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“ I would go so far as to say that all modern writing is about some other text, and that this is so much the case that many writers are guardedly furtive about it, while knowing that their only hope of meaning is in our ultimately finding that other text. ”

— Guy Davenport, “The Critic as Artist”, in Every Force Evolves a Form (North Point Press, 1987),  p. 105.

“The Critic as Artist” is a fascinating and wide-ranging essay worth reading in its entirety. Much of the essay is connected with literary responses to the visual arts, but the passage cited above deals specifically with pretexts in the concrete sense of the term: source texts for literary works. Davenport writes, “Ulysses is the most obvious example to point to, yet on reflection we discover that we can go on and on looking at poetry that assumes another text — the legends underlying Keats and Shelley and Browning; the traditional forms being reworked, such as Byron’s Don Juan; all of Shakespeare. The Cantos are a collage of texts; so is the “A” of Zukofsky.” He discusses Beckett, Flaubert, Welty, Heidegger on Hölderlin, and many others.

And then Davenport composes a great paragraph:
“In 1960 technician in the Bell Laboratories discovered that he could make an image appear in a stereopticon that is in neither of the two images which the stereopticon is fusing. The example I have seen is of a spatter of dots, seemingly random, in squares side by side. Through the stereopticon one sees a sharp-edged isosceles triangle beautifully defined, suspended just above the spatter of dots. This floating, Platonic triangle is nowhere but in our head. It is an authentic vision. Its visual possibility is partly in the left-hand square, partly in the right. Without the stereopticon to serve us, there is no way of discerning what latent pattern lurks in either square, realizable only in the fusion of the two.”


Davenport discusses the rôle of the critic as advocate and interpreter of “the hermetic obscurity of the text” and it might seem that he is pointing to the discursive essay. “The next time you have a fresh reading of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey canon of novels and stories in your head, along with the four volumes of Lévi-Strauss’ Mythologies, ask yourself what’s happening in those novels when food figures in the plot. You will discover that there is a subtext of imagery in which you can discern a grammar of edibles, both poisoned and nutritive. When the critic can specify two spatter patterns, and hand us the stereopticon, to make the magic fgure appear in the middle of the air, he is indeed entering the artistic process.” Davenport’s own work shows how often he brought the scholar’s analytical tools to the doorway of fiction, and then, as fiction demands, wrote the story (not the essay). Among these are “1830” (Poe), “The Aeroplanes at Brescia” (Kafka and Wittgenstein); “Belinda’s World Tour” (Kafka again), and “The Concord Sonata” (Thoreau); echoes and allusions to literature are manifest throughout most if not all of his stories

In fact, the domain of the critical fiction is everything.

2 Responses to “‘many writers are guardedly furtive’; and some of us are not”

  1. Matthew says:

    I’m so glad you mention Guy Davenport and his writings. So few know of his essays or writings of fiction. Such works as Tatlin!, Apples and Pears, The Hunter Gracchus, A Balthus Notebook, not to mention Eclogues and my personal favorite, Every Force Evolves a Form, have always been a great introduction to a world of discussion, understanding, and ideas that I feel is missing in contemporary discussions of culture and society, not just literature.

    If Davenport could be accused of one curious absence in his writings it would be his disregard for the writings of Mark Twain. For whatever reason, I seldom if ever found any sign of Twain being mentioned.

  2. Wendy Walker says:

    Matthew, I searched google books with “guy davenport” “mark twain” and turned up some interesting, if brief, references to Twain in four or five of Guy’s books. He is a minor character in “The Aeroplanes of Brescia.” All the references indicate admiration for Twain, and awareness of his centrality to American literature. No complete essays, true, but not disregard.

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