The Jules Verne Steam Balloon, The Bicycle Rider, Wo es war, woll Ich warden, The Ringdove Sign. Stories by Guy Davenport from The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writing. Shoemaker & Hoard. 379 pp. $16.00.
When I was a student at Duke University in the late Sixties, we sometimes got together to argue about who was the best Duke writer. William Styron had just won a Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner, which stirred up controversy in those racially charged times. Lie Down in Darkness was behind him, Sophie’s Choice far in the future. Reynolds Price was our teacher, widely regarded as a brilliant lyrical writer of great promise. Anne Tyler was beginning to publish; Fred Chappell had published both poetry and fiction. Mac Hyman—an early favorite—had been a flash in the pan. All of these people had studied with the great writing teacher William Blackburn, who was just ending his career.
The person I now think of as Duke’s best writer—certainly the most original, the quirkiest, and the most learned—had not started to publish fiction, though he was a contemporary of Styron and Hyman. At lunch one day Professor Blackburn told my brother that, when Guy Davenport was an undergraduate, he had produced a long Joycean novel so good that Blackburn took a train to New York to try to peddle it to publishers himself. Guy
Davenport was a name we heard in the Duke community even in the late Sixties. But he didn’t publish his first fiction until 1974, when he was 47.
I came to Davenport late, though I’d long admired the beautiful editions from North Point Press. In 1993 I began a stint as a book columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer, was looking for books with a local interest, and Davenport had published what seems to be his seventh volume of stories (they’re hard to count, there are so many special editions), A Table of Green Fields. I was astonished by what I read, especially a story about Thoreau called “The Concord Sonata,” which I read and puzzled over multiple times. I don’t remember what I said in my column, which was certainly inadequate to the book. In a moment of—I don’t know what—bravado, I sent a clip to the author. I received a letter back by return post. My impression was that he answered every letter I ever sent him in the same way. In a Paris Review interview some years later, he said he had hundreds of correspondents.
An old friend whom I taught in seventh grade in 1972, who had an adult literary sensibility even at that age, and who is the one former student I’ve kept up with, once wrote me something to the effect of, “No matter what Guy Davenport writes, whether he calls it a story or an essay, on any subject whatsoever, even if it’s some artist you’ve never heard of, or one that you don’t like, always read it. Everything he writes is fascinating.” I agree. I haven’t been systematic, but have read widely in Davenport and never been disappointed. He complained in various places, including a letter to me, that he wasn’t much read (“I have seventeen readers”); that may technically have been true, but his readers are extraordinarily devoted, and there are a lot more than seventeen. I’m especially attached to a late volume entitled The Hunter Gracchus. One essay after another in that volume is a marvel. I bought extra copies of the book, and gave it to friends—including my old teacher Reynolds Price—because of one piece in particular, with the unassuming title “II Timothy,” which seems to include Davenport’s most direct and personal writing about religion.
Despite his statement there that “Religion has yet to put down even a tentative root in my soul,” I have always found Davenport to be a religious writer (he immediately qualifies that statement by saying, “The Bible, however, I’ve read over and over across the years”). He faces the ultimate questions, writes in what I see as a classical style, broad expansive sentences that don’t mind getting complicated but are ultimately clear. He also composed what I think of as a religious text (with Benjamin Urrutia), The Loggia of Yeshua, in which Davenport translates from the Greek, and arranges uniquely, various direct teachings of Jesus. By the startling simplicity of the translations and the book’s unique arrangement, it becomes a new text.
Davenport was drawn not to religion but to the spiritual teachings of Jesus, about which he has fascinating things to say. “I see a Jesus in the gospels who is not quite like anybody else’s (except perhaps Mikhail Bulgakov’s) and who is decidedly different from the one of the Baptist sermons I have endured.” (Davenport grew up in South Carolina, and his Sunday school teacher told him “that Jesus’ nudity on the cross was far more painful to him than the nails in his hands and feet.”) “John [the Baptist] had awakened the old tradition of the prophet,” Davenport writes, “and Jesus had joined his revival. The turbulence they introduced can be measured by John and Jesus’ executions, only a few years apart. . . .
“Jesus had, in a paradoxical sense, removed the scaffolding of the law to show that the structure would stand by itself—by faith. The tribe was to be replaced by a new kind of community. Goodwill was to replace legality.
“What Jesus had done was to cancel the classical idea of fate, to silence the oracles, to unify the human spirit under one dominion, which each of us is to find in our heart. The law and life itself would then be identical. Others were to be another self, treated as such. The bond would be love, respect, loyalty, a kinship for which the metaphor would be that we are all children of one father. So redeemed, Cain would embrace Abel rather than kill him.”
Davenport contrasts this “loving and gracious rabbi with the dusty feet, the agile mind, the loving heart, who healed and told vivid parables” with Paul, the man who in some sense created the Christian religion. “Paul I see as a figure in Plutarch’s world, an intellectual with both a Jewish and Greek education. . . . Paul, like his Greek predecessors, was a man of cities. Jesus preferred villages, hillsides, lakeshores. In my imagination I see Jesus as a man so attractive (eyes, gestures, a man whose genius was compassion) that people might easily drop what they were doing and follow him. Paul, however, I see as a bald and seriously bearded official, born to administrate.
“He was something like an Eichmann when we first see him.” (!) “He seems to have been present at the stoning of Stephen. He was a zealot, an authoritarian, a pedant in the law.
“His conversion is a swerving of world history.”
I’m quoting a great deal, obviously, but one statement after another seems astonishing and insightful. Davenport turns to the messages the two men left.
“The authority Jesus constantly invoked—the origin of man in a natural unity that was not at war with itself, whose tribal deities and demons were all myths—Paul placed in Jesus himself, whom he understood to be the creator of all that is. Jesus strove to reconcile man with himself: to make a unity of the divided self and to make a unity of the brotherhood of man. Paul, striving to bring man and God together in a philosophical unity that he called faith, redemption, salvation, worship, inadvertently divided us all over again. Christ’s return was the diffusion of his spirit through all humankind: the descent of the dove. Paul relocated this return in historical time and made Christianity a preparation for fullest life, rather than the fullest life itself. In the very act of spreading the good news of liberty under a new dispensation he imprisoned us in a corrosive anxiety, in mandates to persecute, to bind the good news in an obfuscation of fear and superstition.”
Davenport sums up his feelings by one strong paragraph that states something I had always felt about Christianity.
“We cannot blame Paul; we can only say that with the best will in the world he unwittingly returned our spiritual life to the bonds from which Jesus freed us.”
Davenport then makes an astonishing statement about his writing career.
“When some twenty years ago I began to write stories, I found that I was assuming that my subject was precisely this dialogue between Jesus and Paul.” This from a man who claims not to be religious.
At several places in this essay Davenport mentions artists he thinks of as secret Christians: “Wittgenstein, Joyce, Beckett, Kafka,” also “real” Christians, his friend and drinking buddy Thomas Merton (who is featured in another hilarious piece in this volume, “Tom and Gene”), Edward Schillebeeckx, Christopher Smart, Blake, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, the elder Grundtvig, Elizabeth Gaskell, Mother Ann Lee, Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr. To that list at this point I would add Guy Davenport himself.
He also, in reviewing his work and its relation to this dialogue between Paul and Jesus, refers to the volume The Jules Verne Steam Balloon as being “more openly a meditation on religion, particularly three interlocked stories who all feature the same characters, ‘The Bicycle Rider,’ ‘The Jules Verne Steam Balloon,’ and ‘The Ringdove Sign.’” He wrote one more story about these characters, “Wo es war, soll ich warden,” and collected the four in a final volume The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writing. They stand at the end of this volume in a different order than he had given them before, and it is tempting to see them as his final statement in fiction.
The World’s Greatest Boarding School
One of the funniest moments for me in Davenport’s Paris Review interview is when the interviewer says, “What about this interest in utopias, which is everywhere in your work?” and Davenport replies, “I don’t think it’s there, in the abstract.” My impression (along with that of John Jerimiah Sullivan, the interviewer) is that Davenport’s work is loaded with utopias. Perhaps it is just that, as Davenport says earlier in the interview, “I write happy stories about people who like each other in all sorts of ways.” All sorts of ways is right.
It will come as no surprise to Davenport readers that the characters in this final cluster of stories live in Denmark (his idea of paradise, somehow or other) and that they gather around a boarding school. The central protagonist is a young master named Hugo Tvemunding who teaches classics and P.E. but is also writing a dissertation for a Divinity School degree. Hugo lives at the school with a beautiful young woman named Mariana and her younger brother Franklin, both of whom he met on the beach one day (he and Mariana had sex almost immediately. That’s one primary way people “like each other”). He proposed that they—who seem to be homeless—move in with him, and they did so immediately and effortlessly, with no angst whatever, no problem from the school authorities. Hugo is the heart of the story, its voice of sanity. I don’t want to call him a mouthpiece for the author, who would deny there is such a thing. (“We don’t read imaginative writing for its ideological content. All my stories are from a character’s point of view.”) He is nevertheless the story’s moral authority.
Davenport was notoriously protective about his private life; his motto was, “Live unknown,” and when asked if anyone was writing his biography, he replied, “I have no life.” According to Wikepedia, he was married and divorced in the early sixties, and after that, for the last forty years of his life, lived with a woman named Bonnie Jean Cox, who shows up in his writing. Yet his fiction, to anyone who reads it, is overwhelmingly homoerotic. Hugo may be fucking Mariana, but he finds many reasons to get Franklin’s clothes off, to check him out, encourage him to masturbate. I’d almost say that the heterosexual couple is a dodge. What really interests the author is wandering around this boarding school, barging into boys’ rooms and seeing the outline of their genitals in whatever skimpy clothes they’re wearing.
I would love to know in what order these stories were composed. My impression is that the conception changed and grew in Davenport’s mind as he wrote them. “The Jules Verne Steam Balloon” is by far the most theological. Hugo’s father is a minister who believes that the young man’s theologizing is a reaction against him, a way to overthrow him, but he suffers it happily. He also has no apparent problem with his son’s living arrangements, though he himself is more conventional.
Early on Hugo is lecturing a Sunday school class (the only time in all four stories when he does such a thing) and tells them his ideas about Yeshua (Davenport’s name, always, for Jesus). “He wasn’t out to set himself up through signs and wonders. . . . He was not concerned about who he was. . . . And from moment to moment he was the people he suffered with, whom he could comfort or cure or free. Most of these were people estranged from themselves by pain or deformity. . . . Yeshua’s idea of us is that first of all we are someone who can help another.”
Hugo has set out to do just that. Young as he is, I would say he is Davenport’s attempt to portray a saint, always a perilous enterprise.
Hugo has already, of course, helped Mariana and Franklin almost immeasurably, not only giving them a home and all the food and sex they can handle, but teaching them as well. “I didn’t know how to take a walk until Hugo annexed me,” Mariana says at one point to Hugo’s father. “Or how a room can be a whole world.”
Hugo makes his most direct statement about theology when he and his father are talking about modern scientific theories of matter, and creation. Before creation there was no matter, just a great force, Hugo says. Well, his father replies, there was God.
“If man in God’s image was Adam,” Hugo says, “God in man’s image was Yeshua. If matter was not stuff before creation, then God can be a pattern of energy rather than an oxygen breather and processor of carbohydrates. That we are in His image then means that He is and we are animations of the same energy system. Except, perhaps, His anima occupies the whole sea of neutrinos that’s boundless but limited, and we each occupy bodies only, energy systems that are limited but boundless, exchanging love and conversation, procreating both bodies and minds. God’s procreation is continuous, ours occasional. Yeshua is an occasional aspect of a continuity.”
There are two potential paths, Hugo points out to his father, “neither eating nor drinking,” like John the Baptist, so people think you are “owned and operated by a devil,” or—like Yeshua—“eating and drinking, and the people say here’s a glutton and a drunkard.” His father believes the paths aren’t important, only the results, “The vine is to be judged by it gourd.” The hoped-for result is “Wholeness of being.”
Evil in this system is not so much people who are not helpers, but people who cannot be helped, represented in Hugo’s world by a character he calls the Bicycle Rider, who gets a whole story of his own. This is a boy Hugo tried to help but who was not open to his overtures, perhaps because he suspected sexual motives, or just wasn’t open to sex. In the world according to Davenport, sexy people are good people.
Hugo’s father gives his view of this incident to Mariana. “Hugo had never really before encountered evil face to face. . . . He cannot believe that there are wholly selfish people drowned in themselves, beyond the reach of love or understanding. That there are people who, impotent to create, destroy. That there are people whose self-loathing is so deep that they know nothing of generosity and invariably do the mean thing even when they might as easily do the generous one.”
He states what he sees as the key to Hugo’s work. “All of this theological work . . . began with a remark I made years ago, that God’s will remains inscrutable and uncertain forever, but that Jesus (Hugo’s Yeshua, for the Aramaic name is of the essence for him) had an intuitive idea of God that put goodness in our hands. He is light, of which we are free to partake, or be in darkness. We can be transparent to our fellow man, or opaque.”
As the story moves along, Hugo has what seems a religious vision, though—as one might expect from Davenport—it is hardly conventional, seems more like a scene from a science fiction story, or an opera stage (he says in The Paris Review that he got the idea from Bergman’s Magic Flute). Hugo is sitting under a tree in a meadow when he notices the shadow of a steam balloon. Three ten year old boys—naturally—are the crew; their names at Tumble, Quark, and Buckeye. They won’t say where they come from, though they do say they’re messengers, and they have a message for Hugo: “Road auspicious. Though young, act like a man. Be steadfast, patient, and silent.”
Hugo says, About what? And why?
“That, smiled Quark, we are not free to say.”
Hugo continues to see the steam balloon, and his three new friends, intermittently. Others cannot see them. They seem to be—in the world of Guy Davenport—his daimons. The appearance of daimons is a major theme.
Toward the end of the story, a young man has come over to pose for him as he sketches, another talent and pastime Hugo shares with the author. Hugo tells the young man to strip, though Mariana and Franklin are there; the young man does so, reluctantly. Through a skylight in the room, Hugo sees the steam balloon hovering. Before long, his three little friends are peering in the skylight. This is one of those stagey scenes in Davenport’s writing; you can see it as a painting.
Franklin mentions he wants to write a letter to Hugo’s father, and Hugo says, “Put in your letter . . . that while we visited I saw what I needed to see. Say that the casting out of demons is the hub on which everything else turns. He’ll know what I mean. The self is the demon. Demon out, daimon in.”
Hugo keeps looking up at the skylight, where his little friends hover, and Mariana asks why he does that.
“The light, Hugo said. It’s what I paint by.”
The next story in the cluster, “The Bicycle Rider,” seems to belong to another genre altogether, though it focuses on the same characters. Gone—not to return until the final story—is the theological speculation, and Hugo’s exchanges with his father. Here in greater detail is the story of the Bicycle Rider, though we seemed to get the gist in the previous story. But the thing that is immediately evident in this story is that it is much more explicit and focused on sex.
At some point any reader who reads widely in Davenport asks himself: what’s with all these boys in their underwear? The interviewer for The Paris Review asked just that, and Davenport replied laconically that it was self-indulgence. He seems to describe them in writing as Hugo likes to sketch them in his studio, the same way Davenport himself liked to draw (I read somewhere that he drew or painted every day; he was as serious a visual artist as a literary one, and illustrated his early books). Davenport is a brilliant descriptive writer—Joyce seems to be his model—and much in the stories seems to be an artist drawing verbal pictures.
But that isn’t all. There is a strong pro-sex perspective throughout his work, including sex among young boys, among older boys and younger boys, and—in several cases—adults and boys. Davenport was first and foremost a classicist, and “boy love” was viewed much differently in classical times than it is today. However uncomfortable the subject might make contemporary readers, Davenport will have his say.
“The Bicycle Rider” tells in more detail what happened with this young man, who was in the background of the previous story. He was a day student at the school, but like Mariana and Franklin seemed to be homeless. Hugo had compassion for him, also probably a sexual interest, calling him “the handsomest boy I’d ever seen in my life,” though he was dressed in rags. Hugo made various overtures, asked him over, offered to let him live in his rooms, once proposed to take him to Paris. The young man likes the attention but is maddeningly shiftless, agreeing to meet Hugo time and again and not showing up. He is vaguely associated with another teacher, a literature teacher who also dabbles in Transcendental Meditation and Buddhism, and has an interest in LSD. Hugo has nothing but scorn for that man. At the end of the story, the Bicycle Rider—who seems to have rejected Hugo’s overtures out of sheer laziness, or inattention—dies of an overdose.
All around this story of failure, and in contrast to it, stands Davenport’s view of how people can live. “Happiness is a sensual totality of being,” Hugo writes in his journal after a morning run. “Luck has nothing to do with happiness, which comes from rhythms, order, clarity.” Hugo has those things in spades.
At one point Mariana describes his typical day, and the passage seems worth quoting because it so clearly expresses Davenport’s ethic. “You’ve figured out a shipshape Calvinist glitch-free craziness in absolute kilter, so that your eyes fly open at six, you hit the floor like an Olympic champion, hard-on and all, jump into a dinky pair of shorts, jog three kilometers, swim ten lengths of the gym pool, nip back here for wheatgerm carrot smush while reading Greeks, communing with your charming freckle-nosed kammerat Jesus, shower with unreasonable thoroughness while singing hymns, dress in a French shirt and American tie, English jacket and experienced jeans that show how horsily you’re hung, teach your classes, Latin, gym, and Greek, meet me, pretend you’re interested in what I’ve done while eating me with your eyes, bring me here for wiggling sixtynine on the bed, tongue like an eel, fuck me simpleminded, race off and instruct your Boy Scouts in virtue, knots, and nutritive weeds, sprint back here, fuck me into a fit, teach me English while fixing supper, show me slides of Monet and Montaigne, fuck me again, walk me home, make eyes at Franklin, come back and read two books at once, say your prayers, jack off for an hour, and sleep like a lambkin.”
That paragraph expresses everything that is good, bad, and terminally annoying about this quartet of stories. It’s unbelievable, for one thing. I’m not saying a young man can’t have whatever she’s saying, four orgasms in a day, or five, but I doubt that many make it a daily routine. It’s all so open-minded and “healthy” about sex, and of course he’s horsily hung. But isn’t this woman rather well-spoken for an untutored street person? Isn’t she a remarkably compliant sexual partner (they flop into bed constantly in these stories, and she never once has a headache)? Does she not object that he is obviously, and sometimes condescendingly, tutoring her? Is there really a woman like this anywhere in the world, even in Denmark? Life is simple, Hugo says on more than one occasion, but it ain’t this simple. Davenport objects in The Paris Review to novelists whose characters experience constant misery (“Don’t they have an ice cold coke now and then?” he says, after a bout of reviewing Joyce Carol Oates). I don’t object to his characters’ perpetual happiness. But it doesn’t ring true.
The story of the closed-down and misguided Bicycle Rider gives structure to the overall narrative, but around the bare bones (pardon the expression) of this structure everybody else is fucking like mad, jerking off tirelessly, jumping into bed with each other, walking around scantily dressed. A friend of mine once described the Jesuit order—which he inhabited for years—as “homosexual heaven,” but he apparently never went to boarding school in Denmark.
Amid this sexual circus, Hugo stands as the voice of moral authority. When he wakes up one morning with a hard-on, he and Franklin get in the shower, and “the little shaver has his up, too.” The trio goes out camping, and Franklin apparently observes his sister and Hugo doing it. “When she lollies your dick you’re kissing her between the legs, and then you fuck.” He has sand on his dick and balls, and his sister brushes it off for him. “Hejsa! that feels yummy,” the little tyke says. I’m sure it did. Later in the story Hugo is out, and Franklin gets into bed with his big sister. He explores “the essential differences in anatomy . . . by hand” and she “jacked him off thoroughly.” At the end of the story, Mariana is off having sex with an old flame, with Hugo’s somewhat disgruntled permission, and Hugo is in bed with Franklin . . . That is the night we hear that the Bicycle Rider has died of an overdose.
I can agree that the Bicycle Rider was lazy and misguided and didn’t have much direction to his life. He misused drugs and died as a result. But I don’t think his resistance to Hugo’s overtures are an indication of pathology; from his standpoint it probably looked like a cheap seduction. And though I’m in favor of sexual openness and freedom, somewhere in this story we cross a line that makes it all uncomfortable. Was it the hard-ons on the shower, after which Hugo and Franklin dried each other? Was it Franklin watching his sister “lolling” Hugo’s dick? Was it the time she thoroughly jacked her brother off? I was definitely uncomfortable by that point.
This is an odd situation with a man I think of as a great, though perhaps minor, writer. Guy Davenport had a brilliant mind, and his sentences are a pleasure to read. He is a remarkable scholar, who puts things together in ways that are surprising and edifying. The range of his reading, his writing, his artwork, the high quality of all his work, is nothing short of astounding. But what are we supposed to do with all these sperm-soaked underpants? Are we to sit nodding happily, like the daffy headmaster of this boarding school? I understand that Davenport has taken the Greek ideal and transposed it to a modern setting. That doesn’t mean I can’t have a reaction.
There is something about the open-minded healthiness of it all—and its obviously didactic nature—that I find annoying, all these high-minded people talking about sex so openly with their enormous weird vocabularies. “Admirable spadger, Hugo said. Your smart generous pretty sexy sweet sister says we can fall upon our supper, soon as I light the fire and lay the things out, or you can have your dink jiggled to your heart’s content, so you won’t feel left out, jo?” I can only take so much of this. Jiggle your own dink, Guy Davenport.
I also can’t help remembering that this was written, not by a man who woke up every morning and ran three kilometers and went swimming, but by a scrawny scholar who smoked Marlboros, had a preferred diet of Campbell’s soup, baloney sandwiches, and Snickers bars, and lived in Kentucky with a woman named Bonnie Jean. What did she think about all these boys?
All of these questions lead to the most controversial of the stories, “Wo es war, soll ich werden.” It is by far the longest; in its original publication it took up 100 pages of The Drummer of the Eleventh North Devonshire Fusiliers. It is written in a more expansive and relaxed way; its scenes are longer, convey more of a narrative. It concerns the same constellation of people, but focuses on some who have been in the background. In a quiet understated way, this story presents the most radical statement of Davenport’s vision.
The science teacher Holger Sigurjonsson and a young student named Pascal have lurked in the shadows of the earlier stories. Holger is a housemaster and Pascal his pet; they go around doing bed checks and observe various well-hung boys. Some of the boys teased Pascal for hanging around with the teacher, but Franklin—the street tough—defended him, to the point of a serious fist fight. Pascal is a science genius—he’s written an article that a distinguished journal has accepted, believing he’s middle-aged—and the boys respect him for his brains, but Franklin likes him as a person. They strike up a friendship, and Franklin arrives with all the healthy attitudes toward sex and male bonding that he’s absorbed from Hugo. He takes up with this brainy little scholar and sets about making him tough.
Hugo in the meantime works on Holger. Holger is one of the good guys, tolerant of the acting-out boys in the dorm, and obviously cares a great deal about Pascal, but something holds him back. He loves camping trips in the wilderness, and Pascal needs that kind of activity, but Holger is convinced he shouldn’t provide it. Hugo argues he should, and as an example takes Pascal on a trip that he takes with Franklin and Mariana.
“I think you’re trying to show me that I need to be liberated from something in myself,” Holger says. The two men discuss the phrase uttered by Freud that gives the story its odd title; Hugo translates it, “Where it was, there must I begin to be,” and speculates on the idea that “one source of strength seems to be weakness. . . . Freud meant that a wound, healing, can command the organism’s whole attention, and thus becomes the beginning of a larger health.”
Over time, Holger tells Hugo about the experiences in the past that have left him conflicted. One is a memory of sitting in a woman’s lap as he was drying from a bath, and having her play with his penis. He describes it as a happy memory, from the age of about two. He brings up a more complicated story from the age of ten or eleven.
His uncle, who was a schoolteacher interested in “Icelandic folkways, legends and ballads,” took him on a visit to a blind folksinger, who lived with his sister and her husband on a farm way out in the country, quite remote. “When, later in life, I saw a photograph of Walt Whitman, I realized that [he and the folksinger] could have been taken for twins, right down to the shape of beard and hair.” At one point the other adults wander away, and the folksinger asks young Holger to take him to the outhouse. While they are out there, he fumbles for the boy’s penis, and fondles it. “My fear gave way to pleasure, and to the sweetness of stolen pleasure, at that.”
They return to the house, and the singer tells his family he and the boy are going on a walk. When they get far enough away from the house that they can’t be seen, the man fondles him again. “He kept asking, in the kindest of voices, if I liked what he was doing, and I answered, quite truthfully, yes.” The man masturbates him, then, a little while later, does so again.
Hugo’s reaction is characteristic. “You were initiated into the boyish mysteries by a wizard of the huldufolk. Your cock’s probably magic.”
This is the first time Holger has confessed this to anyone, “a kind of primal event, as clear as I can tell it.” The encounter happened again, on several occasions. “This was a lovely secret that I hoarded: an adult who wanted me to feel sexual pleasure.” He sees it as the formative event of his sexual and emotional life. “Isn’t it the Freudian es of the formula? Where it was, there must I come to be.”
The whole story is told in this magical, folk story way. “He drank only well water, the blind folksinger, never spirits. Is your hair coppery gold, he had asked, or is it the white of meal, as with the old stock? He believed in the hidden folk. I know too much about them to doubt that they are. They are, you know, he had said, with a squeeze for Holger’s shoulder. They are wise. Your smallclothes are cunningly sewn, he had said, and your hands are as soft as a girl’s. The hidden folk sent you to me, and the debt I owe them is large.”
Back at the school, an older student named Jos has recognized Holger as gay, and gone about seducing him, including Pascal—who is always around—in everything he does. But the story’s focus is Holger and the younger boy. Pascal has done the camping trip with Hugo and his family, has that liberating example to go on. He too is flirting with, clearly in love with, the older man. When the two of them finally go camping, they spend a lot of time out of their clothes, swimming, sunbathing. They encounter a group of scouts, who seem to wonder what’s up. Finally, at the end of the day, when the boy clearly wants it, Holger gets in his sleeping bag.
Like all of Davenport’s stories, the story is narrated in sections—though these are longer and more relaxed—and sometimes the connection among them is obvious, sometimes rather mysterious. Buried within this story is a single episode based on a historical incident. In 1811, in Great Britain, two men—Ensign James Hepburn, 25, and Thomas White, 16—were hanged for committing the same sexual act that we have been reading about throughout these pages. The telling of this one-page episode is objective, matter of fact, understated; the author doesn’t comment. In the midst of all this innocent sexuality—whatever your attitude toward it—this section is suddenly devastating. The mindset that would even imagine such a punishment stands in sharp contrast to the mind that has produced these stories.
The moment of Holger finally climbing into Pascal’s sleeping bag is a major denouement; the story moves rapidly from there, fast forwards in time. Holger grows more relaxed and creative. “Over the summer something changed in me that’s so peculiar I don’t know what it is. I was taken apart and reassembled in a new geometry. Suddenly I could talk and write in a new way.”
“You [are] as different,” Hugo tells him, “advanced is what I mean, from the Holger I first knew as a tree laden with apples from its sapling.”
Hugo and Mariana have a child; Franklin and Pascal, after their youthful experiments with boys, are fighting over a girl.
The subject of daimons returns as well.
“Pascal is my daimon,” Holger said. “Franklin, Pascal’s.
“Who’s Franklin’s, Hugo asked.
“You, Mariana said. And you have more daimons than can be counted. Your father, handsome Jos, your scouts.
“No, sweetheart. You. You and Barnabas”—their child—“now that he’s here.”
“The Ringdove Sign,” the final of the four stories, moves back to a theological focus. It seems to occur chronologically after the other three, but it may be that “Wo es war, soll ich werden” was written later, as an elaboration on the earlier design. It was in any case published later, in a separate volume, with the haunting title—referring to Ensign Hepburn—The Drummer of the Eleventh North Devonshire Fusiliers.
“The Ringdove Sign” in any case has a feeling of looking back, talking things over. Hugo has finished his dissertation, which apparently concerns the idea that Jesus—or Yeshua, as Hugo insists—had his own daimons, who were an important part of his story but were largely cut from the gospels we have. “It stands to reason,” Pastor Tvemunding says, “that something so universal in Mediterranean belief as daimons would get into the gospels, and be removed, except for the traces you indicate, by scribes who didn’t understand what they were excising.” Hugo replies, “The whole crunch of theology is to what extent do people imagine that creatures of another realm, higher or lower, or invisibly within ours, interact with our lives.” As he says these words, he is eyeing his friends from the Jules Verne Steam Balloon, who have returned, and have joined the picnic he’s having with his family and his father.
Earlier on, he had talked over his dissertation with Mariana, who spelled out her understanding. “You think that the gospel writers could not wholly detach themselves from the ancient and pervasive Mediterranean belief in daimons as angelic messengers from heaven to an inspired person, a philosopher or a teacher like Yeshua, and gave him one: he’s the adolescent naked except for a piece of linen in the scene of the arrest, and he’s the younger brother Yeshua revives and talks to all of a night, and he’s the angel at the tomb on Easter.”
Hugo continues. “He’s all over the place. . . . The chap’s name was El’azar, or Eleazar, or in Latin Lazarus. Check out daimons with names, like angels. The night’s conversation ought to be messages from on high for Yeshua, not Yeshua instructing a rich young man whom he has brought back from the dead. He’s also probably the same as the rich young man Yeshua said should give all he had to the poor.” Everything had gotten scrambled in the telling, in the oral tradition. “And the daimon had,” Hugo continues, “in one of the longest traditions we can trace in the Mediterranean, a bird form. A dove. More than any other folktale, Yeshua mentions the sign of Jonas. That is, the sign of the dove. Jonas means dove.”
The Steam Balloon has returned, with its own set of daimons, and toward the end of the story we hear them talking things over. They don’t understand why they’ve been sent. “HQ, you know, isn’t really interested in this bunch. A cute old man, his tall randy son who can’t keep his generator in his pants, one sprightly girl and her little brother, and his friend. So Hugo is writing some gibberish, and teaches the old languages, which he mispronounces, and has a loving heart, what’s the bother. Pass the molasses cookies.”
Buckeye says, “Maybe it’s all for Pascal. He’s the deep one.”
Sure enough, at the end of the story, Pascal, along with Hugo, can see the balloon and its three passengers. The others cannot.
Suddenly it seems that the whole narrative—all four stories—was focused on Pascal. He was the one becoming whole.
Hugo has a unique explanation for some of the minor mysteries of the Gospels, the man in the Garden who suddenly disappears without his clothing, the man in white linen standing at the empty tomb. Identifying these two with Lazarus seems a bit of a stretch, the kind of theory a literary critic might have, and Davenport is one of the canniest critics I’ve encountered.
More interesting ultimately is the portrait he presents of Jesus, of a man more like us than we might have thought but one who—through some means or other—saw something about God that most of us haven’t. Davenport seems intent on humanizing Jesus, and being historically accurate. Hugo describes his probable physical appearance much differently than the typical artist’s rendering. “Hair probably black, black and shiny with perfumed oil. Sidelocks in curls down by his ears. A hat? Yes, let’s give him a big round straw hat, shallow-crowned, for walking in the broiling sun. A beard. Imagine him as a comely man, wonderfully attractive, big-nosed, very Mediterranean. Tall and sturdy: he was a carpenter. . . . Big floppy trousers, like a Turk, or modern Cretan. Sandals. And a kind of coat: a caftan, I suppose.” He looked—from this description—like an itinerant rabbi. But there was something about his message that was strange and extraordinary.
I applaud Hugo’s view that we’re here to help one another, though I’m not as sure as he that help comes in the form of a didactic and overbearing boarding school teacher. Davenport himself was endlessly didactic; in his essays he seems to be patiently lecturing, enduring our failure to see the obvious because we’re not as learned as he. I’m also not as sure as he that all this sexual activity and instruction are helpful. I haven’t seen that unfettered sex produces human happiness.
Davenport seems to be saying that Pascal’s liberation by Franklin, and his sexual encounters with Holger, were major factors in bringing about his wholeness of being. That same sexual activity had a huge effect on Holger, made him a free and creative person. Yet similar encounters in his own youth with the blind folksinger seem to be what left him conflicted. Why was the kind of incident that was difficult for him so healing for Pascal? I agree that erotic feelings are fine; teaching and learning are erotic enterprises, and it’s common for a boy Pascal’s age to have a crush on a teacher. Acting out that desire is another thing. It seems as often as not to harm people, sometimes irrevocably.
Is that because society condemns it? Is that what Davenport means to say, when he tells us the story of the drummer of the eleventh north Devonshire fusiliers? Or are there feelings that are all right to have, but best left unacted?
Not in the fiction of Guy Davenport. His is a world where to have a desire is to enact it, and everyone is joyous. The question is whether this Denmark of his imagination really exists, or is all a beautiful dream.
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