Exemplars, anthropology, writing selves

To-West-Bay-Wall

Sitting at the kitchen table with the recent Library of America collection of Joan Didion’s early books, I can hear the Librarian upstairs in vigorous dialogue with the radio. Is it politicians or another helping of vox populi snippets? It’s not easy to say which is more thoroughly depressing these days.

It’s not been a cheering week generally: adding to the university staff strike and the gloom of a general election campaign that’s demeaning to us all came the deaths of Clive James and Jonathan Miller – as one of the contributors to the ‘Letters’ page remarked, ‘just when we’re most in need of an increase in the gross national IQ, we get a drastic reduction.’
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/nov/28/sad-loss-of-clive-james-and-jonathan-miller-modest-witty-intellectual-giants

(Jonathan Miller via The Independent; Clive James via The Financial Times)

On the plus side, not unusually, Guy Davenport – it was his birthday on 23 November (1927-2005); sitting in a rented house on the South coast, I’d just finished re-reading his second collection of essays, Every Force Evolves a Form; and, to complete the trinity, I also read Greg Gerke’s splendid short essay, ‘Davenport as Exemplar’.

Quoting Davenport’s foreword to The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art—‘I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things’—Gerke writes: ‘I’d always wanted to come at art in a vital Davenportian way, which is to say not with pompous stridency—declaiming for my own notoriety, using Hegel and Derrida as petards to enjoyment—but in a cogent, stylistic manner for the aforementioned “people who like to read.”’ He mentions other critics from whom he has learned—William Gass, Hugh Kenner, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick—and notes that, ‘Though Davenport’s style is not the closest to mine, he is probably the most inimitable, and maybe the most angry’, the three notable forerunners of such literate anger being Blake, Ruskin and Ezra Pound, all of them of central concern to Davenport. Gerke goes on to explore the relationship between the writing self and the ‘superficial’ self, Proust’s ‘self that frequents the world’, a relationship that inhabits, implicitly or explicitly, many of the essays collected in his recent See What I See.*

(* ‘Davenport as Exemplar’ is available here: https://www.essaydaily.org/2019/11/greg-gerke-davenport-as-exemplar.html
See What I See collects thirty-one essays on literature, cinema and the writing life); also recommended is Especially the Bad Things (Gerke’s short fiction). Both have just been published by Birmingham-based Splice: https://www.thisissplice.co.uk/?s=gerke )

A few days ago, it was the birthday of Claude Levi-Strauss—he died in 2009, aged one hundred—whose work I know rather patchily and, frankly, can’t be sure of how much I absorbed from ‘The Champollion of Table Manners’, an essay by Davenport which is by way of being a review of The Origin of Table Manners: Introduction to a Science of Mythology: 3.

Davenport wrote another essay called ‘The Anthropology of Table Manners from Geophagy Onward’, a far more personal take on the subject – within the very definite autobiographical limits that Davenport allows, agreeing with Menander that ‘Talking about oneself [ . . . ] is a feast that starves the guest’ (a reference that Gerke instances in the essay mentioned above). Briefly citing both Davenport essays, Adam Mars-Jones remarked (‘Introversion Has Its Limits’, London Review of Books, 8 March 2018), ‘Shockingly, there is no overlap between them, though cannibalising your own material is generally regarded as anthropophagy at its most respectable.’

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‘The Anthropology of Table Manners’ seems saturated with Lévi-Strauss, though it never mentions his name, and The Geography of the Imagination, in which it is collected, preceded Every Force Evolves a Form by several years. The original journal publication of the two essays, though, reverses the volume order, so the reading for the review did indeed underlie ‘The Anthropology of Table Manners’, one of Davenport’s funniest essays (and he can be extremely funny). ‘He is not an easy writer’, he concludes his review. ‘The Elementary Structure of Kinship is one of the most difficult books ever. The Savage Mind is, in its charming way, almost as difficult. The four volumes of the Mythologies require dedication and stamina to read all 2,500 pages. Yet he has never written an uninteresting sentence.’ And when he asserts that Lévi-Strauss ‘is, to my knowledge, the best and most diligent interpreter of our time’, that knowledge very probably incorporated a great deal, if not all, of Lévi-Strauss’s oeuvre. In 1978, he referred, in a letter to Hugh Kenner, to Lévi-Strauss’s Totemism, translated by Davenport’s friend from Merton College, Oxford days, Rodney Needham, and with an introduction by Roger Poole, the Virginia Woolf and Kierkegaard scholar who later wrote on Ford Madox Ford and became a hugely valued member of the Ford community.

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The day moves on from radio to housework, yoga, cooking. Over coffee, I turn to another page of the Joan Didion volume, the opening of her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer: ‘I am an anthropologist who lost faith in her own method, who stopped believing that observable activity defined anthropos. I studied under Kroeber at California and worked with Lévi-Strauss at São Paulo’.

As for what Gerke accurately characterises as Davenport’s ‘very poetic, crisp style—the long pungent sentences are masked by short pugilistic ones’, so many of those sentences stick in the mind, my mind, some consoling, some vertiginously relevant to the present, even if shaped thirty or more years ago.

‘If the past is prologue, it is also a record of grievances to call up and enlist as excuses. All you need is rhetorical talent and a gift for rationalizing.’ Or try: ‘Words are tyrants more powerful than any Caesar. When they are lies, they are devils.’ In one of his most memorable pieces, ‘On Reading’, he writes: ‘We can evince any number of undeniable beliefs—an informed society cannot be enslaved by ideologies and fanaticism, a cooperative pluralistic society must necessarily be conversant with the human record in books of all kinds, and so on—but we will always return to the private and inviolable act of reading as our culture’s way of developing an individual.’ I also pause over ‘Every epoch chooses its own past and cannot know how it will be remembered’; on ‘The uncritical mind is a prey to credulity, and without skepticism there can be no democracy’; and close with ‘Where language has torn the world to pieces, the writer can put it back together.’

More than ever, clearly, the writers have a great deal of work to do.

A bit of Turner

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(Timothy Spall as Turner in Mike Leigh’s 2014 Mr. Turner, via The Guardian)

Reading Greg Gerke’s new collection of essays, I came across the opening lines of ‘Mr. Turner, Boyhood, and Criticism’:

‘Let us begin with difficulties. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a film as rich as an afternoon in the Louvre, presents an austere and bilious portrait of the great English artist and a ridiculous one of a young John Ruskin, a critic who explicated Turner in many works over the course of different works—a critic who drew and painted, lecturing on both activities with a great avidity.’

He adds that, in Leigh’s film, ‘the drama is the classic case of critic as obnoxious foil to the artist’s majesty and magic’, before bringing in Guy Davenport, a great admirer of Leigh—but also of Ruskin, not only as a titanic figure in his own right but a major influence upon much of the modern movement.[1]

Gerke’s essay, as the title suggests, is concerned with setting his ‘adulation’ for Leigh’s film beside his ‘cool reception’ to Richard Linklater’s widely acclaimed Boyhood (preferring several of Linklater’s other films), but also considering the nature and difficulties of criticism. Still, for the moment, I was thinking about Turner and Ruskin.

Back in April this year, after the Don McCullin exhibition and the Van Gogh in Britain show—and the Ruskin Exhibition at 2 Temple Place the day before—we had a couple of hours to spare before our train. We revisited old friends in the Tate Britain galleries, the Librarian often to be found in front of Vanessa Bell, Carrington, Sargent, Gwen John, me turning aside to Nevinson, Bomberg, Spencer, Gaudier-Brzeska, pausing by Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts (first called ‘Lost Sheep’ and then ‘Strayed Sheep’), with its too obvious applications to the country’s current travails.

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(Charles West Cope, J. M. W. Turner: National Portrait Gallery)

‘Do you fancy some Turner?’
‘I’m always up for a bit of Turner.’

We walked to the Clore Gallery. The Librarian mentioned wanting to see again the 2014 Mike Leigh film, with its gorgeous opening sequence and its tremendous central performance by Timothy Spall, its only false note for me precisely that grotesque depiction of John Ruskin, Turner’s most famous champion, whose first major work was initially conceived with exactly the intention of praising and promoting the painter.[2]

Our visit was just a few days short of the painter’s birthday, I realise now. Joseph William Mallord Turner was born in Covent Garden, 23 April 1775. I’d read a short biography of him by Peter Ackroyd which quoted Samuel Palmer, recalling his first sight of a Turner painting, ‘Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, going to Pieces’, in 1819 when Palmer was just fourteen: ‘being by nature a lover of smudginess, I have reveled in him from that day to this’. Ackroyd also notes Ruskin’s emergence as ‘Turner’s most eloquent and knowledgeable supporter’, ‘the principal advocate’ of his art, adding: ‘it can be said with some certainty that no artist has ever had a more profound and articulate explicator.’[3]

Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, Going to Pieces; Brill Church bearing S. E. by S., Masensluys E. by S. exhibited 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

(J. M. W. Turner, Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, going to Pieces: Tate)

John Ruskin was just seventeen when a hostile notice of three paintings by Turner in Blackwood’s Magazine prompted him to draft a reply. Looking back some fifty years later, Ruskin wrote: ‘The review raised me to the height of “black anger” in which I have remained pretty nearly ever since’. In fact, Ruskin’s father deciding that Turner himself should be approached first, the painter wrote back thanking Ruskin but adding: ‘I never move in these matters, they are of no import save mischief’.[4] Ruskin’s reply to the Blackwood’s review was finally printed as an appendix to Modern Painters in the great Cook and Wedderburn library edition—‘Turner may be mad: I daresay he is, inasmuch as highest genius is allied to madness; but not so stark mad as to profess to paint nature. He paints from nature, and pretty far from it, too; and he would be sadly disappointed who looked in his pictures for a possible scene.’[5]

Fifteen years further on, Ruskin famously defended works by the Pre-Raphaelite painters in reaction to the dismissive comments published in notices in The Times.

(The notices together with Ruskin’s letters are gathered together in the superb Rossetti Archive:
http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/n.gb1.1851.may.rad.html )

In the famous Thames flood of 6 – 7 January 1926, the waters filled the lower floor of the Tate where Jim Ede (biographer of Henri Gaudier Brzeska and founder of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge) was keeping 19000 Turner drawings and watercolours, as well as some watercolours by Ede’s friend, the poet and artist David Jones, who had recently completed engravings for a Golden Cockerel Press edition of The Chester Play of the Deluge. The Tate treasures were ‘submerged but kept dry by ark-tight carpentry of a set of cabinets.’

In the following year, Jones spent four weeks, mid-August to September, at Portslade, painting mostly ‘the open sea under an empty sky.’ He was remembering Ruskin writing on Turner, that ‘the sea, however calm, is redolent of storm’. Jones thought this was ‘more than half’ the secret ‘of good painting, of good art . . . it is both peace and war.’[6] Patrick White used to go and look at Turner’s ‘Interior at Petworth’ often when he lived in London, adding to Mary Benson that, ‘besides being a subtle painting, I feel it taught me a lot about writing.’ Late Turners, he told Penny Coleing, made him ‘grow breathless with delight every time I see them’.[7]

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

(J. M. W. Turner, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet: Tate)

Some of Turner’s pictures are so familiar now that some decrease might seem inevitable in that breathlessness if not the delight. But I don’t know: when I come in sight of Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway or The Slave Ship (originally, Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhon coming on), The Fighting Temeraire, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet or Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, I still catch my breath a little, or articulate that highly technical art-critical term, wow.

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

(J. M. W. Turner, Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth: Tate)

‘To understand how the artist felt, however, is not criticism; criticism is an investigation into what the work is good for’, the philosopher George Santayana wrote, a sentence which, Greg Gerke notes, Guy Davenport quotes twice (Gerke also notes how ‘“good for” smacks of the paterfamilias making a pronouncement from 1905’—Reason in Art’s year of publication).[8] An introductory note to one of Davenport’s collections of essays ends: ‘The way I write about texts and works of art has been shaped by forty years of explaining them to students in a classroom. I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.’[9]

Yes.

Near the end of ‘Mr. Turner, Boyhood, and Criticism’, Greg Gerke writes: ‘We all die, so live all you can—if art is good at anything, it’s reminding us of this.’[10]

Yes again.

 
Notes

[1] Greg Gerke, See What I See (Birmingham: Splice, 2019), 315. For Davenport on Ruskin, see particularly ‘The House That Jack Built’ in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997) and ‘Ruskin According to Proust’ in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996); but there are references to Ruskin throughout Davenport’s oeuvre.

[2] And see Philip Hoare on both Mike Leigh’s film and Effie Gray, written by Emma Thompson and directed by Richard Laxton: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/07/john-ruskin-emma-thompson-mike-leigh-film-art

[3] Peter Ackroyd, Turner (London: Vintage Books, 2006), 94, 132, 133.

[4] John Ruskin, Praeterita (London: Everyman, 2005), 192.

[5] John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Volume 1, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1903), 637.

[6] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 98, 107. In ‘Art in Relation to War’, Jones phrases it thus: ‘Ruskin, writing of Turner’s treatment of the sea, says that however calm the sea he painted he always remembered the same sea heavy and full of discontent under storm. That is half the secret, more than half, of good painting, of good art.’ See The Dying Gaul and Other Writings (London: Faber 1978), 140.

[7] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 203fn.

[8] Gerke, See What I See, 317; Guy Davenport, Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 68, 71.

[9] Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), ix.

[10] Gerke, See What I See, 320: he nods here to Lambert Strether in Henry James’s The Ambassadors (‘Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to’). His essay on James’s The Portrait of a Lady, ‘Stylized Despair’, is included here (51-56).