After leaving high school in tenth grade for Duke, studying at Oxford (where Tolkien’s tutoring bored him to death), and finishing a Ph.D. at Harvard on the incarcerated Ezra Pound, Guy Davenport took a job in Kentucky in 1961, far away from much of the culture he would go on to write about. Years later, when asked why he chose Kentucky, Davenport famously said: The farthest away and the highest pay.
From his remote seat in Lexington, Davenport produced some of the most astonishing prose ever written by an American: Hobbits, Picasso, the history of the Mediterranean, spy novels, John Ruskin’s life, and Wittgenstein’s last words all fall under his purview. As with so many of the greatest essayists (Montaigne their progenitor) the anecdotal, historical, factual, and mundane mix easily, lightly even, to reveal the depth of his insight.
Davenport’s best-known essay, “The Geography of the Imagination,” introduces us to such a rich and diverse imagination that we are forced to expand the limits of our maps. New countries emerge, spanning centuries and disparate continents. As he puts it at the very beginning of the essay:
The difference between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination.
Thinking through culture was Davenport’s gift, and he pursued it like a poet, setting things in proximity to each other so that they draw out unseen implications, writing obliquely so that readers can furnish fresh connections through which to imagine themselves. Davenport knew that an essay at its best, like a soliloquy in Shakespeare, is an attempt to understand the self; what he offered his readers was a blueprint for that self-examination.
In his essay on Montaigne, Davenport writes, “It has been said of Montaigne, and can be said of Plutarch, that in reading him we read ourselves.” Essays, at their origin, are personal; character, it turns out, is not an impediment but the key to understanding someone’s thought. Everyone Davenport read became a friend to him, an intimate. He got to know them all by listening closely, sounding them out, “thinking aloud.” We feel we know his subjects through reading Davenport, and we do.
Of Ruskin, he says:
His energy was boundless. He never passed up a game of chess (and kept games going by mail). He loved the theater (the more vulgar the play, the better), the Christie minstrels, military bands, dancing (he could do a memorable highland fling).
And a bit earlier in the same essay (“Ruskin”), this utterly original line: “He learned everything except the facts of life.” Who can write like this?
In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke writes that poetry is only possible once memories “have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves.” You could say the same about Davenport. Literature, philosophy, the lives of thinkers, and the rhythm of prose became blood and bone in him so that when he wrote, his thoughts were organic, shaped to his subjects. His writing feels like portraiture—the kind that exposes as much about the person behind the camera as the person in front of it. Among the neglected writings of Davenport (and hardly any are widely read today) his essays on visual art are the most neglected of all. But he was drawing seriously long before he turned to writing, and portraiture of all kinds was his natural form. Davenport was an artist disguised as an academic living in Kentucky.
Art history is a discipline that privileges its practitioners, and Davenport was decidedly not an art historian in the traditional sense. Of Picasso, he says: “He stepped over the moment of Cézanne, Manet, Courbet like a giant negligently striding over a garden whose order and brilliance were none of his concern. All of his tenderness is like a Minotaur gazing at a cow.”
This is Picasso refracted through Davenport’s inner geography, not an art historical attempt at a lasting or objective snapshot. What we find in Davenport are the artists themselves, alive, full of vigor and idiosyncrasy, loosed from the periods that we retroactively and often lazily group them under, and so able to free themselves from those extrinsic constraints.
Davenport introduces us to Henri Rousseau like this: “Until we are willing to enter Rousseau’s world we are going to misread all his paintings. We must learn the tone of his sentimentality, his sense of humor, his idea of art.”
Davenport looked at art like a painter, and wrote like one. He tells us that Rousseau and Flaubert saw the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris “with the same eyes,” around the same time, and makes us feel the significance of that fact. Through Davenport, we can consider how the stuffed parrot, Loulou, at the end of Flaubert’s A Simple Heart might remind us of one of Rousseau’s primitive beasts. It’s a history found in the collision of facts separated by time or space, one that looks for meaning in the connective tissue: the possibility of mutual influence, independent of its reality.
Davenport was fascinated by the “primitive” in art. He insisted that the artists we once called primitive are “true poets” because they “know no ordinariness.” “Balthus, I suspect, has been excluded from the clan [of modernism] for reasons of awesome primitiveness,” he writes. Davenport has been excluded from the canon of art history and of contemporary criticism for the same reasons. In this sense, Davenport is himself a primitive thinker. He trusts the wildness of the world and all its contingencies, and the powers of the imagination and intuition, to lead him somewhere worth going. What he does with knowledge and information is what any great artist does with his or her medium: communicate a feeling first and then a whole world of thoughts, a nexus of possible realities embedded in our own. His authority is an artist’s authority or a child’s, grounded in the conviction of the imagination to furnish a world. There is magic in this kind of meaning making, the kind that treats everything as significant and so elevates it.
That may be why he liked Balthus so much:
What caught Balthus’s imagination in [Wuthering Heights, which he illustrated] was the manner in which children create a subsidiary world, an emotional island which they have the talent to robinsoner, to fill all the contours of. This subworld has its own time, its own weather, its own customs and morals.
What fascinated Balthus about the inner lives of children fascinated Davenport about Balthus. The private worlds rise up out of nowhere, and we often enter them without the help of a guide. Davenport concerns himself with the imagination because the imagination doesn’t impose itself, doesn’t create rules or categories, but intermingles with the world and, in the end, brings it to blossom.
In A Balthus Notebook (1989), a set of meditations on Balthus written over several years, Davenport introduces us to more than 150 different people—from Anacreon to Wyndham Lewis, Ivan Puni to Eudora Welty—a whole village in a few thousand words. Roughly thirty artworks and nearly as many pieces of writing also make the cut, along with twenty Greek and Roman gods. For Balthus, Davenport produces a pantheon, and this is where the artist diverges from the historian. The empirical history of art is less important than a picture of culture; Balthus sits within a world peopled mostly by those he never met.
Addressing the debates that swirled around Balthus’s paintings of children, particularly young girls—debates that have only intensified since—Davenport says: “The puritanical objections leveled at Balthus are fueled by prurience equating candor with misplaced desire.” The prurience, he suggests, may be our own: we impute to Balthus something that the paintings reveal about ourselves. Regardless of whether or not we agree, Davenport reminds us to check our gut response. These paintings may be more truthful than they are perverse, revealing the confusion of adolescence in all its awkward ambiguousness—and we are unable to look at them without feeling complicit in secrets we no longer want to know. “Art,” Davenport famously said “is the attention we pay to the wholeness of the world.” And elsewhere: “True imagination makes up nothing; it is a way of seeing the world.”
We won’t understand Balthus until we take in the wholeness of his world. Davenport conjures an inner life for him through characters and stories and anecdotes, creating not a biography but coordinates of experience and knowledge. The portrait he paints is mysterious and moving, aware of Balthus’s danger zones as well as his gifts. But more than that, Davenport gives us countless ways to see the artist, countless views of his work and the culture connected to it, without preference for any one.
Judgments are often simplifications of a strange world, filled with strangers we rarely try to know. To pass judgment might feel powerful because, for a moment, we bend the universe to our way of seeing, or to the ways we have been trained to see. But briefly brushing against fullness—that’s what wisdom feels like.
Lucas Zwirner is a writer, translator, and publisher.