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Cavell the Romantic

January 11, 2012

I’m trying something new here. The following passage exemplifies for me what I both love and hate in Cavell’s writing. I’ve put the good in blue, the bad in red, and the ugly are underlined. The italics are Cavell’s.

My claim can be put by saying that the practice of poetry alters in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in such a way that the issues of intention and seriousness and sincerity are forced upon the reader by the poem itself: the relation between author and audience alters (because the relation between the author and his work alters, because the relation between art and the rest of culture alters…). Specifically, the practice of art–not merely the topic of art, but as it were the replacing or internalizing of its pervasive topic–becomes religious. When Luther said, criticizing one form in which the sacraments had become relics, All our experience of life should be baptismal in character,” he was voicing what would become a guiding ambition of Romanticism–when religious forms could no longer satisfy that ambition. Baudelaire characterizes Romanticism as, among other things, intimacy and spirituality. This suggests why it is not merely the threat of fraudulence and the necessity for trust which has become characteristic of the modern, but equally the reactions of disgust, embarrassment, impatience, partisanship, excitement without release, silence without sincerity. I say that such things, if I am right about them, are just facts–facts of life, of art now. But it should also be said that they are grammatical facts: they tell us what kind of object a modern work of art is. It asks of us, not exactly more in the way of response, but one which is more personal. It promises us, not the re-assembly of community, but personal relationship unsponsored by that community; not the overcoming of our isolation, but the sharing of that isolation–not to save the world out of love, but to save love for the world, until it is responsive again. “Ah, love, let us be true to one another….” We are grateful for the offer, but also appalled by it.

I say “we,” and I will be asked “Who?” I will be told that it is not Mr. Arnold speaking to us, but a mask of Arnold speaking to… anyway not to us: we don’t so much hear his words as overhear them.That explains something. But it does not explain our responsibility in overhearing, in listening: nor his in speaking, knowing he’s overheard, and meaning to be. What it neglects is that we are to accept the words, or refuse them; wish for them, or betray them. What is called for is not merely our interest, nor our transport–these may even serve as betrayals now. What is called for is our acknowledgment that we are implicated, or our rejection of the implication. In dreams begin responsibilities? In listening begins evasion.

–Stanley Cavell, “A Matter of Meaning It,” Must We Mean What We Say?

My reasons, perhaps, are in most cases obvious, but here’s some scattered thoughts. I reserve the right to retract or rephrase any of these criticisms at any time; these are just some preliminary observations after having 3/4ths of The Claim of Reason and most of the essays in Must We Mean What We Say?

  • Cavell is good at describing the relationships between things, and, I think, makes a good critic, in general, when he doesn’t let his philosophical biases take over. I like his insistence that we focus both on the art object and on the relationship between artist and audience, and I think he is capable of doing that (which isn’t to say he always does) to a greater degree than most critics I’ve read. He’s also good at making it sound like something worth doing.
  • Unfortunately he has a tendency towards rhapsody, which I find to be annoying but not fatal. I find it hard to see the underlined passages as saying much of anything, let alone to be saying something I agree or disagree with. Yes I suppose all the words given apply in this situation, but so what? Anyone can write lists.
  • His transcendentalist individualism, on the other hand, I find intolerably immature (which doesn’t surprise me, since he likes Thoreau, and seems something of a crypto-Gnostic). Accordingly I disagree with almost everything he has to say about religion, morality, and personal responsibility. Well, not disagree, exactly. It’s not wrong, just incomplete. He claims to appreciate the importance of tradition but doesn’t really understand what it is. He doesn’t have room in his thought for any community except a longed-for utopia, and thinks of poetry as an act of individual courage that escapes the world and “saves love for the world, until it is responsive again.” In this he strikes me as deeply silly. It also probably explains why he doesn’t do much to distinguish, in this passage at least, between Romanticism and Modernism. Supposedly he does so in later works.
  • The final two sentences are simply poor writing. They’re meant to sound profound but they sound snarky. And they communicate almost nothing. That’s the problem with Cavell’s writing. He begins in detailed analysis, then accelerates into lists of concepts he finds relevant, then makes broad generalizations about the subject at hand, then closes with what are meant to be compelling aphorisms. It’s a style that’s somewhat convincing, but mostly frustrating, and that makes it more difficult than it should be to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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