whoever was within was forced to take refuge in a corner: he thus showed them transparent and full of wind, remarking that, whereas they had previously been contained within a small compass, they were now filling all space, and this, he would say, was a fit emblem of talent or genius.
Next page, in the Connell: “Adequate knowledge assumes its form.” (Guy Davenport’s version—out of Shaker Mother Ann Lee: “Every force evolves a form.”) And, a few lines along: “Each detail I have loved, for its own sake.” Reading Connell’s sparely commented arrangements here—and in Points for a Compass Rose (1973)—I think of both Eliot Weinberger’s essays and David Markson’s late novels. Readers, collectors, essential delvers within—see William Caxton’s edition of Guillaume de Deguileville’s The Pylgremage of the Sowle (1483): “More necessary to the land is a diker and a deluer than a goldsmyth.” Enough.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Some Duds

Joan Carlile, “Sir Thomas Browne,” c. 1641-50

I shall not neede (like the most part of Writers) to celebrate the Subiect which I deliuer. In that point I am at ease. . . . I will therefore spend this Preface, rather about those, from whom I haue gathered my knowledge. For I am but a gatherer and disposer of other mens stuffe, at my best value.
          —Henry Wotton, The Elements of Architecture (1624)

Omne ignotum pro magnifico. A dunghill at a distance sometimes smells like musk, and a dead dog like elder-flowers.

Plagiarists are always suspicious of being stolen from,—as pickpockets are observed commonly to walk with their hands in their breeches’ pockets.
          —Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Table Talk (4 January 1823)

As apothecaries we make new mixtures every day, pour out of one vessel into another; and as those old Romans robbed all the cities of the world, to set out their bad-sited Rome, we skim off the cream of other men’s wits, pick the choice flowers of their tilled gardens to set out our own sterile plots. Castrant alios ut libros suos per se graciles alieno adipe suffarciant (so Jovius inveighs.) They lard their lean books with the fat of others’ works. Ineruditi fures, &c. A fault that every writer finds, as I do now, and yet faulty themselves, . . . they pilfer out of old writers to stuff up their new comments, scrape Ennius dung-hills, and out of Democritus’ pit, as I have done. By which it comes to pass, that not only libraries and shops are full of our putrid papers, but every close-stool and jakes, Scribunt carmina quae legunt cacantes; they serve to put under pies, to lap spice in and keep roast-meat from burning.
          —Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)

He steals by this apology,—that what he takes has no worth where he finds it, and the greatest where he leaves it. It has come to be practically a sort of rule in literature, that a man, having once shown himself capable of original writing, is entitled thenceforth to steal from the writings of others at discretion. Thought is the property of him who can entertain it; and of him who can adequately place it. A certain awkwardness marks the use of borrowed thoughts; but, as soon as we have learned what to do with them, they become our own.
          —Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Shakespeare or, The Poet,” Representative Men (1850)

Dr. Johnson censures the exploded diction of Browne and of Milton; the diction of Dr. Johnson is more exploded than theirs. In almost every age, when a people have become readers, there are two schools of composition;—the one closely resembling the language commonly spoken; the other constructed upon the principle, that what is written should be something nobler or lovelier than what is spoken; that fine writing ought not so much literally to resemble, as spiritually to idealize good talking;—that the art of composition, like every other art, when carried to its highest degree, is not the representation, but, as Browne expresses it, “the perfection of nature;”—and that as music to sound, so is composition to language. A great writer of either school reaches the same shore, and must pass over the same stream; but the one is contented with the ferry, the other builds up a bridge—one goes along the stream, the other above it. Of these two schools of composition, the Eloquent and the Familiar, the last, often lightly esteemed in its time, and rather commanding a wide than a reverent audience, passes with little change and little diminution of popularity, from generation to generation. But the first stands aloof—the edifice of its age—copied not for ordinary uses, however well formed by scholars in exact and harmonious symmetry. Royal, but unprolific, it is a monarch without a dynasty. It commands, is obeyed, adored—dies, and leaves no heir. Gibbon and Junius are imitated but by schoolboys and correspondents to provincial newspapers; but the homely Locke, the natural Defoe, the familiar Swift, the robust, if boorish manliness of Cobbett, leave their successors; and find (perhaps unconsciously) their imitators, as long as the language lasts. This is no detraction from the immortality of greater and more imaginative minds. It is the characteristic of their immortality, that though they inspire, they are not copied—mediately or immediately: the spirit of Milton has had its influence on almost every great poet that has succeeded him—but poetasters alone have mimicked the machinery of his verse. He who has really caught the mantle of the prophet, is the last man to imitate his walk.
          —Edward Bulwer Lytton, “Sir Thomas Browne” (Edinburgh Review, 1836)
Scrounging, unprovendered, prevaricating (none be so fastidious as the empty-handed). One thinks of James McNeill Whistler’s laugh-lashing retort to Oscar Wilde’s pout complaint of “I wish I had said that”: “You will, Oscar, you will.” Butterfly with a long stinger of a tail. (Poe: “To disguise his stolen horse, the uneducated thief cuts off the tail; but the educated thief prefers tying on a new tail at the end of the old one, and painting them both sky blue.”) Truth is, I random of late in spare and beleaguering woodlots: sizeable downed limbs roughly nowhere. Is Sir Thomas Browne’s “Art is the perfection of nature” romp a rump source for William Carlos Williams’s “the perfection of new forms as additions to nature”? Browne, out of Religio Medici (1643):
There is no deformity but in monstrosity, wherein notwithstanding there is a kind of beauty, Nature so ingeniously contriving the irregular parts, as they become sometimes more remarkable than the principall Fabrick. To speake yet more narrowly, there was never any thing ugly, or mis-shapen, but the Chaos; wherein notwithstanding to speake strictly, there was no deformity, because no forme, nor was it yet impregnate by the voyce of God: Now nature is not at variance with art, nor art with nature; they being both the servants of his providence: Art is the perfection of Nature.
I don’t know. One frank surety of the scrounge: it is (I am) decidedly not “impregnate by the voyce of God . . .”