Oct. 14: James Conant’s passages

Here are the passages that James Conant (Philosophy, University of Chicago) will speak about at Thursday’s celebration of the publication of Stanley Cavell’s Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory (Stanford University Press). For full information about the Oct. 14 event (and the related events on the 15th and the 16th), please click here.

Passages from Little Did I Know

and “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear

Chosen by Jim Conant

  • [M]y father was well known in his circles for the stories he told in Yiddish, the most impressive of which were as long as short stories and whose punch lines were less important than the telling of the stories, making epics of events of unnoticeable everyday characters…. I loved the stories for the attention they held, for the mounting pleasure they constructed, for the burst of excellent feeling they released, all depending upon the talent displayed in the telling. It was, as I learned, the strict decorum of telling Yiddish stories that they had to be appropriate to an occasion (at least an initial story had to be; others could follow their lead if they at least equaled, in some direction, that appropriateness). (LDIK, pp. 124-5)
  • I evidently kept my feelings to myself, and wandered around trying to take an interest in the combination of familiar and strange objects in the living room. I recognized an ornamental object on a table at the side of the sofa, a purple glass bowl, somewhat wider but less deep than a drinking tumbler, set into a molded dull silver stand and covered with a dome top of matching silver inset with glass purple panels. I lifted the silver dome off the bowl to discover that it was filled with small chocolate-covered mint wafers whose tops were sprinkled with tiny white dots of hard candy, a treat I loved to sample when these used to fill this container in anticipation of company coming to the old house. I noticed that I was alone in the room. My father was standing silently in the semidark at the other end of the sofa, apparently looking out of a window. I do not know if it would have crossed my mind before then that I had almost never been in a room alone with him, indeed, that I knew him much less well than I knew everyone else who had lived in the house I grew up in…. As I took one of the speckled wafers from the purple bowl, I said aimlessly, but somehow to break the silence with my father, “I didn’t know we had these here.” He lurched at me, wrenched the dome top and the wafer out of my hands, and said in a violent, growling whisper, “And you still don’t know it!”…. This is the moment I described as dating my knowledge that my father wanted me dead, or rather wanted me not to exist.” (LDIK, pp. 17-18)
  • The fact that the English word mad means both angry and insane has repeatedly seemed to me wonderfully perceptive of it. (LDIK, p. 126)
  • If one wishes a psychological explanation for Edgar’s behavior the question to be answered is: Why does Edgar avoid his father’s recognition? Two answers suggest themselves. (1) He is himself ashamed and guilty…. (2) He cannot bear the fact that his father is incapable, impotent, maimed. He wants his father still to be a father, powerful so that he can remain a child. For otherwise they are simply two human beings in need of one another, and it is not usual for parents and children to manage that transformation, becoming for one another nothing more, nothing less, than unaccommodated men. (AL, pp. 284-5)

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