These the Companions displays an ambivalent attitude toward the past it is trying to recapture. Davie declares in the preface, with the protective self-deprecation that he uses throughout, that he is “presumptuous not for myself but on behalf of . . . the imagination.” His problem, however, is “to recollect in the imagination a past that all the same shall not be imaginary.” Davie repeatedly questions the accuracy or validity of his own memory. It is tempting to remember the slag heaps of his northern England home as ugly and blighting, but he doubts they ever appeared to him that way in his boyhood. Elsewhere he warns himself against rigging evidence in retrospect to support a present bias. On another occasion, he concedes that memory simply can lie.
Davie’s response to the problem, like that of many modern writers, is, in part, to embrace it. Memory cannot be separated from imagination. Eliot affirmed that not only does the past shape the present, but the present shapes our understanding of the past as well. So Davie concedes the power of the imagination to create a past which one can never fully verify. It is perhaps no accident that he begins the book by recounting not his boyhood directly, but a dream he had as an adult of a return to his boyhood home. In dream the imagination rules absolutely; in memory perhaps only somewhat less so.
A richly imaginative exercise of memory is one of the qualities Davie prizes most highly—and sees most in decline in contemporary society. He laments the almost complete lack of “the faculty of pious memory” in his philistine southwest England in-laws, and he wonders at what point England will have so little left of its cultural heritage that there will be no point in trying to rekindle it.
Davie laments the decline of this kind of imagination, which he also describes as a kind of “cherishing,” not only in England but indeed in modern culture as a whole. He contrasts it with more radical, apocalyptic views of the imagination which see it as inventing or remaking reality, a romantic outlook that goes against Davie’s neoclassical grain.
Davie’s view of the imagination is only one indication of his sense of being out of step with his age. He feels himself to be a citizen of a passing world, one where the written word was sovereign, where aesthetic and moral values intertwined, where great works of literature defined the cultural landscape. His mother had memorized most, if not all, of the most popular anthology of English literature of her time, and Davie sees this love of words in his home as having shaped him: “If I am so literary myself that I sometimes despair of breaking through a cocoon of words to a reality outside them, that is above all my mother’s doing. And I am grateful, mostly.” Characteristically, his memories of the Soviet Union during the war are woven through with the books with which he filled his young mind. While many distinguish between books and the so-called real world, Davie asserts that “reality is measured and underwritten . . . by the records of the imagination.”
Davie labels himself an anachronistic survivor of a literary civilization whose very idea is now widely ridiculed. Ironically, among its greatest enemies are current writers and critics. Davie is an unrepentant cultural conservative in an avant-garde, pluralistic age. The latter part of These the Companions particularly takes up arms against the contemporary deification of literary criticism and theory coupled with a slackening of poetic standards, the vulgarization of sex in literature, the loss of moral vision, and, particularly in England, the general antipathy (in the name of egalitarianism) to excellence.
Davie finds refuge from such foolishness in, among others, the great Russian writers of the past and present. He contrasts their ability to affirm life despite suffering (or because of it) with the sterile nay-saying of so many of his contemporaries. Davie’s own moral earnestness, his tendency toward didacticism in his poetry, draws him to the Russian expectation that writers should be teachers—even prophets—as well as witnesses. Alexander Pushkin, he saw, “was a conscience as well as a consciousness,” a combination that squares well with Davie’s boyhood Baptist understanding of “witness.”
A common thread in this autobiography is a sense of a lost center in modern life, one manifestation of which is lowered artistic standards and a dulled historical and ethical sense. Davie is aware that linking aesthetic, ethical, and social values together has been out of favor since the latter part of the nineteenth century. He is unapologetic about doing so, but at the same time aware that his own temperament and choices have their limitations as well.
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