Fairly Directly to Death

On May 26, 2012 by admin

Prasanta Chakravarty

Stanley Cavell’s magisterial memoir Little Did I Know, Excerpts from Memory (Stanford University Press, 2010) begins by telling us that his will be a story of the detours on the human path to death: “…accidents avoided or embraced, strangers taken to heart or neglected, talents imposed or transfigured, malice insufficiently imposed, love inadequately acknowledged.” These he has authorization to speak of.

In a way it is a story of embracing a certain blindness—like the agnostic philosopher and musicologist Vladimir Jankelevitch who would not listen to German music or mention German philosophy. It is like keeping one’s eyes closed and moving through a familiar room in order to imagine what it would be like to be blind so that one is able to tiptoe back and forth between remembering and forgetting.

Forgetting and acceptance does not mean that the disagreements with the alleyways of life are now agreed with: it means finding a further life—in the practice of philosophy. Philosophy then, is often an abstraction of autobiography. So, Cavell reminds us, how Wittgenstein would habitually think and share ordinary language, not advance theses in philosophy. Philosophy, like autobiography must be for everyone and no one—as Emerson in his notebooks or Wordsworth in The Preludes allude to us.

This attitude, this discriminating posture, would seem pretentious to those who write out of a sense of a history of oppression. Not enough representative of culture or race or sex, it would seem. What then is Cavell doing as a Jew? His Jewishness—always marked a tinge sharper in America, in growing up in the East side of Atlanta and then in Sacramento, in his obligations to Semitic purity, his explorations of the subtle biases in European philosophical tradition, are not matters of cultural identity, he tells us, but “identities compacted in my existence.” As he thinks about identities and scruples of purity he simultaneously wonders about his sedation and isolated concentration of lights in the midst of a complicated recent heart procedure, and speculates, might we not all be headed for exciting interplanetary travel? And yet Cavell humbly underlines that his words can be at best excerpts from an American academic’s life—alternating between the common and the singular.

In a book peppered with dazzling encounters with some of the sharpest minds of the 20th century, two men stand out. One is the philosopher J.L. Austin. And the other, Cavell’s father: “We see our fathers naked. We men,” Cavell would confide,  as he painstakingly details his old man’s  ruthless melancholia and acutely vulnerable Jewish relationship to a new country and what he has bequeathed to the junior—dispassion and attachment in equal measure. A bereft and incoherent professor, unsure in things he ought to be an authority on, as we espy quite early. But beneath the raw murmurings and unbridgeable rancor also lie a subtle bond of empathy, like when the unschooled, pawnshop-owner father takes the son to a manufacturer of academic robes when Cavell prepares to defend his doctoral dissertation. It was a private ceremony and the rigorous philosopher, from a distance, wonders about the requirement of such ceremonies in our lives: “Ceremony in human existence is no more measurable by its utility, though philosophers seem to sometime argue otherwise, than the possession of language is, or living in common; you might as well argue the utility of possessing a human body.”  And once, when Cavell asked his mother why she ended up marrying his father, she replied, “He is a serious man.” Her silences, Cavell tells us, when not terrifying, were often golden. At its profoundest, this journey of a book is about silences and postponement and the price we willingly, knowingly pay for these decisions. It is a mad world, my masters!

And it is these that have always driven Cavell to his readings.  The kaleidoscope of subject positions and the inexhaustible joy in trying to relate to those take Cavell to intellectual inquiries. He wonders about Thoreau acquiring wood for his new cabin by destroying the old shack and recalls a particular passage from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. ‘our investigation seems only to destroy everything important,’ but insists that he is ‘destroying nothing but houses of cards.’ But if the world remains, as it is, pointlessly, what counts as defense against another’s moods?

Between these bouts of inwardness, Cavell narrates some exuberant and universal teenage moments too—his awkward awe and sleeplessness at spying a local beauty, naked in a local performance rehearsal, his brave 1935 apple-green Oldsmobile coupe, high school bowling matchups—sometimes played for money, his music band and music album collection that he so treasured and then let go. There is this hilarious anecdote about his own precociousness as a kid as his teachers tested him on skipping him to the second grade a year earlier. After the teachers finished testing Cavell with a string of questions and making him do things with blocks, he shot back: “You have asked me a lot of questions. Now I am going to ask you a question. What is the difference between a hill and a pill?” To his bemused teachers who had no clue whatsoever, after a brief pause, Cavell coolly informed—“A hill goes up and pill goes down.” When he came out, he told his mother that his question was not good enough since a hill could both go up and down. There is a sense that this precociousness, and a keen sense of it, was both a source of pride and perpetual misery to him and to his close ones.

While in the hospital after a road accident he felt like Proust’s narrator describing his stages of awakenings! Are accidents, unlike events, disproportionate to causal causes, of threads forever lost? But then he wonders whether accidents, encounters, excuses and misses could at all happen after cell phones. O yes, they could indeed, “what if the cell phone melts or a goat eats it.” Things will continue to happen comically, at unripe times, in the wrong tempo. It is in these circumstances that Cavell recalls one of his rich and admired uncles who gave some worldly-wise advice: “Don’t concern yourself with what you hear about anti-Semitism. Just be three times better than your competition and you’ll be all right.”

Music is a religion, outlasting Judaism and Socialism. (There are two other religions in this book—Eros and Philosophy). But he spends a lot of time narrating his interest in the extraordinary ordinariness of music—a metaphysical world that suffuses his material conditions of living. Helps him keep his head above water. Outside of academe. But sometimes with academe. A young miner in the North of England, Cavell recalls, became enamored of classical music and would whistle snatches of it as he went to work. An old miner provided him with a further education: “You ought not to whistle Beethoven when you go to the mine. You hear the whole orchestra when you whistle. What the rest of us hear is only your whistling.”  And Ernest Bloch in Berkeley gives Cavell and his graduate classmates a glimpse of what it meant to be an intellectual and an artist at the same time. There is a touching exercise in the economy of music when Bloch tells his class and then goes on to demonstrate how conducting is just clapping when the conductor gives the clue. The rest is detailing. Years later, during the political upheavals of the sixties, Cavell remembers that the same Bloch had said to his class: “When the city of San Francisco, for my seventieth anniversary, dedicated a day to me and gave a large luncheon in my honor, I began my speech by saying: ‘This is the unhappiest day of my life.’ ” Such was the stoic power of equitable utopia in music.

Cavell sketches the impetus for his own formidable oeuvre as a part and parcel of his growing up days. The Claim of Reason, for instance, was written from a fear of inexpressiveness and over expressiveness and to discover the role of therapy in philosophy. No wonder, then, that a despairing isolation and bouts of intellectual ecstasy joust for primacy in each of Cavell’s works. One of the important personal and poignant sections of the book is Cavell’s observation of how Jewish pawn-brokers (not unlike Dickens in the blacking factory?)  like his father would often read Chapter 24 of Deuteronomy from the Torah in which laws of usury are promulgated, requiring respect from those who have borrowed along with the law against gleaning, to confess the knowledge that once that whole community was enslaved.  This taught them to take the pledge of pawning almost as a therapy. This poetry of uneasy redemption and grace are the first suggestions that lead to many others about the deeply therapeutic role of philosophy—and Cavell is not sure whether philosophy is supposed to provide you with any answers.  But it is for this spiritually divided selfhood that young Cavell got attracted to Thoreau’s Walden, as he wondered how a work so clearly and incessantly written to highlight the economic dimension of human existence is also so deeply reflective. Was the writer of Walden influenced by German idealism, then?

Pawn shops and old school salesmanship also meant a knowledge of elaborate codings and decodings, before the days of computers, and that meant a spirit of the wanderlust—driving him towards riddles and poetry in philosophy. This double vision of philosophy, sometimes competing—between moral claims and the wandering/wondering spirit—leads to a certain discomfort as Cavell encounters two books( A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic and Charles Stevenson’s Ethics and Language) early on,  that ‘reasonably’ claimed that moral judgment is, at its best, an expression of emotion meant to move and persuade. Is this like reporting a lost and found dog—the aim of moral philosophy? And what about wonder—how do we learn to inject desire and disturbance in reflection? Wonder means something opposite to teaching and instruction—and Cavell wonders about the point of speaking altogether. Is it worth it, to open one’s mouth? This question suffuses the opening essays of Cavell’s first book—Must We Mean What We Say? And he acknowledges his divided allegiance to moral philosophy and its uselessness at various points: “Perhaps this texture of fear and constricted knowledge, with its anticipatory echo of the endowed Chair of Aesthetics and the Theory of Value I occupied at Harvard during my last decades of teaching amounts only to some private joke certain lesser gods are reduced to telling one another.” Once his teaching assistant remarked that when logic got really interesting and powerful it left natural language quite behind, which was too hopelessly vague and ambiguous to serve as a medium of serious philosophical analysis. Cavell was disappointed. Academia is also another form of nomadism as one evolves and shifts gear, and also as one’s students get dispersed to the winds after companionable labour and nourishing conversations. Consequently, Stanley Cavell’s universe is marked by a certain restiveness (what he calls ‘random extravagance’) along with intense philosophical professionalism. So, we see someone who consistently argues for an ethical compass jumping headlong into music and performance in the black Tougaloo college in Jackson, Mississippi during the restive sixties and transfiguring Harvard philosophy classes by including Marx in the syllabus.

One comes across a few choicest anecdotes and insider stories of the Atlantic academic world during the second half of the twentieth century. In 1963, when Cavell meets Bernard Williams for the first time over dinner at Princeton, Williams informs him rather quizzically about how the cold and ‘insufferably dogmatic’ Austin pushed his Oxford graduate students and younger dons to read Cavell’s early essays, who bristled at the thought of reading philosophy from another fellow graduate student and an American at that!

Then there is the legendary music teacher at Berkeley, Marjorie Petray, who wishes to test Cavell by asking him to play for 60 seconds Liszt’s D-Flat Fantasy impromptu and at the end of it, turning to the class, remarks: ‘Isn’t it fine to hear a man’s touch at the piano?” That daring invidious compliment lead to an adolescent crush as he looks for excuses to be in the magic presence of this ‘full woman.’ He begins to think about Tannhauser’s curse—whose singing attracts the passion of women, and to each of them he comes to sing the wrong song or sings wrongly to each. Only one woman successfully intercedes for him, once for his life, once for his redemption. Marjorie Patray committed suicide, leaving two children and a rich husband.

Cavell fondly recalls how Terence Malik, whose academic major was philosophy at Harvard and who was actually immersed in Heidegger and in films, of course. Such sharpness of mind and the quick daring of considering Heidegger a philosopher at Harvard will not go down well, Cavell feared, with his external examiners. But Malik was unmoved, and began instructing his instructors instead. His grades ensured that even if he failed in the interviews, he would still graduate with the highest honours.

Or one of those stories expatriated Harvard graduates like to tell to convey to the less fortunate the unrivaled swank of Harvard that Cavell tells us with some irony. “After dinner, around the fire in an adjacent common room, George Santayana was talking with a few of us carefully but effortlessly well-dressed young men, and asked us: ‘Can you read Goethe in German, Dante in Italian, and Lucretius in Latin?’ No one claimed to be able to read all three. Santayana replied: ‘I too am very ignorant.’ And then added, ‘Not that ignorant.’

The other one is about Thomas Kuhn, who after a late night drink or two with Cavell, blurts out with a tortured look: “I know Wittgenstein uses the idea of ‘paradigm.’ But I do not see its implications in his work. How do I answer the objection that this destroys the truth of science? I deplore the idea. Yet if instruction and agreement are the essence of the matter, then Hitler could instruct me that a theory is true and get me to agree.” Cavell’s reply I cast as follows: “No he could not; he could not educate you in, convince you of, show you, its truth. Hitler could declare a theory to be true, as an edict. He could effectively threaten to kill you if you refuse to, or fail to, believe it. But all that means is that he is going to kill you; or perhaps kill you if you do not convince him, show him, that you accept and will follow the edict. I don’t say this is clear. But it is something I cannot doubt is worth doing whatever work it will take to make clear.” Kuhn’s reaction was startling. He rose almost violently from his chair, began pacing in front of the fireplace, and as Cavell narrates, muttered something like, “Yah. Yah.” What causes conviction? What, perhaps rather, may undo an unnoticed conviction?” After that night both arranged to meet for lunch and regularly discuss ideas which would later appear as The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

In a manner, Cavell’s book is the quintessential tale of the immigrant in America. And ruthlessly introspective, as the best of such tales have always been. He reminds us that while United States is a synonym for chauvinism, America might not be (patriotism has become a maggot in his nation’s consciousness). Has this something to do with US’s chronic skittishness about philosophy and original intellectuality? A typical example is the writings in the New Yorker which share a particular claim to sophistication among the literary and the tasteful class. And yet, Cavell tells us how he came across an essay on Emerson on his two hundredth birth anniversary by the celebrated John Updike, who was able to, and willing to, string out a list of careless and banal criticism of Emerson’s pretensions, but unwilling to explain subtly and accurately by contextualizing those very sentences. Cavell asks: Who was Updike protecting? What public service was he thereby performing? It is this cultural dispensation, of hasty and gleaming smartness, that Cavell has been cautioning us in all his works. As he sums up: “Snobbery readily presents itself as a form of tastelessness manifested by those with some real taste.”

In a brief spurt of inspired wonder at the relationship between poetry, philosophy and more practical activities, Cavell recalls Wallace Stevens’ and Santayana’s repeated claims upon philosophy and asks why The Magic Mountain might open with the question ‘What is Time?” He responds to Stevens’ claims of virility in poetry by considering Euripides’ Hippolytus, as a study of the dangers of promising and Racine’s Phedre, which is about the treacherousness of speech.  Poets have to risk both—accept the promise of poetry before they can withstand consequent prophecy/poverty and contest with monsters the right to assert their own language and imaginative cosmos. In the background is Wittgenstein’s famous tag at the end of Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, therefore one must be silent,” which was in response to Nietzsche’s admonition at the beginning of his second volume of Human, All Too Human, “One should speak only where one must not be silent.” But when a culture unnoticeably learns to read and converse silently, its implications are vast.  Cavell’s own literary-artistic sensibility was largely guided by his discovery of writers of stories, like Saul Bellow, Isaac Rosenfeld, Bernard Malamud, Robert Warshow and the likes of Kafka and Mann. The legacy, for which he is permanently grateful, he calls non-Stalinist socialist aspirations living somehow with a commitment to high modernism. But he was often bored in literary theory and psychology classes, which seemed formless and far too uselessly abstract. In this case he had to be partisan:  “…in both psychology and literature classes, names of members of the philosophy department began to be invoked by students asking the most interesting questions…” But this reaction comes from an intense love of art, not dismissal. What he dismisses is pedantry. Without fail.  Cavell, in continuation to a rare tradition in philosophy, has always sought philosophy’s rapprochement with art, two ancient rivals: “I am not willing just to say that Shakespeare, Racine, Dickens, George Eliot, Ibsen, Proust, Kafka, and so on evidently know intuitively what philosophy responds to conceptually. These writers also evidently respond conceptually.”

Music is a constant presence and so are films. As he writes the musical score for a professional production of King Lear (songs, fanfare, tuckets, alarums, storm effects and a concluding dirge), Cavell underscores the fact that to imbibe theatre’s intellectual ambience means not only a familiarity that exceeds mere literary study but also the enlargement of scope, because a production systematically and explicitly demands the exercise of imagination, articulation, interpretation, surprises and mood. Cavell is inordinately happy when his Cities of Words gets mentioned by two reviewers in connection with the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That some of his works are long forgotten save a specialized readership and yet are referred to in relation to this film or that composition makes it still alive and pertinent. Similarly, a publication of a collection of essays Contending with Stanley Cavell, on his works, with his responses in it, makes him pleased as a peach. We observe, to our utter delight, how common our humanity is actually—with its similar worries and fears, its stubborn foibles and tribulations.

At one level the book is also about academic institutions. And at a time when institutions are being undermined and faculty humiliated by all kinds of high handedness, certain observations demand special attention. Like when he observes in general how “Large and ambitious universities are on average probably no less complex, and no subtler, at making decisions about hiring and promotion, and generally no more or less rational in evaluating and balancing talent and productiveness and promise and reputation and loyalty and simple affection, than law firms or insurance companies or sports teams. It is true that the latter have measures of winning and losing apparently more objective (cases handled successfully, policies written, league standings) than universities do. Yet one imagines universities to have the freedom to be better, at once juster and kinder and more imaginative.” At several points the book reminds us how lectures need not necessarily be displays of individual accomplishment rather than invitations to participate in professionally working things through and how graduate students ought to be regarded as participating in a common enterprise with their professors. Cavell, ever so persistent in highlighting the kind of seriousness that academic pursuit demands, is at the same time ruthlessly dismissive of academe’s false pretences. To the popular adage meant to explain the compounding decline of an academic department’s importance, or perhaps to decry a new appointment to the faculty: “Second-rate people like to be around third-rate people. First-rate people like to be around first-rate people,” Cavell has to say this: “Do first-rate people speak so—except in their fourth-rate moments?”

And a very touching, poignant episode comes late in the book that shows how this man thinks about the academe. Gilbert Ryle comes to Harvard, and among other things, gives an informal lecture in the students’ common room. As Ryle holds forth, a senior Harvard faculty, Henry Aiken, arrives volubly drunk and creates a commotion. A student host takes him out and just as Cavell was thinking the situation was well handled, the student returns and takes his place again near Ryle. When Cavell asks the student later about why he would leave Aiken to his disgrace, he said he did not wish to miss the lecture. This sets Cavell thinking about the level of refinement and prestige that moral philosophy has achieved these days. And a consequent casualness in everyday actions: “A talented teacher to whom you owe gratitude for repeated past kindnesses, and whose disgraceful conduct will be underscored by the consciousness of your rebuke, deserves better of you than being deftly turned out of doors, when the only cost to you to help him preserve a tatter of dignity is the mild disappointment of missing the end of a public conversation.” There is something quaint enough to learn from someone who refuses to recognize competitiveness (or moral stinginess) where it entails a lack of respect. The way to make winning pertinent, or rather irrelevant, is to win in such a way as to be beyond or outside evaluation.

There is an important section towards the concluding part of the book which shows how vexed and attracted this professional philosopher is towards French post-structuralist writings. On the one hand, Cavell is moved intensely by intentions of exchange and challenging claims in philosophy. The whole point of doing philosophy is a right to confront (“…a confrontation that draws blood, or stops or boils or cools or heartens it.”) and examine each other in our daily existence. This is a rational position. On the other, he is profoundly disturbed that philosophy has put a distance between itself and theology. This leads him to Lacan and Blanchot who feel that human beings are made so as to bump into each other. Philosophy ought to be the unblushing publishing of one’s guilt within the everyday. And yet that it chronically avoids the everyday is a predicament Cavell painfully confronts. His first encounter with Derrida (with Cavell’s book in hand) sums it up in manner. He can see how both of them are thinking together on the conditions of our existence and yet the ways of this French articulation he cannot fathom. The phantasmagoria of fashionable American espousal of French thought bothers him and yet he walks close to them in every manner. The result is the acknowledgement of a profound conundrum within the American humanities world itself in the last century: “American dispensation of humanities, formed in the absence, indeed the shunning, of the study of philosophy, left it incapable of evaluating claims made in the name of philosophy by philosophers from the other side, whereas professional philosophers on this side were on the whole too contemptuous of these claims to study them.”

This is a book about a way of living. This is also, to a large extent, the inside story of the American academia as it developed in the previous century. And within all this lies the story of the evolution of philosophy. What does a commitment to philosophy look like? With what right, out of what need, might or should a teacher question it? Certainly not by creating works, but by going back over one’s expressions, leaving nothing standing, or perhaps, as Emerson, one of Cavell’s heroes, puts the matter, always just approaching. To trace a path, crooked and unpredictable—that is what has been Stanley Cavell’s aim in this journey. No harm indeed in saying again, It is a mad world, my masters—I speak as a child.



Vladmir Jankelevitch, ‘Should we Pardon Them.’ http://www.du.edu/cjs/documents/jankelevitchshouldwepardonthem.pdf

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Complete Works http://www.rwe.org/

Richard Wagner, Tannhauser Overture, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQ2WIUam7Tc

Deuteronomy, Chapter 24 http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0524.htm

Euripides, Hippolytus http://classics.mit.edu/Euripides/hippolytus.html

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions http://insitu.lri.fr/~mbl/Stanford/CS477/papers/Kuhn-SSR-2ndEd.pdf

J.L. Austin, Other Minds http://www.scribd.com/jacinto1234/d/63288853-Austin-Other-Minds


Prasanta Chakravarty teaches English at the University of Delhi.

One Response to “Fairly Directly to Death”

  • Vasant Sharma

    A delightful review.The incident about Gilbert Ryle is very interesting.Yes, most of us would have behaved like the student. Stanley Cavell is right in pointing this out.

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