27 June, 2011Issue 16.5PhilosophyWriters

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Undying Task

Alexandra Manglis

Little Did I Know: Excerpts from MemoryStanley Cavell
Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory
Stanford University Press, 2010
584 Pages
ISBN 978-0804770149


When Stanley Cavell first walked into the University of California at Berkeley’s music department as a young undergraduate ready to present himself as a music major, he overheard a conversation between a student and a teacher. “Whenever I hear that piece,” the teacher was telling the student, “I believe in immortality.” Cavell was exhilarated: “I had come to the right place.”

This short anecdote articulates the driving force behind Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory, Stanley Cavell’s recently released autobiography. Recounting his life from his childhood in the early 1920s to the publication of his fourth book, The Claim of Reason in 1979, the narrative takes the form of a diary written over 14 months, beginning on 2 July 2003, days before Cavell had to undergo surgery to catheterise his heart. Cavell is open about his fears, explaining that the purpose of the autobiography is “to begin learning whether I can write my way into and through the anxiety [of my mortality] by telling the story of my life.” Cavell wishes to recover the feeling he had when he walked into Berkeley’s music school 60 years earlier, the belief in immortality and the sense of having arrived at the right place.

Cavell once wrote that “to inherit philosophy you have already to be in the way of philosophy.” His stance is characteristically combative: one must face philosophy, and by blocking it one can acknowledge it and then begin to profess it. Little Did I Know undergoes its own combative process, despite the gentleness of Cavell’s language and the familiar ease of his phrasings. While describing his life, Cavell often moves from his past to his current moment of writing, even occasionally interrupting himself when he returns to reread his diary entries. By jumping forward and back in his narrative or by getting side-tracked by another encounter or present event, Cavell is constantly disrupting his own work. It is in his ability to intervene in his own storytelling to explain something further that the autobiography emerges as an important work of Cavellian philosophy. “[It] is philosophy’s undying task”, Cavell writes, “to show that the self-imprisoned human understanding is capable of self-arrest, self-reflection, self-overcoming.”

Strangely, Cavell describes the book as “a departure from my writing”, but for those who know Cavell’s philosophical work, his autobiography will seem nothing like a departure. Rather, it is striking how Little Did I Know feels like the sequel his readers have been anticipating—the culmination of his attempt to “speak philosophically for others when they recognise…that their language is mine, or put otherwise, that language is ours, that we are speakers.” Cavell’s struggle to claim his words, or his (our) language, has been prominent throughout his oeuvre. And while he has been openly autobiographical in the past, not least with his consistent use of a transcendentalist “I”, Little Did I Know opens up the deeper, more personal reasons Cavell has been drawn to the questions of ordinary language most famously explored by J.L. Austin and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

This struggle, the reader discovers, has its origins in an inability to speak openly to his father (their communication had always been mediated by his mother). At the same time, a somewhat lonely childhood spent shuttling back and forth between Atlanta, Georgia and Sacramento, California left the young Cavell unsure of his position in relation to his peers, seeking solace in music before making the academic shift to professor of philosophy. The ten years it took for him to complete his PhD dissertation and the 18 more years it took him to revise it into The Claim of Reason underscore his uncertainty of writing clearly and his anxiety about the potential obscurity of language. Describing his journey from one academic institution to another—Berkley, Princeton, Harvard—Cavell tells us about the colleagues and friends he makes on his way (Ernest Bloch, J.L. Austin, Tom Clarke, Terence Malick, Jacque Derrida, to name but a few), and details the collapse of his first marriage followed by the surety and stability of his final one. Throughout his career, Cavell sought out people who spoke his language, eager to find his place as an ordinary language philosopher.

For Cavell, the speaker’s claim to language has always been entwined with the speaker’s position, not only in relation to philosophy and to other speakers, but also (and in some sense always) in relation to death. The proximity of death is never more prominent in Cavell’s work than in Little Did I Know. After all, every textual interruption reminds the reader of the heart surgery’s physical intrusion, so that death becomes the book’s touchstone, its greatest intervention. Thus it is hardly surprising that in 2004, while writing his autobiography, Cavell found himself transfixed by Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of Disaster, which “seems to me…to be all but paralyzed with the fear that it will not be able to go on, to begin again.” Blanchot reminds Cavell “of the later Wittgenstein’s achievement to lead thought perpetually to an end, to achieve a peace, however momentary, that acknowledges death.” Little Did I Know takes on the challenge of using ordinary language to face a real threat, the actual end to the writer’s thought. Thus, the memoir emerges not as a simple autobiography, but rather as the undertaking of the philosophical task Cavell has set, the attainment of peace through the repositioning of himself against his pending death.

That task of finding himself is illustrated within the first 30 pages of Little Did I Know. Cavell describes lying in hospital after being hit by a car when he was 6 years old, about to discover that one of his ears had been permanently damaged. He likens his moment of awakening with the waking up of the narrator in the opening pages of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Cavell finds solace in their similar experiences of “not knowing where to find [one]self.” It is here that we find ourselves at the crux of Cavell’s anxiety: figuring out where he stands. His autobiography becomes the marker of himself in history, the reminder to himself and to his readers that he exists in relation to all with which he interacts.

By the end of Cavell’s memoir, having come to a place where “memory has discovered itself to be inexhaustible”, the reader is left wondering where Cavell has discovered himself to be. In the final, strangely moving scene, Little Did I Know brings the reader into another hospital room, this time with Cavell’s father lying on a bed recovering from his own heart surgery. “Do you understand me?” asks his father, “…am I making sense to you right now? I know sometimes I get confused.” Cavell reassures his father that he is “perfectly clear”, but is unable to finish their conversation as his father falls asleep. “His position appeared awkward to me”, Cavell writes as he takes his leave, both from the hospital room and from the reader. We are left with the awkward moment hanging in the air, as though Cavell is no longer afraid of his own awkward position, confident of his ability to finally make sense.

Alexandra Manglis is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Linacre College, Oxford.