Finding Cavell / Charles Bernstein

Photo ©2014 Charles Bernstein

Following Stanley Cavell’s death last month at the age of 91, we invited some of his students, friends, and admirers to write about his life and work. We were particularly interested in soliciting personal essays that acknowledged how Cavell’s thinking or character as a scholar and teacher had influenced the contributor’s own thinking or teaching, or helped to point them in new directions in their work. We ultimately received eight such pieces, with essays by Charles Bernstein, R.M. Berry, Beci Carver, J.D. Connor, Andrew Epstein, Walt Hunter, Imani Perry, and Johanna Winant. We will publish one per hour on July 26, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT. To read them all, please follow along or click on the “Stanley Cavell” tag at the bottom of this post at the end of the day.

—Andrew Epstein and Abram Foley

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I met Stanley Cavell fifty years ago. I was 18, a freshman at a college I found infuriatingly opaque and dominated by a markedly gentile, prep-school consciousness. I was furiously engaged with the anti-war movement in the Spring of 1969, but also groping to find my way in, about, and around cultural and political history––and also trying to find the present for both.

Twice a week Cavell talked about nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophers in the ground floor lecture hall at Harvard’s Emerson Hall. It was a large class, a few hundred, and I don’t recall that he ever took questions, but he answered every single one of mine. I felt an immediacy and intimacy. It was my dream of what college could be. And, somehow, I got to know him, maybe because I would hang out with him after the class. From conversations in his office I went to visit him, and Cathleen, at their house in Brookline––memorable trips to me because I didn’t leave the campus much and otherwise never went to anyone’s house, since the only people I knew in the area were fellow students.

Spring 1969 was the semester of the Harvard Strike. I was not one of the building occupiers, though I was involved in political meetings in University Hall during the occupation. I was arrested because I entered the building when the police raid was called (Thayer Hall, my dorm, was next to University Hall). I remember talking to Cavell outside Emerson Hall during the strike: he spoke “words addressed to our condition exactly” (Thoreau):

To realize where we are and what we are living for, the conditions of our present, the angle at which we stand to the world . . . No one’s occasions are exactly those of another, but our conditions of improvement are the same, especially our outsideness and, hence, the world’s presence to us. And our conditions are to be realized within each calling, whatever that happens to be. Each calling . . . “field” of action or labor––is isomorphic with every other. This is why building a house and hoeing and writing and reading [and we could add, our ongoing political activities] are allegories and measures of one another. All and only true building is edifying. (The Senses of Walden)

Whether outside or inside Emerson Hall, Cavell did not need to pivot to address the conditions—the calling––that led to the protests or the strike.

In that first year at college, I had no way to evaluate what was going on or why I was having such a hard time. I didn’t even know there was a category for first generation to attend college (because my parents, children of immigrants, only focused on my being that first generation and had no idea what it would be like to be in a college like the one I ended up at). And, since I had never before experienced this level of class snobbism, combined with anti-Semitism, I didn’t fully recognize it.

Still, I was enthralled by reading, writing, and talking––and Cavell not only recognized that, but also acknowledged it, in ways both explicit and inexplicit. He was a lifeline.

Must We Mean What We Say? was published in 1969. I loved it. Cavell’s philosophic approach to literary works and aesthetics seemed more compelling than anything being done in literary criticism (at least the little I knew about it at the time) and set the foundation for my essays.

I participated in three other courses with Cavell. One was a set of improvisations on Walden, which set the stage for The Senses of Walden, published in 1972. At each session, Cavell would do improvisations, variations, and midrashic commentaries on a passage of the book. His only text was Thoreau’s, all the rest was fantasy and invention. Cavell’s performances echoed the style of solo saxophone improvisation. He turned phrases of Thoreau’s around the way Miles Davis turned a musical phrase of Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean” or Thelonious Monk (a favorite of his) lifted and reworked the chord changes of “Blue Skies.” In Walked Stanley. That is to say, Cavell was not restricted to Walden but used it as trampoline, to bounce himself, bounce ourselves, to parts unknown. I don’t mean to say he didn’t adhere to the text but that he understood the text to have resonance. By sounding the sentences of Walden, Cavell was able to sound the limits and possibilities of his thought, as Thoreau had sounded the depth of Walden Pond.

I think jazz improvisation is the best way to describe Cavell’s talks. He would start with a leading phrase, test out every intonation, circle back around to its converses and blanks, go for minor dissonances, then come round to the major chords. These were not lectures or monologues, they were unscripted performances. Perhaps not exactly “talk poems” in David Antin’s sense, but there is a strong family resemblance. Perhaps more talking philosophy, the talking cure for the virus of analytic philosophy infecting Emerson Hall at the time, no doubt marked by Wittgenstein’s paradigmatic talks in Cambridge and the tradition of Socratic dialog championed by Cavell’s great colleague Rogers Albritton. Contra Albritton, Cavell perfected a form of writing that embodies his dialogic talk performances, but the performances were in no way secondary to his writing. Performance is the foundation of Cavell’s writing.

Harvard’s philosophy department at the time I was there was spiked with remarkable people, Cavell and Albritton standing out from the rest. Van Quine was a brilliant and witty author, but in the undergraduate classroom (symbolic logic) he showed an extreme disregard for teaching or any serious engagement with the ideas in his books as something that might be discussed rather than learned by rote. To those of us demonstrating against U.S. war crimes in Vietnam, he made his position clear: we should be locked up like the juntas did in South America. At the other end of the spectrum (or was it?), Hilary Putnam was a Maoist. I have heard that he moved on, but I haven’t, since that perspective was so destructive of the Left at the time, far more so than Quine, whose politics were, for many of us, an object of ridicule. Robert Nozick was only a decade older than me but it felt like light years. I remember he once asked me why I didn’t brush may my hair down (I wish I still had enough hair for a Jewfro); but then you wonder about his pompadour. He provided my first close encounter with a neo-con; how apt that his work could become the butt of a joke on The Sopranos. John Rawls was and is a hero, but so dull. And Nelson Goodman was perhaps the closest to my own aesthetic idealism, in my more wigged-out moments anyway, but he seemed to my youthfully idealistic gaze more to be playing sophisticated games than having an engagement with art. I probably got that wrong (and much else). I wonder what the significance was of this concentration of Jewish intellectuals in the department—Cavell (Goldstein), Putnam, Goodman, Nozick (Cohen), Morton White (Weisberger)––something I was not conscious of at the time.

In this and any context, Cavell stood out as a voice of reason.  The Claim of Reason (1979) was based on his dissertation, The Claim to Rationality: Knowledge and the Basis of Morality (1961). I remember reading the dissertation—a copy was on deposit at Widener Library—and coming upon a penciled comment in the margin pointing to an open parenthesis and saying there was no close. But Cavell was no Charles Olson (who used unclosed parentheses in his work)––someone else had marked, on the next page—here it is. I love the compound complexity of Cavell’s sentences, and how a paragraph would not just say but think, where thinking is a process not a result of a deduction. This is the difference between the rationality of Quine and the reason of Cavell. Cavell’s work is a series of long parentheticals, extenuations, revisions, recognitions, second and third thoughts.

Listening to Cavell was to be initiated not only into his thought but also into the philosophical (and aesthetic) traditions that he was extending by bending. You had to get the hang of it rather than following a set of arguments. It was as “available” as you were. (Cavell’s notion that difficulty was a problem of “availability” is as useful for poetry as for philosophy.)

The third class I took with Cavell was on the later philosophy of Wittgenstein. This one was in a small classroom on the second floor of Emerson Hall, where Cavell talked from the stage about passages in Philosophical Investigations, weaving his way through the book as a flaneur might have weaved a way through the Paris arcades, as evoked by Walter Benjamin, whose writing style has a strong kinship with Cavell’s.  I remember talking to Cavell before one of these performances and he said he felt jittery––he had the nervous energy of a performer taking a risk. In his lectures, Cavell talked not at you but with you (and with Wittgenstein too).

One summer after my sophomore year, Susan Bee and I had rented an apartment on Dana Street in Cambridge with David Keyser, Don Goldberg, and Steve Holt. A classmate of ours, a brilliant African-American thinker, came over very agitated by voices and hallucinations. I had no idea what to do and my immediate thought was to call Stanley and Cathy, since Stanley knew this young man. After that, we found the best way to help him, though tragically I never saw my young friend again. I mention this because it gives a sense of how intimately connected I felt to Cavell at this point in my life, that I knew he and Cathy would be able to respond to this young man’s suffering. There was no one else I thought to turn to.

The last class I took with Cavell was a small seminar on Rousseau’s Emile, a foundational work on modern education. I remember a long discussion on the passage in which Rousseau warns against swaddling Emile too tightly, less the restrictions on his free bodily movement be internalized. Cavell refused to internalize the swaddling of symbolic logic, of systematizing moral thought, of traditional teaching, of formal student/teacher relationships, of the subject-verb-object sentence, of the rationalized lesson-plan lecture.

In the 1971-1972 academic year, I worked with Cavell on my senior thesis, “Three Compositions on Art and Literature,” a reading of Stein’s The Making of Americans in terms of Philosophical Investigations, at a time when Stein was unacknowledged in the English department or the local literary coteries. He offered me complete license for that work, neither making suggestions nor asking for changes, which is just what I needed. He then gave me a recommendation for a fellowship that allowed me to go to Vancouver to study Emily Dickinson with Robin Blaser at Simon Fraser University.

“Acknowledgement” wasn’t just a concept for Cavell, it guided his way of being in the world.

I didn’t enter a classroom for two decades after taking that first class with Cavell. I am teaching my final classes, after thirty years, this fall. In all my teaching, Cavell has been a model. I was lucky to find him in 1968. Luckier still, he found me.

Provincetown, July 14, 2018