Garrett Stewart / Cavell / Joan of Arc

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[Posted by BR]

I was, just now, re-reading Garrett Stewart’s wonderful essay, “The Avoidance of Stanley Cavell” (which appears in Russell Goodman’s edited collection, Contending with Stanley Cavell), when I realized that I wanted to write a post about it. Stewart’s essay is an insightful and eloquent (indeed passionate) analysis of the ambivalent reception Cavell has received in literary studies, which has been characterized by an odd (and for his fans, deeply vexing) mixture of admiration and apathy, with many literature scholars treating him as clearly worthy of praise yet somehow (when it comes to their own work) safe to ignore. Some of the readers who visit (or just happen upon) this blog are literature scholars who are fairly new to Cavell’s work, and I wanted to recommend Stewart’s essay to them as a good way to begin to understand Cavell’s status — at once major and marginal — in the world of literary studies, which, of course, it is one goal of this blog to change.

Let me quote just the last two paragraphs of Stewart’s piece, which, struggling to capture the experience of reading Cavell, themselves verge on poetry. They recall one of those “thrilling” moments — that will be familiar to long-time readers of Cavell — when Stewart came across a remark — in Cavell’s first book on film, The World Viewed, then freshly out — that simply “took his breath away.” Cavell’s words were about the following moments from near the end of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s great The Passion of Joan of Arc:

The year was 1971, and not being a Shakespeare scholar, I suspect I had not yet come upon the Lear essay in Must We Mean What We Say? But I well remember the thrilling feel of a single reading moment three paragraphs from the end of Cavell’s brief and inexhaustible book on film, just out. This was The World Viewed, the play of its very title literary through and through. The moment in question was a response to the last shots of Carl Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, where the camera leaves behind a close-up of Joan at the stake for her own sighting of birds that “wheel over her with the sun in their wings.” In their wings, not on: a most Wordsworthian internalization. The literary is already in full swing, linked to the sense of cinematic epiphany. On view is film’s indexical record of a world surviving death–as well as the marked symbol of a personal ressurection. From the immolation of one life arises the immanence of a larger life of which the martyr has until now been a part. And more–which mostly goes unsaid, intuited between the lines, between the words. In death, there is always continuance. An immortality machine, film is the true medium of this secularized perpetuity. Those birds go on holding the attention of prose as well as camera in this tacit four-word ontology of all projected screen presence: “They, there, are free” (159). What is this but philosophy as criticism as poetry? The instantaneously eroded grammatical space between the nominative and the locative, between pronomial subject and its free and separate adverbial placement, arranges that one word should–as naturally, you might say, as can be–get phonetically detached from the other as the very microdrama of release in a monosyllabic theater of phrase. In the further swift gust of the verb across the cadenced swoop of “ey/ere/are,” we audit on the underside of writing a pervasive “air,” the subliminal breath of airiness itself, all but spelled out as the medium of uplift.

As those numbering ourselves among Cavell’s captive audience know full well, this is the kind of prose flight that can readily be set loose, whether in a smiting brevity or a heady dilation, on any page of his work. As exactly a measure of his “best success,” it is the kind of thing that takes your breath away with thoughts you did not know you had until they seem drawn forth, already worded, from the back of your mind–and worded just ordinarily enough in their surprise to ring true. Even in this academic latter day and age, they still await the attuned reader. They, there, are free: yours for the taking, both in and up. (Garrett Stewart, “The Avoidance of Stanley Cavell,” pp. 153-4)

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