Little Did I Know
Excerpts from Memory
Stanley Cavell
In this autobiography, Cavell manages to get in Maurice Ravel, Clifton Fadiman, the refrigerator, Jan Peerce, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the kitchen sink, the stove, the ants (and the mice) and all his considerable extended Cavell family ... including Uncle Joe, Uncle Louis, Uncle Mendel and Uncle Morris.

As Clavell tells of his fascination with Emerson, Wittgenstein, Thoreau ("Walden Pond" treats with "the economic dimensions of human existence"), Mendel, A J Ayer, and even Cary Grant, one can become a little hollow-eyed. And the philosophical discourses: Oy, vey!

Cavell grew up poor, in a peripatetic family. They moved back and forth between Sacramento, California and Atlanta, Georgia. His father owned a series of jewelry stores, pawn-shops, and liquor stores; his mother played piano. Music ran in the family, such that Cavell got himself admitted to Julliard, but then he went missing. The love of his life came to be philosophy, most of all Wittgenstein, Emerson, and J. L. Austin. (When he first mentioned Austin, I thought we were talking of Jane, slightly misspelled ... and then I figured, well, why not? Pride and Prejudice could be said to be a middle-class 18th century study of the philosophy of marriage into the gentry, as The Scarlet Letter could be a philosophical study of 18th century guilt and repentance, Moby-Dick a treatise on the philosophy of obsession and revenge.)

However, John Langshaw Austin was no 18th Century novelist: he's a philosopher studying the dynamics of speech, and --- just to muddy the waters --- published a book called Sense and Sensibilia. Our beloved Jane he's not.

§     §     §

What we have in Little Did I Know is an improbable mix of the gritty story of making a living in the less seemly fields of pawn-brokering and selling booze pitted against the exotic thinking of Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sigmund Freud, et alles. Out of the mix I would suggest that the pawn-shops and the honky-tonk come out on top. Despite the lure of Wittgenstein ("A smiling mouth smiles only in a human face") ... music is the winner in the comprehensibility sweepstakes here. Cavell's mother was evidently a fine classical pianist, made a reasonable living playing for vaudeville and for radio orchestras; he himself dreamed up several dance bands which he lead in the 40s and 50s.

There is a novelistic life in the stories of drunken uncles and his father's imperious rage set against, o yawn, "A simple difference here from Wittgenstein's vision of speech (!) as the revelation of desire and need is that in Mendel's world we are persistently persuading others that their desires are what we desire them to be."

    My conscious neglect of, even refusal of Racine and siding with Euripides was in effect a continuation of my defense (and puzzled rebuke) of my teacher Austin, against Derrida's homage and dismissal in his reading of Austin's theory of the performative utterance, of what words do as well as mean, or do in or by meaning something.

His sometimes funny, often sad stories of him growing up often win out over the philosophical asides. Cavell was a loner: isolated, Jewish, inverted --- and then by the mere stratagem of starting up his dance band (he was evidently an excellent saxophone player) he was able to change the rules. "I preferred not to participate in voluntary social events, that to attend was to be defeated. Leading the band annulled this painful dilemma at the first downbeat. I did not attend the dance; I was the dance. I was present because I belonged there before anyone was in attendance; my existence was lucid, justified."

    The profound, logical cost of leading the band was that I did not dance. The dance did not happen without me, but I was not invited to it ... The music was not played for me --- except in those instances when, in my disdain, I knew that I was playing better than anyone else present would know, hence in a sense playing for myself.

It strikes me that what brings Little Did I Know to life is that Cavell lets us in on the personal pleasure he got in playing ("better than anyone else") but that he is also taking a very simple set of givens of American high school life (virulent isolation; adolescent pride; wanting not to be left out) and by studying motives, is able to put it all in terms we can relate to. Thus he is turning his personal history as a philosophy.

If we ignore the mind-benders like "the revelation of desire and need" and "performative utterance," we find ourselves engaged in his an original life story, told through music, beating the system. His victory is rounded off nicely with a Zen-like quote from a literary magazine: "A young miner in the north of England became enamored of classical music and would whistle snatches of it as he went to work. And older miner provided him with a further education:"

    You ought not to whistle Beethoven when you go into the mine. You hear the whole orchestra when you whistle. What the rest of us hear is only you whistling.

Cavell's narrative can be heavy going but it is strangely hard to put down. I think it might be a result of the occasional surprising ripostes. As he speaks of his seemingly perpetually angry father, he notes wryly, "The fact that the English word mad means both angry and insane has repeatedly seemed to me wonderfully perceptive of it."

Cavell repeatedly wants us to know how isolated his childhood --- an only child, a ferocious father, a disengaged mother --- and thus how words and reading and books and study came to displace this loneliness. This is best shown by the picture of his dorm at Harvard at Christmas. As the season advances, we see lights in but three of the dorm rooms; then, but two; and finally --- one. His own.

What Cavell could have used in Little Did I Know was a parturient editor, one who could have separated Immanuel Kant from Uncle Mendel. Yet what drags us down at the same time endears us to him. He cites Emerson's puzzling, "Where do we find ourselves?" Then manages to end it all with an astute and poetic twist: "Sleep hovers about our eyes all day long, as night in the boughs of the fir tree."

--- Benjamin Lade
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