Monday, February 22, 2010

The Renaissance of 1910: Perloff on Davenport

At Sibila, critic Marjorie Perloff reflects on the essays of Godine-favorite (or at least, one of my absolute personal favorites) Guy Davenport — particularly on his collection of forty essays, The Geography of the Imagination. Perloff writes, “Indeed, it is safe to say that the writing of commissioned book reviews was the basis of Davenport’s poetics and the impetus for his own literary / visual assemblages. In a curious way, it enlarged the very revolution of 1910 that Davenport took to be long over and irrecoverable — at least on its own terms. For in the end, Davenport was captivated by any number of writers, artists, and composers who were by no means among the revolutionaries of the avant guerre. I am thinking especially of Wittgenstein, whom Davenport wrote about briefly but brilliantly in The Geography of the Imagination. Wittgenstein figures in a number of essays as a kind of reinventor of Heraclitus, but Davenport’s most sustained consideration of Wittgenstein comes in a review of the philosopher’s note-card entries collected posthumously in 1967 under the title Zettel. The five-page “polite essay” called “Wittgenstein,” written for the National Review and reprinted in Geography, tries to convey the man’s particular presence:

“ ‘Philosophy classrooms in our century have frequently been as dramatic as stages: Santayana, Samuel Alexander, Bergson — men of passionate articulateness, whose lectures fell on their students like wind and rain. But Wittgenstein, huddled in silence on his chair, stammered quietly from time to time. He was committed to absolute honesty. Nothing — nothing at all — was to be allowed to escape analysis. He had nothing up his sleeve; he had nothing to teach. The world was to him an absolute puzzle, a great lump of opaque meaning of can, of can we, of can we think? What is the meaning of we? What does it mean to ask what is the meaning of swe? If we answer these questions on Monday, are the answers valid on Tuesday? If I answer them at all, do I think the answer, believe the answer, know the answer, or imagine the answer?’ (GI 332)

“If this tongue-in-cheek account seems casual and chatty, Davenport is in fact making the most careful of distinctions between the grammatical constructions Wittgenstein studied so assiduously. ‘Wittgenstein,’ we read in the essay’s last paragraph, ‘did not argue; he merely thought himself into subtler and deeper problems’ (GI 335). This might be an auto-portrait of Davenport himself.”

Read the rest of this fine essay at Sibila, and buy Davenport's classic Geography of the Imagination at the Godine website.

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