Friday, February 05, 2010

Our City Our Words: Emerson + Philadelphia, or the helpmeet

by Ryland Walker Knight

—Character teaches above our wills

The moral crisis or question highlighted in this week's scenes (chapters, texts) is humility, or learning to be humble, in the face of one's world-life-lover. Put otherwise, at all events these passages enact a humbling, or shaming, as equally as they name such instances so. But Cavell does not argue that we need feel shamed by the genius of another, or our helpmeet, over and over; rather, the shaming scene inspires further communion, deeper conversation. That is, the conversation we enjoy with our respective others, whether in private with a lover or in private with a friend (sometimes the same thing) or in public with either, will be refreshed. There's never a tabula rasa but there is this renewal. (It should be clear I am more talking along the lines of the film under our noses, this Philadelphia Story, and Cavell's coined remarriage comedies, rather than attacking Emerson to start. I think this reversal may make sense as we gambol forth—this is a film blog after all, or before all.) In fact, erasure is exactly the opposite aim of these scenes of humbling. In The Philadelphia Story, the aim is explicitly exposure: Cary Grant's majestic C.K. Dexter Haven tells Katherine Hepburn's imperious Tracy Lord "to get those eyes open." Open, as Cavell puts it, to the fact that Tracy "does not desire what she protests to desire" (42). Here we are to understand perfectionism not just (not ever?) as "Self-Reliance" but also as "self-recognition"—and that such will only ever be instigated by one's interaction with the other. The trick is then to find another who not only inspires such alerts to acknowledgment (instead of aversion) but does it with a sense of humor, one whose sense of you is helpful and, cross your fingers, fun and funny.

We're dealing with a comedy, here, so the helpmeet is necessarily a comic figure. The helpmeet is a friend (that friend) that reflects what we've forgotten or clouded with a grin. Granted, not every helpmeet will wind up a Cary Grant. Not everybody can beam and wink like that guy. These are idols on the screen, not shadows, products of a star system. There is more about Cary Grant in particular in Pursuits of Happiness ("what becomes of this mortal on film?"), and there is more about Katherine Hepburn here, including an aside to acknowledge her "garçonne" quality, which was made explicit in her first onscreen interaction with Grant in Scarlett Sylvia (a not-quite film) wherein she plays a girl dressing/posing as a boy. The focus on Hepburn is apt since the moral crisis of humility is hers to bear throughout The Philadelphia Story. It's up to her to recognize her helpmeet, her Dext, in the noontime bright of day. It's up to her to find a way to feel "like a human, like a human being," as she tells her father before her remarriage. This
perfectionism, like writing, is a personal action/activity and choice.

This notion of the personal, or where we draw that line in praxis, gets at something Cavell spells out later in this book about the audience of philosophy, which I included in the last Conjunction, no.8: in a chapter about Plato, Cavell reiterates his claim "that the only audience of philosophy is one performing it" (331). It's pithy, but huge. In fact, it's been driving a lot of my own curiosities of late. How much am I writing (to say participating in a philosophical and/or critical conversation) strictly with myself? —Far too often, I scare myself. Yet, clearly, a good number of you are willing to arrogate to me and my troubles with words and images. (This is eternally flattering.) This preoccupation with my perhaps-indulgent investment in my own work also seems a marker of my current moods, which Emerson famously says do not believe in each other, during this new era I inhabit; an era that amounts to a terrifically and, I'm understanding, excitingly transitional time in my life. Trust: there's plenty of humility over here.

But to speak of myself isn't simply to speak of myself. It's an invitation, of course, to share my experience and somehow bridge our mutual skepticism of one another's minds. That is, it's a way to get at a universal language. And of course it fails. However, such failure is telling, another instance of education we'd do well to hear and heed.
The idea of "character" in Emerson always (so far as I recall) refers simultaneously to something about the worth and stamp of an individual's (or human group's) difference from others and to the physical traces of writing (or expression more generally). So "Character teaches above our wills" means simultaneously that writing conveys meaning beyond our intention, and quite generally that we express in every gesture more than our will accomplishes or recognizes. (33)
One of the sticking points for our Tracy in The Philadelphia Story is precisely her character. The film investigates her evaluation of her own character, which evolves, prompted by others' evaluation of her character, which, this being a comedy with a satisfying remarriage ending, evolves in its own right. Tracy goes from a series of "dressing downs" (Cavell's characterization of the scenes)—at the words of her ex husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, and subsequently of her father, Seth Lord—to a finale where Dext tells her he'll "risk it" (the remarriage, her new self-regard with those eyes now opened) and where, after she proclaims herself a human after all, her father tells her he feels "proud" (of her, of her changes, of her remarriage, we might say of this entire event, this life).

—How? Well, as I said above, it's a process of exposure. The entire film, as predicted by Tracy's little sister, Dinah, is an annulment of its proposed marriage in favor of another, truer union. It's getting Tracy to not just open her eyes but open them on her life and her true desires. That is to say this perfectionist bent is a process of making oneself intelligible both to others and to one's self. Evaluation, here, is premised on a certain pragmatism, not positives and negatives; i.e., what works. And it is work. The joy of The Philadelphia Story is how little work Cary Grant's Haven seems to do, though, as his non-rival George (Tracy's nominal fiancé) says, it certainly seems like he has a hand in every bit. Again, this majestic hands-off quality is a bigger part of Pursuits of Happiness's chapter on the film. But I would like to propose something that Cities of Words does not (or only alludes to) in this chapter: that C.K. Dexter Haven is a Socratic figure. His actions are largely pushing back words, posing questions. His "dressing down" of Tracy is not just scolding her back for being a scold but showing her scold to be such, to be exactly opposite of their purpose together—to help each other. That is, they reach a place where they equally regard one another as their helpmeet. That's Haven's magic: he offers a safety net, in a sense, as his name can signify, simply by reminding her that she's open with him for a reason. She brings her confession to him, not George, and her humility of imagined transgressions with Mike (the herein under-appreciated Jimmy Stewart) from the night before is proof he is not the one for her. Only Dext sits there, half-lit in the car, to tell her she's beautiful; she only hears him; and it's tribute to Hepburn that we see this at that moment. Her character, as an actress, is without reproach, a true equal for Grant, as it should be. For that's part of the satisfaction of many of these remarriage comedies: to see two beautiful people fulfill one another's promise of a life left open to what lies ahead. Who doesn't want that?

—e.g., look at their clothes

[You will no doubt excuse my tardiness with this post, I trust, as you will no doubt understand that obligations such as employment, a dog and some involved dinners both accompanied and alone (to say nothing of headaches) got in the way of its final composition. However, given the toll that Lost seems to take (though, truth be told, I'm doing my best to spend no more than a half-hour on those bits of folly), I think it might prove beneficial to me if we agree to convene for Cavell on Fridays such as today.]

[Next week: Locke + Adam's Rib, or consent]


  1. The point about how little work Dexter seems to be doing is dead on. It's startling, retrospectively, how little serious screen time he gets, with basically only three moments alone with Tracy (not counting the little opening pantomime). It's as though this judicious application of his presence is being established when he shows up in the Spy office, walking behind Mike and Liz, not really in the scene yet too present in the shot to be an extra. It very neatly gives us his status outside the confines both of the Lord household and, paradoxically, his own class (helpfully, Dexter is given only the lightest touch of class. We don't see him riding or hunting, or even yachting.) The scene also sets up a funny cognitive dissonance when Sidney Kidd calls Dexter into his office halfway through giving Liz and Mike their marching orders. I mean, can you imagine Walter Burns being buzzed in, midway through scene-setting chatter like Q in a James Bond film? The result of this opener (for me, need i say) was that the insistance of Cary Grant as himself, that is to say, as someone in the frame whom you must pay attention to, was suppressed and only began to tick back up with his first scene alone with Tracy, by the pool.

  2. Also, I was pretty taken with the drunkenness on display in TPS. In the scene at Dexter's house, Mike's being hammered is mostly a side gag (hard to imagine a better voice to carry that crack-throat slur). Later during the interlude on the terrace, the intoxicated stumble-bum act takes on a real grace. The scene gets across perfectly that sense, of being drunk in company, of talking to and talking past someone, trying hard to direct yourself to your interpellator while all you're able to think about (or capable of thinking of) is what's going in on in your own head. We see Tracy and Mike frolicking together on the lawn, they're each really laughing at a private joke. What follows, though, as Mike pitches woo to Tracy, is real openness. The drunk-masks must, and do, fall away once the scene gets serious.

    (By the way, I realize I'm side-stepping Cavell in these opening comments. In truth, I'm finding the level of synthesis in SC's chapters to be so far forbidding to addition, interpretation, or elaboration. I have the feeling that at the moment that whatever I'd say in that regard would be tendentious. So, I'm writing here not just to break the seal on the comment boxes and to try and get in the habit of commenting on these posts, but also just to push forward in the spirit of Emersonian self-trust, hoping that in the process of mulling over that upon which I fell emboldened to comment, I can work my way in toward the less solid ground.)

  3. (The first of way too many parts)

    Perhaps fittingly, given the subject at hand, I am struggling to make myself intelligible both to myself and to others. This is far too long and unedited. It seemed better to just throw out the process of thought at work here rather than spend endless hours forcing a coherence I have yet to find. To show the struggle towards intelligibility in the hopes of conversation. And, as the conversation so far has focused on The Philadelphia Story, and it has been too long since I have seen the film, my grappling and searching will here focus on the more distinctly “philosophical” side of things, though if Cavell teaches us anything it is that this philosophizing is the thought, that when we have found it, informs our everyday.

    Well, you rightly come at this highlighting these important concepts introduced and at play here: A humbling in the face of, because of, the other (“a certain humbling…by the words of someone else”, p.21), the place of community and conversation in this ( “Perfectionism proposes confirmation and conversation as the means of determining whether we can live together, accept one another into the aspirations of our lives.”, p.24), the friend in whom this conversation is founded (“The other to whom I can use my words I discover in which to express myself is the Friend--a figure that may occur as the goal of the journey but also as its instigation and accompaniment.”, p. 27) and, to limit ourselves at the outset, the place and function of philosophy in all this, philosophy being that which is the thought and life that we must invent through a language which allows us to find a world we deem acceptable and to which, through conversation, we can consent to.

    These issues are of course intimately linked and entangled. To unknot these strands is to find oneself outside the community, to become burdened by, and with, a solitary cynicism. This moment of questioning and consent Cavell reveals to be fundamental and importantly places at the outset of Cities of Words. A moment which allows a movement away from this solitary cynicism to the acknowledgment of an “unattained but attainable world.” (Perhaps the promise of the possibility is itself the most important factor, whether we have a realistic end or not. One might say the impossible possibility is itself essential.)

  4. ...This is the starting point, the question, and questioning, of philosophy, in reception, prose, purpose, its very place and substance. Enacting the movement of doubt, questioning and consent, the place of the private and the public. The confusion of whether one turns away or towards the community, a confusion in which we do not know whether we have the words to truly converse. Indeed, the very questioning of Emerson’s “right” to philosophy is itself a questioning of an invitation and consent, a questioning of the importance and viability of language: “The denial of the title (of philosophy) tends to excuse the tendency to refrain from putting much intellectual pressure on Emerson’s words, to refrain from accepting the invitation of those words…” (p. 21)

    It is a “fateful moment” when one realizes they are “asked to show your consent to that society” (p. 23), a moment in which one wonders whether they compromise themselves by consenting to a world with which they are dissatisfied. This is importantly marked by “a sense of obscurity, to yourself as well as others” (p. 23), a moment in which one’s language is unintelligible to themselves and to the community. Consistently this place of cynicism, the rejection of the world, is tied to the lacking of a language that allows one to make themselves intelligible to the world. “Emerson’s writing is responding to a time in which I sense as it were a lack in language itself, as if to explain myself I would have to reinvent my words.” (p. 24) While we may always have a skepticism of other’s minds, if we don’t have the language to converse, and thus to educate and be educated by others, this skepticism turns to, or never grows out of, cynicism. To be open to the friend one must have the language to do so. It is also this very friend who can make this language possible, “to take me from confusion to (relative) clarity in seeking a world I can want.” (p. 32) The philosopher can help us to find this language which allows conversation. “…his task as a writer is to discover the terms in which it can be discovered.” (p. 24)

    It is a double bind in some respects. We need to discover the language in which to converse with the community, to make the community to come (one may think of the impossibility yet necessity of the gift that is behind much of the later Derrida‘s work) and it is this community, this friend, who allows us to have/to find a language in which to speak. “The one in question make himself intelligible, to others and to himself. Perfectionism concentrates on this moment.” (p. 42) To found the conversation, the community to come, one must find the words that allow this conversation. The ideal of a world which we can give consent to living in is built upon a language in which we can make ourselves intelligible to ourselves and to others. This acknowledgement of a language of intelligibility is also a language which allows us to speak our desires. Of Tracy Lord it is said she is “finding whom she can talk to…she links up again with her desires…she is subject to desire.” (p. 43-44) She is finding not only who she can talk to but how she can talk with. How she can make herself intelligible to the other and to the community, how there is a language which allows this conversation to occur, a language which acknowledges itself in this very possibility and which doesn’t co-opt one’s desire in conformity but in which intelligibility is built upon knowing, or acknowledging, one’s desire. A language which takes us from solitary cynicism to communal striving for an “attainable world” in allowing us to act and converse along the lines of our desires.

  5. It is here that Cavell distinguishes moral perfectionism as an ethics from utilitarianism’s maximization of value and the Kantian universal principles of the good. This distinction centers on the question of desire. “Perfectionism also focuses on the one acting, but detects irrationality in failing to act on one’s desire, or acting in the absence of sufficient desire, in the case where an act has value (positive or negative) essentially as a function of whether one desires it.” (p.42) As Lacan asks in Seminar VII: “Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in you?” Here we may ask, similarly, if we have found the language that allows us to acknowledge our desire, to acknowledge a world in which we want to live. When we discover this language we acknowledge that our language of conformity has detached us from our desire, this new (philosophical) language shows “the possibility of my access to experience which gives to my desire for the attaining of a self that mine is to become, the power to act on behalf of an attainable world I can actually desire.” (p.33) This language is found in conversation with the other, the friend, and it itself both awakens and animates our desire.

    The finding of a language that acknowledges our desire, that allows us to speak it to ourselves and others, that gives us an inroads to founding a community we can want, this is the foundational act upon which perfectionism rests and prospers. This is why Cavell begins his investigation from a “a state of wanting (that is, lacking) justification…lacking the means of making ourselves intelligible.” (p. 24) I may be going down a hole out of which I can’t get out by doing this, but despite that, it may make murkier yet clarify things to look at these quotes from Heidegger‘s The Nature of Language:

    “Language must, in its own way, avow itself to us--its nature. Language persists as this avowal…language is active as this promise.”

    “…we may never say of the word that it is, but rather that it gives--not in the sense that words are given by an ‘it,’ but that the word itself gives. The word itself is the giver. What does it give? To go by the poetic experience an by the most ancient traditions of thinking, the word gives Being. Our thinking, then, would have to seek the word, the giver which itself is never given, in this ‘there is that which gives.’

    Language gives. It holds itself as the promise which allows us to have the conversation Cavell describes and wishes for us. “Our thinking…would have to seek the word…” Thus the first gesture is to find the language that allows us to make ourselves intelligible, to find and express our desires, to converse with the friend, to give us the means to conceive and express the image of a world that we will feel ok to give our consent to.

    “Anything that gives us room and allows us to do something gives us a possibility, that is, it gives what enables us. ‘Possibility’ so understood, as what enables, means something else and something more than mere opportunity….But of the way which is to lead us to the source of this possibility, it was said that it leads us only to where we already are. The ‘only‘ here does not mean a limitation, but rather points us to this way‘s pure simplicity. The way allows us to reach what concerns us, in that domain where we are already staying. Why then, one may ask, still find a way to it? Answer: because we already are, we are in such a way that at the same time we are not there, because we ourselves have not yet properly reached what concerns our being, not even approached it.” -Heidegger

    This discovered language is the possibility on which perfectionism is founded and which it is animated by. Possibility enables and allows, it is to be found “where we already are.” The world we will want to consent to is within the world we reside in but we must find the language with which the community can create it.

  6. Well, thank you for creating a space and a project to engage with these ideas and to indulge my rambling attempts to work with them and gather these thoughts together.

  7. Just a quick lunchtime thanks to both of you guys for your thoughtful comments. I will reply in kind, or try, at home tonight.