Unknown Men and Unknown Women: Reading Cavell
_Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman_
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997)
Stanley Cavell is an eminent philosopher. He talks of scepticism, fuelled by wondrous thoughts about Wittgenstein, Thoreau, and Emerson. He conjures intellectual twine from idling, notional threads.
Yet Professor Cavell has his very own Mister Hyde; he can't help himself. He loves Hollywood movies from the thirties, and it takes his flip side to let us know just how much he loves them. Look at the apologia pro vita sua that makes up his The World Viewed, a splendid work of philosophically informed equivocation. Here the gloves are on but the guard is up. For Cavell's first full frontal action assault we need to witness the metaphysical onslaught that is The Claim of Reason, a tour de force that Eco may have described as a palimpsest constructed from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, on the mystic moving projections of Plato's cave walls. This is philosophy as spectacle with concomitant sociological implications. This is golden age Hollywood in the philosophy department.
Cavell manipulates this intellectual traversion with consummate mastery. What he can't do for himself he'll turn hands up and present as new and untouched, yet always he is philosophically knowing. Thus in Cavell's movie writings, and elsewhere, we are presented with the Vicompt de Valmont personating d'Ancenny. It's simply a matter beyond his control.
Having taken formal philosophical leave, justified through The World Viewed, Cavell is free to offer us the strait laced account that is Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, and now, several years later, this companion volume, Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman. These are the labours of love of a man consumed by his subject. They are best taken as a day out with a favourite uncle. You go along for the ride, chewing candy, and all the while anticipating the movie and the ice cream treat to come.
With these Hollywood books Cavell has taken another of his favourite genres and subjected it to both the sharp razors and blunt scissors of his often accurate, occasionally clumsy, but usually lethal, mind. In Contesting Tears he pays particularly close attention to Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, and Barbara Stanwyck. They and their respective movies suffer analysis till death do us part.
As has been made clear, this is no Graham McCann style Hollywood hagiography. Cavell presents his subjects as he sees fit, that is as he himself thinks of them, and only ever thus. We receive the films and their stars not how they are, or how they were presented to the public, but as how he, the mandarin Cavell, finds them to be - and, importantly, we are to be all the better for his attentions to these issues, and yet, horribly, we are! We can rejoice in Cavell's ecstatic memories of the everyday; we can revel in his intimate and so very personal and revealing description of the mundane trip to the pictures. With Contesting Tears, Now, Voyager in particular is given a thorough going over by this rough but deeply caring lover.
Excusing himself as producing 'readings', Cavell relishes the discovery of valid distinctions where there need be no difference made; he points out problems where no problems need be. (He's not alone in this.) This has the unfortunate consequence that you may study his reading of a particular film, absorb it all, and still be left with no clear idea of what the film was about, what happens in the film, what the plot was, and even what happens in the end. It's just not that kind of writing. It is, rather, open-worked, intriguing, leading and denouementless.
At the same time, with a clear head, you can understand Cavell's considered prose, and, perhaps the best judgement, you can't say that you wouldn't have wanted to say these things yourself. Thus we are left with a dichotomy; on first impressions these film books should carry a health warning for the movie-goer as being either irrelevant or dangerous. On further inspection, however, you can see and begin to understand the great mass of learning that is inherent in them. Even in what may appear as the more turgid passages of Contesting Tears you may gather hints of greater philosophical insights that Cavell has revealed only in this way. Who knows, perhaps he had no choice? Certainly the impression given is of one who just can't help himself; at heart he's an enthusiast and an enthusiast he'll always remain. Who knows, perhaps you have no choice other than to receive the information in this way ? Enter at your own risk, be prepared, but most of all enjoy it.
In order to appreciate Cavell's analysis of philosophers fully you have to be thoroughly immersed in the work of those philosophers in the way that Cavell is. If you are so endowed then great rewards may accrue from reading Cavell. Similarly with his film books, in order to appreciate the depth and worth of the analysis presented you have to be immersed in the subjects and have to be as enthusiastic about them as he is. In short, you have to have bought the ticket and been there.
Cavell, then, is no Barry Norman. To have an opinion worthy of consideration, by Cavell's lights, you have to have seen all the films, read all the literature, and paid great attention to each and every fine detail, or so he would have you believe. Worse still, in selling his books to you, Cavell counts on you not having done just this very thing. He trades on his mastery against your dilettantism. He's out to attract disciples in the same sense that those thinkers he most admires attracted disciples.
Cavell, however, is not an Anglo-American trying to muscle in on the Continental tradition; he's much better than that. You should read him, learn from him and admire him, but please don't worship him or treat him with the reverence he sometimes appears to expect. Do not be browbeaten by his learning no matter what insights are promised or revealed. After all, Stanley Cavell is a beautiful man with beautiful thoughts. I urge you to read his work for yourself, in your own way, and to resist his beguilement and, eventually, to acknowledge your debt to him for becoming the better person you now are.
University of Newcastle, England
Unknown Men and Unknown Women: Reading Cavell
_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 1 no. 1, February 1997
Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1997
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