Time after Time

Stanley Cavell on the Future Today

Keep in mind that I come from that part of the world for which the question of old and new – call it the question of a human future – is, or was, logically speaking, a matter of life and death: if the new world is not new then America does not exist, it is merely one more outpost of old oppressions. Americans like Thoreau (and if Thoreau then Emerson and Walt Whitman, to say no more) seem to have lived so intensely or intently within the thought of a possible, and possibly closed, future that a passage like the following would be bound to have struck them as setting an old mood: ‘Everything is worn out: revolutions, profits, miracles. The planet itself shows signs of fatigue and breakdown, from the ozone layer to the temperature of the oceans.’[*] Compare a sentence from the opening chapter of Thoreau’s Walden: ‘Undoubtedly the very tedium and ennui which presume to have exhausted the variety and the joys of life are [themselves] as old as Adam.’ This is, I think we might say, a compounding or transcendentalising of the sense of the worn out, showing that concept of our relation to the past to be itself nearly worn out. And this recognition provides Thoreau not with compounded tedium and ennui but with an outburst of indignant energy. He continues: ‘But man’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried.’ This is why he can say, when he appeals to sacred writings and defends them against the sense that they are passé: ‘We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.’ As if to say: Beware of the idea of The Future Today – that is, of Today’s Future; it may be a function of Yesterday’s Today, and you will discover that Today was always already Tomorrow, that there is no time for origination. Yet Thoreau’s idea is that time has not touched the thoughts and texts he deals in. What chance is there for us to share his faith today, now? When is now?

An intricate intersection of old and new is also the burden of Emerson’s great essay ‘Experience’. Indeed it should not be surprising that America found its philosophical voice in thinking, and having to think, about the future – if you grant me the claim that Emerson and Thoreau represent the founding of the American difference in philosophy. Emerson writes in ‘Experience’: ‘In liberated moments we know that a new picture of life and duty is already possible ... The new statement will comprise the scepticisms as well as the faiths of society, and out of unbeliefs a creed shall be found ... The new philosophy must take [these scepticisms] in and make affirmations outside of them, just as much as it must include the oldest beliefs.’ This demand for integration sounds like a beginning of that American optimism or Emersonian cheerfulness to which an old European sophistication knows so well how to condescend. But it has never been sure, even where I come from, that Emerson’s tone of encouragement is tolerable to listen to for very long – as if it expresses a threat as much as it does a promise. I note that his words about finding a creed out of unbeliefs, unlike those of his familiar followers as well as detractors, contain no word of hope. What occurs to us in liberated moments is that we know. That ‘we’ claims to speak for us, for me and for you, as philosophy in its unavoidable arrogance always claims to do; and moreover claims to speak of what we do not know we know, hence of some thought that we keep rejecting; hence claims to know us better than we know ourselves. I suppose Emerson is claiming to know this, as we do, only in liberated moments. Then presumably his writing the thought was one such moment – as if something about such writing tends to such moments. Does reading such writing provide us with further such moments? If – or when – it does not, how could we fail to find Emerson’s claims intolerable?

Let us provisionally surmise just this much from Emerson’s passage: if we are to think anew it must be from a new stance, one essentially unfamiliar to us; or, say, from a further perspective that is uncontrollable by us. If we formulate this by saying that to think the future one would have to be in the future, this sounds like a way also of summarising Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, whose subtitle is ‘Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future’. This is as it should be since that text of Nietzsche’s – like so many of Nietzsche’s texts, early and, as in this case, late – is pervasively indebted to Emerson’s Essays, ‘Experience’ pivotally among them. But unlike his reiterated, implicit rebuke to Wagner’s Der Kunstwerk der Zukunft, Nietzsche’s continuous invocation of Emerson is something we will know only intermittently, in liberated (vanishing) moments.

Beyond Good and Evil speaks, as Emerson does, of thinking through pessimism to affirmation. Nietzsche specifies pessimism as what is most world-denying; Emerson’s name for this, in the passage I quoted, is scepticism; its opposite Nietzsche specifies as world-affirmation, which is precisely what Emerson understands the new world to be awaiting. Nietzsche specifies the world-affirming human being as one who, reconceiving time, achieves the will to eternal recurrence; Emerson as one who finds the knack of liberation in moments. Since Nietzsche’s thinking through pessimism is his articulation of nihilism, the philosophical stakes he puts in play are not alone the national existence of the so-called new world, but the continuation of old Western culture, of what it has so far told itself of the human.

Emerson and Nietzsche are variously explicit in saying that philosophy as such is thinking for the future – so that their sense of going beyond philosophy in what they say about the future is at the same time a claim to the stance of philosophy. In Beyond Good and Evil: ‘More and more it seems to me that the philosopher, being of necessity a man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, has always found himself, and had to find himself, in contradiction to today ... By applying the knife vivisectionally to the chest of the very virtues of their time, they betrayed what was their own secret: to know of a new greatness of man, of a new untrodden way to his enhancement.’ We might think here of Plato, who is explicit in his Republic in staging the moment of philosophy, specifically of philosophy’s entrance into the public world, as in some future that is now datable only paradoxically, as when philosophers will become kings; in the meantime we (re)construct our city only with words, as with the text of the Republic. Or we may think of Kant, for whom moral sanity depends on a reasonable hope for future justice, and his necessary positing of the good city as a Realm of Ends – where each of us is legislated for in legislating for all. Unlike Plato’s Republic, Kant’s good city is essentially unrepresentable by philosophy: if we could represent it we could claim to know it, but that would leave room neither for genuine faith in our effectiveness toward a future nor for genuine knowledge of the present. (Among the choices we have for dating the modern, one may choose Freud’s discovery that anything I think, except negation, I can dream, and anything I dream is a work of representation, hence a guide for myself to what I all but inescapably already know.)

Nietzsche’s words about the philosopher as the man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, hence as necessarily having to find himself in contradiction to today, and his specifying this as his vivisecting the very virtues of his time, are virtual transcriptions (with a Nietzschean accent) of words of Emerson’s. In Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’ there is a pair of sentences I have previously had occasion variously to cite and interpret: ‘The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.’ I will merely assert here that Emerson uses his signature concept of self-reliance, in contradiction to the conforming usage of it in most request, to characterise his writing, hence his thinking; hence to place it, in every word, in aversion to, and as averse to, his conforming society. And assert further that Nietzsche’s sense of the philosopher’s words as in ‘contradiction to today’ are not only a rewriting of Emerson’s ‘aversion to conformity’ but that Emerson’s citing of conformity as a virtue, and precisely as epitomising the virtues of his today, from which in every word he writes his writing recoils (‘Every word they say chagrins us’ is another formulation in ‘Self-Reliance’), casts Emerson as the figure most directly captured in Nietzsche’s terrible image of the philosopher as vivisectionist. (This is evidently a further shade of intervention than Socrates is coloured with, as gadfly or midwife.) That Emerson is supplying words for Nietzsche’s description of the philosopher – of himself, of course – comes out again later in the same paragraph, in his speaking of philosophical violence as the philosopher’s betraying his own secret of a new greatness of man, which Nietzsche specifies as an untrodden way to man’s enhancement.

The picture of philosophising as taking steps on a path is an ancient one, but Emerson’s ‘Experience’ is remarkable for its concentration on the idea of thinking as a new succession, or success: ‘To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road ... is wisdom.’ This might strike one as giving up on the future; the possibility will come back. The English translation of Nietzsche’s passage rather loses another echo from ‘Experience’ in rendering Nietzsche’s philosophical secret of a new greatness of man by speaking of an untrodden way to man’s ‘enhancement’. ‘Enhancement’ conceives greatness, which Nietzsche calls eine Grösse, as found on a path to his heightening, whereas Nietzsche’s characterising the newness as a Vergrösserung, enveloping and intensifying Grösse, leaves quite open what form the magnification is to take – ‘expansiveness’ is one characteristic Emersonian term for productive human thinking.

The value of leaving open the proposed idea of human increase or expansiveness is that it is at the end of the section begun by Nietzsche’s paragraph concerning the new greatness that he reformulates the question of the future by asking: ‘Today is greatness possible?’; a question explicitly both about the human capacity to think and the capacity to will. Now Emerson’s ‘Experience’ can be taken as an essay on greatness, and greatness precisely as preparing a joyful future – if the human past of grief, with its endless causes for grievance, may be set aside, not so much survived as outlived. As Emerson here measures grief by his response to the death of his young namesake son, he repeatedly figures the possibility of expansiveness, in mood and in thought, as the greatness of pregnancy (English used to speak of ‘being great with child’). This is how I read Emerson’s call for the ‘soul [to attain] her due sphericity’, and his account of ‘the great and crescive self’, perhaps above all his report of insight from ‘the vicinity of a new ... region of life’, which he conveys as a region of new life giving a sign of itself ‘as it were in flashes of light’. He reports: ‘And what a future it opens! I feel a new heart beating with the love of the new beauty. I am ready to die out of nature and be born again into this new yet unapproachable America I have found in the West.’ What’s going on? What number of hearts does Emerson feel beating, one or two? If America opens a joyful future, why is it ‘unapproachable’ – which seems to imply that it is forbidding, or hideous, or otherwise beyond clear grasp?

Put aside the arresting fact that Emerson identifies the writing of this essay with the growth of an embryo, and focus on the underlying Emersonian proposition (not without apparent contradiction elsewhere) that greatness is to be found only in little things. From Emerson’s essay ‘Character’: ‘Is there any religion but this, to know, that whenever in the wide desert of being, the holy sentiment we cherish has opened into a flower, it blooms for me? if none see it, I see it; I am aware, if I alone, of the greatness of the fact.’ This perhaps marks the point of Nietzsche’s radical difference with Emerson. In Beyond Good and Evil we have heard: ‘The time for petty [kleine] politics is past: the very next century will bring the fight for the dominion of the earth – the compulsion to large-scale [grössen] politics.’ This prophecy made in the late eighties of the 19th century seems a fairish way of tracking the progress of the 20th, including a certain prediction of an essential region of Heidegger’s reflections on his century. Has the century ended? Was it in 1989? And in Berlin, or Moscow?

Plotting the reticulation of differences implied in the audiences or possibilities of America and of Europe is still worth some patience; and I would like to sketch here two further encounters between Emerson’s Essays and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil – 1. regarding the specific way time is reconceived and 2. regarding the appearance of the feminine in characterising, or protecting, philosophy.

Take time first. In ‘Circles’, perhaps Emerson’s most concentrated pages on the concept of the new (pages from which Nietzsche cites explicitly and climactically near the end of his Untimely Meditation with the title Schopenhauer as Educator), the first paragraph contains these sentences: ‘Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn.’ This is, whatever else, a formulation of what an Emersonian essay is, and does; each Emerson essay contains such self-formulations. Emerson goes on at once to gloss the image of the circle by saying that there is ‘no end in nature, but every end is a beginning,’ and that ‘under every deep a lower deep opens,’ and that ‘there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon.’ Thoreau – I suppose Nietzsche’s only rival as an interpreter of Emerson – recasts the thought more famously in the concluding two brief sentences of Walden: ‘There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.’ The figuring of ‘more day’ or of ‘another dawn risen on mid-noon’ provides a hint for taking Nietzsche at his characteristic word when he says that ‘the philosopher is the man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.’

English and French picture the leap over the day after today as its being ‘after’ (après) that after. But German says Übermorgen, which plays uncannily into the attention Nietzsche gives to the prefix über. I take it we are to understand the relation of Übermorgen to Morgen on the model of the relation of Übermensch to Mensch – so that the Übermensch precisely is whatever the man of Übermorgen is, its discoverer or creator. This singles out the one who has learned (which must mean that he has taught himself) how to think of, and how to live in, a further day, which is to say, in the future – the thing Thoreau calls ‘more day’ and that Emerson calls ‘another dawn’, an after dawn. Such a day is not one assurable from the fact of the past risings of the sun (Hume was right enough about that), but one the course to which is plottable only through an ambitious philosophy, thinking it through, aversively, which is to say, by turning ourselves around, not presuming at once to head into the future. The future – call it America, or call it the world that may be – cannot be approached as in a picture of a boat approaching a shore, not even a magic boat called Mayflower (Emerson apparently, if momentarily, fantasises otherwise in his first defining work, Nature); nor, as Nietzsche tried to explain in Beyond Good and Evil, can it be taken by the strength we picture as of blood and iron. (Heidegger, accursed, for a time neglected Nietzsche’s warning not to take hope from this dangerous, self-prescribed healing.)

It seems that we have to learn to think after thinking has come to a dead end, or, say, has become exhausted. We may express this as philosophy’s coming to conceive of itself as taking place in, or as, an aftermath, an aftermath of thought, sometimes now called a closure of philosophy or of history.

Here one should recollect philosophy’s tendency to fantasise scenes of its own destruction, as if it becomes burdened with prophecy; I cite, for example, the knowledge Wittgenstein expresses in Philosophical Investigations that his thinking is repeatedly taken as merely destructive of everything important. Philosophy evidently has its melancholy side – why else would Emerson so insist, and so gratingly, on finding instants of joy, and Nietzsche on his tincture of laughter? Philosophy’s knowledge was always painful, as when Emerson says, at the close of ‘Experience’: ‘I know that the world I converse with in the city and in the farms, is not the world I think. I observe that difference, and shall observe it. One day I shall know the value and law of this discrepance.’ Take this as philosophy’s ancient perception of the distance of the world from a reign of justice. (When philosophy refuses any longer to cede this reign to theology’s afterlife, as Emerson and Nietzsche write to refuse it, the destruction entailed by justice becomes an event, and the approach of an event, within finitude, an approach the living may represent to themselves, without being able to decipher it.) This distance, or discrepance, is the world’s public business, now on a global stage. I hope nothing will stop it from becoming the principal business of the 21st century. But it is, on my view, while a task that philosophy must join in together with every serious political and economic and, I would say, therapeutic theory, not now philosophy’s peculiar task, as it was in Plato’s Republic.

Philosophy’s peculiar task now – that which will not be taken up if philosophy does not take it up – is, beyond or before that, to prepare us, one by one, for the business of justice; and to train itself for the task of preparation by confronting an obstacle, perhaps the modern obstacle, to that business: I mean a sense of the exhaustion of human possibility, following the exhaustion of divine possibility.

Nietzsche, after Emerson, links the sense of human exhaustion with the sense of the unresponsiveness of the future to human will (how different is that from the sense of the unresponsiveness of God?) As if the grief in witnessing the discrepance from the reign of justice has depended on, and been fixated by, a despair of change. Here we have to think of Emerson’s description of the mass of men as in a state of silent melancholy; Thoreau will say ‘quiet desperation’; Nietzsche sometimes formulates the sense of exhaustion as ‘boredom’; I note in passing that it is as some intersection of boredom with melancholy that Wordsworth, at the beginning of a different romanticism, takes a general human withdrawal of interest in the world as the condition to which poetry is called to respond, or to teach response. It may be thought of as a state of tragedy not experienced as such – which is, I allow myself to add, a way of characterising scepticism.

Silent melancholy, Emerson says. Naming a historical phenomenon, this names not an isolated matter of an individual sense of pointlessness in saying anything, but a more general sense of lacking, or failing, the language in which to express what has to be said, as if calling philosophical as well as political attention to a shared aphasia. Editing these remarks for publication to an English-speaking readership, I am moved to confess how swiftly, with how few steps, one can feel out of earshot of one’s native company. It is my latecomer’s view of Lacan that his emphasis on registers and textures of speech, and its failures (say, its wants), epitomised by his fascination with Roman Jakobson’s ordering of the linguist’s interest in aphasias, casts all psychoanalytic experience of discrepance as of forms of what might be grasped as (a transfiguration of the concept of) aphasia. This reconstitutes, or re-enacts, Freud’s early (‘pre-psychoanalytic’) interest in the phenomenon of aphasia; one might call the phenomenon of disexpressiveness.

So philosophy becomes a struggle against melancholy – or, to speak with due banality, against depression. It is here that I conceive the image of woman to enter into the thoughts of Emerson and of Nietzsche, in Emerson briefly and hopefully, in Nietzsche recurrently and scandalously. Those who find Nietzsche an essential voice in today’s confusion of tongues will often wish that he had not spoken as he did about ‘the woman’. Without a word of argument now, I simply state my sense that it is still today worth hearing his naming the struggle between the man and the woman as something that cannot without remainder be understood in political terms. (But then for Nietzsche neither can politics be so understood.) Nor does it seem to me that the struggle he names is simply an allegory of an individual condition, though that is no less true for his writing than it is for Plato’s in the Republic. I would rather begin with the fairly open fact of Nietzsche’s fear and need of the woman, seen as functions of his demand for a future, hence for a philosophy of the future. (How could his treatment of the thought of woman be exempt from the confession he makes about the way of his confessions, that they are crooked? The idea of the path to the future as crooked bears placing against Emerson’s idea in ‘Experience’ of the path to reality as indirect, or glancing.)

A sense of the image of the woman in Beyond Good and Evil could in practice begin by putting in conjunction its following ideas: that steps to the future are aversive, or put otherwise, that philosophy’s way to the future is through destruction; that since this is the only source of genuine philosophy, the philosopher essentially risks suffering and melancholy, risks ‘suffocating from pity’; that woman is ‘clairvoyant in the realm of suffering’, and her characteristic faith is that love, perhaps identified with pity, can achieve everything; and that ‘every profound thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood.’ What I begin to draw from this conjunction is the sense of woman – I suppose leaving open where that turns out to exist – as Nietzsche’s most essential audience, the best and the worst. She is the best, because she understands, through her power of love and of pity, his suffering and (as when he all but identifies his condition with that of Jesus) his insatiable, suicidal desire for love; so understands that in his words his body is on the line. But she is also his worst audience, because her faith cannot compass his terror of love, that it will crucify him, which means, in the terms of this book of his, that it will deny that he is ‘still unexhausted for [his] greatest possibilities’, hence in those terms, since the future is what is new, she would deny him his future. Taking woman as his essential audience, he identifies with her while he differentiates from her – as when he characterises man as ‘the sterile animal’ and when he, too, perceives the philosopher as pregnant.

I think of philosophy’s essential difficulty in representing its future in connection with its inability to establish the conditions of philosophy, the look and sound in which, in particular historical contexts, it can have its peculiar effect, take its aversive, unassertive steps. A group of half a dozen texts not usually associated with philosophy come to mind here, texts in which the future is presented as a course so puzzled as to call for philosophy. I first encountered these texts during the period of two or three years in which I was searching, not always hopefully, for a way to begin teaching and writing philosophy that I could believe in and make a living from.

I had begun reading Wittgenstein’s Investigations, perhaps the first philosophical text which successfully for me staked its teaching on showing that we do not know, or make ourselves forget, what reading is. I found its attack on metaphysics – call it the history of philosophy as such – by, in Wittgenstein’s formulation, ‘leading words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use’, to be continuously and surprisingly surprising, discovering surprise where you least expect it, in the banal. So that philosophy came to begin for me with the question whether philosophy has a future, which means whether there is an event that has happened to end philosophy, or whether philosophy’s ending is an event that happens within philosophy, hence precisely and essentially continues it.

This opening of philosophy for me, synchronised with the opening of philosophical and non-philosophical texts towards one another, was set in motion in the year or two leading into 1960, marked as the years in which three of the texts I name here, three films it happens, were released: Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, the Alain Resnais/Marguerite Duras Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Antonioni’s L’Avventura – each associated with a question about whether something new might happen (Samuel Beckett’s Godot and Endgame were still new), shadowed by the question whether love is an exhausted possibility, a question incorporating some residue of a fantasy of marriage. In each case the answer is presented as in the hands of a woman – in Marguerite Duras’s woman of Nevers it is one capable, in Duras’s words, of giving herself body and soul, which she characterises as discovering marriage; in Antonioni’s Claudia (in the form of Monica Vitti) it is a woman capable of granting a man’s terrible wish, as it were, for her to change her love for him into pity; in Bergman’s Desirée (Eva Dahlbeck) it is a woman who at the end sits smoking a cigar behind the head of a man who speaks to her with unaccustomed sincerity as he is lying on a couch, and who answers him by saying that she is putting his love into her big pocket, a man in whom she explicitly perceives the child – all a fair parody, in acceptance, of the image of Freud and what he called (around the period in which the film is set) his therapy of love. (One of Freud’s debts to old philosophy.) These are works of cinematic art decisive in modifying concepts, as in America, of what were thought of as foreign films and as ordinary movies, hence in modifying concepts of high and low culture, and of what constitutes a medium of thought – ones which, in a word, served to alter the iconography of intellcetual conversation.

Those presentations are oddly tied up in my mind with two works from Victorian England that one with my intellectual itinerary could hardly fail to know about but that it happens I had not read until the years in question; neither of them may be counted among the greatest accomplishments of their illustrious authors, but both took on the urgency of the doubts I was harbouring then – a familiar story. One is Dickens’s Great Expectations, an inspired title at once for all the ways human beings try to take the future by storm – by boat or by blood and iron – and, turned ironically, a title for the disappointment or depression that follows the deflation of that inflation. It is Pip who is explicitly said to be a young man ‘of great expectations’, yet he can be said to have had no expectations great or small, but simply to have formed his character on a love quite independent of its fate in the world – on love, in short; a figure, therefore, with some hard things to learn, yet who survives the learning. Miss Havisham’s expectation can be said to have been the greatest, measured by the power of her outrage and vengeance when she allowed it to be shattered – call it the expectation of being loved; it was a disappointment, a piece of learning she refused to survive, her body in its rotting bridal gown becoming a private monument of the institution of marriage. I recognise Miss Havisham as Cinderella, of course with a sublimed conclusion – eternally awaiting the glass slipper – a realistic conclusion, as it were, given the difficulty of locating and knowing her original away from the dance. I imagine it as Pip’s princely understanding of her, from his hallucinating on a wall of her barn the shadow of a hanged woman who is missing one shoe. How far therefore is he imagining that the condition of women is more generally to be understood as laid down by fairy-tales in which the early transfiguring enchantments never achieve their undoing; tales whose ending is not just unhappy but arbitrary, as though an ending is missing, possibilities not exhausted but cursed? But then what assures us that a given narrative is a fairy-tale? Isn’t Great Expectations more or less a fairy-tale? And while Dickens, significantly, wrote two endings for the novel – one in which Pip and Stella do not have a future together, and one in which they do – does either of them really untie the suffering we have come to know about?

Take Miss Havisham’s story to be the projection of a woman’s sense of the unapproachability of the future. The other book I adduce from that time and place is John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, which contains a man’s companion sense of the event of the future, or of its non-event. He characterises his state exactly as a despair over the exhaustion of possibilities – a state in which he broods over the fact that Mozart and Weber had exhausted all the possible combinations of tones that will achieve beautiful melody. This is the form familiar to Nietzsche in assigning to philosophy the task of the future. Miss Havisham shows possibilities not to be everywhere exhausted but everywhere untried, which suggests that the step to the future is closed not through depletion but through fixation, through the withholding or the theft of love; it is the fate Nietzsche’s fantasm threatens him with in the face of woman’s fanaticism of love. The philosophers of possibility who see us not as sensing depletion or loss but as fixated through a lack of trial or experience are rather Emerson and Thoreau. The philosophers who later take fixation itself as the negation of philosophy, its most intimate opponent, are Heidegger and Wittgenstein. In the later work of both we are invited – or seduced? – to take steps, but without a path. And that is itself to acknowledge a future, the fact of futurity. Shall we say that this opens the future to the human will? It opens the will, like a hand.

[*] These sentences are taken from the introduction to last year’s Le Monde/Le Mans conference on ‘The Future Today’. A version of Stanley Cavell’s essay was read (in French) at the conference.