New in Bookforum: Stanley Cavell in conversation

Joan Richardson (English, CUNY Graduate Center) recently interviewed Stanley Cavell for Bookforum, and we wanted to let you know that a transcript of that interview is now available in the Apr/May 2010 issue, as well as online. To access the online version, please click here (registration may be necessary, but it is free).

Here is how it begins:

Stanley Cavell grew up in Atlanta and Sacramento, California. He was a student in music at UC Berkeley and Juilliard before studying philosophy at UCLA and completing a Ph.D. at Harvard University. His eighteen books range from treatments of individual writers (Wittgenstein, Emerson, Shakespeare) to studies in aesthetics, film, and religion. Through his writing and almost half century of teaching—six years at Berkeley, thirty-five at Harvard—Cavell has become “one of the great philosophers,” as Jay Parini wrote in the Hudson Review in 1988. Cavell served for many years as president of the American Philosophical Association, and among his numerous awards and honorary degrees was a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992. His influence, extending beyond philosophy into literature, film, and music criticism, has transformed the way we understand culture. Cavell’s memoir, Little Did I Know: Excerpts From Memory, will be published this summer by Stanford University Press.

I visited Cavell at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, in late February. Norton Batkin, his son-in-law who teaches philosophy and is dean of graduate studies at Bard College, had also come up. The two of them have been conversing about philosophy and just about everything else since they first met in California in 1973; by 1976 Batkin had enrolled in Harvard’s graduate program in philosophy. The three of us spent a day in conversation, and a small portion of that is reproduced here. Cavell’s presence and the sound of his voice describing the motivation and trajectory of his work register palpably in this transcript, and even more so in the very brief excerpt selected here from Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (University of Chicago Press, 1996). —JOAN RICHARDSON

JOAN RICHARDSON: Emerson’s work has been so crucial to yours. You once observed, “What Emerson calls for is something we do not want to hear, something about the necessity of patience or suffering in allowing ourselves to change.” What do you mean?

STANLEY CAVELL: First of all, I’m very glad I said it. I don’t believe that human existence is just one damn problem after another. And in reading Dewey, who was my first love in philosophy, you can sort of get that idea: “You have a problem—well, let’s see what the problem is, and we solve it, and then we go on.” “Yes, I have a problem: I’m going to die, so let’s solve that for me!” And at first Emerson didn’t stir me; I felt it was flowery. But then when it hit me, it stayed. I thought, I believed, that you can read every word of it, and press it, and it still stays meant. So that became ideal for me, about how to write and what I wanted from philosophy.

JR: You also said that to claim Emerson as a pragmatist is “to repress his difference”—the difference of his voice—and “to deny that America is as transcendentalist as it is pragmatist, that it is in struggle with itself, at a level not articulated by what we understand as the political.”

SC: The general idea about America, the colloquial, is that life is a set of problems, and you solve them. This represents a certain superficiality of American political and religious life and a sense of the superficiality of American life generally that not only seemed to me false but galled me. Not only does it deny the depth of its literature—well, not only: It denies the depth of its literature! But then that also inspired me to realize that very often people working in literature deny the depth of its literature, too. The ease with which I found Emerson to be talked about in literature departments as not much of a mind but “sure can write well”—I hated that. It just seemed to me grossly blind and false and traitorous.

JR: Yes, in The Senses of Walden [1972] and elsewhere you speak of Emerson and Thoreau as “underwriting” what has come to be known as ordinary-language philosophy. Can you explain?

SC: Well, first of all because they shun philosophical language. That is, they don’t shun philosophy, but whatever they can’t put in their own voice they don’t. And as far as I was concerned, they were putting just about everything in their own voices, and I found that inspiring, unfashionable and inspiring, and partly one because of the other.

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