The Philosopher as the Hobo of Thought / Andrew Epstein

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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When the great American philosopher Stanley Cavell passed away last month at the age of 91, the loss felt especially moving because Cavell’s work is so often driven by a troubling but necessary recognition, which his passing only seemed to underscore and validate: human experience, at its core, is defined by incessant departures, transience, and continual loss. His legions of admirers had to finally confront the fact that Cavell himself, who had written so much and so eloquently on the topic, had now vanished.

Throughout his body of work, Cavell casts a cold eye on permanent solutions, fixed positions, and the notion that the truth of human existence is rooted in what Martin Heidegger calls “dwelling.” For Cavell, “the achievement of the human requires not inhabitation and settlement but abandonment, leaving.” In this, he closely resembles one of his great intellectual heroes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who believed that “the way of life is wonderful; it is by abandonment.” “A wise man is not deceived by the pause,” Emerson wrote. “He knows that it is momentary: he already foresees the new departure, and departure after departure, in long series. Dull people think they have traced the matter far enough if they have reached the history of one of these temporary forms, which they describe as fixed and final.” Cavell follows Emerson in seeing this bedrock fact as cause for both celebration and lament. As he writes: “This departure, such setting out, is, in our poverty, what hope consists in, all there is to hope for; it is the abandoning of despair, which is otherwise our condition . . . but it is our poverty not to be final but always to be leaving (abandoning whatever we have and have known): to be initial, medial, American.”

Cavell’s work is just that: initial, medial, always on the go, in transition, deeply “American” in its attitudes and obsessions—forging ahead into uncertainty, but hopeful since such forward motion is all we have. What matters, ultimately, is that we devote ourselves to what he calls “the task of onwardness.” From Emerson and Thoreau, Cavell takes up the idea that “thinking” is “knowing how to go on, being on the way, onward and onward. At each step, or level, explanation comes to an end; there is no level to which all explanations come, at which all end. An American might see this as taking the open road. The philosopher as the hobo of thought.”

I initially encountered this remarkable hobo of thought in graduate school, nearly twenty-five years ago, when I was first blown away by the strangeness and beauty of his writing. What other philosopher or theorist is so eloquent, so moving, so curiously human when discussing the problems of philosophy and literature and film? Like many others, I’ve always been drawn to Cavell in part for his genius as a writer, a stylist, a creator of striking, distinctive, indelible sentences. Certain phrases and passages, including some I’ve quoted above, have simply become totemic for me, recurring at odd moments and never far from my thoughts. They seemed to speak to something deep-seated in me that I hadn’t quite articulated or fully understood. His writing also seemed to have a weird knack for providing powerful language, images, and metaphors for concepts and ideas that happened to be at the center of my own work. Looking back, I can now see Cavell became something of a guiding spirit hovering over both of my books, echoing and deepening their themes.

In my first book, Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry, a study of the tension between camaraderie and American individualism in avant-garde poetry, Cavell helped me to identify and analyze a philosophical disposition shared by many postwar American poets, a worldview devoted to mobility and wary of fixity. Cavell’s description of the Emersonian self as “not a state of being but a moment of change, say of becoming—a transience of being, a being of transience” so closely echoed the versions of selfhood one finds in the poetry of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Amiri Baraka that it felt almost uncanny. Cavell’s investigation of the riddling relationship between self and community—his sense that selfhood is an act of ongoing creation, a process rather than an entity; his recognition that “we are never finally free of one another”; his notion that “the price of companionship has been the suppression, not the affirmation, of otherness”—gave me a way to understand the mixture of liberation and loss at the heart of American poetry’s ambivalence towards both friendship and individualism. Throughout Cavell’s work—whether in discussions of Walden, King Lear, Endgame, or classic Hollywood “comedies of remarriage”—he speaks in profoundly useful and stirring ways about the promise, the pathos, and the endless enigma of the bonds we share with other minds, other people.

Without my fully realizing it, Cavell’s work became equally important to my second book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture, which draws upon various theories of the everyday in order to better understand poetry’s preoccupation with the quotidian. As Cavell is one of the most significant philosophers of the everyday, it may not be surprising that his work proved indispensable to my thinking about the endlessly vexing topic of the ordinary—perhaps the central concern of Cavell’s vast oeuvre. However, despite his career-spanning exploration of this subject, I found Cavell has often been left out of many critical discussions of everyday life, especially within literary and cultural studies, which tend to foreground European critical theorists like Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau, Roland Barthes, Raymond Williams, and Walter Benjamin. One goal of my book was to bring Cavell more fully into this conversation.

Cavell points out that, traditionally, “philosophers find it their intellectual birthright to distrust the everyday, as in Descartes’s second meditation”; in contrast, he aligns himself with outliers like Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Thoreau, and Emerson, who understand the ordinary as both the starting point for philosophy and what it most needs to comprehend. Furthermore, Cavell argues that the “recovery” of the everyday, of “the uncanniness of ordinary,” is of supreme importance because it alone offers a viable response to the potent threat of skepticism, the name philosophy has given to the crippling doubt about the existence of the world and of other minds.

However, even though the everyday is our very “habitat,” even though it forever surrounds us and is truly all we know, we remain fundamentally alienated and estranged from it. Therefore, Cavell believes that simply acknowledging and recognizing the ordinary is an urgent, never-ending, never-easy “quest.” As he puts it in a powerful passage that has continually resonated for me over the past two decades, “The everyday is what we cannot but aspire to, since it appears to us as lost to us . . . There is nothing beyond the succession of each and every day; and grasping a day, accepting the everyday, the ordinary, is not a given but a task.” These words have always struck me as a profoundly poignant and inspiring summons, a call to arms for daily life. If the quotidian remains maddeningly elusive but passing days are simply all we have, to grasp and accept the everyday in all its everydayness is an “achievement” of the highest order, something we must work at, tirelessly. Cavell’s formulation also gave me a new way to understand the particular goals and preoccupations of contemporary everyday-life aesthetics that I discuss throughout Attention Equals Life.

At the end of his wonderful book The Senses of Walden, Cavell stresses that the hero of Thoreau’s masterpiece begins and ends “his tale with departures from Walden,” thus ensuring that the whole book is a meditation on leaving and “relinquishing.” In the final sentences of his own book, Cavell writes:

The hero departs from his hut and goes into an unknown wood from whose mysteries he wins a boon that he brings back to his neighbors. The boon of Walden is Walden. Its writer cups it in his hand, sees his reflection in it, and holds it out to us. It is his promise, in anticipation of his going, and the nation’s, and Walden’s. He is bequeathing it to us in his will, the place of the book and the book of the place. He leaves us in one another’s keeping.

It is surely no coincidence that this closing passage—about “bequeathing” our works, our words, to those who follow in our wake—gives me precisely the same chills as the haunting final lines of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

In anticipation of his own going, Cavell cups his words in his hands and bequeaths them to us, as recompense for inevitable loss. Despite our sorrow, though, we should recall his belief that “philosophy begins in loss, in finding yourself at a loss.” In other words, the sad fact of Stanley Cavell’s final departure should remind us that it is time to begin again, day after day, the task of onwardness that is thinking itself.