A wintry afternoon in Maine. I excerpt below parts of a letter I wrote a decade ago. I happened on it yesterday, accidentally. It seems fresh and compelling, despite its age, and worth sharing now.
As many of you will know, I work with Thoreau and greatly admire Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden (1972), a book that was unexpected, marvelous, and radically out of step with philosophy at the time. I’m fascinated, and want a backstory. Can I assemble one? Where did that text come from? Who was the person who came up with it?
It’s not just the physical appearance of the book that’s a marvel. What’s captivating, as I began to assemble the pieces, is the more or less unbelievable story of a musician from Atlanta, Sacramento, and Berkeley turned Harvard Professor — a musician, man of letters, and philosopher who acts on a specific, unlikely and courageous conviction: Thoreau is worth writing about.
Of course for Cavell, Thoreau was just the tip of the iceberg. In my mind the Thoreau book is just a tiny piece in Cavell’s ushering in a new era in philosophy. In his wake, writers from philosophy departments are far less afraid to turn to literature, cinema and theater for inspiration. They tread beyond the frontiers of science and logic and narrow ethical-analysis. The Thoreau book is early evidence of a rather massive tectonic shift.
In 2006 I jotted down for a friend the notes — the little narrative sketch — laid out below. They cover Cavell’s early years, when musical performance was still at the center of his aspirations and before he had set it aside and settled in on philosophy as his calling. These excerpts don’t foretell Cavell’s book on Thoreau. But the world of this young man’s seeking make that event, the appearance of the book, retrospectively, less unlikely. I sketch an ambiance that in retrospect make his wide writings on movies, theater and opera also seem less unlikely.
For me, as I reread it, the story is compelling. It captures a different era of philosophy, one I grew up with and that I came to see become less and less dominant. Cavell was at the center of a shift that opened new possibilities for my own writing. The backstory I lay out captures this shift. To reveal Thoreau as a great philosopher required a thinker of capacious interests and extraordinary talent. The book is one paving stone on a wide and unfinished road to a new and in its way tumultuous philosophical era.
The Odyssey of Stanley Cavell Toward and Beyond Thoreau:
A letter from 2006
Thinking of Cavell and Thoreau this morning, after last night’s conversation, I thought of a couple of things I could pass on about Cavell’s early UCLA years and after. The story is fascinating. My source is Alexander Sesonske, who was on my dissertation committee when I was at UC Santa Barbara ’64-’68. Cavell and Sesonske were roommates. They co-authored a grad-student paper on pragmatism that appeared in Mind. Both were students of Abraham Kaplan.
After a BA from Berkeley, Cavell was playing studio piano in Hollywood for cash and glamor — he always loved movies, yet he was under-nourished intellectually. On a tip, he enrolled at UCLA to hear Paul Friedlander’s lectures. Once there, and now friends with Sesonske, he also fell under the spell of Dewey through Kaplan. Rudolph Carnap hadn’t taken over yet to enforce a positivist ban on pragmatism, aesthetics, literature, and culture.
Paul Friedlander fled from Hitler’s Germany, and ended up with other refugees in LA. He taught existentialism and Plato from a broad cultural perspective that was simultaneously attentive to every nuance of a text (something like Leo Strauss, but without the hide and seek and hero pose). His work came out in ’58 as Plato, an Introduction. Long before Martha Nussbaum, he staged Plato as theater, literature, and Eros, all with verve and erudition.
His readings of Plato and Existentialism didn’t catch on. It was the era, roughly, of Logical Positivism and British “ordinary language philosophy.” Cavell never mentions Friedlander’s lectures on Plato or Existentialism, but I suspect they are an Ur-source for Cavell as powerful as Austin and Wittgenstein became at a later date. Friedlander implicitly affirmed Cavell’s intuition that philosophy was everywhere — in theater, in cinema, in opera, in poetry and in the novel.
Friedlander was an unsuspecting mentor to Cavell’s departure from a single-minded focus on music. After his short exposure to philosophy at UCLA, music brought Cavell to Julliard in NYC to study composition. But Cavell acknowledges playing hooky from music composition classes and reading Freud 12 hours day and seeing movies late at night instead. He even considered entering Med School to prepare to become a psychoanalyst. That plan came to naught.
He was also reading and talking with Susan Sontag, I suspect. Her early essay ‘Against Interpretation’ resonates with Cavell’s remark that his mother, a professional pianist in Atlanta, where he grew up, played effortlessly “without interpretation” – the notes springing immediately from her fingers, as it were. He also rubbed elbows with Partisan Review writers, including Hannah Arendt.
Arendt’s initial American book (or was it her second?), The Human Condition, was to be called “For Love of the World,” a theme that surfaces for Cavell in The Claim of Reason.
[Here’s the passage: “To live in the face of doubt, eyes happily shut, would be to fall in love with the world. For if there is a correct blindness, only love has it. And if you find that you have fallen in love with the world, then you would be ill-advised to offer an argument of its worth. . . . The world is wonder enough as it stands. Or not.” Cavell, The Claim of Reason, p. 431. See my discussion, Lost Intimacy in American Thought, Continuum, p. 191.]
He hopes “falling in love with the world” is an answer to skepticism. Arendt had a wide-angle take on philosophy rooted in her study with Heidegger and Jaspers. Her PhD, completed in Germany between the wars, was on Augustine’s idea of love. Her philosophical work was more committed to public cultural-political concerns than to anything narrowly academic, especially “academic” British-American style.
All this impressionism about UCLA, Hollywood, NYC and music, about literature, movies and politics, is meant to suggest Cavell’s capacious, ever-expanding interests and prefigures his ambivalence about “professional philosophy.” With hindsight, his absorption in outliers to philosophy (Freud, music, cinema, theater) makes his book on Thoreau — a writer literally no professional philosopher had called a philosopher – less unexpected. Nevertheless, at the time, taking up with Thoreau was a shock to colleagues. Even today, half-a-century after Cavell’s book, it’s not uncommon for me to be told, with contempt — for me and for Henry — that “Thoreau is not a philosopher.”
Mainstream American Philosophy in the 60s and 70s had no time for love, nor for “love of the world,” but Cavell, obviously did. If nothing else, consider his essay on King Lear. He would have known of Arendt’s early title choice, For Love of the World. That’s not a bad characterization of Thoreau’s philosophy. As I see it, Arendt and Friedlander (among others) gave Cavell quiet permission to write on Wittgenstein, Freud, Thoreau, and also Shakespeare, cinema, and others as they engaged what seemed to be blatantly non-professional topics.
Walter Benjamin was another philosopher of film, art, and politics, German-Jewish style, and utterly unread in British-American philosophical circles. Arendt arrived in NYC with Benjamin’s papers, having fled Paris with them. He entrusted them to her as he hiked toward the French-Spanish border thinking that of the two of them, one might get through. He was stopped, and took cyanide that night. She got through a day later. Just a year or so ago Cavell delivered a “Benjamin Lecture” at Yale. He sticks close to a small text, but I think the Benjamin-Arendt-Friedlander connections were motivation to accept the invitation.
As a fascinating aside, at Berkeley, after his stint as a Harvard Fellow, and before he migrated back to Harvard, Cavell was teaching Moby-Dick — just at the moment Arendt’s Eichmann essays came out in The New Yorker. His class turned on a dime. He dropped Ahab’s evil mid-ocean and took up Arendt’s discourse on evil’s banality.
A final link between Cavell and Thoreau: I attach an essay joining Cavell’s A Pitch of Philosophy to Henry Bugbee’s The Inward Morning: Philosophical Explorations in Journal Form (written ’53, published ’58). The Journal gets its title from a Thoreau Poem. Bugbee was teaching in the Harvard philosophy department when Cavell was there as a Fellow after leaving Julliard. Surprisingly, Bugbee was teaching Walden, Moby-Dick, and King Lear – texts Cavell would explore later. Henry considered Cavell his student. Cavell only says that Henry was a philosopher whom he respected.
Harold Bloom speaks of The Anxiety of Influence. Cavell would have known of Henry’s Thoreau side. Everyone knew Bugbee was enamored with Walden. That love — an irregular philosophical interest — was part of what led to Harvard’s sacking him after six years.
Cavell does not mention Bugbee in print. I think he wanted to be without precedent. Writers often remain secretive about the roots of their inspiration, or repress those roots in single-minded focus on the flowering of their own genius.