The Death of Picasso: New & Selected Writings

by Guy Davenport
ISBN: 1593760027

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A Review of: The Death of Picasso: New & Selected Writings
by Lyall Bush

His is arguably the most enviable life of the mind we have now. He has written cheerily erudite essays on Herakleitos and Montaigne, Ezra Pound, John Ruskin, Claude Levi-Strauss, Balthus, Kafka, Tchelitchew, Joyce, Thoreau, Wittgenstein, Fourier, Jesus, Tarzan, and Rimbaud. He has made definitive translations of Sappho and Archilochos, and published witty journal notes about his travels through Scandinavia. He has confessed in print to living on a diet of "fried baloney, Campbell's soup and Snickers bars." He has made the case for Eudora Welty's complex genius, un-knotted Kafka's pre-Modern Modernism, and left the the average curious reader smarter about Finnegan's Wake, Pound's Cantos, and e.e. cummings's space-eating verse. He assembles texts using the bricolage style of the Modernists, with the bonus that reading his work is never a burden. It is, instead, like receiving e-mail from Olympus, solid fun.
Like Mark Twain Guy Davenport is an inveterate noticer. The essays are plausible only once you infer a habitual, ferocious paying of attention. Once I sent him a copy of a photograph I had taken in Toronto: a photographer pausing before a wedding party he has formally arranged along the side of a church. He is looking over his tripod at something outside the frame; the church lawn spills, more or less, into traffic; the wedding party hesitates. There is something odd, wrong, caught about the picture. Davenport wrote, in rapid reply: "world's worst-kept lawn; no one is looking at the bride." Exactly right.
Since the early 1980s he has steadily published fiction, too-ten collections of stories up to now, with subjects equally divided between brainy, Barthelme-esque reconstructions like Tatlin at a Constructivist exhibit ("Tatlin!") or Kafka at an Italian air show ("The Aeroplanes of Brescia"), and more conventional, if similarly angular, pieces about sexually giddy lovers in northern climates, on remote islands. Either way, the fiction acts as a bridge between the factual accumulations of the essays and more enigmatic matters that essays can't capture. Often the stories describe events told in a tone of wonder about the waggling line between nature and artifice. (Davenport implies everywhere that both are tended by the mind.)
The sense of mystery about human affairs recurs as a motif in The Death of Picasso, a collection that brings previously published stories and essays together with new writing. Kafka turns up four times, first in a superb essay ("The Hunter Gracchus") then as a player in three stories. He is the book's eminence green (not gray) as well as its dark foil. Indeed, the stories, which make up two-thirds of Death, seem to distill the essays' subjects into narratives about flight, cheerful sex, the knit between minds over generations, the sturdiness and fragility of civilization, and pairs. The latter show up in the recurring images of twins, sets of lovers, apples and pears (Fall and Redemption). In the stories Davenport's dyads of joy and harmony contrast with Kafka's atonal oppositions of love and death, speech and the unspoken, law and chance, and the twins Castor and Pollux, whose classical names, Davenport explains in "The Hunter Gracchus", mean filth and chastity.
That essay, which gave its title to Davenport's last major collection of commentary, reappears in The Death of Picasso, and for good reason. It is groundbreaking. At the beginning of it Davenport follows a subterranean passageway of words and images that lie behind Kafka's story of a mysterious ship that enters harbor piloted by a dead captain. The details glitter: "Gracchus," the name of a noble Roman family, translates in Kafka's native Czech to kavka, or "blackbird", the Kafka family emblem and a natural fictional portent. (In a journal entry in 1917, Kafka noted seeing a "filthy" ship in the Prague harbor which belonged to a man identified as "the Hunter Gracchus.") Davenport branches from there, never closing the circle between the Roman family and the dark bird. Instead, he sets about unpacking other pieces of Kafka's life and art, shedding larger light on the puzzle of a ship that has broken the membrane between death and life and now belongs to neither.
Death comes back any number of times to the otherwordly gleams of childhood, too. We learn that Kafka was fascinated by the thought of children as messengers between worlds, and being children they would naturally garble the messages or never deliver them. In a previous book on the painter Balthus, Davenport argued that Surrealism "became a classical mode of the [20th] century and reinforced the century's characterization of reality as an enigma." The French, moreover, see children more accurately: "There is a sense among the French that adulthood is a falling away from the intelligence of children."
The Death of Picasso acknowledges enigma as fundamental. Indeed, even a hyper-explicative piece like "The Anthropology of Table Manners", which pools an astonishing number of anecdotes about food and how the famous ate, or didn't eat, makes clear that the table, so civilizing, brings strange nature with it: it ends with a story about the author's young cousin in South Carolina who experienced fits after hearing Davenport talk one evening about an Oxford don who served tea from under his table.
The brief essay titled "And" attempts to read a first-century papyrus bearing the words of Jesus as he stands by a river, only to give up. The paper is so faded that "It's as if we are too far back to hear well." Davenport comes to rest on the papyrus's last image, Jesus throwing a handful of seeds into the river:

"Trees, first as sprouts, then as seedlings, then as trees fully grown, grew in the river as quickly as one heartbeat follows another. And as soon as they were there they began to move downstream with the current, and were suddenly hung with fruit, quinces, figs, apples, and pears.
That is all that's on the fragment.
We follow awhile in our imagination: the people running to keep up with the trees, as in a dream. Did the trees sink into the river? Did they flow out of sight, around a bend?"

In Death, stories and essays alike gravitate to this piling of clarity upon clarity, palimpsest on palimpsest, until there is only something riddling and hard to get at in the lines.
This inchoation is a kind of enchantment. The twin stories (and the first in the collection), "The Owl of Minerva" and "The Playing Field" represent, I think, Davenport's best take on soulbound pairs and sexual heaven, and they carry a strong echo of the theory about love that Plato puts into Aristophanes's mouth in "The Symposium." Set in bright, chilly Denmark, they move backward and forward in time around a central parable-like story about an orphan named Mikkel and the wise teacher who took him in, loved him, and gave him a last name. We first meet Mikkel as a grown man, a Major, with a wife and two precocious, twin-like adolescent boys who eagerly anticipate a visit from their uncle Magnus, a geologist who has travelled from Greenland where he has been hunting fragments of an exploded star. The boys know that Magnus's honorific is in name only: he is the stranger who gave their father his first taste of happiness and family. By the end of "The Owl of Minerva", this happiness has duplicated: Mikkel's son Adam has found sweetness of his own rubbing noses and gobbling Vienna sausages with another boy in an abandoned cabin in the woods.
The story's title refers to Hegel's lament that the owl of Minerva-wisdom-flies only at dusk, when events have begun to fade. It can't describe how the world ought to be. Yet the story, set in one cold country and with the ringing echo of a second, frozen one, interleaves past love, present happiness, and a massive fall out of the heavens: the ancient parts of a beginning. Stars fall and shatter so we might learn more about time and eternity. (The story of Lucifer.) And there is eternity in this image of a dirty-clean Eden of physicalized bliss, too, where sexually exuberant men and boys yet have the time to be absorbed by words and ideas.
Davenport, never one for redundancy, has found the one theme that the 20th century, surfeited with irony and abject horror, left out: green land. Paradise discovered.

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