IF I HAD EVER gone off to a war, Old Style, I might have stuck in my knapsack Herbert Read's A Coat of Many Colors, a favorite book of essays without scheme or theme, but rich, centrifugal, and full of unconnected echoes. It is the sort of book which publishers resist, which stands or falls by the charm, virtuosity, and good luck of its author, who alone is what the essays have in common. Yet such a book, imposing no order on experience save that of good English written more for money than for love, restores us to what E.M. Forster called "the fertile muddle" of everyday, in which to live is to be blurred, to read is to hide from the raw phenomenon that is king.
So with Guy Davenport's The Geography of the Imagination. If you tackle this clutch of essays in the order printed, you meet first a pensive title piece which was the Distinguished Professor Lecture at the University of Kentucky for 1978; but if you dip about you find near the end the engaging fact that Davenport, as a child, took his Sunday portion of roast beef, macaroni pie, and peach cobbler, but now gets by on fried baloney, Campbell's soup, and Snickers bars--whereas what he festively dines on are books, chaps, and even maps. These 40 courses are a sample of the Belshazzar's feast that goes on in his head.
Classicist, polymath, wit, don, and raconteur, Davenport might have called his book "Tales of Mastery and Imagination," for he truly divines and honors the literate mastery (as he sees it) of Whitman, Melville, Marianne Moore, Olson, Pound, Welty and Zukofsky, and he vindicates them with trenchant critical scrutinies. But he likes the tales as well, the trivia, the glimpses, and he likes to trot them out without warning. The geography he implies is an eclectic one (a geography), like a North America with nothing to its south, say, and what intrigues him about the map of it is how things touch one another or, though far apart, have much in common. If you want a survey map of even the literary imagination, go elsewhere; but, if you want a quick scan of Davenport's quirky, busy mind, then hunt and peck. The laziest reader will come up with a mouthful of goodies to savor while forgetting where they were found.
William Wordsworth shoves a wheelbarrow in which sits S.T. Coleridge with blistered feet. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound shift their feet away from an imaginary vacuum cleaner pushed by a lunatic in St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. Philosopher Wittgenstein teaches the birds of Connemara to come and sit on his hands and, on his deathbed, reads Black Beauty. Little Guy goes to his black nurse's home and eats clay. Later, in Paris, he helps extinguish Jean-Paul Sartre, who is on fire, and then, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gets snubbed by Robert Frost; but he has heard Faulkner's voice through a door, said "Pleased to meet you" five times to T.S. Eliot and once to Eleanor Roosevelt, and has done KP in the presence of General Mark Clark. The genre, gossipy at one end and empty at the other, reduces itself to absurdity, a transit over which Davenport, censoriously shy, presides with brittle glee.
Call these glimpses saliences, "intense intermittences," or a geography of the imagination, they do keep the essays alive (some need it) with a combined narrative momentum, a keen graphic edge, and almost turn them into something other than routine review or discursive critique. I mean the essay in costume, the essay burgeoning into the not-so-imaginary portrait after Walter Pater, the essay in which (like Spinoza feeling the sun was only 200 feet away) the essayist changes what he sees and so reveals the colors in his own head. This essayist, taking liberties but mostly on a scholarly rein, warms his hands at various fires from the Lascaux caves to Tolkien, from whom he learned Anglo-Saxon (or rather failed to), and about whom he ruminates a lot, in the end reminding us that Tolkien had taken an undue interest in Kentucky names. As a result, "Practically all the names of Tolkien's hobbits are listed in my Lexington phone book, and those that aren't can be found over in Shelbyville."
Imagine that (the book's constant imperative). If you do, an astounded accomplice, you too have become part of the geography of the imagination, and have rediscovered the sometimes labored fact that a text is there for you to use as you please. Tolkien imagines or steals. Davenport steals after him, imagining him in the act of imagining or stealing. You steal into the imaginative processes of them both, bringing something of your own. Such is the osmosis of dreams, but also, as Davenport points out, of the giant collage that the world at large becomes. "Collage," he says, "is retrospective in content, modern in its design. Kept up, it will recapitulate and summarize the history of its own being." It is how the world is stuck together.
No wonder Davenport tests Robert Lowell against Stan Laurel and Mahalia Jackson, and Horace Smith's awful Ozymandias poem against Shelley's, joins the poem "Trees" to the discovery of chlorophyll, and reports that Ezra Pound was born in the year of Brahms' Fourth, the Mikado, and the second volume of Das Kapital. Simultaneity, contingency, coincidence and overlap haunt him and delight him as the true, the only, figures in history's weave. Juxtaposability turns him on. His approach is casual, almost debonair, and he knows that, sometimes, we respond better to things without knowing what they are, or from what context they came. When Ezra Pound (a steady presence in this volume) breaks a long silence to say "There's a magpie in China can turn a hedgehog over and kill it," you almost don't want the explanation, certainly not right off, that it was his way of saying he'd read a certain book.
"Southerners," Davenport says, "take a certain amount of unhinged reality for granted." Read his pages at random and you have unhinged them from the spine. Read him, in whatever way, and you find his mind almost unhinged by the twin Fates that flank it: the woman at his Lexington grocer's who, as he tossed Time into his cart, chimed up with "thar you go, buyin' th' magerzine book of your choice for the month: ain't it grand to read?" and, at the other extreme, the fishglue- and-soot smell of the full professors, nay the distended ones who explicate everything to death. The mob and the job.
One way through, when the subjective essay proves not creative enough, is to compose learned stories whose ratio of learnedness to narrative is bigger than that of the narrative to learnedness in his essays. It's a good idea to imagine collages of history and fiction--indeed, "necessary fiction," as he calls the work in Eclogues, about Thebans plotting a coup d',etat under Spartan rule, or a trainload of philosophers arriving to confer in Bologna in 1911. Interference with history is obligatory if we are to care about it at all. And with literature too: Davenport redoes Plutarch's "The Daimon of Socrates," evolving a high-handed intrusiveness of style that might be called Plutarchy. He gets (with a strong assist from the painter Stanley Spencer) Christ preaching at the Henley Regatta, where Stanley Spencer pockets a dog turd while mingling with "Mr. C.S. Lewis of Belfast in belling, baggy, blown trousers and flexuous flopping jacket, his chins working like a bullfrog's" and "top-hatted Etonians chatting each other in blipped English." Even the poet Mallarm,e is there, "wrapped in his plaid shawl." Lap up these crumbs from a professorial groupie while you can; you are on your own with babax and kokkysmos,he see kottaboi and the Treiskaieikosi Dialogoi; and, on the same page, you need an intermediary with people called Simmias, Arkhias, Lakonia, Leontiades, Kharon, Nondaki, and Damagetos (with Kaphisias and Delia waiting you on the page that follows).
If only languages were straight onomatopoeia, and you could figure out from the noise of words what the words meant; here, though, the effect is diffuse, mainly because the foreign words don't recur as much as the Russian ones do in A Clockwork Orange. So much of the narrative and the talk seems on stilts.
But the long story which occupies one third of the book, "On Some Lines of Virgil," introduces Jolivet and his younger brother Victor, who sexually expend themselves with Michel and the fetching Jonquille, who remarks that the four of them make "a can of worms seem shy." The whole thing blooms from an essay by Montaigne on some lines of Virgil (an essay not in the Penguin Classics version). Nothing scholiastic here, or flaky. Jolivet, aided and abetted by a permissive Maman, tells the story in pert verset-like paragraphs, an ingenuous amateur eroticist. Other kids, a dog called Picasso, an uncle, and Tullio, an art historian, help things along. The setting is Bordeaux, but Jolivet and Co. turn it into a Peter Pan bordello for bookish teens. Then, into this venereal romp, come jealousy and death, and we see what a serious thing we have been reading.
"I want," said Tullio, who died, "to write a history of the imagination in our time," but what Davenport writes in these two books is not so much a geography of that as a microcosm of what he calls "a life as reclusive and uneventful as mine": in which model planes have holy force, from the model of Bl,eriot's Antoinette CV25 which Davenport himself built to Jolivet's "balsa and doped paper" Avro 504K of 1917. But neither history, geography, nor micro-macrocosm includes the "naked particularities" which Davenport associates with black holes in space. Naked they are, but "singularities" are what the astronomers call them.