In May of 1985 I decided to cash in my retirement savings, which had accrued sporadically during almost two decades of school teaching in Boston, Rome (Italy), and New Orleans. As though she had no civil words to describe the folly of such behavior, the school business manager just shook her head in silence and made the necessary arrangements. I knew what she meant and took it to heart, intending not to waver in my purpose. I also knew I was leaving a place that had given me a new life. Thanks to my students in New Orleans, I had developed more patience and attentiveness, which had, so to speak, improved my hearing. I could sit still and listen better and appreciate “where they were coming from.” Their energy and spontaneity had also helped me recover my own second nature, if not instinctual responsiveness, as a social animal and a teacher. Still I had some unfinished business to attend to and wanted to return to Harvard with the specific purpose of writing my long-overdue dissertation on the genesis of Torquato Tasso’s narrative theory and its place in the larger story of heroic poetry during the Renaissance from Ariosto to Milton.
No sooner had the fall semester arrived, however, than I began auditing Stanley Cavell’s graduate seminar on Melodrama and attending weekly screenings of films associated with that course at the Harvard Film Archive. Since my official academic field was Renaissance Studies, it was a pleasant surprise to find myself seated next to Stanley one evening at that fall semester’s Renaissance Colloquium dinner. Robert Weimann’s after-dinner talk on Hamlet and mimesis had brought Stanley there. Yet it seemed as though he had travelled as far as the speaker, who was from East Berlin, to reach that destination in Cambridge. Maybe my own provinciality made me feel that way, for academic study in the humanities had changed dramatically during my years away. But maybe not. Though many of the latest changes were exhilarating, other sorts of provinciality had distinguished my experience at Harvard in the past, and they had ways of abiding into the future for both good and ill.
While others swam into the discussion around the big table in Stanley’s seminar, I hugged the shore as an auditor in a seat against the wall. Still he recognized me and that Renaissance gathering gave us a chance to begin getting acquainted. In my book about Stanley’s “American Dream,” I briefly tell what Pursuits of Happiness meant to me when I first read it in 1981, and that evening I probably poured out some version of that enthusiastic account of my personal experience to Stanley. One of the readers for Fordham UP, which eventually published Stanley Cavell’s American Dream in 2006, raised some questions about the autobiographical nature of those few pages, and I took that reader’s questions to heart, as I had the business manager’s skeptical silence. Though I chose to keep those pages in the book, such concerns particularly remind me of the interplay of skepticism and romanticism which Stanley increasingly observes in his own work as it evolves toward “autobiographical exercises” and “excerpts from memory.”
Simply put, Pursuits of Happiness, together with Contesting Tears, helped me overcome my resistance to romanticism and trust my own feelings at the movies and elsewhere. Those books and the films they interpret enabled me to reread one of my favorite novels, The Moviegoer, and better understand why its author, Walker Percy, once warned me, “Don’t go so easy on Binx Bolling.” Binx is “the moviegoer” whose skeptical detachment and keen observations ostensibly give him privileged access to the way things really are. At least Percy’s first-person narration in Binx’s voice enables him to get mighty cozy with readers taken in by that apparent privilege. Yet Binx’s detachment threatens to set him apart in chilling isolation from the world as he finds it and people he loves. It tempts him with safety, indeed sovereignty, in the wintry kingdom of the self, as Percy describes it. Indeed when Percy happened to read a passage from Stanley’s “reflections on the ontology of film” in The World Viewed, he responded, “It exactly expresses The Moviegoer’s implied ontology. (I’m glad Cavell wrote it after The Moviegoer” [emphasis Percy]).
Nowadays I can hear that interplay, or tension, between skepticism and romanticism, the professional and the personal, much earlier, at the start of Stanley’s professorial career, in “Must We Mean What We Say?” which Stanley calls “the first of [his] published philosophical papers of continuing significance for [him].” It comes across in the tone and style of his writing as he proceeds with his philosophical task. He is struggling to defend the relevance, indeed power, of appeals to ordinary language in philosophical argument. In such a contest it is pertinent to wonder who has the home court advantage when the game is being played, as it was in this instance, at a professional conference. In an effort to discover what native speakers say in certain contexts, Stanley gives voice to impatience with a philosopher’s “laborious questioning” by remarking, “I might just ask my landlady” (emphasis his). At another turn he expresses hope against hope that philosophy might be spared “having to think up special brands of meaning,” though it seems too far gone into entanglements of unusual terminology to avoid such a task (emphasis mine). Further, when his colleague in philosophy at UC (Berkeley) and main professional rival in this exchange, Benson Mates, issues a challenge designed to trivialize philosophers’ appeals to ordinary usage in everyday contexts by making them seem as though they could go on “ad infinitum,” Stanley asks, “Isn’t this just another of those apostrophes to the infinite which prevents philosophers from getting down to cases?” He thus defends his “heavy reliance on the idea of context” with the same down-to-earth candor that would prompt him to ask his landlady about everyday speech in ordinary circumstances (emphasis his). The kind of philosophy Cavell seeks to practice may thus shed some light how we ordinarily proceed in thinking and inspire some confidence about the process. In fact, we may already be in the habit of making such advances, though reassurances of their reality and our own presence of mind offer welcome affirmation and appreciation of their value in doing philosophy.
I’m retired now and could report back to the business manager who just shook her head at me in silence that I have managed to save enough. Quantum satis, if you will, though nobody says that hereabouts nowadays. Limiting my autobiographical exercises to a couple of pages probably helped me advance professionally, but the wisdom of such restraint strikes me as more than mere prudence. Stanley himself exemplified loyal opposition and criticism from within the academy when he wrote in the genre he identified as “themes out of school.” So far as I can tell from a different departmental address, English in my case, Stanley had a lover’s quarrel with philosophy’s professionalization as a discipline because he was in love with what philosophy is in love with and he found it at the movies, among other places where academic philosophy was disinclined to venture seriously.
The Hollywood movies Stanley wrote about—those comedies of remarriage and melodramas of the unknown woman—as well as Stanley’s writings on them and many other topics, sustained me, one way or another, during the last three of my five decades of teaching language and literature. Moreover, my understanding of the life of writing, as Stanley pursued it, served as an inspiration. “The life of writing” is one of those simple phrases of a kind that he deployed so skillfully, like “thinking of Emerson.” The genitive straddles any perceived division between subject and object, and cuts both ways, or shoots the gulf between them, as Emerson puts it. Reading texts thus becomes a way of doing philosophy. Rather than being stymied by monsters of fame, in Stanley’s phrase that acknowledges the challenges of this process, objects of interpretation becomes means of interpretation, and the interpreter becomes the creator of new texts in the process of inheriting earlier ones. Harold Bloom, who loves Emerson, characterizes the crossroads of inheritance as the anxiety of influence. Cavell, who shares that love, hopes against hope to the contrary. He speaks of thinking and thanking as though gratitude has a positive part to play in making way for philosophy the day after tomorrow. Such monsters as Aristotle on happiness, Plato on cities of words, Milton on marriage, and Locke on consent, to name a few, undergo domestication in Stanley’s way of bringing them to bear upon Tracy and Hepburn and Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyk.
In the title of this tribute to Stanley, I’m playing with another phrase that he summons as an essay’s title, with a grateful nod toward E. M. Forster, “Two Cheers for Romance.” When he is making his way toward his second book about Hollywood film genres, Stanley wants to assign more value to romance than it usually receives, but he does not want to give it a full-hearted three cheers, which he feels is more than it is worth. I disagree only inasmuch as my heavy reliance on certain contexts proves otherwise: summer 1981, when I first read Pursuits of Happiness; fall 1985, when I first began talking at some length with Stanley; spring 2005, when I first taught in the Program of Literary Theory at the University of Lisbon, and Stanley came for the opening of Stanley Cavell e o Cinema Clássico Americano, a two-week cycle at the Cinemateca, and delivered “The Wittgensteinian Event” at the behest of the Program of Literary Theory; and spring 2016, when I taught a second time at the University. Those were all occasions when the romance of learning and teaching thoroughly exhilarated me, and the example of Stanley’s life and work was a reliable resource for sustaining such moods. However transitory such experiences may seem, in their evanescence itself they strike me as sobering, clear-eyed realizations of life itself at its fullest, as it comes and goes. No doubt about it!
I have such an abundance of fond memories of Lisbon and the Program in Literary Theory that I am hesitant to go into particulars simply because I might overlook someone. Those memories include what members of any Renaissance Colloquium and most readers of Stanley Cavell would recognize as the resources of vernacular culture. Call it ordinary language, if you will, but it is a culture that grows out of everyday efforts at wording the world of quotidian experience where crises abound. Though they are not breaking news, they are the epiphanies and disappointments that inevitably color our lives with our various moods as we take in whatever happens to happen. I am not bilingual, or even close, but I am keenly curious about language and have loved the sort of second life my words acquire when I feel constrained to imagine what they sound like to non-native speakers of English. There is only one letter’s difference between an idiom and an idiot, as I used to tell my children when we lived in Lisbon. Neither they nor I ever had to wait long for a proof text. Proverbs 26.4-5 comes to mind in this regard because it contains two consecutive and contradictory verses: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, Lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own conceit.” Both make important points, but “Solomon,” the alleged “author” of Proverbs, has a rather strict understanding of the word “fool.” Fortunately, the kind of idiot I sometimes felt like in Lisbon isn’t covered by Solomon in my reading of Proverbs so I could thoroughly enjoy the experience. Stanley’s success in helping me discover a cheerfulness that genuinely cheers in the classic Hollywood comedies he so persuasively interprets encouraged me to take advantage of such opportunities.
At different moments during this past summer, I was gradually, often unconsciously, absorbing the fact of Stanley Cavell’s passing and grieving that loss. My friend Stanley, I should say, as I trust many readers of Forma de Vida would also feel moved to call him, even if they knew him only by what he acknowledged his writing hoped for and might need, “the friendship of the reader.” In that process of mourning, I wrote this poem, which has everything to do with the gratitude, affection, and admiration I have long felt for my dear friend and ours.
Last Night I Felt like Katharine Hepburn
In memory of Stanley Cavell (1926-2018)
The printer wouldn’t let me print my latest
poem about mortality and you and me
in whatever English sounds the best.
I was in that mood when Hamlet just won’t do,
whatever meds you’re on, with all his talk
about a special Providence in the fall
of a sparrow, the readiness is all, and letting be—
and Hepburn came to mind to see me through.
I felt like her when people hated Hepburn─
box office poison she was known as then.
Phillip Barry wrote a play about her
as an insufferable snob, one of the Lords
on Philadelphia’s Main Line. They built
the local library in town, where she
found herself in Jimmy Stewart’s stories—
all he had to show for many years
of little pay and lots of work.
about “that corkscrew English” in magazines
like Spy, then paying Stewart (aka “Mike”
Macaulay Connor from South Bend)
just enough so he could still get by. “South Bend,”
she echoes, mockingly, “It sounds like dancing.”
But soon she’s praising his short stories, “Connor,
they’re almost poetry,” as he explains one title
by its source, a Spanish peasant proverb:
With the rich and mighty always a little patience.
Give me a break! Have you read any poetry?
Talk about corkscrew English, look no further!
But then, I love the way she later says,
“I’m much beholden.” When Connor tells her,
“There are rules,” a little gallantry
shines through, as Hepburn learns he’d taken no
advantage when they both were drunk, though soon
she wonders, “Why? Was I so unattractive?”
They don’t make them like that anymore,
I’d like to say, because they don’t, and not
because I’d be the last to know. Yet still,
I’m glad to hear that corkscrew English rattling
inside me when there’s nothing I can do
about the way things are, as opposed
to the way things are supposed to be.