Thursday, 12 July 2018

Stanley Cavell

This morning I received a message, from an old friend on the other side of the world, saying that he'd just found out that the philosopher Stanley Cavell has died, a fortnight ago. My friend noted that a shared interest in Cavell's work had been the original spark of our friendship and that remembering this, and reminding me of it, was a way of remembering and commemorating Cavell himself. We talked about Cavell for a while, intermittently, and in between episodes of doing my paid work I found and read some obituaries. And then in turn, I also contacted some friends and acquaintances with whom I'd discovered a shared appreciation of Cavell - in one instance the conversation establishing this had taken place probably ten years ago, but I didn't forget it, and ever since I have held that individual in a very particular esteem. None of the people I got in touch with knew of Cavell's death. So my day has had this strange element to it - work work work on one hand, on the other, these messaged conversations with people spread across the world, acknowledging connections and encounters threaded through lives, making fumbled beginnings at saying why Cavell's work mattered and what it has meant to us.

Stanley Cavell was 91. He did attract a cult following. My relationship with his work has always included elements of fandom: the nature of his lifelong explorations in thinking his way to big questions via idiosyncratically personal affinities, often with works of art, have made it difficult for me to want to separate the man, and his exquisite mind and sensibility, from his philosophical preoccupations and convictions. As the three authors of this reflection on his legacy observe:
many of Cavell's most enthusiastic readers have found his unique range of interests so absorbing that they simply adopt them as their own. Yet his goal was for his reader to notice the things they themselves found interesting and and then to take them up and think about and through them. He saw this taking up as our duty, as human beings and citizens of whatever imperfect state we happen to call home.
I met Stanley Cavell in 2004, at a literature and film conference in Tallahassee. I had been deeply engaged with his books The World Viewed and Must We Mean What We Say? for several years at that stage. He was the senior keynote at the conference and I was a novice, new and foreign to that culture and that scene. He was the chief reason I had travelled to the US. I was lucky to meet him and he was very courteous to me. I happened to be the only Australian, and somebody drew my loneness to the attention of Toril Moi, who was the other luminary at the event and who took me up as her protege. She said something along the lines of, You can't spend your life in Australia working away alone on Stanley and come all this way without properly meeting him, and so she introduced me to him and I sat with him and his friends and colleagues at lunch one day and listened to the conversation around the table.

This sense of Cavell as a real and ordinary person, in particular as a person whose actual voice I knew the sound of, helped me to survive the encounters with the full, rich, demanding force of the voice in his writings which followed immediately after that trip: In Quest of the Ordinary, Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow, Contesting Tears, and especially Pursuits of Happiness. That latter book is about human connection and knowing other people, and it works its way to articulating how that connection and knowledge is achieved and why it matters via reading and thinking about a half-dozen highly verbal Hollywood comedies of the thirties and forties. One of the fundamental and irreducible beauties of this book is its insistence on, and commitment to, the undertaking that a philosophical interest in works of art (i.e., an interest in what works of art say about how to live) needs to do more than submit the art to the secondary role of illustrating the superior wisdom of philosophy. Art is thought and it is experience - it is not a picture of these things. Nor is it subordinate to criticism. When I've written and thought about art, I've tried to live up to these ideas, at least I hope I have. For various reasons connected with what I noted above about his appeal for readers Cavell resists quotation, but here is a fragment from Pursuits of Happiness related to the ideas I've just described:
My juxtaposition of Kant and Capra is meant to suggest that you cannot know the answer to the question of worthwhileness in advance of your own experience, not the worthwhileness of Capra and not that of Kant...I am not, in the case of Capra, simply counting on our capacity for bringing our wild intelligence to bear on just about anything, say our capacities for exploring or improvisation. What we are to see is the intelligence that a film has already brought to bear in its making; and hence perhaps we will think about what improvisation is and about what performance is. (10)
A little further on, the epically Cavellian statement, half aphorism, half intransigently convoluted, of how to think through an interest, a connection, with an object, be that object a person or a work of art:
I indicated a moment ago...that philosophy requires the sense of the title of all that is great and important to be given up to experience. If one may think of this as an overcoming of philosophical theory, I should like to stress that the way to overcome theory correctly, philosophically, is to let the object or work of your interest teach you how to consider it. I would not object to calling this a piece of theoretical advice, as long as it is also called a piece of practical advice. Philosophers will naturally assume that it it one thing, and quite clear how, to let a philosophical work teach you how to consider it, and another thing, and quite obscure how or why, to let a film teach you this. I beleive these are not such different things.
With what is left to me of this evening I am now going to drink a quiet glass of wine in memory and appreciation of Stanley Cavell. I will try to write a bit more about him tomorrow.

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