Sunday, May 27, 2007

Cavell for the Day

by Ryland Walker Knight

Many of you know of my newfound love of the great Stanley Cavell thanks to a seminar course I took this semester. I fell for him, for his work and his words, like, uh, hard. I have my issues with his work, as with anything, yet he synthesized a lot of what I've been reaching for in how to approach film as an art, and myself as a reader of film, or any art -- and subsequently identifying myself as a critic of the arts, and life. In one of his many welcomed verbal pats on my back, my professor told me I'm doing a good job of getting there. These words made me smile and I feel a tad silly putting them up here but they are offered with complete humility, I promise:
"I like what you're doing with your criticism. Like all good criticism, it not only values the object of interpretation, it also affirms the importance (and difficulty) of paying attention to the object of interpretation."

I'm trying my best. As he said, it's difficult. But I feel like I'm gaining ground -- and getting comfortable in my own critical skin. I point to my recent Revenge of the Sith appreciation. On Tuesday, I hope you read my defense of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. A lot of this new philosophy is in that work.

So, to better help explain my varied, complex shifts in perspective this semester, in regards to criticism and to life as well, I'm offering some choice quotes from the books we read of Cavell's this semester. I'm hoping to re-read Pursuits of Happiness sometime soon and write up a full-book response of an appropriate length. I may even pitch it to Mssr MZS & KU over at The House as it would be some kind of mission statement for me, one of their writers. But, honestly, with all the schooling I'm engaged in right now, I refuse a timeline on such a project. In lieu, here's the quotes:


"I have wished to understand philosophy not as a set of problems but as a set of texts." [Claim of Reason]

"I am not insensible, whatever defenses I may deploy, of an avenue of outrageousness in considering Hollywood films in the light, from time to time, of major works of thought." [Pursuits of Happiness]

"But when I thought about these eminent theories in connection with the lives depicted in the grand movies I had been immersed in, the theories and the depicted lives passed one another by, appeared irrelevant to each other. Yet these lives seemed and seem to me ones pursued by thoughtful, mature people, heavily in conversation with one another about the value of their individual or their joint pursuits. I could not understand my interest in them as unrelated to moral reflection. I claim for these films that they are masterpieces of the art of film, primary instances of America's artistic contribution to world cinema, and that their power is bound up in their exploration of a strain of moral urgency for which film's inherent powers of transfiguration and shock and emotionality and intimacy have a particlar affinity." [Cities of Words]

"It is a characteristic criticism of Emerson to say that he lacks a sense of tragedy; for otherwise how can he seem so persistently to preach cherrfulness? But suppose that what Emerson perceives, when he speaks of his fellow citizens as existing in a state of secret melancholy, is that in a democracy, which depends upon a state of willingness to act for the common good, despair is a political emotion, discouraging both participation and patience. So when Emerson asks of the American Scholar that he and she raise and cheer us, he is asking for a step of political encouragements, one that assures us that we are not alone in our sense of compromise with justice, that our sense of an unattained self is not an escape from, it is rather an index of, our commitment to the unattained city, one within the one we sustain, one we know there is no good reason we perpetually fail to attain." [Cities of Words]

"I am always saying that we must let the films themselves teach us how to look at them and how to think about them." [Pursuits of Happiness]

"Here is a place we come unprotectedly upon the limitations of criticism by the fact of something that is called personal taste. About It Happened One Night I said that its appreciation depended on a certain acceptance of Claudette Colbert; but my sense of The Awful Truth is that if one is not willing to yield to Irene Dunne's temperament, her talents, her reactions, follwing their detail almost to the loss of one's own identity, one will not know, and will not care, what the film is about. Pauline Kael, for instance, in her Profile of Cary Grant, has this to say about Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth: "though she is often funny, she overdoes the coy gurgles, and that bright toothy smile of hers -- she shows both rows of teeth, prettily held together -- can make one want to slug her." Whatever the causes of this curious response, it disqualifies whatever she has to say as a response to The Awful Truth." [Pursuits of Happiness]

"Who is this man, C. K. Dexter Haven/Cary Grant? When George, furious and confused at Tracy's refuseal, or rather acceptance, of his suggestion to let bygones be bygones, turns to Haven with the accusation, "Somehow I feel you had more to do with this than anyone," and Dexter replies, "Maybe, but you were a great help," we laugh both at the victory of light over darkness and also at the truth, hard to locate, of Dexter's power, apparently some mysterious power to control events. The magic invoked by the genre seems localized in this figure. Surely this has to do with the sheer physical attractiveness; he is after all, or before all, Cary Grant." [Pursuits of Happiness]

"I have also acknowledged that Dexter is more literally the magical Cary Grant. But who is Cary Grant? I mean, what becomes of this mortal on film? It seems to me that George Cukor is calling upon the quality of Grant's photogenesis discovered, as I suggested earlier, in the comedies Grant made with Howard Hawks -- I mean the air he can convey of mental preoccupation, of a continuous thoughtfulness that makes him spiritually inaccessible to those around him. This quality of the sage gives to his privacy, his aliveness to himself, a certainty and a depth." [Pursuits of Happiness]

"The question would be, as the question often is about philosophy, how to bring a reading to an end. And this should be seen as a problem internal to criticism, not a criticism of it from the outside. In my experience people worried about reading in, or overtinterpretation, or going too far, are, or were, typically afraid of getting started, of reading as such, as if afraid that texts -- like people, like times and places -- mean things and moreover mean more than you know. This is accordingly a fear of something real, and it may be a healthy fear, that is, a fear of something fearful. It strikes me as a more discerning reaction to texts than the cheerier opinion that the chase of meaning is just as much fun as man's favorite sport (also presumably a thing with no fear attached). Still, my experience is that most texts, like most lives, are underread, not overread. And the moral I urge is that this assessment be made the subjet of arguments about particular texts." [Pursuits of Happiness]


I wanted this to have a little more variation but time only permitted thus. Still, my hope is this may have been a happy read.


  1. Great clip from THE AWFUL TRUTH. Irene Dunn was a great match for Archie!

  2. I'm a big nerd for Cavell, too.