Saturday, May 12, 2012


American Culture

Guy Davenport (1927-2005), "Olson," in The Geography of the Imagination (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981), pp. 80-99 (at 86-87, footnote omitted, link added):
What has happened to American culture (Melville observed that we are more a world than a nation) is a new disintegration that comes hard upon our integration. A new daimon has got into the world, a daimon that cancels place (American cities all look like each other), depletes the world's supply of fossil fuel (if anybody's around to make the statement, our time can be put into a sentence: the Late Pleistocene ate the Eocene), transforms the mind into a vacuum ("Do they grow there?" a New Yorker asked of the offshore rocks at Gloucester) which must then be filled with evaporating distractions called entertainment. Olson was too intelligent to give a name to this daimon; he was aware of the names Ruskin and Pound had given it, but a cooperation between greed and governments is far too mild a monster for Olson's vision. He was of De Gaulle's opinion that we are the first civilization to have bred our own barbarians: De Gaulle was alluding to the masked rioters stomping down the Boulevard St.-Germain in May of '68; Olson would have meant the automobiles with their hind ends up like the butts of hemorrhoidal jackrabbits that squawl their tires and are driven by a hunnish horde of young who have been taught nothing, can do nothing, and exhibit a lemming restlessness. Their elders are scarcely more settled or more purposeful to themselves or their neighbors.
A shift in attention allows the jungle in.
As the expression goes, "Tell us what you really think, Guy." These may have been Charles Olson's opinions, but they were also clearly Davenport's.

Automobiles, in particular, were one of Davenport's bêtes noires. In his essay on Whitman (id., p. 78), he says:
The largest American business is the automobile, the mechanical cockroach that has eaten our cities; that and armaments.
Similarly, in his essay "Finding" (id., p. 361):
I walk everywhere, rejecting the internal combustion engine as an effete surrender to laziness and the ignoble advantage of convenience.

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