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Editorial from PN Review 162

Editorial from PN Review 162
Death has been working overtime in American letters this last two months. On 4 January in Lexington, Kentucky, it took Guy Davenport, greatest of the "eccentric" American critics, a classicist, a poet, a writer of vivid, often erotic fiction, a graphic artist, a man whose vision of the world was informed by a modernism pure and clear as new ice. He was seventy seven years old. Here he is, evoked in his own version of Alkman:

He was neither a peasant
Nor awkward with fine folk,
Neither born in Thessaly
Nor a shepherd of Erysikhe,
But from Sardis the high.

His death was not much noticed in the British press. His greatest book of essays, The Geography of the Imagination, once published here by Picador, is now available second hand or as an import. Thasos and Ohio, his selected poems and translations, with its dedication to Christopher Middleton (who, with George Steiner, first introduced me to his writing) has sold very slowly for twenty years.

As critic, translator and poet his focus was always on his medium, and his subject. There is not a shred of vanity in his writing, no "advertising"; his essays and poems become instances of their subject, the forms adroitly chosen and fulfilled, with an expertise that is impassioned, as in Landor or in Poe. He is unfashionable because his approach seems to us oblique, he is not "in his art" in a way that makes him susceptible to the speculative gossip which can deflect true reading. For the artist, distance gives a purchase on a subject, distance (we might call it "form" or "time") that makes it possible for the subject in its wholeness to come into proximity with the reader.

Davenport looked like an academic. Well, he was (by accident, he said) an academic, and of a rare kind, who did not play modern academic games. Born in South Carolina, he studied art and then majored in Classics, went to Merton College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar, and wrote the first thesis on Joyce to be accepted by the university. Back in America, he met Pound, took a PhD at Harvard where his thesis was on the Cantos, and went to teach in Kentucky in 1963. He stayed there, where he could get a purchase on the whole world. A one-time student paid him this tribute, "Nature loves to hide, the professor said over and over, reminding us of Heraclitus. To be interested in any one thing will lead one eventually to be interested in many things." That interest develops an impetus and a logic of its own.

Just over a week before Davenport, Susan Sontag died (December 27). She was seventy one and had been fighting cancer for some thirty years: Illness as Metaphor (1978) was written near the beginning of her long struggle. She has not lacked for an audience in Britain: an intellectual celebrity, she appeared in films by Warhol and by Woody Allen. She was a familiar television presence, the limelight seemed to suit her, though it also over time stiffened some of her views, made her occasionally a little pompous. Sontag the writer, especially the essayist, remains a potent force. "In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art," she wrote, and her endeavour was to counteract that "revenge". Davenport blurred the lines of the essay by bringing a weight of scholarship and a risky instinct for making connections into play, by reading beyond sanctioned disciplines and against the currents of fashion. Sontag too re-invented the essay, disrespecting the boundaries between "popular" and "high" culture, opening the sealed tin of Camp, insisting on appropriate register and technique, on language being answerable not only morally but stylistically. The best art responded both to aesthetic and to ethical imperatives. The book which most affected my generation of readers appeared in 1966, Against Interpretation. In the title essay she declared,

The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs "behind" the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one. The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation.

There was a clarity, sharpened by a kind of anger, which was infectious; even when she occasioned disagreement she clarified issues. Her advocacies, of Walter Benjamin, of Robert Walser, of Barthes and Sartre and the writers of Eastern Europe, always judicious (though increasingly suasive and rhetorical as the years passed and she became a little sacred to herself) meant that she was the other side of the Davenport coin: he mined the past, she the present and the future. And yet the effect of their critical writing is complementary. Carlos Fuentes said, "I know of no other intellectual who is so clear-minded, with a capacity to link, to connect, to create" as Susan Sontag. That other intellectual might have been Guy Davenport. Though he is different in kind, he should not be less visible to his fellow intellectuals simply because he was less public.

"What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art," Sontag says. Here she and Davenport make common cause, though their cultures are remote from one another. A perennial surprise of American writing is how different kinds and degrees of intellectual and emotional integrity coexist, engaging in dialogue and finding areas of unattenuated, uncompromised concord. When, at the end of "Against Interpretation", Sontag declares, "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art," she might be thought to be licensing the fiction of Davenport, and his essays - though he was a writer who issued his own licence for everything he did.

And today, 12 February, the death of Arthur Miller is announced. He was old - eighty nine - but that makes his death no less saddening, because in the last long interview he gave to Channel Four he was so vigorously alive, bouncing off a diving board into a lake, revisiting the cabin where he wrote his early plays, alive in an American autumn that I had somehow allowed myself to imagine would go on for ever. His death takes so much with it. His life story is familiar, like the century he helped to interpret in his plays. He is not so remote from Davenport in his love of the classics, or from Sontag in his frustrated hope for the present. Interviewed about the making of the film of The Crucible, Nicolas Hytner recalled how willingly Miller deconstructed the play in order to make it into the film script, and how the structure of the play revealed itself to him in all its classical clarity as they took it apart. He was in the presence of a very ancient art and a very modern artist.

-- Michael Schmidt (10/08/2005)

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