The Transcendentalist Strain

Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory (Cultural Memory in the Present) BY Stanley Cavell. Stanford University Press. Hardcover, 560 pages. $34.

The cover of Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory (Cultural Memory in the Present)

Stanley Cavell grew up in Atlanta and Sacramento, California. He was a student in music at UC Berkeley and Juilliard before studying philosophy at UCLA and completing a Ph.D. at Harvard University. His eighteen books range from treatments of individual writers (Wittgenstein, Emerson, Shakespeare) to studies in aesthetics, film, and religion. Through his writing and almost half century of teaching—six years at Berkeley, thirty-five at Harvard—Cavell has become “one of the great philosophers,” as Jay Parini wrote in the Hudson Review in 1988. Cavell served for many years as president of the American Philosophical Association, and among his numerous awards and honorary degrees was a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992. His influence, extending beyond philosophy into literature, film, and music criticism, has transformed the way we understand culture. Cavell’s memoir, Little Did I Know: Excerpts From Memory, will be published this summer by Stanford University Press.

I visited Cavell at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, in late February. Norton Batkin, his son-in-law who teaches philosophy and is dean of graduate studies at Bard College, had also come up. The two of them have been conversing about philosophy and just about everything else since they first met in California in 1973; by 1976 Batkin had enrolled in Harvard’s graduate program in philosophy. The three of us spent a day in conversation, and a small portion of that is reproduced here. Cavell’s presence and the sound of his voice describing the motivation and trajectory of his work register palpably in this transcript, and even more so in the very brief excerpt selected here from Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (University of Chicago Press, 1996). —JOAN RICHARDSON

JOAN RICHARDSON: Emerson’s work has been so crucial to yours. You once observed, “What Emerson calls for is something we do not want to hear, something about the necessity of patience or suffering in allowing ourselves to change.” What do you mean?

STANLEY CAVELL: First of all, I’m very glad I said it. I don’t believe that human existence is just one damn problem after another. And in reading Dewey, who was my first love in philosophy, you can sort of get that idea: “You have a problem—well, let’s see what the problem is, and we solve it, and then we go on.” “Yes, I have a problem: I’m going to die, so let’s solve that for me!” And at first Emerson didn’t stir me; I felt it was flowery. But then when it hit me, it stayed. I thought, I believed, that you can read every word of it, and press it, and it still stays meant. So that became ideal for me, about how to write and what I wanted from philosophy.

JR: You also said that to claim Emerson as a pragmatist is “to repress his difference”—the difference of his voice—and “to deny that America is as transcendentalist as it is pragmatist, that it is in struggle with itself, at a level not articulated by what we understand as the political.”

SC: The general idea about America, the colloquial, is that life is a set of problems, and you solve them. This represents a certain superficiality of American political and religious life and a sense of the superficiality of American life generally that not only seemed to me false but galled me. Not only does it deny the depth of its literature—well, not only: It denies the depth of its literature! But then that also inspired me to realize that very often people working in literature deny the depth of its literature, too. The ease with which I found Emerson to be talked about in literature departments as not much of a mind but “sure can write well”—I hated that. It just seemed to me grossly blind and false and traitorous.

JR: Yes, in The Senses of Walden [1972] and elsewhere you speak of Emerson and Thoreau as “underwriting” what has come to be known as ordinary-language philosophy. Can you explain?

SC: Well, first of all because they shun philosophical language. That is, they don’t shun philosophy, but whatever they can’t put in their own voice they don’t. And as far as I was concerned, they were putting just about everything in their own voices, and I found that inspiring, unfashionable and inspiring, and partly one because of the other.

JR: Your epigraph for The Claim of Reason [1979] is from Emerson’s “Divinity School Address”: “Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.” What does this idea have to do with ordinary-language philosophy?

SC: It starts with the idea that ordinary-language philosophy begins with listening to people—which is very early in philosophy. I regard that as the origin of philosophy: “Oh, that’s what you think!” As opposed to presenting a bunch of theses. And it’s harder. Philosophy would like not to be so exposed all the time.

JR: Philosophy for you, as it was for the Stoics, is a form of therapy in the primary sense of the word, which means “to attend to, to listen,” as a physician would. I’m guessing that even when you’re alone thinking, when you’re writing, that there is a conversation going on.

SC: Absolutely right. And in courses at Harvard it was always a matter of being in conversation with texts. I wouldn’t swear that I assigned more texts than other philosophy teachers. I mean, you can do it two ways in philosophy: You can talk about one book or one chapter or one page and pride yourself on never getting past the questions raised by that, or you can just throw a library at kids and force them to go through it. And I believe in both pedagogically. It’s always a ball game and a juggling game.

JR: In other words, getting the “pitch”—in all its senses—right, as close to “perfect” as possible. This is connected, I think, to your saying that “in philosophy it is the sound which makes all the difference.” In conversation, from tone, tempo, gestures, the feeling informing the words is communicated. How do you translate that “sound” and physicality into your writing?

SC: That’s very interesting. I don’t even think of it as translating. I try to keep my voice in writing, and I think that’s why I get so many complaints about how I write. I can’t imagine reading it fast. I don’t know if I write that way so you cannot read it fast, but it wouldn’t surprise me if sometimes I do that so that you have to read the sentence again.

NORTON BATKIN: I do remember you once saying that you thought of your writing a little bit like a brook in which the stones slow down the flow. So I’m not so sure I would say there wasn’t an intention to slow the reader down.

SC: [Laughing] I’m so glad I said that, and I’m so glad you remembered it.

JR: And then eddies and pools form because of the stones, and so ideas turn and spin, flow backward before streaming on. It’s an aspect you note in Thoreau—the deliberation of his writing. In The Senses of Walden, you say you want to complicate Walden, make it a more difficult text. When I teach those books I talk about “de-liberation,” as a liberation of the words to play, eddy, to move up and down in register, in pitch, as well as to move backward and forward . . .

SC: That’s right. That’s lovely.

JR: Your mother was a professional pianist, and she had perfect pitch. Can you talk about how music and your early desire to be a composer carried over into your practice as a philosopher, wanting to find perfect pitch in another area?

SC: It all begins in crisis. The first thing that had to happen was that the idea of writing music had to collapse. One day I listened to my music and I thought, “I don’t believe this—I mean, it’s not mine. It’s got a million other people in it, and I haven’t said a word that I could take to my grave and be glad about it.” Of course, you have to admit crises if you’re going to get anywhere—human growth is not linear, one may have noticed.

JR: There is something about the way you put together—compose—your sentences, a deliberate effort to create moments of silence, of stillness, full stops, as though there would be rest marks in a musical score, or an end of bar that forces the reader to go back and start from the beginning.

SC: Yes, I’ve been criticized for the way I write, sometimes, as digressive. And I had to put up with that until I realized—but that’s what thinking is! You’re [the reader critical of digression] asking me to give a logical proof in which everything follows from everything—that’s great stuff [laughs], but it’s not what I do. In the days in which I started philosophy, the stars of philosophy departments were logical positivists. They were the ones who were famous, and you wanted to please them. You felt you were cheating if you couldn’t please them. I mean, what were you supposed to show them, that you don’t care what follows from what? [Laughter] You do care what follows from what. But you don’t want the argument to sound the way theirs does, and you don’t want to be limited to the topics and to the emotions that those people are. I don’t run away from the idea of philosophy as seductive. I want the sentences to be prose but intense prose, to show that, like life, thinking is not linear.

NB: Digression, a certain kind of writing, certain condensation, certain kinds of terms picking up resonance from various uses, are all suggestive of certain kinds of poetic practice.

SC: Yes. The pair of questions is always and inevitably and persistently, Do I really mean that? and Will this be heard? So you have two legs, and you’re walking on both of those paths all the time, aren’t you? The academic world doesn’t invite you to try to walk on two feet all the time. And in philosophy especially . . . it’s a very intimidating place. The intimidation can be very thin, or it can stop you. I mean the likes of analytic philosophy have stopped an awful lot of people that I know. Very uncreative. It’s fine. It’s a great thing, but a thing. It’s not a world.

JR: You mention Dewey quite a lot, but not William James very much. Is it simply that he was not brought to your attention as much by your teachers?

SC: I’m letting myself off the hook a little bit too much if I just say yes to that because there’s something more to it—it was a temptation. I felt he had achieved something, a sound, and real writing, that Dewey hadn’t. You read a page of William James, and you feel you’ve been somewhere, but it isn’t all the way there. And The Varieties of Religious Experience really wiped me out. I thought it was just wonderful, but it didn’t go anywhere else. He did what he did, and he did it within an ambience of philosophy. But I needed something much more methodical as a way to go. I didn’t read him and suddenly just feel knocked off my horse, as when I heard [J. L.] Austin lecture [in spring 1955]. And it isn’t because I felt Austin was brighter. I had had wonderful teachers. But he had a program. He had a path, and he could invite you on that path and tell you how he got there and where to go with it. And though I felt he never went places that I wanted to go, he sure put something into my hands that I felt I could use.

JR: About his program—I believe he was either a student of philosophy or already teaching when World War II broke out and he was drafted, called out, to work in British Intelligence on German-code breaking and jamming Nazi propaganda. In doing this work he realized that the structure of the propagandist language was shared by the language of philosophy as it was then being taught, and he came away from this experience wanting to disrupt that structure. Did this background become explicit in the way he later taught?

SC: He never referred to his actual war experience. No. But the idea that philosophy is fighting an enemy was, I thought, always clear in the background of his work. And the enemy, well, for lots of philosophers—even philosophy inherently—gets born because you are fighting the enemy there inside of you. The enemy there, for Socrates, is the enemy of custom and unconsciousness and cruelties that come from unintelligence and thoughtlessness.

JR: I have felt about your sense of breath, voice, and relation to silence that your writing has a direct connection with what you identify in Emerson and Thoreau as “Eastern longings,” their involvement with the sacred texts of the East.

SC: This is something that I’ve almost forever been moved by and always very shy about. If you ask me why “shy,” one of my first answers would be I don’t know the languages, but I find that’s a cover story because I do trust my experience of the translations of both the Sanskrit and the Asian texts [the Vedas, Confucius, some of the Buddhist texts, for example]. I feel that I know what those guys are talking about.

JR: Yes, I think these texts are about transcending private joy or grief and making it into something public, available to others—what you elsewhere speak of as “impersonal intimacy”—a quality so informing and palpable in your work. It’s what you recognize, too, in Emerson, Thoreau, Wittgenstein, as their “scriptural tasks,” which I see you to have taken on as well.

SC: I would love to believe that. I certainly get the experience when I’m dealing with those texts. And I feel that’s what I’m being told, that philosophy has a longing, in a sense, for religion. A sense that it is a replacement, or that it’s taken on the task of religion after the failure of religion, is part of me. I believe that.

JR: You write about your father addressing you as “Rabbi,” when you told him that you had accepted a fellowship to pursue graduate study in philosophy at Harvard. He asked you whether you expected that philosophy would give you the answer to the question of whether there is a God. In this connection, can we probe what you mean by “moral perfectionism”?

SC: The first thing to say is that there’s no end state. And if there is no end state, then the question is, What’s the motivation? It’s got to be some sense of self-dissatisfaction, or sense of self-neglect, sense of lack of self-discovery, all of these things. I needed some way to incorporate the motivation to moral self-judgment and to incorporate that sense with so much reading that I’ve done that has moved me, often in religious texts, but certainly in Thoreau and Emerson. I don’t even know where I got the concept of perfectionism, but it struck me as a way of secularizing—that’s what I meant for it to be—a perfectly common uneasiness that human beings carry around. There’s always the next step. The sense of the next step without a final step I would have picked up very early in philosophy as a motivation. To make that clear without having a Platonic image of ascent—the idea of upward stepping is very deep in me. I believe all that, and the image of stairs is important exactly because they’re not an incline, they’re not smooth. My sense of these ascents is that they are broken up, and also it’s an odd, screwy stairway, and one might even go down sometimes.

JR: And finding ourselves there, asking with Emerson, “Where do we find ourselves?”

SC: I believe that that’s a genuine question. And I believe that it has genuine answers, not an answer, but genuine answers. And that the answers take the form of a path.

JR: And that’s part of what you mean by the “transcendentalist” strain?

SC: I was going to say there’s two kinds of people—this is the crude version—those to whom you don’t have to explain the transcendental and those to whom you can’t explain the transcendental [laughter], who just plain aren’t, who don’t have the third ear. The problem with this is we all know that there’s such a thing as awakening, and so you cannot ever close the door on any individual human being. From my own experience—and this is specifically with people in a class, week after week and nothing was happening, and then, suddenly, it all came crashing down . . . I’m enjoying saying these things, and it makes me happy having lived this academic life all the time, and being alone a lot. It’s been an interesting ride.