Lindstrom, Introduction: Stanley Cavell and the Event of Romanticism

Introduction: Stanley Cavell and the Event of Romanticism

Eric Lindstrom
University of Vermont

1.        The writings and distinctive philosophical approach of Stanley Cavell have garnered an increasing amount of sustained attention in edited collections over the past several years. [1]  Viewed as a whole, this scholarship takes stock of Cavell’s career in helpfully descriptive and evaluative terms, surveying the astonishing range of his thought in discrete chapters of interpretive overview. An important trend one can sense in this work is literary studies’ collective act of redress. By contrast to an earlier generation of literary responses to Cavell still left ungathered, if not exactly repressed, there has been a belatedly full recognition not only of Cavell’s role in the survival of a subjective voice in twentieth-century philosophy where it once stood in danger of being lost, [2]  but also of Cavell’s truly major existing and potential contributions to literary studies as such—his dedication to a project of thinking toward the fundamental “claim” of the literary in (and on) all rational conceptual thinking.

2.        In an important essay published in 2009 in the journal New Literary History, Toril Moi contends that “[t]he poststructuralist understanding of language, meaning, and interpretation has become the unspoken doxa of the humanities” (802). And because of this disciplinary preference for treating language as a “concept” rather than as a practice via examples (818), Moi holds, “it is no coincidence that almost all the books on Cavell that have appeared since 1989 have been written by philosophers and not by literary critics” (802). [3]  Literary scholars may not have yet produced many of the books. But is the absence of single-author studies headlined by Cavell in fact due to our poststructuralist antipathy to his mode of proceeding? I don’t think so. A handful of significant recent books by literary scholars of British Romantic studies (primarily among “theory”-heavy Romanticists at home in Saussure’s realm of language-as-“concept”) evince closeness to Cavell by dropping at seemingly any point into the out-of-school genre of the sudden, urgent dialogue with his thought for a run of key pages. Often these conversations take place in the conceptually meaty introductions; and sometimes, as it were, they come nearer to the bone by virtue of lying outside the study proper, in the acknowledgments. I suspect there are many lines of inquiry in current British Romantic studies that without Cavell would not only not mean in just the same way, but would not have come to be. We cannot recall and test all the ideas and durable impulses in our scholarly life for their ultimate source, but, to steal from Wordsworth’s non-calculating acknowledgement of debt in The Prelude, a lot of the water—way downstream now, fanning out in all directions—comes from yon fountain. [4] 

3.        I am not the first commentator to note a basic alignment—in many ways, in effect, post-Kantianism—discernible between Cavell’s deployment of Romanticism and the critical-philosophical project of Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy in The Literary Absolute. [5]  Yet beyond his major American subjects of Thoreau and Emerson, there still is little published scholarship that engages Cavell’s thought at extended, close range with Romanticism as the moment that matters so much to him: the “perfectionist” moment that comes after religion, but before philosophy. [6]  This gap involves, too, at another related level of critical reception, the need for future literary-critical studies based in British Romanticism as a historical body of literature on which Cavell has performed several bravura readings to date. The present collection attempts to provide a hinge, moving between the record of Cavell’s engagement with British Romantic texts and newly staged speculations and interventions.

4.        The field for such encounters is rich, due to the staggering ability of Cavell’s writing at once to generate ideas and to give pause. For Romanticists, the many interests of Cavell’s work include not only the pervasive concern with knowing and modern skepticism across all his books, but also topics as divergent as understanding and incomprehensibility, acknowledgment, denial, withholding and secrecy, responsibility, forgiveness, gender, melodrama, horror, monstrousness, therapy, cinematic ontology, religion, secularity, and spectatorship. Yet two points of emphasis are persistent to any reader across his books: these are the idea of skepticism as an unappeasable predicament one does not solve but lives (skepticism as a problem whose “answer does not consist in denying the conclusion of skepticism but in reconceiving its truth” [The Senses of Walden 133]); and the discovery that acknowledgement and avoidance are primary human orientations (often to be construed through their equally human denial), with regard to which knowledge and ignorance (the more visible and epistemologically privileged terms) offer themselves rather as secondary formalizations—or even as evasions. There is a methodological culture of self-resistance that insinuates its way into those who dwell long with Cavell and serves broadly to unite the six contributions to Stanley Cavell and the Event of Romanticism in terms of their tone. Four of the contributors here (Fry, François, Wilner, and Lindstrom) presented early versions of their essays as part of the “Stanley Cavell and Romanticism” panel, organized by Joshua Wilner and myself, at the 2010 International Conference on Romanticism (ICR), held in Lubbock, Texas. We would all like to thank the unusually engaged audience present on that occasion.


5.        At one point in the Preface to his book about Emersonian perfectionism, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (1990), Stanley Cavell tellingly divides his great American theme from Anglo-European configurations by evoking the difference between perpetually starting afresh, and unshakeable—one might say melancholy, Romantic—memory: “It is as if [Heinrich von] Kleist will neither accept nor refuse the Emersonian vision, an excruciating one for those who can call for it but who cannot imagine themselves shaking their memories and starting again; call them Europeans” (xxi). [7]  Cavell’s working definitions of Romanticism evince, similarly, the mood of a restive admission of intimacy in place of a forthright identification with the subject.

6.        At a climactic point in Part Four of The Claim of Reason (1979), Cavell arrives at the striking conclusion that “romanticism opens with the discovery of the problem of other minds, or with the discovery that the other is a problem, an opening of philosophy” (Claim 467). There, his textual positioning (in the midst of Rousseau, with overtones of Frankenstein and Faust still lingering from the preceding discussion) yields a statement of dispossession one is tempted to make paradoxically central to the topic of Stanley Cavell and the Event of Romanticism: “I am so far in a position merely to rummage among such texts, not to possess them” (Claim 467). The admission of use without lawful right or patrimony, from a writer whose first job after all was in his father’s pawn shop, [8]  is preceded by the evocation of Romanticism found in his 1971 film study The World Viewed: “To speak of our subjectivity as the route back to our conviction in reality is to speak of Romanticism. Perhaps Romanticism can be understood as the natural struggle between the representation and the acknowledgment of our subjectivity” (22). Slightly earlier in The Claim of Reason we also find this: “So both the wish for the exceptional and for the everyday are foci of Romanticism. One can think of Romanticism as the discovery that the everyday is an exceptional achievement. Call it the achievement of the human. —I believe I know something of the impatience such ideas can inspire” (463). Why the “impatience”? Cavell may be offering a little (slightly rebarbative) sympathy for the “average” reader who finds his manner digressive. In similar contexts, Cavell defends the greenness of youth against the normative imperatives of philosophical maturity—a development to which he nonetheless complexly relents. Perhaps Cavell says “impatience” here, too, out of the same logic through which David Rudrum, in an incisive essay on Cavell and the Wordsworthian ordinary of the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, has been led to ask: “How, then, to reconcile these two conceptions of the ‘common’, the ‘ordinary’? Can it be both the thing which is lost, mourned, searched for, quested after—and simultaneously the area the quester must search through for the thing which is lost? If the ‘common’ and the ‘ordinary’ are to be thought of as both the needle and the haystack, then how could any quest ever get under way?” (169)

7.         All of Cavell’s major intellectual endeavors start out from this admission of being at a loss for orientation, a condition in which he is disappointed, equally, with the questions and ways of proceeding readily available to philosophy—but unseduced too by prefabricated “literary” means of recovery. For Cavell’s “creative philosopher,” then, there are “two tasks: to oppose skepticism and to oppose false answers to skepticism” (“Questions and Answers” 227). The “quest” gets under way because this sense of finding oneself and one’s language stymied, or not yet (or no longer) fully available, is so generative for Cavell. As he sets forth in his Preface to the Beckman Lectures of 1983, assembled as roughly the first half of the book In Quest of the Ordinary (1988), the most well-known, powerful trajectory Cavell has offered to British Romantic studies so far could be outlined as “the theme of a romantic call for the unity of philosophy and poetry precipitated in the aftermath of Kant’s revolution in philosophy, traced strategically with respect to a limited collection of Romantic texts” (Quest xi). [9]  It is this formulation of the topic of Cavell and Romanticism with which the reader is most likely to be familiar. [10]  In two chapters from In Quest of the Ordinary (framed as a chiasmus in titling, “Emerson, Coleridge, Kant (Terms as Conditions)” and “Texts of Recovery (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Heidegger . . .)” [Quest 27-75]), Cavell presents astonishing variations on the post-Kantian situation he finds in reading the most famous products of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s poetry and poetic theory. Cavell charts “the Kantian bargain with skepticism (buying back knowledge of objects by giving up things in themselves) and Romanticism’s bargain with the Kantian (buying back the thing in itself by taking on animism)” (Quest 65). In this account, British Romanticism represents both an abstractly necessary schematic position and an absolutely concrete encounter with the words of texts and their specific weights. It marks the moment “too late for religion, because nothing is any longer common to our gods, and too soon for philosophy, because human beings are not interested in their new lives” (Quest 63).

8.         Romantic poetry charts the experience of this crepuscular moment and provides a language for taking an interest—if need be, via a desperate-sounding, hyperbolic, and admittedly melodramatic register of the imagination “in which the stakes appear sometimes as the loss or gain of our common human nature, sometimes as the loss or gain of nature itself, as if the world were no more than one’s own—some such statement represents the general idea I have of what constitutes serious Romanticism’s self-appointed mission” (Quest 43). This project elaborates for poetry, as for one of Cavell’s other recurrent genres of commentary, the Hollywood comedy of remarriage, a role without any justification external to itself: no overriding religious and metaphysical framework, juridical categories, or master narratives. The "Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism" from the book’s subtitle make their appearance in the way Cavell paradigmatically reads verse as a convergence and a test of philosophical energies: “Now this quest of poetry for the recovery of the world (which I am interpreting as a recovery of, or from, the thing in itself), this way of joining or paralleling the philosophical effort to recover from skepticism, will look to poetry very like the quest for poetry, as if the cause of poetry had become its own survival” (Quest 45).

9.         Even more pointedly, the promise to advance via “lines” forecasts the heralded analysis of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner crossing a line: the line of the earth’s equator, which Cavell, in a tour de force of post-Kantian secular mythmaking, recasts as poetry’s transgressive desire to get beyond (under, or, possibly, inside?) the “architectonic [. . .] line or circle, closing off the region of the thing in itself” (Quest 47). The Mariner’s voyage plays out “the discovery that what presents itself upon a skeptical repudiation of [. . .] attunement is another definite, as it were, frozen, structure” (Quest 48). Cavell deals with the vexed problem of motivation in the poem by “understand[ing it] as the denial of some claim” to reciprocity upon the Mariner (Quest 56). [11]  Addressing the shooting of the albatross not as a poeticization of original sin (as Robert Penn Warren had done to famous effect), not as the Fall but as an attempt to register “what the Fall is itself an allegory of” (Quest 48), Cavell revisits the theme of avoidance from his early essay on King Lear. Crucially, he then rewrites “what might be called the poem’s moral in something like the reverse direction” from the message the Mariner shares himself, rather inconsequently in the face of events. “[T]o let yourself be loved by all things both great and small” is for Cavell the Rime’s occluded insight (Quest 56). However, the poem does not reach this spiritual landfall even upon return to shore and the kirk’s goodly company.

10.         Cavell’s reading masterfully explains why The Rime’s recitation competes with a wedding ceremony, and why Romantic poetry overall reinforces this anxiously close blind spot over representations of coupledom (see Walker 2009). The weight next shouldered in Quest, through Cavell’s rendering of Wordsworth’s “Intimations” Ode, connotes an imperative worth aligning to the impossible refrain of “go on” found in Wittgenstein or Beckett—or to Keats’s Moneta and the stunned need simply to get any movement off the spot of “frozen structure” where the poet-dreamer first stands. Punning at the expense of the dignity of the phrase, “strength in what remains behind,” to draw out the connotation of corpse-like remains (Quest 76), Cavell’s discussion of the Ode starts in a Freudian analysis of youth and is stimulated by John Wisdom’s philosophical account of speaking flowers (Quest 68-70). But the core of his discussion arrives with a surprising articulation of anger, and the need (as a cause, not an effect, of anything else happening) to renounce the spirit of private vengeance. Since any tentative conclusions one might draw from the Wordsworth-Coleridge portions of In Quest of the Ordinary develop from this idea of renouncing vengeance—or better, of the relinquishing of vengeance as an unrationalized “evental” act of letting go (not in its form unlike the shooting of the bird)—the two paragraphs that follow are worth sharing in full:

We moderns are likely to imagine that the giving up of the ground of revenge is the effect of therapy. I take the Intimations Ode to be saying on the contrary that this forgoing is the cause, or say the condition, of change. We do not know where the inspiration to give up revenge comes from. Much of its poet’s energy has to be spent in a kind of reseduction (as does much of the energies of Heidegger, and of Wittgenstein, not to say Freud), because our powers of being drawn from elsewhere (“we come from afar”), of being interested, in heaven or in earth, are deadened. Otherwise we would not require birth, or poetry, or philosophy.

What remains of the “vision splendid” is that it “fades into the light of common day.” Such is Wordsworth’s construction of the ordinary. Shall we take this, as I suppose it commonly is taken, to be the same as a going out? But “fades into” does not say “fades out.” It may propose some other mode of becoming, a happier disillusionment, so that the vision is preserved in the way in which it is forgone. Wordsworth’s construction is to replace the ordinary in the light in which we live it, with its shades of the prison-house closing upon us young, and its custom lying upon us deep almost as life, a world of death, to which we are dead—replace it accordingly with freedom (“heaven-born freedom”); and with lively origination, or say birth, with interest. How far can the vision be preserved and lived? What remains of interest to us? What for us is remains? We must turn to that. (Quest 75)

“‘Fades into’ does not say ‘fades out.’” Neither is it readable as a parallel to the famous ambiguity of the “light of sense” in The Prelude Book 6, in the common construction of “fades into” as either an excursive or darkening “going out.” Thanks to Cavell’s way of investing meaning in what another reader might downplay as the mere grammar of how the words are chosen (and even enunciated—in the sense of, “so long as the poet hasn’t actually said it [. . .],” admitted the fear and its depth; and such things matter), a critical space for transformation of “common day” and reinvestment in the ordinary remains. However, and equally, we are still on the floor with the question (a question that only makes grammatical sense if put instead as a constative declaration), “what is remains”?

11.        Cavell, like M.H. Abrams in Natural Supernaturalism, seldom if ever considers the poetry of Byron. However, the thoughts in the first paragraph of this long passage, on the prior “condition” of giving up grounds for “revenge,” indicate where Byron’s persona and defiant, stylized verbal gestures matter greatly in tension with Wordsworth. Never does Wordsworth enunciate as such, never does he formalize or close, the predicament of apartness (“a link reluctant in the fleshly chain”; Childe Harold III. 72), which crystallizes (fixes, “freezes”) the Romantic hero in the seductive pose of turning decisively away from community. In the poetry of Lord Byron, the Ode’s unexplainable inspiration to let go of revenge instead festers at one further remove of self-conscious representation, crafting terms for specifically literary, symbolic vengefulness by making Time itself a proxy “avenger” of the poet (Childe Harold IV. 130). Time “gets even” for Byron’s “odd” sense of harboring a prior wrong. The mediatic sheen of the Byronic poet-hero comes from his way of giving anger just a single unforgettable twist. This rhetorical dress makes Byron’s language often serve as a cutting redress for woundedness. “That curse shall be Forgiveness” (Childe Harold IV. 135) is the least Cavellian stylized verbal gesture of subjectivity that one can imagine. Yet, still, “[w]hat for us is remains?,” is the question on which Cavell ends the chapter on Wordsworth and Coleridge. One therefore must learn to figure a comparison between Wordsworth and the many Byronic “wrecks” of contemplation as a “ruin amidst ruins” (Childe Harold IV. 25).

12.         Acknowledgement of intersubjectivity, the irreducibly plural nature of being, offers the only way out of the melancholy conceit of the (in)quest. Cavell’s Romantic literary “event” pursues the opening-out of what it would mean to inhabit a repertoire of meaningful individual and public responses, as part of what Kenneth Burke once called “equipment for living,” [12]  together and with ourselves. Indeed, in the opening essay of this collection, “Your Friends and Lovers: Perfectionism’s Recounting of Romanticism,” Emily Sun aptly conveys the interpersonal quality of Cavell’s thinking on Romanticism and shares in his (Romantic perfectionist’s) critique of the overall Romantic tendency to contrast solitude to animist universalism, with the latter as a mode of “intimacy at large.” In privileging (or at first seeming only to emphasize) the experiences of “genuine privacy” and “genuine publicness,” the discourse of Romanticism threatens to repress the “counting” of many “conditioned forms of intimacy,” beginning with friendship and marriage. But not only friendship and marriage, as Sun shows in unfolding her remarkably lucid discussion of Cavell, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “conversation” poem “Julian and Maddalo,” and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. In her reply to the climactic Shelleyan question, "Then, what is life?," Sun offers an array of concepts and concerns, and effectively invites scholars of Romanticism of all stripes to explore Cavell’s relevance—but particularly those interested in psychoanalysis and the connections between literature and the political philosophy of biopower: “it is breeding, issuing, multiplying, dividing, replicating, separating. The fact of natality is itself a process of division” (par. 30), Sun (after Cavell) finely enumerates (see Quest 88).

13.        By treating diurnal friendship and the conjugal pair as something of a constitutive blind spot of the stereotypically bipolar “clouds and crowds” Romantic vision, Sun’s approach builds from the important work of Eric C. Walker in his book Marriage, Writing, and Romanticism (2009). Her essay also stages an important (critical yet non-reductive) intervention in the way it models the deeply textured economic language and thought incident to what Cavell calls Romantic forms of spiritual “recovery.” Hence Sun writes:

If such genuine publicness is one that needs re-establishment, if the intimacy-at-large Romanticism seeks is one that needs recovery, properly speaking, rather than just discovery, then, Cavell asks, ‘How did it get loose, as if disinvested? And why does friendship demand it, as well as marriage? Or does it?’ (Quest 65). The recovery of intimacy within the contexts of friendship and marriage, according to Cavell’s economic simile above, involves a re-investment in the ordinary conceived as a complex network of interests and interconnections. (par. 19)

14.        To my mind as editor, one of the meanings of Romantic studies perhaps finally reaching a post-New Historicist vantage is that we can consider the possibility that the “recoveries,” “investments,” “credit” sought, and forms of “interest” available to Romantic discourse aren’t all necessarily falsifications. Yet incorporating Cavell’s thought more deeply than heretofore into the mainstream of Romantic studies might actually prove—and not even in a very oblique sense—a sort of hybrid means to keep the charismatic, at times painful, urgency of 1980s New Historicist scholarship in play. Even scholars unsympathetic to and scorched by the New Historicism must, I think, come to appreciate the moving and tough asseveration of Marjorie Levinson in the Afterword to her controversial chapter on “Tintern Abbey.” In that final section of her essay—a peroration, basically—which moves from Wordsworth in the realm of the poetic spirit to Adorno in philosophical and cultural critique, she holds that we as the poem’s reading community now must “refuse the transcendence [the poem offers] until such time as we can trace its source and explain its character. Then we too are liberated; we share in the poem’s ecstasies, or recover them in a meaningful form” (Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems 57). It is a stunning conclusion, and leads me to the question: How different is this from what Cavell means by establishing the contested grounds of recovering meaning through a conditioning human “claim”? Levinson’s Afterword reads as the Marxian inflection of Cavell. And reciprocally, Cavell’s defense of skepticism as an unquenched, un-disavowed impulse never wholly cuts free from the twentieth century’s literary-theoretical “hermeneutics of suspicion.” It remains important to his skepticism that hollow victories do threaten, and are not brought in from an external foe but are the signs of an irreducible, internal division. In this framework Sun identifies the analytical opening for her discussion in Cavell’s own committed skepticism toward Romantic impulses—a skepticism which is not demonstrably opposed in key ways to Levinson’s stance in her “Tintern Abbey” Afterword, except perhaps in its fuller recognition of limits: that is, not only the “Wordsworthian” inhumanity, but the Humean and poststructuralist theoretical impossibility, alike, of tracing eloquence to the “source.” Sun writes that Cavell’s

critique, presented in broad but deft strokes, consists principally of the charge that Romanticism accepts too readily ‘something like animism’ or what Ruskin terms the ‘pathetic fallacy’ in its efforts at re-animation (Quest 53). This hastiness suggests a ‘bargain’ with the ‘concept of knowledge and the threat of skepticism’—which Cavell situates specifically in relation to Kant’s division of the claims of knowledge of the world between the subjective and the objective, the sensible and the intelligible (Quest 53). Cavell’s prose evokes, in the articulation of this critique, a hypothetical ‘philosopher’ who ‘may feel’ that Romanticism ‘gives up the game’ too quickly of the claim of reason in enacting its task of recovery (Quest 53). The proverbial ‘life of the world’ Romanticism seeks to bring back would seem to this philosopher to be one in need of a more qualified parsing or accounting.” [13] 

15.         In his effort to explain why In Quest of the Ordinary as a book needed its final three chapters on largely American sources, the manner in which Cavell himself allows for this dissatisfaction is to say that in his dealings with Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale “too much seemed left without clear and useful ways of going on” (Quest x); [14]  at the very head of the encounter being called a quest, we are allowed in on the ambiguity of the book’s title as “the discovery of false necessity,” inquest of the ordinary: “the sense that the ordinary is subject at once to autopsy and augury, facing at once its end and its anticipation,” in “our habit, or habitat” (Quest 9). To make “that very inhabitation [. . .] from time to time perceptible,” as Cavell goes on to maintain on the same page, is in good measure the accomplishment of Paul Fry’s essay in this volume, also on Percy Shelley, which keenly and intricately recalibrates the twin skeptical lines being pursued when romantics both “conceive that some place elsewhere, or this place otherwise” (Quest 9). Fry reasons that if “life can be conceived as dead or insubstantial, as Shelley says [in the Conclusion to his poem “The Sensitive Plant”] and as Cavell says it is in the moment of Romantic skepticism,” “[i]t could follow then that death, which certainly does seem at least different from life, if not opposite, may be the alternative habitation Cavell or Shelley seeks” (par. 8) Given the wonderful philosophical freedom of movement shown by the playfully-toned poems which Fry primarily reads, the skeptical inversions of Shelley on death emerge as a new, counter- and post-Wordsworthian mode in which a counterfactual ordinary plays extraordinary variations. A question one might feel inclined to linger upon after Fry’s discussion of Shelley as an urbane, essentially “probabilistic” skeptic before The Triumph of Life is, How does Shelley’s demonic impulse to appeal to death for final a settlement in his “last” days (even if this is just a mood, not a fate), relate to Cavell’s perfectionist interest in the perpetual quotidian reconfigurations of a “next” life, his commitment to imagining a philosopher in the Nietzschean terms of “a man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow”? (Cavell, Philosophy 117) [15] 

16.         An important distinction running through all Cavell’s writings, and particularly made visible by Fry’s essay, is that which holds between the categories Cavell terms “other minds” skepticism and “material-object skepticism”: in other words, solipsism and skeptical “doubt in the existence of the material world”; or yet more curtly, solipsism and skepticism (Quest 55). A question shades over the choice of “route” (Quest 4) in his project of extending therapy to skepticism by way of its acknowledgment. Fundamentally, does this claim have an epistemological or an ontological standing? In what philosophical mode, toward which enterprise, should we address a possible recovery? Part of the challenge in following Cavell’s thinking here—and possibly an answer to our indecision about whether knowing or being is most at stake—I suspect lies in the recurrently transcritical movement through which Kant’s rigorously delimited settlements are made to secure a “critical” epistemological frame, a frame the poets are compelled to break so as to re-open a field for any possible dynamic “literary event” to occur. [16]  Epistemological settlements are disavowed to address poetry’s drive for ontological force. The paragraph I have been responding to begins with “[t]he issue, or specter, of animism,” and ends with what I take to be Cavell’s admission that the conduct of epistemology cannot be at once substantial and self-legislating: “A reasonable moral to draw from these lines is that we do not know what constitutes living our skepticism” (Quest 55).

17.         In this sense the Romantic subject always finds herself, as Herman Melville’s deserting narrator says when becalmed near the start of the interminable Mardi, in “a state of existence where existence itself seems suspended [Coleridge?],” in barren crossings and recrossings of a line in the unyielding presence of which a landsman [Wordsworth of the Lakes? But also Kant of Königsberg?] would be “tempted to recant his belief in the eternal fitness of things” (669). But, giving food for thought—since my own approach and sense of Cavell’s gravity of investment puts the ontological character of doubt at the center of his Romanticism—in his essay here Paul Fry presses a different strategy: "It seems to me that at times Cavell’s argument would be more clearly delimited if he would distinguish more emphatically between ontological skepticism (doubt as to whether things and other minds exist at all, an emergent modern anxiety that Cavell associates with Descartes and Shakespeare) and epistemological skepticism. It is the latter, epistemological skepticism, that clearly emerges from the Kantian ‘settlement’ as the concern of Romanticism" (par. 13). Fry goes on to remark, “Cavell argues in any case that the First Generation’s response to the Kantian settlement was animism” (par. 14). “Thanks for nothing” (Quest 31), the Romantic responds to the Kantian settlement. Conversely, “No thanks for everything” (Quest 31, 53) is how someone may feel with “his or her Kantian conscience in tact." (Quest 53)

18.         In places of crucial bibliographical note, including the Question and Answer session following his “Texts of Recovery” essay in the collection Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism, Cavell has tended to present his debts to Romantic critical theory as if they had a pre-critical birth. But his stated admiration for a previous, ecumenical moment of Romantic literary criticism should not be allowed to obscure the contemporaneous project that Cavell—as a matter of ongoing preoccupation, rather than as the narrative he himself cites—shares much more deeply with practices of writing and reading advanced by deconstruction. [17]  My own contribution to this volume understands the autobiographical register of Cavell’s writing (and, to a lesser extent, of his often-remarked-upon prose style) alongside similar but tensional features of Derridean deconstruction. Cavellian skepticism and deconstruction have long shared the history of a comparable misreading, in which readers have attributed a relativistic denial of knowledge to these approaches, as if both projects betrayed an animus toward certainty. The topic is, needless to say, far too vast to broach here in a short introduction, but there exist basic and still endless ties between Cavell’s work and deconstruction, relating back to a shared intensiveness and performativity around themes of writing and reading one finds at least as far back as The Senses of Walden (1972). I want to take Paul Fry’s schematically useful contrast between what he calls “Cavell’s understanding of the liberating power of skepticism” and the apparent “linguistic determinism” evinced by the late Shelley in The Triumph of Life as a fair word of warning, yet proceed into slightly less hedged comparisons between Cavell and deconstruction nevertheless. In a fascinating note found in the first chapter of In Quest of the Ordinary, Cavell plays out a sort of Aesop’s tale with the event that deconstruction introduces to the timing of his career; he casts himself as a tortoise (“the turtle”) to the Yale School hare:

It is, I trust, somewhat understandable why, in 1987, revising the present chapter, I have added this footnote and parenthetical observation [on ideas of writing and reading in The Senses of Walden] to which it attaches. I do not wish to seem unteachable, or unresponsive to the demand to relate what I do to the practice and theory of deconstruction. But those who wish me well, and I hope some others will appreciate that 1972 (and the years preceding, during which the work that goes into The Senses of Walden was in preparation), is at yet an immeasurable distance in American time. Naturally I am aware of the possibility that intellectual events of the past two decades may have preempted the fields I find myself in; but it is my fortune, good or bad, to imagine otherwise. I was early enough so that it was quickly too late for me for a different start. If this were a race, I would bet on the hare every time. But if it is not, if there is not just one course, and if indeed we are not on the ground but at sea, the turtle may make sense. (Quest 17n)
Anxiety about being “preempted” coaxes out a version of the famous Emersonian Nachträglichkeit of reading “our” original thoughts in the words of others. As he insists, despite the fairly exact alignment of dates, on a kinked, out-of-joint timing, Cavell writes simultaneously to claim his earliness and belatedness over against the moment of impact of deconstruction: “I was early enough so that it was quickly too late for me for a different start.” [18]  In his compelling remarks on Blanchot in Little Did I Know, similarly, Cavell evinces a proportionately intense interest in broadly deconstructive and poststructuralist (“French”) modes of exposing philosophy to the event of (Romantic) literature (see 522-30). He proves characteristically both drawn to and wary of Blanchot’s poststructuralist style as exhibiting a “horror of understanding” (525). In his not-to-be-missed Afterword to the present collection, Joshua Wilner therefore can align Cavell insightfully with Derrida and deconstruction at a stimulatingly broad view—but only once he observes a signal shift in the latter from the early grammatology to a concern with the role of language in literature as a performative event. Wilner concludes: “Here again, the shift from emphasis on the irreducibly figural dimension of propositional language to an emphasis on an irreducibly performative dimension has played a central role” (par. 12)

19.        With the decision to write on Jane Austen’s novels in his 2005 book Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow, Cavell revisits a remarkably fruitful and provocative engagement with British Romantic Literature that had begun in his work decades before in a different key. He turns from a nearly impossible communication of poetic election—the sort of “glory” that can only be brought to knowledge under the stars of duress, loss, and alienation in Wordsworth’s "Ode"—toward a contrasting starting place in sociality, communication, and inclusion. Yet this sociable change brings with it the tension that these are not only generic conventions in “polite” Austenian literature, but ideological norms held at the risk of the merely compulsory, coercive, and meaningless.

20.        If the Wordsworth-Coleridge frame of Romanticism from Cavell’s In Quest of the Ordinary positions the urge toward animism against the threat of skepticism that this affirmation belies, at stake in his reading of Austen is something like a hidden point of balance just under the six novels’ “renowned surface of containment” (Cavell, Philosophy 124). How should one respond to Cavell’s paradoxical elaboration of an “unconstrained” interest (Philosophy 126) in Austen’s characteristic style and social world, as determined by that “containment”? Cavell in his comments on Austen follows a radically different economy of utterance than that which his brilliantly hyperbolic investment in Romantic poetry pursues. In discussing her novelistic treatment of a dynamic of “vulnerable conformity,” Cavell sees the pedagogical lesson in Austen—“to exemplify instances in which the soul can learn not to be crushed by compromise”—as part of an ethical account of global modernity in which the crises stem from a less vocal drama than poetic world-making or -losing. The drama of Austen heroines and readers is that “one senses one’s consent to be elicited” by the exceedingly imperfect existing world (Philosophy 123).

21.        A question emerges possessing what seems like a retrospective scope over Cavell’s whole career, but its contour follows specifically from the engaged reading of Jane Austen: How exhaustive is a public communication ethic to the project Cavell calls “rational transformation,” the spiritual renewal of Austen’s heroines in a perfectionist democratic society (Philosophy 189)? [19]  Alternately, how much like a tragic sign of election does the fate of an “unshareable” consciousness remain (Philosophy 128)? And then, Cavell pointedly wonders, could “women, of [George] Eliot’s, let alone Jane Austen’s time, [. . .] have afforded” such a “cost of a great separation” (Philosophy 129)? Thus, in a penetrating footnote concerning a cinematic theme—the melodrama of the unknown woman—which in several books precedes Cavell’s interest in Austen’s novels and anticipates that subject thematically, Michael Fischer has observed: “Cavell links Wittgenstein’s concentration on pain in the Philosophical Investigations to the fascination of psychoanalysis and cinema with the sufferings of women. By the turn of the century, [according to Cavell] ‘psychic reality, the fact of the existence of mind, has become believable primarily in its feminine (you may say passive) aspect’” (Fischer 152n). Cavell’s reading of Austen figures this gendered instantiation of “the existence of mind” and registers the conviction in (or problem of) “other minds,” as he treats different, character-specific versions of the passion and suffering incident to the intellectual tragedy of separation. Risks of nullification and exposure emerge for characters such as Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, and Emma Woodhouse, oscillating along the extremes of a criterial dimension Cavell has repeatedly discussed in Wittgenstein over the years: a fantasized rift between total privacy and utter, transparent, rule-following convention. For Cavell, in taking up the conditions of secrecy and utter conventionality that are typically forced upon discussions of the possibility of private language in Wittgenstein, it is “as if the ordinary is the perfectly open secret” (Contesting Tears 157). [20] 

22.        Cavell’s prompting to take up Austen—ostensibly in order to introduce a more “sensible” temper into the discussion than his prior encounters with the lyric poets had done—can make him sound almost Habermasian in emphasis, as Anne-Lise François in her essay here sharply points out. As a performative speech act, the pledge of allegiance, to be comprehensible to the group, needs to go on running the risk of turning out infelicitously at every turn, since this apparently contingent failure is a fate that underlines the pleasures of language conducive to happiness. [21]  Placed in terms of the discussion that François’s essay provides (whose title itself may allude to the Cavell text on Wittgenstein, “Declining Decline”), we might ask in what sense Cavell’s extended project of developing a legacy of “moral perfectionism” is at least as intimate, all along, with what she calls the gesture of “passing” on the urge toward judgment, or “conceding” and declining perfection? Is there an outlet in Cavell’s thought to release us from the alternate instrumentalism that his “literary” philosophy demands to be undertaken as a course of therapy? François’s reading of the figure of “decline” is one about which she herself performs a deft excuse, allowing that her essay has taken the “inconsequent” turn that such things often do between the prospectus (promise) and the event of a piece of writing. François’s gesture opens, too, upon another aspect of Cavell’s work: the subject of “diurnal” marriage, to which Eric Walker devotes his attention. Walker’s essay demonstrates at a convincing depth that Jane Austen’s Persuasion offers the very model of Cavellian “remarriage.” His linked discussion of adoption in Emma then conveys—through Cavell’s own themes of self-adoption and diurnal re-marriage—a philosophical framework in which cultural categories, not the naturalization of biological ties and tropes, go all the way down as they decline “settlement.”

23.        In we step back, then, to view overall these writings on Romantic-era prose fiction, two decades on from his engagement with the British Romantic poets in In Quest of the Ordinary, we can understand Austen to represent a further moment of what Cavell had called “the domestication of the fantastic and the transcendentalizing of the domestic” (Quest 27). Through changes in gender and genre, it is possible to take Cavell to imply that the perfectionist ordinary of an Austen novel looks more like the experiential conditions where “remarriage,” if the quester is to find happiness at all, has got to take place. In Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow, remarriage is not “sublimed into metaphor when the really serious poetic business of uttering truths about our happiness [is] attempted” (Sutherland 11). A primary feature, which many readers will feel to be a benefit of Cavell’s refocusing on Austen for the latest act of his great theme of remarriage, is that such a construction of conjugality and the ordinary never abstracts itself to the plane of a figurative promise. It resists a Wordsworthian or Kantian quasi-formalistic, purposive “fit” between the categories of mind and the world, but emerges instead as an improvised diurnal task (“perfectionism” as a Nietzschean convalescence pitched toward affirming a next form of life, not pursuit of the last). To revisit the language just quoted from In Quest of the Ordinary, this task offers a domestication of fantasy that may constitute an appeal from “criterial” societal norms, but without any transcendence to compensate.


24.        I end this introduction with a brief discussion of a major British Romantic poet whose writings are not organized—whether that be figuratively, or referentially and “realistically”—around the question of marriage. During the course of Section IV of Part One of The Claim of Reason—a section that deals with the dissatisfaction implicit in Cavell’s responding to Wittgenstein’s use of criteria, called “What a Thing Is (Called)”—there occurs this sudden swerve from philosophy as such to literary particulars, focusing on Keats. Cavell has been talking about the notorious example from Wittgenstein having to do with the feeling and expression of pain, the so-called impossibility of there being a private language, et cetera, and he turns to the example of a physician’s way of knowing pain:

But why couldn’t it be that a doctor’s knowledge of the subject of pain is just what is expressed in what he or she does—not merely with his trained hands, but in the very distance of his reactions to me? He trusts his hands and training to show his response; if I trust his knowledge and his reactions, I may feel more known by them than by a more apparently warm or constant response to what I feel. Not just because they give me hope [. . .]. But because I, as it were, learn a new response to my pain; not a refuge from it, but a place for it, a proportion to its presence. The distance comforts as truth can. (Naturally I do not deny that truth can be used as a weapon; especially when it comes in fragments.)

And then sometimes the words of response get very particular:

My dear Reynolds—I cannot write about scenery and visitings . . . . One song of Burns is of more worth to you than all I could think for a whole year in his native country. His misery is a dead weight upon the nimbleness of one’s quill. I tried to forget it—to drink a Toddy without any Care—to write a merry sonnet; it won’t do . . . . We can see horribly clear, in the works of such a man, his whole life, as if we were God’s spies . . . . My sensations are sometimes deadened for weeks together—but believe me I have more than once yearned for the time of your happiness to come . . . . [from John Keats, Maybole, July 11, 13, 1818]

25.        At the end of this excerpt we learn that the letter’s addressee, the poet and parodist John Hamilton Reynolds, is about to marry and settle down into contented bourgeois life (indeed, this was the main reason Reynolds later cited for not accompanying the dying Keats to Rome); and Cavell’s focalization of perfectionism in Keats—an outsider but not a mocker of that rather snug “happiness to come” in the Reynolds household—indicates the degree to which Romanticism’s negativity matters to Cavell. Similarly, that “[t]he distance comforts as truth can” almost sounds the same note as Paul de Man’s 1966 introduction to Keats’s poetry, where the presence of philosophy comes to announce itself by the impersonal effort get to clear to see ourselves—not recover anything—by poetic knowledge. “There are moments of straightforward escape in Keats” (de Man 541), de Man says of some of the early poetry, but “[t]he power which forces a man to see himself as he really is, is also called ‘philosophy’ in the later Keats” (de Man 545). Eric Idsvoog has remarked to me in personal conversation that Cavell’s turn here—which involves the move from showing interest in a physician’s way of knowing pain to Keats’s, as a type both of physician and patient—offers an extraordinary gloss on the long passage from The Fall of Hyperion about the poet as “A humanist, physician to all men” (l.190). Keats’s most relevant passage from The Fall reads:

‘None can usurp this height,’ returned that shade,
‘But those to whom the miseries of the world
Are misery, and will not let them rest.
All else who find a haven in the world,
Where they may thoughtless sleep away their days,
If by a chance into this fane they come,
Rot on the pavement where thou rotted’st half.’ (ll. 147-153)
At the same time, the allusion Keats makes to King Lear fuses damaged, vengeful, yet nevertheless somehow forgiving words from the last act to the melancholy example of Robert Burns [22]  (“We can see horribly clear, in the works of such a man, his whole life, as if we were God’s spies”) (compare to King Lear V.iii.17). The intense literary double vision of King Lear and Burns presents an occasion of another of Cavell’s staggering moments. Transitioning from Lear’s political theology of confessional surveillance, to finitude and particularity, Cavell answers the letter:
Burns made himself clear; the rest is up to whoever is there, and can. I don’t say you have to rise to Keats’s response. (I don’t mean rise to being able to write like him, but up to responding like that; allowing room for another’s misery to be unforgettable.) But to know the subject, that it is pain, is to respond to it; and if other things are on your mind, and your sensations are sometimes deadened for weeks together, then to know that that is a response, and yet leaves you freedom for a further response. (Claim 82).
Cavell writes here to reinvest something like the meaning (not the authoritative final word, but the sponsoring possibility of any “next” meaning) into a field of inquiry and re-investment. He works at the minimal degree of a possible sustaining response. The generous outward gesture, which he extends not only to future readers of this letter, but to the dead Burns and the soon to be dying Keats, and toward the unforthcoming register of himself, too, lies in disburdening the (near) affective nullity from its added burden of pressing and disabling shame, in order to allow space to experience both “another’s misery [as] unforgettable” and for “freedom for a further response.” Cavell’s Romantic perfectionism offers itself as an allowance for the fluctuating (non-) succession to this realm of further responsiveness. Just as Cavell’s claim is addressed to an unspecified “you”—that response might come, democratically, but also in a formal sense, “lyrically,” from anyone anywhere.

26.        But who else would have recognized the opportunity for taking an interest in just this way? And who else would have placed a hand upon life just there, after the model of affective investment in Keats, but where he flatly concedes he has no amplitude (no force, no pulse) of feeling to share—not enough thoughts in a whole year to match the one song? In his passage of response to Keats, Cavell demonstrates his remarkable capacity to welcome under-explained and unforthcoming responses, to meet the radical condition of passivity in its own form of an appropriate, negatively capable analysis. There will be more readings that take stock of what it could have meant for Keats to allude to Lear and Burns in a letter, and more opportunities to model the sympathetic responding to pain. But this language—an act of extraordinary promise and a difficult prognosis—exemplifies Cavell’s writing well on at least two fronts: by its inimitable, layered realization of that very capacity for an individual “further response”; and in its perhaps yet more signal capacity to allow time and space for the responses of others, conditions that Cavell’s writing regards as external to itself, but not as indifferent or claimless.

27.        Like several other important thinkers in the theoretical humanities in recent years—among them Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, and Alain Badiou—Cavell brings philosophy and literature into contact and forms a distinctive attitude about the performative “event” of literary language as such. [23]  Eschewing the violence and dismissal of Romanticism found at least in Badiou, among the major figures above, Cavell in his deeply textured relation to speech-act theory nonetheless advances an “evental” claim on and through British Romantic literature. The issues of skepticism and acknowledgement are the recurrent and great ones for Cavell. Yet in Coleridge’s Rime, in Wordsworth’s "Ode," and now in Keats’s letter we have seen a critical theme in Cavell’s work as that of the “literary event” of Romanticism. Godlike at times, but by contrast finite and fragile, the form of investment through which Cavell comes to understand this event is that of an unrationalized act of allowing and of relinquishment, the releasing of one’s hold over of the grounds of anger, or even of an adequate affective “response” at all, in the case of Keats’s example. The quality of Cavell’s attention to this Romantic claim of literature in the literary "event" is attested to by his fundamental gesture to acknowledge a constitutive space outside his reach.

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Bruns, Gerald L. On Ceasing to Be Human. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2011. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. “Literature as Equipment for Living.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 2 edition. Ed. David Richter. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998. 593-598. Print.

Cavell, Stanley. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1979. Print.

---. Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. Print.

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---. Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010. Print.

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---. “Remains to be Seen.” Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Ed. Beatrice Hanssen. London and New York: Continuum, 2006. 259-263. Print.

---. The Senses of Walden [1972]; Expanded Ed. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1992. Print.

---. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. New York: Viking, 1971. Print.

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De Man, Paul. [“The Negative Path.”] Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox. New York: Norton, 2009. 537-546. Reprint of “Introduction.” The Selected Poetry of Keats. New York: Signet, 1966. ix-xxxvi. Print.

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[1] These collections include Eldridge and Rhie; Loxley and Taylor; Saito and Standish. BACK

[2] See Fischer, Gould. BACK

[3] In their introduction to Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies, Eldridge and Rhie also remark on the neglect of Cavell’s thought by literary critics (2). They attribute such ambivalence toward, or overlooking of, Cavell, to misconceptions about the meaning of “ordinary language” and to widespread theoretical resistance to his unreconstructed humanism (4); I take up the second of these issues toward the end of my essay in this collection. BACK

[4] For just a few significant interventions over the terms and stakes of Cavell’s work lately, which acknowledge in turn his role as a pioneer opening modes of thought, see Khalip 17-19; Favret 154-158; François (Open Secrets) 82-83 and 150-151; Miller 81-83; 112-116; and 134-137; Sun 15 and 41-42; Terada 2-5 and 69-71; and Walker (Marriage, Writing, and Romanticism) 21-24 and 39-45. BACK

[5] Critchley’s response to Cavell in Very Little . . . Almost Nothing affirms the fragmentary ‘romanticism’ (his inverted commas) found in Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, and questions Cavell’s Emersonian Romanticism as an expression of privileged American exceptionalism. For a very different judgment of (Cavell’s) Emerson, see Arsic; Ong shares a different approach to Cavell’s America—“unleavened” (as in a condition of migration or exile) and “broken” (as is bread)—through his recounting of the experience of his father. BACK

[6] Exceptions to this characterization can be found in Desmond, Duffy, and Rudrum. Gerald L. Bruns, On Ceasing to be Human, is organized around Cavellian questions in connection with continental theory, and takes an approach companionate with mine here. BACK

[7] The Senses of Walden speaks from something like this spirit in recording Thoreau’s attitude about “the three revolutions most resonant for his time”: the American and French revolutions, as well as the protestant foment behind them. “Of the Puritan revolution [Thoreau] says that it was ‘almost the last significant scrap of news’ from England” (The Senses of Walden 6). BACK

[8] See the account of Cavell’s experiences in his father’s Sacramento pawnshop in Little Did I Know (24-27). BACK

[9] Cavell volunteers his suspicion elsewhere that canonical poets are or are in constant danger of being “monsters of fame”; “Remains to be Seen” (262). BACK

[10] Duffy is a forerunner to my account of In Quest of the Ordinary. BACK

[11] Cavell writes “motive,” keeping in mind the Mariner has “murdered to connect” (Quest 56, 60) BACK

[12] See Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living” in The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. BACK

[13] Discussion of animism and the pathetic fallacy also features in Joshua Wilner’s essay, “‘Communicating with Objects’: Romanticism, Skepticism, and the ‘Specter of Animism’ in Cavell and Wordsworth” (Eldridge and Rhie 152-162). BACK

[14] Though elsewhere Cavell is more sanguine way with representative ambitions: “If what I say about romanticism is false to these texts [of Wordsworth and Coleridge], then for my purposes here it is false to romanticism, period. If what I say is true but confined to just the texts I consider, I shall be surprised but not abashed; I know very well that there is in any case work ahead of me.” (Quest 6) BACK

[15] Ann Wroe, “Resolutions, Destinations: Shelley’s Last Year.” BACK

[16] I loosely borrow the idea of a “transcritical” movement, against the resolution of philosophical structure, from Karatani. See Wilner’s essay in the Eldridge and Rhie collection for a discussion of how “other minds” skepticism underlies “external object” skepticism for Cavell. BACK

[17] See Kates 12; and, more broadly, Ziarek. BACK

[18] In Little Did I Know, Cavell admits to feeling “hopeless” in response to the recurrent comment of some sympathetic readers that “I could not expect to get a hearing until I explicitly gave an account of the relation between my work and the work of Derrida” (472). BACK

[19] See Nazar for insightful judgments on the reach of “communicative ethics” into analysis of Austen’s novels and their interpersonal texture. BACK

[20] In the long Postscript to Contesting Tears, Cavell explicitly engages with Eve Sedgwick’s trope of queer closeting in terms of the scene of the philosophical closet: a location found recurrently in first-person accounts of the skeptic’s reflective position and “orientation” to the world in the act of trying to bring the world to knowledge. BACK

[21] Within a larger context of convivial agreement, Cavell’s points of departure from Shoshana Felman in his foreword to the new English edition of The Scandal of the Speaking Body reflect this arguably “Habermasian” turn, which—ironically—he invokes there to suggest the drift of profound and not fully voiced differences (the opposite of communicative transparency) between his own alignment to Austin and Felman’s reading. BACK

[22] Stafford, 107-109, expands on the context of Keats’s travel to Burns country in Scotland in the summer of 1818. She quotes the same letter that interests Cavell, retaining an outburst of misogynistic language Cavell puts under ellipses. BACK

[23] For two further points of reference in Cavell’s treatment of major texts and thinkers as “events,” see his response to George Kateb, “What is the Emersonian ‘Event’?,” in Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes, and the chapter “The Wittgensteinian Event” in Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow (192-212). BACK