More on Cavell

I learned in the news 3 weeks ago that a great Harvard philosopher had died. He was in his ‘90s and had lived a full life. A very full life! He was a man of many talents — a Hollywood studio musician and a music composition student at Julliard. He was a film and literary critic as well as a philosophy professor. He was the first in academic philosophy in my lifetime to write about Thoreau and Shakespeare and Emerson: a man after my heart, a beacon for the decades of my philosophy career.

I always lamented that as the son of a Polish-Jewish immigrant he felt he had to change his name to the non-Jewish Stanley Cavell. Was that a death of part of him? If so, he was also grandly reborn.

His death was a loss yet much more, it was, for me, an occasion for gratitude – for giving thanks that he had lived, had illuminated my life and the lives of so many others.

I shared news of his death with a friend in the neighborhood who also knew Cavell’s work.  On a Saturday we reminisced over his impact and passing. I was headed for the door when my neighbor mentioned, off-handedly, that his wife was in Vermont with her nephew, Tyler Roberts. I startled. This was Tyler the religion teacher and writer I knew from Grinnell. My neighbor had no idea I knew him. I had no idea Tyler had an aunt now my neighbor. We hadn’t been in contact for a decade. I was overjoyed he had come into view.

This rediscovery of a forgotten friend, his rebirth, came with our memorializing Stanley Cavell. It was renewal amidst loss. Tyler and I had been close, then lost to each other. The death of a common ancestor brought us alive to each other.

Of course, renewal amidst loss is the central motif of the Christian drama — as central as death and resurrection.

Two of my heroes, Thoreau and Emerson, tell us  that hope (or faith) is the infinite expectation of dawn – that morning light is a resurrection of the world from the dark; it’s also the resurrection of our friends and neighbors from the neglect of disattention.

Emerson puts it this way:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature [or God], but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.

Gratitude can take the form of memorial words and memorial deeds. Six months after his sudden death, I lit a candle for another friend at a church here in Portland.

Thoreau reburies his brother, dispensing with any coffin, making death the occasion of a gift to earth. Freed from any coffin or tomb or sarcophagus, released into a graveyard swamp, his brother sanctifies and replenishes creation. The reburial adds hope for the infinite expectation of dawn.


One comment on “More on Cavell

  1. dmf says:

    the founder of Methodism John Wesley imagined that after death he might be free of being earthbound and get to explore other planets, I wonder what Emerson and Thoreau would make of this age when we are being faced with the limits of the biosphere (not to mention the limits of the sun), would they too take a more astro-nautical vision like the wannabe spacefarers of silicon valley or could they help us to come to radically novel ways of coping with loss and limits and with a return to our ancient and elemental roots in chemistry and physics?

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