Tim Gould reviews Lawrence Rhu’s Stanley Cavell’s American Dream (previously unpublished)

Tim Gould (Philosophy, Metropolitan State College of Denver) has written a review of Lawrence Rhu’s Stanley Cavell’s American Dream which has not been published elsewhere, and which he has kindly invited us to post on this blog. We are great admirers of Prof. Gould’s work, and always interested in his thoughts about Cavell (and writings about Cavell), so we’re very pleased to be able to share this review of his with our readers. Many thanks to Tim for sending us this piece! (Correspondence to Prof. Gould can be sent to the following address: gould_tim_58@q.com)

Lawrence RhuStanley Cavell’s American Dream: ShakespearePhilosophyand Hollywood Movies, foreword by Stanley Cavell (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 2006)

Reviewed by Tim Gould, Metropolitan State College of Denver

Lawrence Rhu’s Stanley Cavell’s American Dream is one of the most interesting books on Cavell’s work to be published in the last decade. Rhu’s book examines what he calls the “convergence and elaboration” of three “major subjects in the philosophy of Stanley Cavell” (1): Shakespeare (especially the Romances and the “Roman” plays), Emerson, and Hollywood movies (in particular the comedies and the melodramas that Cavell comes to focus on). Rhu’s intention is to reveal something significant about Cavell’s work through the fact and content of this convergence. But he is also attempting to use this convergence to make Cavell’s thought more accessible to a wider audience. He characterizes this potentially wider audience as those that would not normally find themselves involved in “the writings of professional philosophers” (1).

Rhu is a Renaissance scholar who aims to reshape the preoccupations of his field. Where others have been content to borrow Cavell’s insights about a particular field of study (for instance Shakespeare, film, the American Renaissance, or the nature of political community), Rhu explicitly wants the convergence of the fields to illuminate the core of Cavell’s work. He wants to examine this core as the goal of the convergence of these topics. He is certainly well aware that the historical direction of Cavell’s explorations is more explicitly outward, beginning with issues like skepticism and perfectionism. In Rhu’s argument, the outward movement of Cavell’s work implies the possibility of inward and convergent paths. He suggests that the very possibility of this convergence provides a wider access to Cavell’s work and even a kind of argument in favor of Cavell’s insights. He thus wants more than abstract structural analogies, such as the ones sketched in by Stephen Mulhall. He wants something of substance and content to provide the center towards which these fields converge. Herein lies the problem and the promise of this challenging book. 

Rhu does not try to name the territory towards which the three areas of Cavell’s thought are tending. Indeed, there is a kind of provisional, Emersonian quality to any such effort to point to the heart of the matter of Cavell’s project. He does, however, make various efforts at characterizing this central ground. There are, it seems to me, several candidates for characterizing this meeting place. I single out three: the myths and other stories emerging from the histories both conscious and unconscious and that underlie Renaissance comedy and romance. Rhu traces in compelling detail the lines of descent, along which these myths undergo their metamorphosis, or what Cavell calls their photogenesis. In this way, the myths or archetypes migrate into the genres of film that Cavell most centrally writes about. Rhu understands Cavell’s reading of Emerson as dissolving the fixated lines between subject and object. These lines are replaced, or re-drawn, as the barriers between the private and the public. These barriers are no less resistant to being overcome, but they are perhaps more open to the vicissitudes of history and everydayness. And it is precisely through such changes in our historical perceptions and our everyday lives that Rhu picks up the echoes of history as they affect and are affected by Cavell’s appeals to the everyday.

Within the over-arching areas of its investigation, Rhu’s book unfolds by considering detailed examples of three types of writing, each of which Rhu relates to Cavell’s work: (1) contemporary critics, either in their affinity or distance from Cavell: Greenblatt and Bloom figure in the first two chapters, and Tania Modleski, Linda Williams, Robert Gooding Williams, Lars Engel, among others, in the later chapters; (2) writers we are inclined to call creative such as Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Conner, Mathew Arnold, Auden, Milton, Montaigne, Anthony Hecht, Phillip Larkin, Jane Smiley, and, most pervasively, Walker Percy; and (3) specific movies and plays, for the most part Shakespeare’s, or movies that in Cavell’s vision descend from Shakespeare.

The introduction entitled “Beyond Adaptation” sketches the America of the 1950’s, in which the post-war world is (re)dedicated to accommodation, adjustment, conformity, which includes a pervasive and violent racism and an only slightly less visible sexism. This almost novelistic portrayal of the American condition gives way to a series of critical disputes about Shakespeare and the movies, in which disputes Cavell is seen to intervene. The first chapter, “Meeting Places,” then sets out the book’s major’s themes: throughout his project, Cavell’s America encounters a world less “green”, a less dream-like place of conflict. This often includes the critical conflicts that academics are inclined to make out of these other conflicts in the darker world of our actualities. The second chapter places Cavell’s project within a range of other intellectual projects, most especially Bloom’s Shakespeare. Here Rhu has these two prominent writers face off, each of whom has been accused of “humanism” and “narcissism.” The middle chapter, “From Skepticism to Perfectionism,” provides the central theme of Cavell’s later work with a quasi-historical, quasi-developmental account of Cavell’s inheritance of what is called Renaissance skepticism. The examination of these texts is fascinating and instructive. The last chapters center on Cavell’s reading of a Shakespeare play and most significantly elaborate and defend an insight of Cavell’s, against the professional and political anxieties that his work has raised.

At the core of Rhu’s work is a tension that he raises more persistently than any writer I have encountered. Part of his argument seems to be that Cavell’s account of Renaissance history is more accurate than he is given credit for. But he also wants to suggest that Cavell’s depiction of history and his encounter with skepticism is not the same as the professional paradigms of cultural and intellectual history. There is a tension between the eschatology of perfection, with its intermittent victory over despair, and the more normal canons of historical descent and inheritance. This tension is endemic to Cavell’s best work, and perhaps it is one of his most permanent discoveries. It has been noticed by some of his commentators, but few have given such detailed attention to the problem as Rhu. Here his account of Cavell’s themes, at once an analysis and a narration, earns his recurrent, apocalyptic confrontation between the narrator of The Moviegoer and the African American, silently subsuming history even as he emerges from it. The speechless moment Rhu records is neither quite the self-silencing voice of skepticism, nor the silenced victims of politics. It is Rhu’s own sense of where the history and the myths of history comes to an end, for now.

The penultimate chapter (“From Cyprus to Philadelphia”) begins by contrasting Othello and The Philadelphia Story and suggests how these utterly different figures come together, after they emerge in verse and in film. Presumably in part as a highly visible embodiment of the myths that underlie Renaissance romance, the next chapter presents The Winter’s Tale as a kind of proof text for Rhu, as for Cavell. It establishes kind of solidarity between Cavell’s discussion of the play and the various movies and operas he finds to have descended from it. Rhu’s discussions of Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth provide deft and sympathetic perceptions of Cavell’s work. But The Winter’s Tale is where the issues of knowledge and doubt and faith present themselves most clearly as issues of life and death, birth and rebirth, and of theater, art, and representation. Rhu elaborates on the thematic idea in Cavell of skepticism comprising at least a squadron of everyday slights and denials and permanent exiles.

Emerson can take up the position of philosophy for Rhu, and often for Cavell, because Emerson’s obsession with knowledge and doubt and mood is also an obsession with romance. The English Renaissance does not often appear thematically in Emerson’s work, but the insistence on a kind of romance within our knowledge of despair and doubt is essential to Emerson’s project. “The romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power” (from the final paragraph of Emerson’s “Experience”). Rhu’s Emerson enters the discussion already as the founder of perfectionism. But the idea of an Emersonian Romance leaves room for the quest and the transformation, hence for the place from which perfectionism takes its origin and its bearings. Rhu’s Emerson is very conscious of incompleteness or false completeness, and the false starts that give our progress the shape it has, up till now.

Rhu’s ambition to make Cavell’s thought more accessible gives rise to an interesting dialogue between the book and Cavell’s preface to the book. Cavell finds himself surprised at the possibility that a goal of his expanding and converging interests is to make his work more accessible (xvi). Cavell’s own sense of his development aims rather at finding ways of making (analytic) philosophy open to regions of experience other than those that philosophy is normally most comfortable with. But he relates Rhu’s understanding of the power of the convergence of topics to a further possibility. Cavell relates philosophy’s increased responsiveness to experience that it has pushed away or otherwise lost to an increased responsiveness to some new, not yet conceivable audience. The convergence Rhu speaks of emerges, after all, as the delicate passage between the responsiveness of philosophy to regions that philosophy had declared off limits to itself and the appetite of an imagined audience for a difficulty that it had not yet been able to fathom.

Cavell’s opening towards the reader demands first of all an opening of philosophy towards itself, which will sometimes require violence. Towards other fields, this opening in the center of a field will sometimes be intrusive and even intellectually imperialistic. Not surprisingly, Cavell’s sense of writing can cause problems that words like “self indulgent” or “therapeutic” or “redemptive” will mostly serve to disguise or to palliate. Cavell’s sense of writing, and of writing philosophy, contains a sense of potential aggression against the reader and even a kind of disfigurement of the world. One might surmise that the strategy of taking over the position of the reader within his own text has the goal of protecting the reader from further damage. This image of writing in Cavell, as related to the convergence and responsiveness of experience, is also related to a third ambition in this book, one that Rhu does not mention explicitly. It is the author’s own ambition to be understood as a writer.

Rhu characterizes this ambition for others as achieving “audibly American voices” (3), though without claiming such a voice for himself. This is not just the effect of the ambition to write well or clearly or convincingly. Rhu also displays the ambition that his writing be taken in as other than professional academic prose. He is writing for the sake of writing. This is presumably a kind of homage to Cavell’s ambitions, but it also works out its own directions, running parallel to Cavell’s.

Rhu’s own project is epitomized in his detailed attention to Walker Percy, whose novel The Moviegoer appears repeatedly throughout this book. There are many ways in which this book shows its “affinities” (5) to Cavell’s work: first, that the hero, Binx Bolling, in Rhu’s analysis, is portrayed as “an American scholar” (21). The character is described as taking Kierkegaard to the movies, which is a pretty good emblem of Cavell’s formative years as a writer. What is, initially, opposite to Cavell is Percy’s idea of the everyday as a place where “the search” is lost and where the Romance of the Self dies away into the habits of the commonplace. But the effort of the Moviegoer (of the writer and of the protagonist) to survive the anxiety that makes the everyday attractive seems close enough to certain terms Cavell proposes.

Proposing himself as a reader of Percy as well as Cavell, Rhu reticently but decisively puts himself forward as a writer. He draws from the same spring of inspiration (call it Kierkegaard and the movies) and explores the same anxieties and the same perceptions of the everyday world. One proof that you are a writer is your ability to receive inspiration and insight from different but converging sources. These writers meet in the act of your writing. Not everyone will find such encounters convincing. But I am not alone in being convinced by Rhu’s pages, and being struck by the poise of his sentences. Moreover, this writing is not just offered as a courteous gesture to Cavell’s accomplishment (or for that matter Percy’s). It is itself an argument that the America of Cavell’s movies is a land you can walk on, a land you can work with. Rhu’s work confirms that Cavell’s America is more than a dream if still less than the eventual community we had hoped for.

On a more academically mundane level, Rhu’s writing does not remain within the subject matter and forms that are dictated by his (or by any) professional field. Rhu’s prose is lucid as well as learned, exuberant as well as exact. Along with a few touches of autobiography, Rhu’s rebellion against mere professionalism means allowing himself to take a stance towards the world (including the political world) that is not sanctioned by the decorum of his profession and hence also not sanctioned by the acceptably rancorous forms of political distaste that now circulate in the humanities. The question of politics comes up at some of the same critical moments of political controversy anticipated by Cavell’s responses to writers for the most part outside philosophy. For reasons worth examining, these quarrels emerge most vividly, if not necessarily coherently, in film studies and in American studies.

That Rhu’s work points inward at the convergence of three of Cavell’s principal fields is not inconsistent with the fact that Cavell’s own writing emphasizes the autonomy of the fields he is talking about. This question should remain an open one. Surely Cavell is an outsider, however intimate, to fields like Renaissance studies. He is certainly not an outsider in the same sense to the study of film or of Emerson. (Partly this is because there is such a thing as the established professional study of the literary Renaissance. And there is not much that seems comparable to this regularity of problem and method in the study of film or of American transcendentalism.) All those who follow Cavell’s writing must answer the question: how do these fields that Cavell responds to (Shakespeare, movies, Emerson) exist, prior to Cavell’s intervention in their autonomy? If these fields do not exist as independent fields of investigation, then Cavell’s critical inquiries are empty exercises. And if Cavell’s writing does not alter what he writes about, he remains an actual outsider (not that more interesting status of intimate outsider), whose work is relevant only to those who are already convinced. The fact remains, and Rhu’s work make very clear, that Cavell’s interventions into the field of Shakespeare studies may be amateur, or tentative, but they are also very specifically aimed at a specific field and the practitioners of that field.  If there was no Paul Alpers or Northrop Frye or C.L. Barber or Janet Adelman or Richard Wheeler (or Lawrence Rhu), Cavell could not have invented them. In the very act of mapping these islands of Cavell’s work, and charting the currents that run between them, Rhu reminds us that we have been apprized of a new region in the world of our thoughts, a region that remains, for the most part, to be recognized and occupied.

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