From the cover of The Guy Davenport Reader.
From Guy Davenport’s journals, as published in The Guy Davenport Reader (2013), edited by Erik Reece. Davenport was born on this day in 1927; he spent most of his life in Lexington, Kentucky, where he taught at the University of Kentucky. “My notebooks have subjects and information for which I’ve not yet found a workable technique,” he told The Paris Review in 2002, three years before his death. “I think ultimately, as Joyce felt, that we know nothing, and that what we call culture is a wonderful fiction, and that we live inside this fiction, and as long as it’s articulate we’re successful. And we add to it, or subtract from it, but we really don’t know anything else. And I think a hard scientist, the people who are working on consciousness now, would have to admit the same thing. We don’t know what consciousness is, we don’t know why we’re here.” —D. P.
To sit in the sun and read Columella on how to plant a thorn hedge is a pleasure I had to teach myself. No, I was teaching myself something else, and the thorn hedge came, wisely, to take its place. They’re longer lasting than stone walls and have an ecology all their own. Birds nest in them and snails use them for a world. Hedgehogs, rabbits, snakes, spiders. Brier rose, dog thorn. There are some in England still standing from Roman times.
Being ought to have a ground (the earth under our feet) and a source. It seems to have neither. The Big Bang theory is science fiction. It may be that the expanding universe is an illusion born in physics labs in Paris, Copenhagen, and Berkeley. It is also too eerily like Genesis (being in a millisecond) and other creation myths. It is partly medieval, partly Jules Verne. From a human point of view, it has no philosophical or ethical content. It is, as a vision, a devastation, an apocalypse at wrong end of time. It is a drama in which matter and energy usurp roles that once belonged to gods and angels. It is without life: brutally mechanical. It is without even the seeds of life, or the likelihood.
The circumcision of gentiles in the United States is a cruel and useless mutilation. Michel Tournier in Le Vent paraclète likens it to removing the eyelids. It is an ironic turn of events. The circumcision of the Old Testament was a slicing away of the merest tip of the foreskin, the akroposthion as the Greeks called it. In the Hellenizing period of the first century C.E. (see Maccabees) the rabbinate changed over to total removal of the prepuce, to make a more decisive symbol. Gentiles began to circumcise fairly recently: a Victorian attempt, one among many, to prevent masturbation. (A. E. Housman was circumcised at thirteen.) It is done nowadays by parents so ignorant that they don’t know it doesn’t need to be done, and doctors, always ready for another buck, recommend it on hygienic principles. It is difficult to think of another such institutionalized gratuitous meanness, the brutal insensitivity of which enjoys universal indifference. A Tiresian conundrum: a male who has never known the sensuality of a foreskin, both for masturbation and for making love, cannot know what he has been so criminally bereft of.
An American evangelist on Swedish TV reminds me that kinship is one of the most primitive of tyrannies. Our real kin are those we have chosen.
A life is a secret.
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.
Michel was, as he figured it, happy. He was not certain what happy was, but his happiness had been noticed and specified. Once when he was smaller his class had gone to the museum of Mankind to see Eskimo things, and he had, while their teacher was showing them a kayak, taken off his shoes and socks to count his toes, of which there were ten. Suzanne, the busybody and snoop, said: “O mère de … look at Michel!”
Teacher had said, placidly, “Michel is happy.”
“When angry, paint bamboo.” —Wang Mien (1335–1415)
To see a clock as a clock, Wittgenstein said, is the same as seeing Orion striding in the stars.
Hemingway’s prose is like an animal talking. But what animal?
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