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Friday, July 01, 2005

Het nieuve wereldbeeld: the Magical World of Guy Davenport.

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Castor and Pollux walking naked, side by side, past Kafka; Emerson, gone blind and lame, seeking health hoeing vegetables at a Protestant yeshiva; Levy-Bruhl and Pastor Leenhardt out for a daily walk while nearby it is decided that boys smell like oranges, girls like lemons. This is the stuff of which proses are made: the proses of Guy Davenport, anyway.

Nearly thirty years (and nine volumes) ago, a new idea in prose arrived and a new character who lives in a way which thrills the reader:

The Dutch philosopher Adriaan Floris van Hovendaal was arranging the objects on his table, a pinecone to remind him of Fibonacci, a snail's shell to remind him of Ruskin, a drachma to remind him of Crete.

He inhabits a new Erewhon at once both real and imagined. It is a Holland through which he and myriads of perfect children go discovering themselves and the strange and wonderful world into which they have been thrust.

For thirty years they will weave in and out of a dozen stories. They will have various names and always be wrestling or tenting or biking or reading Lucretius or peeling off their clothing to admire themselves and each other.

In between, various adults, themselves as remarkable as Kafka, Gertrude Stein, Maman, and Uncle
Jaques, live with us for a few precious pages. The details are unfailingly perfect.

The author is also his own renowned illustrator and boundaries are freely crossed. As in an illustration, nouns -- the things themselves (in a way that Stevens and Williams could hardly have imagined) -- are their own adjectives. The perfect details referred to correspond to the figures in a drawing for this most visual of authors.

There is an underlying grammar of objects. Here the most expressive adjectives are names.

The artist's studio, declared van Hovendaal, nearly thirty years ago, "is the philosopher's room with images." As for the philosopher's room, "It is the Pythagorean room, a box containing a man who is a mind." In it inevitably exist a table and chair; and these describe that mind, are reverberating adjectives. Table modifies the noun "mind". Chair modifies "mind".

In "The Dawn in Erewhon," (Tatlin. Scribners, 1974.) he built his work-table himself: an adjective describing attention to his materials. He built all of his furniture himself in De Stijl. Later, in the same story, he recalls the summer he used an old kitchen table for his work-table: resourcefulness and succeeding with whatever materials are at hand, youth, a beginning.

In the volume presently before us, "his nifty swivel Danish reading chair with matching footstool," is, in its entirety, a single adjective modifying the noun "Marc". This single adjective is not to be mistaken for the additive sum of the adjectives nifty, Danish, reading, matching: none of which is particularly descriptive. Its whole is vastly greater than its parts.

Throughout the stories, the setting will be France, at times, rather than Holland, with a strange and perfect reasoning. Either is just foreign enough to have a smidgin of Erewhon tucked away in some corner.

The children will inhabit phalansteries from out of the child-like genius of Charles Fourier. Perched atop quaggas they will gyre and gimbel through meadow and wabe.

In the title story of The Cardiff Team again it is France. Fourier's landscape is no longer to be seen although he and Kropotkin make a cameo appearance. There has been an evolution, these thirty years, and every meadow now -- the common as well as the imagined - is magical.

Common is a frame of mind. Erewhon is a frame of mind.

The two grand idealists are rubbing "their hands with approval" to have heard a deceptively simple observation: "Knowing how to live involves finding out." The children are on their way, by train, to a country house of which they have been given free use.

Of course, it is all quite impossible: let's be clear about that. Like Escher's Waterfall every detail is perfect. Davenport, too, is a consummate realist. There is nothing out of place yet the final picture clearly begs experience.

The analogy with Escher is not the author's own but is appropriate nevertheless. In his introduction to The Infinite World of M. C. Escher (Abrams, 1984), J. L. Locher (then curator of the Modern Art Department at the Gemeentemuseum), writes:

This new concept of reality is not present in traditional representation of landscapes, still lifes, or portraits. And although it occurs in movements such as Cubism, De Stijl, Dadaism, Surrealism, and the recent continuations of these currents, their visual language is readable only for a small number of specialists.

Escher's work lends itself to narrative. Davenport's grammar of objects is narrative. It is striking how apt is Locher's observation applied to the latter as well as the former.

It is the touch that generally is missed in exegeses of the Waterfall that may be missed in these proses. In Escher's print a woman peacefully hangs out clothes. A man stares wistfully into the terraced hills. In the land of perpetual watermills there is no petulance, no angst.

The point is almost certainly still missed. There is no imaginable causal relationship by which endless water-power effects peace. There is rather an analogy: the peace we see is as impossible as the watermill and for much the same reason.

Monsieur Marc Bordeaux and Penny, Walt's mother, "read books together and make notes and discuss things." Mark types things up for her, and fetches books, and looks things up in libraries. Toward the end of the afternoon they fuck. We are informed of this by Walt's friend, Sam. The two attend Marc's seminar for twelve year old geniuses.

Marc, of course, is a latter-day Adriaan van Hovendaal. In place of van Hovendaal's old orange and brown Rietveld chair we find the "nifty swivel Danish reading chair". Both characters inhabit a world of long, rectangular worktables, piled with books and bric-a-brac freighted with private symbolism: a world of touring bikes, denim shorts and bunched white woolen socks. Both run barefoot through the mist of the early mornings.

Adriaan's very sixties-ish Kaatje has become Penny: ten or so years older, single mother, professional, more an equal intellectual partner. Whereas Kaatje was once "for fun," now Marc is.

There is not a Puritan molecule in this perpetual universe that isn't instantly and gloriously made at least curious. The entire extent of materialism is limited to worktables, swivel-chairs, bicycles and books, as perfectly proportional and uncluttered as the geometric shapes which they describe in their various settings.

As Escher's aqueduct rises its sides are stepped down. Without this unobtrusive touch the direction water-flow he needs would be patently impossible: the illusion would be broken. It seeks to appear just another detail among details by being in-and-of-itself quite in line with reality.

This, of course, can only be accomplished on paper. Otherwise there would be no illusion and reality would be quite a different thing.

At the beginning of The Cardiff Team we find a quote which could easily be from the journals of Thoreau:

If it happens that nature, when we get up one morning and start our day, hands us exactly what we were in a mind to do, our praise comes readily, and the world looks like a meadow in the first week of creation, green, fresh, and rich in flowers.

From the first, then, we are at the border between the quotidian and the magical: standing, as it were, before the looking-glass.

Next, an apparently adult narrator sets the scene: "Walt and Sam both twelve...". Sam speaks. The tones are surprisingly adult, only slowly modulating until key words (parents, papa, Maman) and phrases make clear that this is an unusually developed child.

In section 3, Les Galles, enter Penny and Marc. Minus their own key words and phrases, the conversation would be identical in tone and style to that of Walt and Sam who will soon be explained to be geniuses thus putting the whole matter right. All they lack is a regular reference to Maman in order themselves to be unusually developed children. Or rather, all Walt and Sam need lose is the reference in order themselves to be unusually liberated adults.

Our narrator most often reads like stage direction: a few brief lines of description. From time to time he will fill in missing information in lieu of tiresome footnotes. He is a dedicated minimalist and will only rarely consent to perform more than these functions. The result is a remarkable lightness.

As in Escher, then, each detail is perfectly realistic looked at from its immediate perspective. Sam will say "tomcatting" while a precocious genius struggling to understand a swatch of Horace, liber quartus, carmen primum, and "Do you even like us?" when he is a refreshingly direct and very twelve year old boy. Should the innocent reader turn directly to the country excursion, which closes the story, Marc and Penny, liberated from the least need to mold and direct (that is to say, from their own key words and phrases), are no longer distinguishable as adults.

Like an early Cubist painting (or Delaunay's painting, The Cardiff Team), each individual detail is realistically portrayed from its intentionally cropped perspective while the canvas as a whole is shot through with cleverly manipulated discontinuities. As with an Escher support column, an upper capital will prove to support a lower level of the aqueduct, while its associated base stands upon a relative upper level.

Walt and Sam are geniuses, after all, by Sam's own description. Once the two are over suspicions about their new comrade, Cyril, he, too, is a genius. Given the opportunity, all children are geniuses.

If we are not to read this twelve year old perspective as the source, also, of Marc and Penny's perpetual equanimity, then we must assume that the evolution of the stories, early to late, is partial, flawed. Even the rare academic -- progeny of Da Vinci, Socrates, Archytas, Pausanias, Tatlin, Stein, et alii (all the heroes, that is, of Davenport's pantheon) -- for who finding out about things has become life's breath, and who has been fortunate enough to get a living by it, has his or her petulant moments and days. Even the personal development, and life-long sense of wonder, which these stories suggest goes hand-in-hand, fall short of being an explanation.

Returning, then, to Sam's description of how the bills are paid, we find a twelve year old's perspective all but stripped of key words and phrases which were supposed to let the reader know that he may not be entirely precocious on the topic in question. No omniscient narrator chooses to put the reader right in the matter however much convention may seem to require it. In fact, our taciturn narrator seems only (and only seems) too pleased to turn over his traditional duties willy-nilly to whomever will have them.

To fail to address the matter at all could only have drawn attention to a glaring lacuna. Therefore the capital (as it were), which holds the description up, is placed just enough in shadow to avoid close inspection.

Sam's mother is a painter of huge canvasses. Penny "writes about painting and philosophy and whichwhat." Marc is Penny's assistant, sort of.

The description has all the nonchalance and the vague exactitude of a conversation between brilliant twelve year olds. In this unobtrusive, and, in-and-of-itself, perfectly realistic way, Davenport's water flows uphill. Twelve year olds -- apparently even brilliant ones -- are blissfully unaware that writers about painting and philosophy can not pay the bills much less take on research assistants, chance adding another mouth to feed, buy spiffy swivel-chairs, etc. Thus for a magical time, in an angular and well-lit little corner of Vicennes, all of this is possible.

Every bit as much as in a lithograph there are commonly agreed upon literary conventions which transform perspective onto paper. Both Escher and Davenport delight in appearing to have obeyed those conventions while subtly manipulating them to arrive at unconventional outcomes. They delight in a range of eminently realistic illusion.

And, as in Escher, we also find, intermingled among these illusions, a series of portraits (of Kafka, Santayana, of Levy-Bruhl and Leenhardt as they wander through story after story), which, however much they too are magical, perfectly obey the conventions. The columns of Escher's Chiostro di Monreale are, upon the closest inspection, in all ways sound - and, in-and-of-themselves, in no way more so than the columns of the Waterfall. In "Dinner at the Bank of England", Santayana is a professor at Harvard without a hint of petulance or of work. No business is transacted at the bank (or thought of). Nonetheless, there is not a loose thread to be found.

Mondriaan, who frequently is mentioned in this Erewhon, declared, while writing in the midst of a rhombiod apartment (the details of which we are reminded in every philosopher's room here), that De Stijl sought a new spiritual nature for modern man. Het nieuve wereldbeeld: the new world image.

All was square and rectangular and primary colors (until revisionists added diagonals): geometric and proportional. The reader may go to a decent library to see photographs of the furniture Rietveld designed from out of all of that.

De Stijl, of course, is now a thing of the past. In the story, "The Table," from the present work, in which Adriaan van Hovendaal himself briefly appears, to remind us that what we have before us is still the result of his Het Erewhonish Schetsboek, the table is mentioned once, in passing. It is round.

Fourier's citizen (child and adult) is as unabashed about the senses as were the ancient Greeks:

Walt and Sam turned to each other, embraced and kissed.
- It's a game, Marc said to Cyril. To make Americans nervous.

In this Erewhon it is generally far less self-conscious than this swatch from the perspective of Guy-Davenport-as-Marc with a grin and a wink.

Boys inevitably being boys are allowed their own head in these matters -- even encouraged. Upon reaching puberty, Sam will turn into a girl and we will be left to wonder just what all the fuss was about.

In Samuel Butler's original Erewhon, written now over one hundred years ago, a private automobile (Davenport, by-the-by, does not drive) would have been a breach worthy of the death penalty. "Man's very soul is due to the machines," wrote one of its eminent philosophers, is a machine made thing: he thinks as he thinks, and feels as he feels, through the work that machines have wrought upon him...

Machine modifies "mind". We hardly notice anymore.

After thirty years, Davenport's Erewhon has become more and more closely pressed upon by automobiles. Trains and more had been quite welcome in their proper place there from the first. Marc's chair undoubtedly was made at a factory. The Eiffel Tower and a giant Ferris-wheel loom triumphant in the background.

"In their proper place," is the operative phrase. One could make a list, on a Post-It note, of the machines which are recognized there: stove, refrigerator, train, phonograph -- only a few others.

Television-sets still do not exist there. But they are everywhere else, like the world closing in around the last of Erewhon in a tiny corner of Vincennes. The meadows of reality and imagination (the author's previous book of proses is entitled, A Table of Green Fields) are ghostly now: abandoned to phalanxes of fairy children, and a few more corporeal, but no less impossible, souls.

"Walt and Sam,"says someone who sounds suspiciously like the author having stepped into his own story, to have the final word,

....have not yet found the country they want to be citizens of. You and I, Cyril, are immigrants in the imaginary country Penny and Daisy founded, with a population of four.
- Bee's getting pubic hair, which she is proud of, and breasts, which are beautiful. She's out of Maillol's Georgics. I think I am walking around in a dream.
- No, only a poem. Or a Balthus painting. There are forty-two wars raging right now, never mind the private unhappiness everywhere, pain, disease, and hatred. We are here in this meadow. Even it has no reality we can know other than how our imagination perceives it.

In the worlds of Escher and Davenport there seems every reason to believe and so little reason not to. Illusion is tantalizingly close to reality in both. In The Cardiff Team, as in the entire story sequence which it culminates, the possibility is everything.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy’s work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine (Australia); Poetry International (San Diego State University); Grand Street; the Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Pedestal Magazine; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); Orbis (UK), and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. His work in journalism has been cited by MSNBC, Newsweek, and Americas.Org. His Hyperlinked Online Bibliography is now also hosted at BlogSpot. This essay first appeared in the online journal Elimae.

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