Reviews of Picturing Mind

WC (Bill) Bamberger:

This monolithic-looking book is at once a guide to, and a model of avoiding, monolithic models of thinking, both bad and good. Danvers opens sounding like a pastoral Gregory Bateson, pointing out how the qualities of the air and the light, the trees and animals around him, as well as what he is reading are all equally part of his consciousness at any given moment. “Each pattern is a moment of becoming, a shifting current of attentiveness and engagement that, for loss of a better word, I call my ‘self.'” He quotes poet Anne Carson quoting Sappho on Aphrodite’s mind/self: “many-colored, spotted, dappled, variegated, intricate, embroidered, inlaid,” and many more—what Carson calls a “spangled mind.” The cultivation of such a mind is Danvers’ ideal, and this book is his way of helping us to achieve such a mind. It does indeed talk about art and poetry and science and paradox, but these are only the vessels we’re invited to unwind or decant to find the ideas temporarily taking such shapes.

Danvers has strong Buddhist sympathies, and we shouldn’t be surprised that he includes a number of drawings he has done, not as direct illustrations of specific text, but as a series of visual harmonics. Taking off from the Buddhist conundrum of having to see the world both in conventional (“realistic”) terms and as “empty,” Danvers comments that “in some way drawing can be used to practice emptiness, in the sense that as we draw we become aware of the conventionality of distinction.” Art’s “interrogation of appearances,” he suggests, is also something we can apply when looking at ourselves. (Poet Anne Wadlman once described herself standing before a mirror, “Putting makeup on empty space.”) Seeing such ideas in science, art, self and more as being continuums rather than separate entities is one of Danvers’ root principles here. And that is what Danvers is after: making us look to our root ideas and strip away false premises. (How many steely textbooks can do that?) In a telling Gaia of self, Danvers’ ambition as an author prompts him to refuse to draw conclusions for us. PICTURING MIND at times seems an anthology, a daybook, an art journal, a record of spiritual thought, a work of light-handed socio-anthropology, anything but a lecture telling us “this is how it is.”

Danvers knows not to thunder, not to hammer. He knows that purely “logical” argument carries with it the aggression of the rigid finger, impatiently tapping on the tabletop. His progress is instead a series of elliptical orbits, with long swings out to unexpected territory and back to the “we all know this already” landscape, always about the common center of finding a balance between living in the given and finding new ideas around and within ourselves; of a constant, insistent becomingness.

Danvers’ range of subjects and examples here is near-encyclopedic, ranging from the classical age of Greek thought to deconstruction days. The reader probably won’t get his or her mind around it the first time, and rereading and dipping in will likely be a rewarding necessity. And I wonder if this was not deliberate, if offering more than can easily be mastered, synopsized or summed in an effective way, isn’t another way of reminding us that we always have to think and draw conclusions for ourselves.

Near the end of the book Danvers asks us and himself, “In following the various convoluted trails and themes of this book we are left with the conundrum of how to draw these together into a meaningful resolution?” He answers this in part by borrowing an idea from Guy Davenport, who wrote that artists infold, and readers unfold. He then suggests we extend Davenport’s notion to the self, see the making of the self as an infolding, the making of a “complicatio,” and when we meet another self we engage in a mutual “explicatio,” and then infold some of what we find in the process. “And each folding leaves a trace, a crumpling, an adding to the texture and history of the ‘complicatio,'” our self.

This book is a self-unfolding by Danvers, and if you come to it open you will get much to fold back into your self.

WC (Bill) Bamberger is the editor of Selected Letters of Guy Davenport & James Laughlin, Norton & Co, 2007

Martin Shaw:

This is a generous book. Danvers draws on a great swathe of thinkers and artists, whilst staying close to his exploration of art, nature and the mind – no small undertaking. The book’s lively course is mapped in the preface in unpretentious, engaging prose. It’s generosity is the sheer volume of influences that he brings together – an exploration that must have taken many decades in the artist’s own life. That in itself feels like a gift. The book is more than the sum of these parts however – it has some other, strange emergent life of its own.

There is a crucial balance between some very sophisticated ideas and a secondary, personal narrative that runs alongside. As a reader this gives us a sense of spaciousness, even playfulness at times. It’s a book with nuance. Assisting this dynamic range is Danvers own drawings; odd landscapes, clusters of words, splatters of ink that resemble a mad crows foot astride his desk.

In a very unforced manner, Danvers pulls us towards a sense of interdependence between seemingly disparate disciplines and objects. His perception of Blaser’s “contrarium” and ourselves as ” half -breeds and and hybrids, liminal presences on the edge of otherness” in particular deserves study.

Danvers is not hiding behind smoke and mirrors – he is seriously trying to communicate some wyrd unfolding in his own mind- an unfolding that deserves attention and praise.

Martin Shaw is the author of, A Branch from the Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace of Wildness, White Cloud Press, 2011.

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