OBJECTS ON A TABLE: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature by Guy Davenport

OBJECTS ON A TABLE: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature

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Urbane meditations on the history and meaning of the still life in art and literature. Essayist, poet, translator, and fiction writer Davenport (The Cardiff Team, 1996, etc.) takes as his subject the idea of the still life in art. However, he doesn't offer any sort of academically systematic treatise of the topic. Instead, it's more accurate to say that he takes the idea of harmonious disarray in art as a way of focusing and stimulating his own wide-ranging and historically literate imagination. Here is a conservative sample of the Davenport mode of verbal meditation: ""The pipe begins to appear in Renaissance still lifes as a memento mori: life passes away like smoke. An extinguished candle usually accompanied a pipe, and books and food and musical instruments added up to the vanity of our brief life. The nineteenth century would transmute these symbols into ones of peace, cosiness, and domesticity, until in Picasso and Braque they are emblems of shrinking privacy, the precious vestiges of harmony in a distracting and insane world."" Sometimes his leaps of imagination and lists of connections strain credulity. This kind of thing can be dazzling or irritating, depending on how you feel about argument and documentation. Davenport knows this, of course, and aims by virtue of his book's ""disarray of perceptions and conjunctions"" to charm his consenting partner into a like state of meditation on van Gogh, on Nietzsche, on Edgar Allen Poe, on the persistence of apples and pears in the Western imagination, on the assemblage of objects on Sherlock Holmes's desk at 221B Baker Street. Davenport has the wonderful ability to ""read"" inanimate objects in their historical setting, and he seems to remember everything he ever read. The range of allusion is immense and challenging and rewarding. Davenport is a virtuoso of the literary essay, and here the magic mostly works.

Pub Date: Oct. 30th, 1998
Page count: 144pp
Publisher: Counterpoint