The Death of Picasso: New
and Selected Writing
Guy Davenport is a treasure for readers who are interested in words and ideas and combinations of thoughts that have never appeared before nor will again. His writing almost defies description as do most of his pieces in this collection whether they are essays or stories or aphorisms.
The collection opens with "The Owl of Minerva" a playful set of variations on 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. This story is followed by "The Playing Field" in which the same characters who appear in the first story, Magnus and Mikkel, figure as a variation on 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.
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?”
Throughout the collection stories present connections of ideas that oh so subtly encourage me to reread the stories in search of new ones. For example, the second story has a reference to Leonardo da Vinci's bicycle. Much later in the collection there is a long short story "The Bicycle Rider" which echoes this reference. The Greeks are seemingly omnipresent from Parmenides on, but perhaps that is part of the illusion created by this dazzling collage of writings. The result of all the pieces included is a book that requires close reading, sometimes from an uncommon angle of perception, to experience the exceptional conceptions of Davenport's genius.
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