Why praise Astaire?

Michael Wood

  • Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow by Stanley Cavell
    Harvard, 302 pp, £18.95, May 2005, ISBN 0 674 01704 8

The ordinary slips away from us. If we ignore it, we lose it. If we look at it closely, it becomes extraordinary, the way words or names become strange if we keep staring at them. The very notion turns into a baffling riddle. Shall we say that the ordinary doesn’t exist, or that it exists only when we don’t look at it closely? Stanley Cavell has been thinking about the ordinary (although not only about that) for the whole of his philosophical career, and he knows the riddle inside out. But the riddle is not where his interest lies. He doesn’t mind if the world goes strange on us, as long as we keep looking at it, and he is happy to assert ‘the extraordinariness of what we accept as the ordinary’. The question for him is not a linguistic one, and beyond the simple, slippery word is a whole range of human practices crying out for, but not often getting, our attention.

The examined life is not all what he calls ‘front-page dilemmas’ or ‘headline moral issues’ like abortion, capital punishment, poverty and civil disobedience. Anyone, Cavell says in a recent essay, ‘The Good of Film’, can see the drama of Plato’s Apology, the doomed Socrates facing his stubborn or uncomprehending accusers.[*] And anyone can see the dramas, large and small, that Hollywood films lay out for us. But does anyone steadily see what we do to each other all the time? This is Cavell’s version of what George Eliot once called ‘the fact of frequency’. Do we ‘recognise what we are capable of in the undramatic, repetitive, daily confrontations’ to which these more visible stories call attention? If we do, we shall

see that in our slights of one another, in an unexpressed or disguised meanness of thought, in a hardness of glance, a wilful misconstrual, a shading of loyalty, a dismissal of intention, a casual indiscriminateness of praise or blame – in any of the countless signs of scepticism with respect to the reality, the separateness of another – we run the risk of suffering, or dealing, little deaths every day.

The ‘little deaths’ reappear in Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow, again in connection with scepticism. When Elizabeth Bennet receives a letter from Darcy and realises that she has been ‘blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd’, this moment of self-knowledge also represents, Cavell says, her knowledge of being known, of being acknowledged, ‘as if until then her existence had been denied, had suffered the polite scepticism – the little deaths – of everyday life.’

Cynics, Cavell goes on to suggest, will have the energy to play in such a field. A lot of little deaths: what else did you think life was? ‘The discouraged, run down, turn aside,’ perhaps believing that the moral life is not possible. And the rest of us? Cavell recommends the Emersonian idea of ‘perfectionism’, which is oddly named precisely because it dispenses with the concept of the perfect. Plato pictures ‘the soul’s journey to itself … as a continuous path directed upwards towards a known point of completion’, but Cavell wants us to think of ‘a zigzag of discontinuous steps following the lead of what Emerson calls my “unattained but attainable self” (as if there is a sage in each of us), an idea that projects no unique point of arrival but only a willingness for change’. A little later Cavell suggests the desirability of ‘the sense that the present world must not be allowed to represent all we desire’.

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[*] Included in Cavell on Film, edited by William Rothman (SUNY, 399 pp., £16.50, July, 0 7914 6432 6).

[†] Harvard, 512 pp., £19.95, June 2004, 0 674 01336 0.