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January 08, 2005

Davenport and Sontag

Francis Morrone writes

Dear Blowhards,

Susan Sontag's death occasioned an extraordinary outpouring of commentary. The death of Guy Davenport, on January 4, will inevitably receive much less notice. (Though Crooked Timber and Armavirumque both noted it.)

I wrote in this space only a few weeks ago, in a posting on the architecture critic Ian Nairn, of Sontag's famous essay "Against Interpretation." I liked that essay when I was a teenager, and I like it now. In fact, I have always liked Susan Sontag. That's not to say I did not find some of her political views pernicious. And it is not to say that I did not think her reputation to be wildly inflated at the expense of other essayists and critics who mined much the same terrain. Indeed, when I mentioned Sontag a few weeks ago, I noted that I much prefer Guy Davenport. When I wrote that, both Sontag and Davenport were still alive.

Now, for those of you who do not enjoy or do not care about such writing, you may not sense or care about the differences between Sontag and Davenport. You may not care for their kind of richly allusive kind of essay writing, in which they seem to flaunt their expensive educations at every turn. You may be offended that Sontag may presume you know the basics of Heidegger's philosophy, or that Davenport may presume you know how to read Greek. You may hate that they both believed in a high seriousness in which the reader bears as much responsibility for learning as the writer does for teaching.

First let me say that neither flaunted an expensive education. No matter what schools one attends, learning at Sontag's and especially Davenport's level is always a matter of autodidacticism. And for all the lip service many people give to the ideal of lifelong learning, they are made very uneasy in the presence of the profoundly self-taught, feeling it is a kind of moral rebuke to themselves. I've no doubt that for many people Davenport was nothing more than an intellectual wanker. Everyone is entitled to his opinion. What I don't understand is why some people have to run down writers they "don't get." Ignore them if they're not your cup of tea.

Davenport was, and is, very much my cup of tea. I know maybe a hundredth of what Davenport knew. But reading him always goaded me to know more. His wildly allusive style, almost Whitmanesque, long functioned for me much like the Internet--or perhaps like a "mind map." One snippet--a quotation, an aperçu, half an argument--would lead to another would lead to another, until the web seemed to comprehend some fabulous and elucidating and heretofore obscured strand of literary or art history. Davenport never sought to be definitive. Thank goodness for that. Definitive can be boring. And he seldom sought to convince. Again, thank goodness. He sought to probe, to entice, to illumine, to lead--to converse.

Sontag's work style as well as her literary style seemed very different from Davenport's. She published far less, and sculpted each of her essays to a kind of icy elegance, like an Avedon photograph. Nothing could be further from Davenport, whose interest in photography, incidentally, was as great as Sontag's, if less known. His last major accomplishment was co-curating, at New York's International Center of Photography, a retrospective of the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who was Davenport's friend. (Here is a good selection of Meatyard's photos.)

I can't help wondering how these writers' choices of residence affected or reflected their styles. Sontag was, as all the obits fondly point out, a quintessential Manhattanite. She did what people come to live in New York to do: Every night she dined out and went to plays and concerts. During the day she worked in her apartment with its book-lined walls. She spent enormous amounts of time on her essays. Virginia Postrel made an amusing posting in which she quoted this from the New York Times obit for Sontag:

She found the form an agony: a long essay took from nine months to a year to complete, often requiring 20 or more drafts.

"I've had thousands of pages for a 30-page essay," she said in a 1992 interview. " 'On Photography,' which is six essays, took five years. And I mean working every single day."

Postrel then asks:

How do you earn a living like that? The audience for intellectual essays is not big to begin with, and one book in five years, with no other career on the side, is hardly enough production to pay normal bills, let alone support a collection of 15,000 books and space to house them in Manhattan.

She then says to see Roger Kimball's very harsh assessment of Sontag's career for an answer. Here's what Kimball says:

Sontag excoriates American capitalism for its "runaway rate of productivity." But she has had no scruples about enjoying the fruits of that productivity: a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1964, a Merrill Foundation grant in 1965, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1966, etc., etc., culminating in 1990 with a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award.

Davenport was also a recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award. And when he got his, he quit his teaching position at the University of Kentucky, where he had taught from 1963 to 1990. But his lifestyle seems that it could not have been more different from Sontag's. From 1963, when he was 36, to his death, a period of 42 years, Davenport lived and wrote in Lexington, Kentucky. He never, to my knowledge, lived in New York. He was born in South Carolina, attended Duke, Oxford (where he studied Old English with J.R.R. Tolkien), and Harvard, and taught in St. Louis and Haverford before settling in Lexington.

He did share another thing in common with Sontag: Neither ever learned how to drive a car. But for a Manhattanite, that's no big deal. No one ever notices. For a Lexingtonite (Lexingtonian?), it's the stuff of high eccentricity. Some years ago in an essay in the Hudson Review Davenport wrote about a visit to the Lexington post office:

When I tried to renew my passport there a few years ago, a passport kept functional for thirty years, I was told that if I couldn't show a driver's license I couldn't renew my passport. (I will not spin out the Gogolian scene that ensued, though it featured my being told that I didn't deserve to live in this country, my pointing out that I could scarcely leave it without a passport, and on around in circles that left the art of Gogol for that of Ionesco, until I got the State Department on the phone, and had my new passport, together with an apology, in three days.) The point of the anecdote is that the pedestrian is officially a second-rate citizen and definitely an obsolete species.

Sontag was the Avedon of critical essayists. I don't know if Davenport was exactly the Meatyard of essayists--though both Walker Evans and Cartier-Bresson come to mind. Sontag the Manhattanite could not, and did not wish to, extricate herself from the world of fashion. Her politics certainly were fashionable. What of Davenport's politics? Hard to pin down--which is the best kind of politics. I think at heart he was a kind of old conservative, like his fellow Kentuckian and friend Wendell Berry. Little known even among Davenport fans is that he was a frequent contributor from 1961 to 1973 to National Review, to which he contributed some 200 pieces (including obituaries for Tolkien and Thomas Merton, both of whom he knew personally). (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's New York Times obit for Davenport manages to elide the National Review years altogether.) Davenport then concluded his career as a regular contributor to The New Criterion. (Davenport's great friend Hugh Kenner, an outspoken right-winger, also wrote for National Review. Go here to read Davenport's moving obituary for Kenner, in the January 2004 New Criterion.)

One of my favorite Davenport pieces, and one that emblematizes his work at its best, was a review he wrote in the November 1987 New Criterion (alas, not online). The book under review was On Reading Ruskin, a Yale University Press book containing Marcel Proust's prefaces and notes to Ruskin's The Bible at Amiens and Sesame and Lilies. In the space of a brief review, Davenport managed to work in references to Flaubert, Joyce, Pissarro, Courbet, Les très riches heures, Gothic cathedrals, Turner, Giotto, Santayana, Bergson, Montaigne (Proust "is a rival of Montaigne as a humanist scholar"), Raymond Roussel, Fourier, Blake, Wordsworth, Philipp Otto Runge, Francis Jammes, Whistler, Henry James, Boudin, César Franck, Fantin-Latour, Vermeer, Haussmann, Art Nouveau, the culte des jeunes filles, the meaning of snob, and probably a bunch of things I'm not remembering. Now, just to say this evokes a kind of unseemly flash intellectualism. Yet it does not read in that way at all: Each and every allusion relates to and illuminates others, setting off fireworks in the mind. I love that review because I got a two-year-long intellectual journey out of Davenport's description of what happens when you rub Ruskin up against Proust. (Favorite line: "Ruskin's books are all like provincial museums with a long-winded guide." One short sentence explained to me exactly why I like reading Ruskin so much!)

Davenport wrote: "Ruskin once began an Oxford lecture on Michelangelo, slid into a digression on shoes, then into one on the feet of little girls, and then into little girls altogether. In Fors [Clavigera] he was capable of moving from the Elgin marbles to plum pudding." A former student of Davenport's writes, in a charming remembrance in the Lexington Herald-Leader, of taking a writing course from Davenport. Davenport would sometimes read aloud from students' essays.

As he read, though, he also would encounter individual words that caught his interest. A student might have mentioned that she'd bought a bar of soap at Kroger. Davenport would stop in mid-sentence and launch into a 10-minute soliloquy on the significance of soap: its origins in the ancient world, how rarely various kings and queens of English history bathed, when the habit of daily baths caught on, the changes in soap's ingredients over the centuries. Then, seamlessly, he'd resume reading.

In reference to Ruskin and Proust, Davenport called this "Gothic generosity."

Here are Davenport's books at Amazon. Don't ignore the fiction, which is wonderful. For the essays, my favorite collection is The Geography of the Imagination. The painter Balthus isn't everyone's thing, but Davenport's Balthus Notebook, which is close to being a book of aphorisms, is wonderful. (And at 1,178,522 on the Amazon bestseller list, the book isn't apparently Davenport's best known.)

Back to Sontag for a quick moment. Michael, I know you're a big admirer of Pauline Kael. Have you ever looked at this book by Craig Seligman, comparing Sontag and Kael? I've been tempted to pick it up.

A bit of University of Chicago lore has it that as undergrads Susan Sontag, Mike Nichols, and Edward Asner appeared together in a production of Antigone.

Back to Davenport for a quick moment. I feel bereft knowing I have no new Davenport essays or stories to look forward to.

posted by Francis at January 8, 2005


I've also found interesting Guy Davenport's drawings in some of his own books (e.g. _Da Vinci's Bicycle: Ten Stories_) and in books by others (e.g. Hugh Kenner's _The Counterfeiters: an Historical Comedy_).

In _The Balance of Quinces: the Paintings and Drawings of Guy Davenport_, Erik Anderson Reece says (as quoted by a reviewer) that "Guy Davenport's paintings and drawings are a continuation in another medium of his prose." ( (I've never seen this book. Francis, have you?)

Here's an example:

Posted by: Dave Lull on January 9, 2005 11:39 AM

Davenport duly Amazoned. That's what we come to 2B 4.

Posted by: Van der Leun on January 9, 2005 2:28 PM

This is the first time I have placed a comment here, though I've been a fan for several months. I discovered Davenport in college in the early eighties and he immediately became one of my favorites. He was a generalist god, a breath of fresh air in a age of specialization. His mind soaked up knowledge (and better:facts that lead to 'Ah!) faster than my oatmeal soaked up its milk this morning. But my breakfast tastes very cold this morning and I am very sad.

Posted by: Maqroll on January 10, 2005 9:34 AM

Re.: "A bit of University of Chicago lore has it that as undergrads Susan Sontag, Mike Nichols, and Edward Asner appeared together in a production of Antigone."
Fascinating. Both Mike Nichols & Ed Asner were involved with Second City Comedy (originally Chicago's Compass Players). Wonder if Sontag dropped by? Being a U of Chicago Philosphy grad, maybe she discussed life issues with Dave Thomas, another Philosophy grad. Was she at a fork in the road? Comedy/Performance? Esssayist? Was she just not funny enough to stick with Second City? A shame. Belushi & Sontag. Now, THAT would've been a comedy duo.

Posted by: DarkoV on January 10, 2005 11:28 AM

A wonderful essay, Francis. Guy Davenport seems to me far preferable to Susan Sontag, but you have made a strong case for her.

I am the writer of numerous drafts of short essays myself, and the tireless researcher of short book reviews. Accordingly, I am fascinated, as though by the sight of a pile of dead bodies--to borrow from Plato's Republic--by the ratio of Sontag's literary effort to her literary output. Geniuses are supposed to be generally more productive than other people. Of course, productivity is not enough. Barbara Taylor Bradford, to name one example, is also productive. Do you know of any general study of quantity vs. quantity of artistic output? I hope you are well.

All the best,


Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher on January 10, 2005 5:35 PM

Davenport Readers may want to know that between May, 2003 and July, 2004, he worked with The Finial Press on a limited edition:

WO ES WAR, SOLL ICH WERDEN, the restored original text.


Davenport said that this novella was "my best shot in fiction." The Finial Press edition is 35% longer than the previously-published text, restoring cuts made by the author in 1990.

Posted by: David Eisenman on January 11, 2005 4:24 AM

Davenport's politics are not the most interesting thing about him by a long shot (his prose is what we should focus on). But since politics has been raised it should be noted that Davenport was both very conservative and very radical at the same time: in that sense the comparison with his friend Wendell Berry is spot on. But Davenport's relationship with National Review (and what passes for conservatism in the United States) was complicated. Mainstream "conservatives" (who are in fact right-wing radical nationalists) love technology, corporate capitalism, and militarism -- all things that Davenport was skeptical of. Long ago in the late 1970s Davenport was interviewed by a magazine called VORT. The interviewer asked him about his connections to NR.

Vort: Did you feel comfortable within the confines of National Review?

Davenport: Never.

Vort: Why?

Davenport: I didn't like their politics. But Bill Buckley is a gentleman, and my immediate editor, Frank Meyer, was a splendid intellectual, a gentleman, and eventually a stimulating friend.

Vort: how did you begin your relationship with that magazine?

Davenport: Hugh Kenner is a friend of Bill Buckley. And Hugh Kenner is a friend of mine. Idon't know for a fact, but I suspect Hugh said that I should be reviewing for National Review. Buckley signalled Frank Meyer,Frank Meyer called me up.

Posted by: Jeet on January 17, 2005 6:12 PM

Thanks for the great piece and the great comments. I'm a political lefty who loved Davenport and wasn't much taken with Sontag, though I read a bunch of her essays, once upon a time -- now they strike me as unattractively cooled-down Barthes, at their best. Davenport -- Kenner too -- their prose sparkles with the splendors of life and culture. Sad that Davenport died.

Posted by: John S on January 20, 2005 3:36 AM

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