In Memory of Stanley Cavell


In Memoriam


While driving back from a party through the warm London night last Monday evening, I decided to tell my girlfriend about Stanley Cavell’s interpretation of Macbeth. The story does not reflect any better on me, if you know the essay in question. It centers on a description of the Macbeths as a portrait of a marriage gone perfectly, metaphysically wrong, one where the sharing of thought and passion has become ghastly and vampiric. But the play was on my mind because I was due to see it the following night, so maybe I can be forgiven my conversational choice. The production felt strikingly close to Cavell’s account. So I was thinking the next day about emailing him about it; instead I heard the news of his death. I am still reeling from that news as I write these brief thoughts.

Cavell had been my intellectual hero for some time before I met him. The first essay in the Cavell bibliography dates back to 1958 and has the irresistible title of “Must We Mean What We Say?” It is a telling title, too. Even in that early work, he takes a classic philosophical problem like that of meaning and looks at it askance, asking a question that is both slyly naive and densely suggestive. It became the title essay of his first book a decade or so later. The rest of the volume showed him wandering even further from the philosophical mainstream, in fact wandering far from anything even readily recognizable as philosophy within the Harvard department where he by then taught. Essays on his two key intellectual influences of J. L. Austin and Ludwig Wittgenstein were canonical enough, if bristlingly distinctive, but the book then moved through pieces on modernist music and on Beckett and on Kierkegaard. He left the normal reference points of analytic philosophy well behind. He published a book about cinema two years later, and a year after that a study of Thoreau’s Walden. Neither was liable to pave his way back to academic respectability.

If this makes his writing sound in some ways brilliantly irresponsible, so it was. But the larger point is that all this mental wandering was in service of a larger idea of intellectual responsibility than academic departments of philosophy have, for the most part, known how to sustain, or so he would have argued. His hope was to broaden philosophy to as much of the world as possible, and it was always an open question for him which of the two was meant to test the other. Wittgenstein and Austin had taught him to address the problems of linguistic philosophy by turning to the usages of ordinary language, to how people actually speak in their actual lives. Cavell turned this into an ever larger prospectus, in which everyday experience itself became both the perpetual starting point of philosophy and its highest desire.

So lunch with Stanley Cavell was apt to be a splendidly charged enterprise. Having lunch with someone considered by many to be the most original philosopher alive would have been decidedly enough, but the heart of his originality was the claim that the everyday affairs of conversation and interaction and taste were precisely what philosophy was made of. Luckily, and unsurprisingly, he had a sort of genius for everyday conviviality, too. There was no question of parity between us; he was, for one, nearly fifty years my senior. Yet in other ways he offered equality. The tiny family dog yapped away frantically as the great man opened the door of his house in Brookline, as if to assure us all that comedy was right at hand.

All this also meant that he could be charmingly open about his interest in your interest in his writing. He had had years when few enough had seen him as anything other than an eccentric if brilliant byway in the philosophical profession. By the time I met him, in his early seventies, he seemed genuinely intrigued and amused by wider renown. At our first lunch, he asked me frankly how his writings had come my way, and, disarmed, I found myself telling the truth. A quote by George Steiner on the back of one of his volumes had impressed me in a bookshop. Breathless book-jacket hype may not have been the sort of intellectual conduit that I expected him to relish, but perhaps it struck him as a nicely casual and everyday type of beginning. Cavell then told me of being on a discussion panel where he was seated in between the relentlessly high-minded and saturnine Steiner and the ever bright-eyed and upbeat American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty. On one side of him, every cultural nuance was being plumbed for the most despondent truths about modern civilization that it could possibly harbor, while on the other side, Rorty was sure that everything was going to work out just fine sooner or later, if we could all just learn to be a bit more relaxed about our theories of meaning. Cavell was the man in the middle, ambiguously faithful both to the darkest truths and the most radiant hopes.

Probably my favorite of his books is Pursuits of Happiness, his freewheeling yet burningly focused account of golden-age Hollywood comedies as more or less philosophical studies of topics like marriage and divorce and humor and seriousness and conversation and isolation and exposure and hopefulness and America itself. This brings us back to the Macbeths, too, because Cavell’s interpretation of the marriage in that play as a sort of shared passion for annihilation is a clear reversal of the hopeful, teeming visions of marriage that he found in the comedies. But then the further reason why the Macbeth essay was weighing so powerfully on my mind as I watched the play on Tuesday night was the way in which Cavell uses the sense of excessive, bloody intimacy within the couple at its heart to prise open the account of history or politics that it gives, too. He describes the social world of the play as marked by a “catastrophe of privacy” in which “false, draining intimacies” abound and which brings “the possibility that there is no end to our irrationalities, to our will to intellectual emptiness.” Phrases like these pour off the page and flow all too aptly into the scenes surrounding us now.’ Is it possible to stay ambiguous or balanced in assessing the state of our political culture at the moment? Cavell’s essay makes us fear that we do not yet know clearly enough what we mean by politics to answer such a question; but perhaps it also lets us hope that we do not. In his account, thought and the American republic could not fail to continue to be made for each other. If they did, thought would have stopped being thought, or the republic to have stopped being a republic. Is that really where we find ourselves? In his writing on Thoreau, Cavell points out that he ends his account of his time in the woods with a pun which turns morning and mourning into versions of each other, as if grief were also, endlessly, a good place to begin.


Patrick Mackie is the author of The Further Adventures of the Lives of the Saints, and his poems most recently appeared in issue no. 222 of The Paris Review (Fall 2017).