I'm not, at heart - and certainly not in practice - a blogger, and I seem to be using this space almost entirely as some sort of commonplace book, but, increasingly, I find it's the blogs, and not the print media, that best serves my appetite for the literary essay or review that not only offers me new and different voices, but also reminds me of voices I have either forgotten or to which I have never sufficiently attended.
Wyatt Mason's latest entry in his intelligent and contentious blog, Weekend Read, was a thoughtful pointer to the work of essayist, Arthur Krystal, but a previous entry in July reminded me of how much I enjoyed and admired the essays of the late Guy Davenport. Mason's entry also reproduced the essay, 'Findings' from Davenport's The Geography of the Imagination.
“A difference of imagination”
By Wyatt Mason
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.
So begins one of the twentieth century’s most varied, diverting, probing and re-readable works of thought and prose, Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagation. First published in 1980 by Jack Shoemaker’s late great North Point Press, its forty essays on literature and art have provided a generation of writers and readers a continuing education on how to look, think, write, feel.
As Hugh Kenner wrote in the pages of this magazine, 28 years ago:
this review was scheduled when The Geography of the Imagination was announced, and it was not to be aborted by the discovery, when the review copy arrived, that the name on the book’s dedication page was my own. If having known a man for twenty-five years is to disqualify one from talking about his work, then our literary culture will have to be left to hermits.
It is telling of a culture in which the best of what we have is often drowned beneath waves of things much worse that Guy Davenport’s friends have so often felt duty-bound to argue for his uncommon and commonly underknown virtues. Erik Reece, the poet, essayist, activist and, soon, memoirist, wrote the epic and all but unknown study of Davenport the all but unknown painter, in A Balance of Quinces (New Directions). John Jeremiah Sullivan, the critic, essayist and memoirist, conducted an unusually sensitive and probing Paris Review interview with Davenport, in 2001. And, in these pages, I wrote about the last book Davenport published before his death, in 2005. All three of us were fortunate to befriend and be befriended by Davenport in the last part of his life, and have, in our different ways, seen it not as an act of friendship to Davenport but to readers that we might try to see that his work continue to find them.
To that end, as a 4th of July Weekend Read, I propose a personal essay of Davenport’s called “Finding,” from The Geography of the Imagination. For those who believe that memoir, as a form, has become little better than a huckster’s paradise, see in “Finding,” that no form is exhausted when cunningly designed to hide its intentions—in this case a primer on the quality of attention required for critical enterprise to succeed (posing as personal history). And, anyway, “Finding” fulfills the ancient requirements for any piece of writing: that it move, that it teach, that it delight.
With thanks to David R. Godine publishers, for permission to reprint.