Every Force Evolves a Form

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Looking at the economic forces in American life that have banished the supermarkets in Lexington, Kentucky, to a beltway, and the post office to the next county, Guy Davenport claims, “Every building in the United States is an offense to invested capital. It occupies space which, as greed acknowledges no limits, can be better utilized.” Davenport makes this remark at the start of “Making It Uglier to the Airport,” an essay review dealing with books about architecture, utopianism, the history of cities, and family identity in the twentieth century. The range of topics and Davenport’s willingness to make challenging assessments are typical of the twenty essays found in Every Force Evolves a Form, and so is his interest in the factors accounting for particular phenomena.

Davenport takes his title from a statement by Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers. Focusing chiefly on the work of painters, poets, and other writers associated with twentieth century modernism, he explores in one essay after another questions relating to the ways in which meaning arises from the achievement of aesthetic form. “A work of art,” he says, “is a form that articulates forces, making them intelligible.” In some instances, such as the essay in which he examines Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures on Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), Davenport deals with a scholar or critic intent on restoring for a contemporary reader the ideas shaping a particular text. In others, he focuses on the ideas themselves and traces their transformation through one or more creative minds, as he does with the notion of birds as daimons in poems by William Wordsworth, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Gerard Manley Hopkins in the essay giving the collection its title. Whatever the subject at hand, however, Davenport examines the ways in which ideas take shape for poet, scholar, or painter, tracing both the origins of the materials with which he works and the particular formulation he gives them in his work. This focus gives Every Force Evolves a Form both unity and persuasive power.

Davenport opens the collection with “The Champollion of Table Manners,” on the surface a review of The Origin of Table Manners: Introduction to a Science of Mythology, 3 (1978), by Claude Lévi-Strauss. He says it is an “ungivingly tedious book” but celebrates Lévi-Strauss’ skill, and influence, as an interpreter of culture.The primitive mind sees disorder in itself and enlists every discipline to keep from contaminating the world. We, says Lévi-Strauss, see all disorder outside ourselves, in the world and in other people; our anxiety is that they will contaminate us: botch our composure, snatch our opportunities, queer our luck.

Davenport’s statement is a key both to his analysis of Lévi-Strauss’ impact on the ways we look at our culture and to Davenport’s own reasons for exploring the ways in which creative minds work. He agrees with Lévi-Strauss in seeing structuralism, expecially in its application to the analysis of literary texts, as faddish. Nevertheless, his own work as scholar and critic betrays the influence of Lévi-Strauss, whose research lies behind so much literary criticism of a structuralist sort, as an interpreter who sees human behavior as central to the significance of any work of art.

The central behavior of the artist, Davenport suggests in “What Are Those Monkeys Doing?,” an essay dealing with French primitive artist Henri Rousseau, is a fusion of idea and form that transforms his materials into a self-referential artifact. “What he was after with all his work was a buzz of interest, talk, the generation of texts. Ironically, what we got was anecdotes (a good half of them suspect) about the man, not the work. We have a debt to pay Rousseau.” Davenport is alert to inaccurate scholarship, which in its simplest form is a failure to see the evidence on the page—in this case, the canvas. The Rousseau monkeys referred to in the essay’s title are not two, as credentialed commentators claim, but five; they are not tipping over a milk bottle in the foreground of the canvas, for the object is clearly a soda siphon; and they stare out of the painting, Davenport argues from details in the picture, at the European explorer who approaches to investigate what they are doing to his African campsite. Davenport points out ways in which certain Rousseau paintings reflect the sensibilities of fellow Frenchmen, the poet Arthur Rimbaud and the novelist Gustave Flaubert. All three, he suggests, see the world in similar ways, regardless of whether they are aware of common traditions.

Davenport sets out to find the traditions behind work by the American poet E. E. Cummings in “Transcendental Satyr” and by the Irish novelist James Joyce in “Ariadne’s Dancing Floor.” Both essays trace the ancestry of particular texts back to the Greeks, in the case of Cummings to the typography of the textbooks from which he studied the Greek language, and to the mythic labyrinth of the Minotaur in the case of Joyce. The sentimentality of Cummings and the difficulties readers have voicing his poems, Davenport suggests, derive as much as anything from his decision to make the poems look like fragments of Greek literature. The textual richness of Joyce’s fiction, on the other hand, here the Daedalian knots in books such as Ulysses...

(The entire section is 2207 words.)