Guy Davenport Essay - Critical Essays

Guy Davenport American Literature Analysis

The key to understanding the complex literary world of Davenport is his commitment to understanding and using the lessons of the past in both his stories and his literary criticism. In his seminal essay “The Symbol of the Archaic,” he most clearly articulates the need for humanity to save itself from the encroaching destructive effects of industrialization and mechanization by reawakening a passion for the “archaic,” a passion that manifests itself in “a longing for something lost, for energies, values, and certainties unwisely abandoned by an industrial age.”

Davenport’s project of reclaiming the ameliorating lessons of the past closely resembles similar efforts of other modernist writers such as Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Charles Olson, and visual artists such as Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, and Georges Braque. Davenport envisions these modernists as seriously trying to use the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, in particular, to heal the fragmentation in Western civilization resulting from the disastrous destructiveness of both World War I and World War II. Those wars, and the subsequent rise of fascism and communism that followed them, obliterated any remaining cohesive structures that had previously kept Western Europe unified. The artists and writers in whom Davenport is most interested are those who attempted to forge new literary and aesthetic methods and models to deal with and understand the fragmentation of the post-World War I era.

Davenport’s most persuasive and brilliant essays on various aspects of the loss of a spiritual center that is grounded in the archaic imagination can be found in a number of essays in both The Geography of the Imagination (1981) and Every Force Evolves a Form (1987). In many of these essays, his persistent theme is the damage that an overly mechanistic society inflicts upon the feeling life and imaginations of human beings who have been cut off from the healing energies of geographical, cultural, and spiritual origins.

Davenport used the same principles in formulating his uniquely compelling stories and novellas, which he collected in books beginning with Tatlin! in 1974. Few short-story collections have been so praised; most reviewers confessed that they had seen nothing remotely like these six stories, which are united around the common theme of flight, both physical and spiritual, from the life-denying energies of Stalinism and capitalist industrialization. Davenport called his highly individual use of collage “assemblages of history and necessary fiction,” a modernist method that juxtaposes images of the past with the present to demonstrate the emptiness and aesthetic and spiritual poverty of the modern age. He acknowledged that his stories, particularly in Tatlin!, “are lessons in history.”

Davenport also used the ideogrammatic techniques of poets Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and frequently combined them with the cinematic techniques of the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, replacing traditional narrative and documentary methods with images that form a structure of their own as they accumulate throughout the stories. Davenport clearly asserts his view of what distinguishes human beings from the animal and vegetable world: the imagination, which he further defines as “what mankind makes of things.” He explained thatMy theory of the imagination is this: that in the evolution of man this was the moment in which we became what we call human. That is, it’s an amazing ability to see something with your eyes closed. Which is what imagination is . . . a power of communication so high that I can’t think of humanity doing any better.

Concurrent with Davenport’s reverence for the creative power of the human imagination was his persistent use of the theme of the “Fall.” All of his stories throughout his six short-fiction collections could be said to treat, in one form or another, the consequences of humankind’s Fall from a preternatural condition of Edenic happiness and ignorance into experience, time, and knowledge. His fictions attempt, then, to regenerate, fictively, an Edenic innocence that has been destroyed by the dehumanizing powers of so-called civilization and the Western obsession with rationality.

Davenport’s second collection, Da Vinci’s Bicycle (1979), persuasively documents the ways in which people habitually marginalize, overlook, or ignore unique geniuses who are later discovered. He cites such figures as Leonardo da Vinci, the idiosyncratic Swiss poet and novelist Robert Walser, and Davenport’s greatest philosophical influence, the French Utopian sociologist and philosopher Charles Fourier, to whom he dedicated his fourth collection of stories, Apples and Pears, and Other Stories (1984). Indeed, the longest and most intricately structured story in Da Vinci’s Bicycle is “Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier” (at the tomb of Charles Fourier), which is an homage to the genius of Fourier as a visionary whose planned communities, such as Brook Farm, were tried in various parts of the United States but failed as a result of a lack of consistent and dedicated community support.

Davenport’s next collection, Eclogues (1981), moves back in time to compare ancient Greek stories, with special emphasis on the “pastoral” elements in the eclogues of Vergil, Theocritus, and Plutarch, to modern Edenic pastoral communities of a fictional Dutch philosopher, Adriaan van Hovendaal. Van Hovendaal continues his attempt to regenerate a Utopian community in the Netherlands, a project that he first began in the longest story in Tatlin!, “The Dawn in Erewhon.” Next to Fourier, Davenport’s most crucial intellectual and spiritual influence was Samuel Butler, the English Utopian novelist whose Erewhon (an 1872 satire on Victorian society the title of which is an anagram of “nowhere”) becomes the subtext for Davenport’s long story about the need for human beings to free themselves of sexual guilt and shame.

Apples and Pears, and Other Stories is considered by many critics to be Davenport’s most brilliant collection, especially the 233-page title novella which constitutes most of the book. Apples and Pears is a treatise organized along the lines of Fourier’s favorite four-part structure, which he used in his major work, Theórie des quatre...

(The entire section is 2629 words.)