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’.

There is a frame of mind which for Cavell lies behind all the little deaths, and in one way or another he is always writing about it. This is why his style, and his range of reference, can strike one as both extravagant and discreet. His connections – between Othello and Wittgenstein, between film and academic philosophy, between American literature and a philosophical tradition Americans often claim they haven’t got – sometimes seem unlikely but only because they run deep and because Cavell is willing to wait for us to catch up with him. The frame of mind is clearly named in the quotations above. It is what Cavell calls scepticism, reminding us that ‘scepticism wears as many guises as the devil.’ Scepticism isn’t diabolical, though: only part of what makes us ordinary and takes the ordinary away from us.

In The World Viewed (1971), The Claim of Reason (1979), Pursuits of Happiness (1981), and in a sequence of eloquent and unsettling subsequent books, Cavell has been tracking scepticism to its various likely and unlikely lairs. He finds it in our inability to remember our own needs or recognise those of others, and in the fundamental experience of watching movies, where we become ghost-spectators of a world that seems complete without us. Cities of Words traces the same preoccupation through a series of texts and films, and reconstructs a course Cavell taught for a number of years.[†] In Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow he manages both to go back over a great deal of this ground and to suggest a couple of startling new tracks of inquiry. The new tracks – they have to do with the possibility of praise and the role of passion in any future theory of language – precisely illustrate the sense of the familiar and the unfamiliar for the reader of Cavell’s work. They clearly follow on from his earlier thoughts, but you couldn’t (I couldn’t) have predicted them.

Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow takes its title from Nietzsche, who wrote in the hope of ‘a man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow’. One of the ten chapters also has this title and explores the idea. Others take on the uncertainty of the texts of Shakespeare, the walking and dancing of Fred Astaire, the America of Henry James, certain works by Thoreau and Heidegger, scepticism itself, the utterance of passion, the relation between philosophy and collecting, and just what it is that makes Wittgenstein’s work ‘at once attractive and uninheritable within professional philosophy’. The book brings together work done between 1994 and 2004. Cavell, a distinguished emeritus professor at Harvard, refers several times to his sense of ‘intellectual isolation’ from the community of professional philosophers, to his ‘somewhat strained way within the institutions of philosophy in our America’. He thinks there are those who find his readings ‘lurid’, and wonders whether he should apologise for ‘the remarkably persistent air of exoticism in presenting a piece of film in service of serious intellectual intentions’. But of course, as his persistence suggests, he is not going to apologise and (rightly) doesn’t think he should. I was still toying with the word ‘rueful’ to conjure up the tone of these remarks, although it didn’t seem quite right, when I got to the moment when Cavell himself uses the word. The context is the picture others have of him as ‘an alternative voice in the interpretation of later Wittgenstein’. ‘For some years I could take a rueful pleasure in such a description of the work I do, but as pleasure in the description faded it was replaced by a certain perplexity … What difference or set of differences has threatened my welcome within a communal effort?’ This book offers several beginnings of an answer to this question. As Cavell says, wrily but without rue, ‘if I am ever to take the measure of this threat … there is clearly, at my age, no time like the present.’

In a central chapter of the book Cavell cites the canonical formulation of what scepticism means in philosophy: not doubt that the world and other people exist but frustration at our inability to demonstrate that they do or that they must. ‘It always remains a scandal of philosophy and universal human reason,’ Kant says, ‘that the existence of things outside us … should have to be assumed merely on faith, and that if it occurs to anyone to doubt it, we should be unable to answer him with a proof.’ Cavell then quotes Heidegger’s corollary: the scandal is not that we can’t find the proof ‘but that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again’. Common sense has always ignored both the scandal and the attempted proofs, but there is virtue in rattling common sense, as scepticism always does, and the issue is complicated.

‘Thus I refute him,’ Dr Johnson said, kicking a stone, and getting himself into more philosophical trouble than he knew. We may think a kick is not much of a refutation anyway, but a kick in this case actually confirms the opposing argument, since the ‘he’ in question was Berkeley, who had argued that the world exists only as and when we (or God) perceive it. Or kick it. Johnson would have been on firmer ground if he had kicked and missed. Cavell, invoking this story, characteristically takes this line of thought for granted and concentrates on Johnson’s choice of kicking as his demonstration, as distinct from, say, ‘sipping wine, or putting your hand on the arm of a friend, or just walking away on solid ground, or muddy ground for that matter’. Is Johnson showing ‘his contempt of philosophy’, Cavell wonders, or trying to cause himself ‘pain by the things of the world’? ‘And, if so, had he then forgotten when he last kicked them, or brushed them by?’ The metaphor of walking away is not casually used here, since walking is one of the themes of the whole book. In The Bandwagon, Fred Astaire walks instead of dancing, turns his walking into dancing, as he strolls along a New York platform singing ‘By Myself’, and Cavell has a wonderful riff on Wittgenstein’s figure of the difficulty of walking on ice:

We might try imagining our response to one who begins periodically to move through comfortable rooms and along sunny, unobstructed sidewalks as though they were fields of ice, or paths along a precipice – flailing through an unremarkable corridor, huddling against the sides of buildings – and who all the while insists that she is going on in the same way she has always done.

Scepticism can be an illness, as Hume thought it was, even a form of madness. It can be a routine wariness about the things and creatures of the world. Or it can be, as Cavell wants it to be, a constant reminder that we regularly think and feel and act ‘in the absence of what may seem sufficient reason’. One of Cavell’s heroes, J.L. Austin, would say on occasion (arguing with A.J. Ayer, for example) that the reasons we have are sufficient; it’s only a fantasy of perfection that makes them seem inadequate. But Cavell doesn’t want us to go in that direction. For him scepticism is irrefutable and inescapable, the mistake we need to keep making to see how we get things right. We do get them right at times, speak our minds, open our hearts, educate each other – these are the patches of daily life that match the little daily deaths – but we should remember, Cavell suggests, that we are looking at a recurring miracle, not a norm. This is a large part of the importance of Wittgenstein for Cavell, since the Philosophical Investigations seek ‘to discover the causes of philosophy’s disparagement of, or its disappointment with, the ordinary, something I have called the truth of scepticism’. In a famous line in the Investigations, Wittgenstein says: ‘What we do is lead words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.’ This sounds like the whole programme of ordinary-language philosophy, but Cavell hears an entirely different, indeed contrary note in the sentence. What if the words won’t come when we lead them, and why were they being used metaphysically in the first place? Wittgenstein offers, Cavell says, ‘the most original philosophical account I know of how it is that we drive words away from us, into an uncontrollable structure of transcendent service’.

There is a similar brilliant swerve in Cavell’s reading of another famous passage in the Investigations. Wittgenstein is wondering whether the philosophical work he is doing is anything other than destructive, since it seems to knock down ‘as it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble’. Cavell points out that this is just a metaphor, even within the world of philosophy, but a metaphor with an urgent if displaced meaning: ‘No buildings have been destroyed, the things of the world remain as they were, but we, in response to trivial requests for saying what we know but do not know how to value, are devastated.’ Triviality itself, and our responses to it, can dramatise ‘a chronic sense that our lives are in mortal question’.

This is a first take on Cavell’s differences with the philosophical community. The everyday and the trivial are not the same but they are not always easily distinguishable. Working on the difference is a serious philosophical project, but you can see why philosophers would rather work on something else. A second take is found in the idea of praise. Praise makes the praiser vulnerable. Its strength is confirmed not by proof but by sympathetic, unforced consent. ‘Why praise Astaire?’ Cavell asks. ‘Why not chalk up the experience of pleasure and value to an idiosyncrasy of my own, and of whomever happens to share it?’ Because the experience doesn’t feel like an idiosyncrasy to him, and ‘If I am to possess my own experience I cannot afford to cede it to my culture as that culture stands. I must find ways to insist upon it, if I find it unheard, ways to let the culture confront itself in me, driving me some distance to distraction.’

There is a good deal about lost experience in the book, and that is why the notion of the ordinary is so important. It’s the place we need to get back to, and also the ‘place we have never been’. And the deepest, longest argument in this book – and a third take on Cavell’s differences with his community – is a claim for the ordinariness of passion. Taking on Austin’s account of the performative in language, and finding that it ‘catastrophically’ breaks off just when it is getting interesting, Cavell writes an extension of the theory, where words are not only deeds (‘I promise’, ‘I swear’, ‘I bet’), but stances and declarations and causes of deeds. Taking from Ayer a series of examples of phrases that ‘express no proposition’ and have only ‘an emotive function’, Cavell shows what an emotive function might look like if you took it seriously. He thinks Ayer’s examples (‘You acted wrongly in stealing that money’; ‘Tolerance is a virtue’; ‘You ought to tell the truth’) are ‘surrealistically underdescribed’, and undertakes, as he does with similar instances in The Claim of Reason, to evoke in some detail situations in which the words might actually be spoken. ‘Tolerance is a virtue’ might be said in a context which makes tolerance a vice or the speaker a mere prig. ‘You ought to tell the truth’ could be uttered ‘with a specific reason tied to the present case’. And what are the alternatives to acting wrongly in stealing the money? ‘How should you have acted, more menacingly? What else should you have stolen, the television monitor?’ Is it pointless to say ‘I’m bored’? ‘If “I’m bored” needs saying, it may also be obvious, perhaps should be obvious, without saying; then saying it would place a demand that I may be unwilling or unable to face … Sometimes … words are essentially owed. Flowers are not a substitute.’

If these instances seem trivial, we need to remember the connection between triviality and scepticism, and the scene of our little deaths. What philosophy has to do, Cavell says, and what he has been doing in his relative isolation, is pay attention to language not only as the place of meaning and of words as forms of action, but as the place of desire, the articulated realm where our wishes get expressed or get lost. This is the link between praise and passion. ‘The one uttering the passion must have the passion’ and the one ‘singled out’ to receive this declaration ‘must respond here and now … and respond in kind’. And the praiser must not praise idly and must hope to be heard. ‘A performative utterance,’ Cavell concludes, paraphrasing Austin, ‘is an offer of participation in the order of law. And perhaps we can say: a passionate utterance is an invitation to improvisation in the disorders of desire.’

[*] 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.