International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 50, December 2005







Stanley Cavell


Reply to Grant



Michael Grant

'Cities of Words, Cities of Cinema: Stanley Cavell's _City of Words_'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 49, December 2005


In response to the kind invitation from _Film-Philosophy_ to write a short reply to Michael Grant's review of my _Cities of Words_, detailing points of agreement or disagreement with what Grant says, or proposing extensions of the ideas of the book, I say at once that I find nothing in the review that prompts what I would call a disagreement. Indeed, it puts together accurately and with such apparent ease so many issues that seemed to me hard to articulate (about the self, about the role of the reader and viewer, about the implications for philosophy, etc.) that I wondered why these subtleties had taken me so long to measure and express. (But this may just be the defensive let-down one can have on finishing any extended piece of work with some satisfaction, imagining that the result of the thing could really be put in a few sentences.) Said otherwise, I asked myself specifically what implications might be drawn about why it could reasonably be thought worthwhile to go through the onerous-sounding exercises described as 'conversions of the self' that my book is said to 'require of [my] reader'.


The immediate 'conversion' in question (apart from the psychic conversions depicted in the narratives of the films) is the turnaround I ask from a conventional condescension, no doubt not without its affections, toward members of the Hollywood genres of film popularly known as 'screwball comedies' and 'women's pictures', with a view toward considering that a selection from each, reconceived as intimately related genres, are, in their way, explorations of issues that inspire a line of moral thought represented throughout the history of Western philosophy and literature. 'In their way' recognizes that the plausibility of the claim rests upon accounting for the power of film (in *certain* of its instances; more, however, than might at first seem reasonable) to set in motion, in roughly two hours, structures of passions and ideas that have preoccupied moral thinkers in the West from Plato to Nietzsche and Mill and Wittgenstein and Heidegger (though the last two would not identify the drift of their work specifically as moral philosophy). I cannot think that Michael Grant would have been able to describe the demands of my writing so subtly without responding somewhat to their justice or other rewards, but I never felt sure of this. When he says that my project of characterizing 'moral perfectionism' conceives of it as informing texts that range across Western culture 'not excluding the work of the American cinema', I find I am uncertain how far he wishes to leave it open that the project will strike someone, at least initially, as preposterous. But perhaps this only shows my lingering shying from the scorn that greeted my early books from those advanced in thinking about film and philosophy, for whom the great cinemas of Western Europe and Russia and Asia, along with American experimental cinema, together and at once reduced Hollywood film to its worst fantasied intentions and exiled it from any aspirations to serious achievement.


A small point may have helped my doubt along. Grant takes me as claiming that the period of the dominance of the genres I (re)define represents the Golden Age of American film, whereas I took that as the received view. The point of noting it was at once to recognize how swiftly the advent of the medium of talking pictures found definitive expression, and to identify a democratic aspiration and effect in America's contribution to the latest of the great worldwide arts. Then the concluding essay, reading the pervasive Shakespearean reception in Rohmer's _Winter's Tale_, was to carry the suggestion that Hollywood film as such once reliably (perhaps two dozen times a year for some fifteen years) bore comparison with the ambitions of high European achievement and carried forward a moral perception internal both to the medium of film and the mysteries of Shakespeare. (A further tiny point: Grant takes the Rohmer/Shakespeare chapter not as climactic but as penultimate, an understandable result of reminding oneself of the progress of the book by looking at its Table of Contents, which lists a précis of an earlier chapter on Plato, for easy reference, as if it is itself a further chapter of the book.) In the end though, my overall impression of the review is one of accuracy and nuance, for which I am most grateful.


Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2005



Stanley Cavell, 'Reply to Grant', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 50, December 2005 <>.










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