Reviews — From the April 2004 issue

There Must I Begin to Be

Guy Davenport’s heretical fictions

( 3 of 5 )

The most daring of Davenport’s stories attempt to dramatize a world in which men and women can be themselves. They take their instigation from the ideas of Charles Fourier (1772-1837), a French philosopher whose writings probed the unhappiness of humankind. That unhappiness, Fourier believed, could be redressed through a system of his devising called the Harmony, and many of his underlying assumptions resonate with Santayana’s musings in “The Bank of England.” As Davenport explained, again in The Paris Review, last year:

[Fourier's] perception was that we have made a mess of what we had absolutely no need to make a mess of, that we can live far more successfully in human relations. First of all we must decide on a unit in which to live…. Fourier was constantly saying, “I do not want to change human nature,” while saying under his breath, “because it’s impossible.” He simply wanted to accommodate it. Everybody has different desires. And in the Harmony, you have a society that is either tolerant or wise enough to allow for that.

Fourier theorized a complete system of how that unit would function, everything from a new frankness of human interactions to a new relationship with animals (four-year-olds would ride around on German shepherds) to an elaborate prescription for which houseplant should go in your window on a given day of the year. In addition to finding Fourier delightful for devising so baroque a system of living with happiness as its end, Davenport is most deeply interested in Fourier’s anticipation of, and challenge to, Freud. “Practically everything Freud got hold of,” Davenport says, “Fourier had already divined, and drawn different conclusions. So I became fascinated, and this percolated and percolated.”

Two thirds of The Death of Picasso is devoted to Davenport’s stories in this Fourierist vein. Set in a world in which certain received ideas about human interaction and psychological development are revoked, the stories read as if the Fall never happened and Freud was never there to assemble the pieces of our shame.

Despite this grounding in philosophical and theoretical particulars, gone from these stories are Davenport’s famous names–no Kafkas or Santayanas, no Fouriers or Freuds. They are replaced by names like Mikkel, Magnus, Holger, Jos, Sholto, and Rutger, Danish names for the pre-adolescent boys who populate the Scandinavian Everyland of Davenport’s imagination in which these stories are set. The Scandinavia of it hardly matters; had Davenport been born in Copenhagen, he probably would have set the stories in Kentucky. An imaginary Denmark is sufficiently exotic and distant that it can serve as backdrop for Davenport’s reimagining of Western civilization along Fourierist lines. Fourier found the bourgeois family unit suffocating and murderous; Davenport seeks to reinvent it in a network of boys who are members of a scout troop. No scout troop is complete, of course, without a scout leader, and in that capacity Davenport casts Hugo Tvemunding as paterfamilias, “assistant Classics master and gym instructor at NFS Grundtvig, Troop Commander of Spejderkorps 235, and doctoral candidate in Theology.” Hugo has a girlfriend called Mariana and a philosophy called humanism:

I have only my Mariana, that delightful girl, and my classical scholarship, and my Boy Scouts, and my sober round of reading, gymnastics, my thesis for the Theological Faculty at the university, my painting, teaching, learning. I can share what I feel. Not always well, but the possibility is there. I believe what the Boy Scout Manual says: Forget Yourself.

Hugo is a paragon of balance: body and mind, teaching and learning, religion and science, art and philosophy, community service and individual betterment. Naturally, conspicuously, his physical perfection is Ideal. So too his pack of boys: they are, in Fourierist form, all bright, open, curious, and creative. And, without question, interested in exploring their sexuality, from which Davenport certainly does not shy away.

In one of Davenport’s new stories, “The Owl of Minerva,” two scouts, Adam and Sholto, stray from their troop and happen upon a derelict seasonal house. Together, they break in (using penknives, damaging nothing) and explore. With “his chin on Sholto’s shoulder” Adam cuts through vines and crosses the threshold. Once inside, they play house: they sweep, they clean, they mop floors, and they “mouth mimic kisses.” Muddy from their exertions, the boys strip and bathe together:

–You’re beautiful, Sholto, wet and shiny…. –I’m a year older. Shouldn’t I be the one to get fresh? –In friendly numbers the divisors of the one that add up to the other, and vice versa, are a new assembling of the other number’s components. Pythagoras. A friend is yourself in another person. –…Anyway, I like you. You’re scrumptious. –Our dicks are the same size. –Mine had better grow.

“The Owl of Minerva” is Davenport’s variation on a theme that has interested writers throughout literature–the parable of innocents in a garden. William Golding’s bloodthirsty children of Lord of the Flies are one recent, cynical permutation; the Enlightenment ironies of Voltaire’s Candide offer another, more satirical alternative; and the book of Genesis, of course, has its own, characteristically punitive, version. Davenport’s Garden, abandoned but pristine, is a world of potential waiting to be seized. Unaware of what befell the prior tenants, innocents fill the house, and each other, with endless stores of goodness. As such, “The Owl of Minerva”–a tide that refers to the dark condition of human ignorance into which illuminating wisdom at last enters–ends not with a figurative expulsion from unfathomable paradise but with a literal embrace of its earthly availbility: after groping together in the dark, the boys hold hands and talk about what they’ll eat for breakfast.

’s last review for Harper’s Magazine, “The Critic as Artist,” appeared in the July 2003 issue. He is currently a Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

More from Wyatt Mason:

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada


September 2015

The Neoliberal Arts

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Gangs of Karachi

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content