Saturday, 27 September 2008


Guy Davenport, who along with Tony Nuttall has shaped one of my conceptions of what an intellectual should be like, includes a number of delightful aperçus, apophthegmata and observations in his various volumes of criticism. Several of these jottings occupy an ambiguous ground between fiction, poetry and condensed critical writing: each one of them might be the kernel around which one could crystallise a short-story or poem.

Here a a collection of ones which I particularly liked. It includes Davenport's own thoughtful agraphon, literally 'an unwritten thing', denoting a saying or tradition about Christ not recorded in the Gospels. (A particularly beautiful poem in this tradition was written by the Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos in 1941, and has been set to music by John Tavener.)

* * *

From G. Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus, and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington, 1996).

Greek time is in the eye, anxious about transitions (beard, loss of boyish beauty). Hebrew time is in the ear (Hear, O Israel!). What the Greek gods say does not make a body of quotations; they give no laws, no wisdom. But what they look like is of great and constant importance. Yahweh, invisible, is utterly different.

Being ought to have a ground (the earth under our feet) and a source. It seems to have neither. The Big Bang theory is science fiction. It may be that the expanding universe is an illusion born in physics labs in Paris, Copenhagen, and Berkeley. It is all too eerily like Genesis (being in a millisecond) and other creation myths. It is partly medieval, partly Jules Verne. From a human point of view, it has no philosophical or ethical content. It is, as a vision, a devastation, an apocalypse at the wrong end of time. It is a drama in which matter and energy usurp roles that once belonged to gods and angels. It is without life: brutally mechanical. It is without even the seeds of life, or the likelihood.

Je ne veux pas mourir idiot. French student demanding that Greek be put back in the curriculum.

Danish, like Dutch, is English unmarried to French.

Athens (which could not tolerate Socrates) and Jerusalem (which could not tolerate Jesus) come down in history as the poles of the ancient world (for Proust, Arnold, Joyce, Zukofsky). If these two long traditions have fused, they have no genetic line. Judaism is closed, is itself exclusively; Athens is diffused and lost.

In Kafka other people are too close and God is too far off.

Where it was, there must you begin to be. There are no depths, only distances. Memory shuffles, scans, forages. Freud's geological model implies that last year is deeper in memory than last week, which we all know to be untrue. The memories we value are those we have given the quality of dream and narrative, and which we may have invented.

Freudian analysis turned out to be insensitive to the very values that give art its identity, as deconstruction is a hostile cross-examination of a helpless witness.

The emptier a room the smaller it seems. This is true of minds as well.

Country as the satiric unit: Coconino, Bloom, Yoknapatawpha, Raintree, Tolkien's shire, 'the provinces'.
Tragedy: house, castle, room.
Romance: sea and open country.
Comedy: city.

Samuel Palmer. Moss sopped in gold clotted on the thatch of a roof. Mr. Christian trudging by.

The white frost that made the fire feel so good, and the quilt so comfortable, had also reddened the maples and mellowed the persimmons. Cloth shoes stink by the fire. Foxes bark in the deep of the wind.

Hemmingway's prose is like an animal talking. But what animal?

Forty finches in the thistles, in the high summer of time.
  The road, always the road, through groves of olives, through fields yellow with wheat. Figs, melons.
  Their walking made the silence creak. Flap of sandals. Thomas, the twin, talking.
  - Rabbi, this tearing off of the foreskin, is it right?
  Yeshua's answers were always quick, as if he knew what you were going to say. He looked at something else while you were talking, a woman with a jug of water balanced on her shoulder, a sparrow hawk circling, cows in a wadi, and at you when he answered.
  - If the Everlasting had wanted us to have no foreskin, we would be born without one. Nothing should be shorn that does not grow back.
  Thomas looking around Yeshua's hat to study his eyes in the brim's shadow.
  Yeshua's smiling irony.
  - If our bodies were designed by the Everlasting for our souls, what a wonder!
  Yeshua talking, talking with the sweet patience of the fellowship, to Thomas and Simon and John, and to someone else also. They had remarked on this among themselves, that their company sometimes included an unseen other.
  - But if our souls are created for the body's sake, that would be the wonder of wonders. The Egyptians elongate the infant's skull while it is still soft, and there are people you know nothing about who bind their women's feet and picture their skins all over with needles and ink, and file their teeth to a point. Only the subtle Greeks, whose Heraclitus could parse the grammar of creation and whose Pythagoras discovered the harmony of numbers, leave the healthy body intact, as it was created.
  A stonechat dipped and sailed sideways. Yeshua put out his hand and the stonechat came and sat on it, head cocked.
  Yeshua speaking to the stonechat, in its Latin.
  - Is the flesh then good? Thomas asked.
  - Is there, Yeshua asked, perhaps of the stonechat, perhaps of Thomas, Simon, or John, any other way of being? The Everlasting's work is all one creation. Are we to say of the one creation there is that it is nasty?
  Thomas looking at his fingernails, Simon at his feet.

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