Stanley Cavell is the Wallace Stevens of analytic philosophy.  Not because they share a temperament or an aesthetic, but because they share an idiosyncratic and yet profound commitment to the ordinary. In his poetry, Stevens writes of “[t]he vulgate of experience,” of “coming back to the real: to the hotel instead of the hymns that fall upon it out of the wind.” Stevens voices in these lines something like what Cavell describes as his philosophical task: “what Wittgenstein means by ‘leading words home,’ back from the sublime into our poverty.” Our poverty is our everyday life, or rather “our everyday letters and words, as signs of our instincts: they are to become thought” (Conditions, 43).

I invoke Stevens for another reason as well. I care most for poems that resist me and that I also resist; but despite this mutual resistance these poems still claim me with a force I cannot overcome. The poems of Stevens exemplify for me this dual resistance. Their mythologies of philosophy I often find anathema. Their forms of symbolic obscurity and poetic authority annoy me. Nevertheless, I find the poetry necessary and inescapable. Which does not mean that I am tempted to refurbish Stevens’ ideas or to accommodate his aesthetic sense with my own. I would rather find a way to trace his nonsense into my own obscurity, my own self-ignorance. I read the nonsense of his poems, not their putative sense, and in this the motive for metaphor, as Stevens calls it, becomes a motive for reading. I confess something similar is true of Cavell’s philosophy—it is resistant and I resist it, and yet. . .

Stevens “[b]lessed rage for order . . ./ the maker’s rage to order words of the sea” does not produce an orderly poetry. It makes for, at times, a “poet’s gibberish,” a “Theatre of Trope.” Nevertheless, his obsessions suggest order; his language analogizes; his abstractions become essential. Stevens attempted philosophy, too, but his essays are careless and confused. His poetry, however, transforms the failures of his essays into “keener sounds.” Stevens is the almost philosopher as poet. Cavell, on the other hand, is the almost poet as philosopher, whose philosophy should not work (and does not always), but is itself an offering of “keener sounds,” of “a voice, a way, a subject, a work of (his) own” (A Pitch of Philosophy, 55).

In commenting about a famous debate between Derrida and Searle about J. L. Austin, a philosopher Cavell always acknowledged as his teacher, Cavell confesses his own sense of what it is to have a philosophical voice. Despite their opinions (and respect for Austin) neither Derrida or Searle “really felt that Austin’s is a (philosophical) voice whose signature it is difficult to assess and important to hear out in its difference” (Pitch, 61).  One must listen for the difficulty and the difference, protect these and measure their consequences and motives. Cavell was my teacher at Harvard, and in reading again his words about Austin, forms of which I had heard in seminars and in conversation, I cannot help but hear out in its difference his own voice.

Here is an example of his voice of thinking about thinking from The Claim of Reason:       

In philosophizing, I have to bring my own language and life into imagination. What I require is a convening of my culture’s criteria, in order to confront them with my words and life as I pursue them and as I may imagine them; and at the same time to confront my words and life as I pursue them with the life my culture’s words may imagine for me: to confront the culture with itself, along the lines in which it meets in me. (125)

What culture means here is not easily delimited. At a minimum it means that one’s form of life is as much given as made. Philosophy is confrontation, but also a convening of resources. The complexity of turning about ourselves, as we find ourselves absorbed in what our words imagine, constitutes the activity of philosophical thinking. (It is a dangerous fantasy to take words as animate minds, and yet a necessary risk for Cavell.) This is to cast philosophy as critique (and not as a theory or a system, or a science or a hand-maiden). The philosophical critique of what we have inherited is not an attempt to escape that inheritance, but to redeem it. 

There is something shrill about such an enterprise. Or desperate. It is, in any case, very difficult. Cavell quotes Emerson: “I know the world I converse with in the city and in the farm, is not the world I think” (New an Unapproachable, 10). The thought here describes not only alienation, but a tension between conformity and aversion, “the power of turning our words against our words, to make them ours” (Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow, 8). Articulating and demonstrating this kind of aversive thinking is the crux and motive of Cavell’s philosophy. It is what can make his prose so convoluted and infuriating. His prose, which is to say his thinking, is “a battle,” as he also says of Thoreau and Emerson, “specifically to remain in conversation with itself, answerable to itself” (The Senses of Walden, 134).

Cavell brings thought and life together in such battles, in which both are answerable to themselves and to each other. This is also the way in which he brings thought and art together. I want to demonstrate these two claims by starting elsewhere than with Cavell. Thinking, after all, involves displacement.

Literature, as Calvino describes it, has “an existential function, the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living” (Six Memos, 26). There is no simple argument for such a claim. This is a critical judgment in which numerous stories are configured into a single statement. You would not accept this description if you did not already in some sense feel its descriptive claim. This is what we do when we read, when we attend to what we see before us, even if in our mind’s stories, we build our judgments out of complexly simple descriptions.

In describing Bonnard’s final paintings of his long-beloved, but reclusive and fragile wife, Marthe, Sarah Whitfield remarks that “These works crystallize what has always been Bonnard’s primary mood, that of elegy.” Bonnard’s last paintings of Marthe crystallize by clarifying something essential in his paintings, of how he has painted himself into what he has painted of her. Whitfield describes this by assertion and by conclusion, but the conclusion might just as well be a hypothesis, and it is also an observation of a pattern whose meaning is given in a complex judgment of what is primary. By offering the observation she suggests that we look at these painting with this sense, under the aspect of this description—and in so doing we will see the mood shown. We will see the emotional aspect of the paintings. The outlines of shape and the significance of color and beauty will emerge into the clarity of elegy and mood. We will see better.

Whitfield describes Bonnard and his paintings. Our need for such simplifying and general descriptions is even greater when our critical target is literary art. Cavell’s mode of philosophical reasoning, a mode of description grounded in the particularities of art relative to life, relies on similar kinds of statements as that produced by Whitfield about Bonnard. He says, for example, that romanticism is endless baptism:

In attacking the magical or mechanical view of the sacraments, Luther says, “All our life should be baptism.” Once I took this as a motto for romantic poetry. (Must We Mean, 239)

Again this is a description that works as both conclusion and lens—a means of redescribing poetic art relative to both the theological meaning of Luther’s claim and its suggestiveness as a characterization of a mode of life. Is it true about romantic poetry? One can certainly understand poetry this way, and it seems to describe modern poetry in a way that clarifies some of its oddities and desperation, its various ideals of grammar and diction, and its personal and psychological concerns. But it is not a claim about a state of affairs, nor is it an argued idea, nor is it so much a theory as a conceptual description whose sense is yet to be determined.

Thinking about literature and life requires making such descriptions and finding various ways of evaluating them, defining their limits and scope, their implications and possibilities. Cavell in the life he enacted in his thinking gives voice to a powerful example of how to do this. His way was “an investment in the words of a natural language so heavy as to seem quite antithetical to sensible philosophizing” (Conditions, 35). Cavell’s philosophizing shows the brave good sense of not being sensible.

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