We Are Alien

Guy Davenport (1927-2005), The Symbol of the Archaic in The Geography of the Imagination (David R. Godine, Publisher, 1997), p. 19-20:

[..] we are alienated from all that was most familiar. Basically he [Charles Olson] meant that we no longer milk the cow, or shoot the game for our dinner, or make our clothes or houses or anything at all. Secondly, he meant that we have drained our symbols of meaning. We have religious pictures in museums, honouring a residual meaning in them, at least. We have divorced poetry from music, language from concrete particulars. we have abandoned the rites de passage to casual neglect where once we marked them with trial and ceremony.

Thirdly, he meant that modernity is a kind of stupidity, as it has no critical tools for analysing reality such as the ancient cultures kept bright and sharp. We do not notice that we are ruled by the worst rather than the best of men: Olson took over a word coined by Pound, pejorocracy. Poetry and fiction have grieved for a century now over the loss of some vitality they think they see in a past from which we are by now irrevocably alienated.

6 thoughts on “We Are Alien

  1. I’d very much like to read Davenport’s Geography of the Imagination, but I’m equally interested in his Every Force Evolves a Form. Have you read this one as well? And have you read any of his fiction?

    • I read all the essays in a whirlwind about 6/7years ago, and plan to reread them all over the next few months. They are truly exceptional. I’ve never even thought to read the fiction, but do plan to get the newly released Guy Davenport Reader (Counterpoint, 2013), which will expose me to some of his fiction.

      • I saw the Counterpoint book as well, seems like a good place to start. I realized yesterday that I have read some of his essays – in various classes – but had not gone further than that, which I now will. Thanks.

  2. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.

    For a few million years we’ve been materializing here — wherever and whatever ‘here’ is — without having given our consent and with no indication of a release date. Understandably, our recorded history portrays us as having little or no natural affinity for our own or any other species, and our earliest poetry and fiction clearly demonstrates that we’ve grieved our ‘alienation’ forever, not for just a puny century. (Davenport made stuff up like this all the time.)

    • Ha! I miss our conversation on Twitter.

      I almost agree, but I suspect that our ‘alienation’ is accumulative, and takes new dimensions with each generation. Modernity with its complexity and increasingly abstract nature means that alienation is no longer about the oppression of man by man (simple), but is now systemic, a consequence of a set of mechanisms of mind boggling complexity. We have always lacked meaning, but the degree of absurdity has increased exponentially.

      • I miss our conversation, too. I don’t read Twitter any more, but I do receive emailed update alerts for a few blogs (hi, Michelle!), so I’m not entirely hermitic (or hermetic)…yet.

        You’re probably right that “alienation” increases from generation to generation. I put the word in quotes because I’m not convinced we all mean the same thing when we allude to the concept, or that it even exists beyond the realm of conceptual theory. Regardless, to whatever degree we collectively register a vague but unabating sense of isolation or estrangement, I don’t believe the objects of that estrangement are “all that was most familiar,” or robust “symbols of meaning,” or “critical tools for analyzing reality.” Nor do I imagine that we are ruled by a pejorocracy: If ever there was a pathocracy, this is it!

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