Elevating the Conversation
“My experience is that most texts, like most lives, are under-read, not over-read.” So says Stanley Cavell, adding pages later, when talking of the classic films he discussses in Pursuits of Happiness, “the difficulty of assessing them is the same as the difficulty of assessing everyday experience, the difficulty of expressing oneself satisfactorily, of making oneself find the words for what one is specifically interested in saying.” The passages come from the book’s introductory chapter ‘Words for a Conversation’. Pursuits of Happiness was published in 1981, a decade after his earlier film book, The World Viewed, and both ignore without apology the question of semiotics at a time when the notion of a film being read would usually be framed in semiological terms. When Raymond Bellour talks of another philosopher’s work on film, Gilles Deleuze, he says of Deleuze’s early eighties Cinema books (The Movement-Image and The Time-Image) that “he settles a little too rapidly, his debt to semiology, incarnated by the work of Christian Metz.” (‘Thinking, Recounting’) Yet Deleuze at least attends to such thinking; Cavell bypasses it altogether.
Is this justified? We might be inclined to say yes if we accept that Cavell isn’t interested in arguing with film theory but arguing for instead a type of conversation in film predicated on a degree of naivety. In contrast, we might believe that semiotics is asking for a level of sophistication that would be beside the point for Cavell. Cavell isn’t interested in taking a film apart to reveal its component elements, to wonder how film is like a language, to wonder how cinema lacks the double register of signifier and signified (the word on the page and the word we have in our mind that are arbitrarily joined). No, his idea of a reading is quite different and rather more personal, rather more insistent. At one moment in the introduction he says: “so many remarks one has endured about the kind of number of feet in a line of verse, about a superb modulation, or about a beautiful diagonal in a painting, or about a wonderful camera angle, have not been readings of a passage at all, but something like items in a tabulation, with no suggestion about what is being counted, or what the total might mean.”
To read a film in Cavell’s terms is to have something to say about it, and to have something to say about it is to come close to the inarticulacy that always threatens us when we have a thought and a feeling about an aspect of the world. If expressed in opinion, in fact, or preconceived conceptualising, it often robs us of the voice in which it must be spoken. Thus instead of striving to offer the interpretation, the reading, Cavell reckons “we should produce as many as our talents will allow”, adding: “as for the claim that there are interpretations other than the ones I give, let me be quick not just to avoid the impression of denying this, as though I were eager to be known as a tolerant liberal on this issue; let me prove that there must be more than one interpretation possible.”
We can see here that films are not objects of analysis, chiefly, but worlds capable of generating thought. What takes place is even, Cavell suggests, a performance. “I would like to say that what I am doing in reading a film is performing it (if you wish, performing it inside myself). ..This leaves open to investigation what the relations are between performance and interpretation, and between both of these and analysis, between differing analyses and hence between differing performances.” Just as there is no definitive version of a given play, why should there be a categorical interpretation critically of a film, or a book? We don’t expect the actors and directors of a theatre production to attack rival performances, and yet often this is what takes place when academics defend their thesis against others. Cavell seems to suggest that everyone needs to be much more relaxed about interpretation; to see it as closer to a performance allowing for competing views but not quite competitive ones.
This can give the writer the pleasure of thinking without the anxiety of authority. Counter-readings aren’t a threat to his claims; more an opportunity for the broadening of the conversation. Our interest here however isn’t simply to follow how Cavell justifies his readings of seven classics including It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story, but to open up the space Cavell insists upon and to shift the focus slightly from performance to improvisation. A performance connotes quite strongly a public dimension, where an improvisation seems more capable of suggesting a provisional thought. Maybe the idea of improvisation can keep in balance the problem that Diane Stevenson notices was a central one for Cavell. “When interpreting a work of art, as Cavell has reminded us, you can go too far – you can be reading things into the work rather than reading what is there – but you can also not go far enough.” (Film International) As Cavell says in Pursuits of Happiness: “Completeness is not a matter of providing all interpretations, but a matter of seeing one of them through.” To see something through means following the train of one’s own thought, to give space to a pre-occupation over the needs of one’s professional occupation. To go too far perhaps would be to turn concrete problems into abstract symbols, to insist on reading the film as one might decode a system. Everyone is suddenly not in the cinema seat watching a movie, but in Bletchley Park interpreting messages that suggest one thing but clearly imply another. Cavell is closer to Robert Warshow and the notion of “the immediate experience.” The idea that “a man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge he is that man.” Or as Cavell puts it: “my business is to think out the causes of my consciousness of films as it stands.” (The World Viewed)
Thus there are two ways in which one can go ‘too far’: with one taking us further away from the immediacy of the experience, the other trying to find a means by which to get closer to a feeling we have in the cinema that cannot easily be expressed. In Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow, Cavell invokes an earlier work and says: “I gestured at comparing the risk of aesthetic isolation, with that of moral or political isolation, but what I could not get at, I think now, was the feature of the aesthetic claim…as a kind of compulsion to share a pleasure, hence as tinged with an anxiety that the claim stands to be rebuked.” To express a pleasure is not merely to throw a superlative at it of course, but often this is how cinematic pleasures are expressed. The film was amazing, so funny, moving, terrifying. These terms might express our pleasure, but they also leave us alienated in the experience. The film remains our own, but its meaning hinted at but not at all expressed. The superlative is the light from a distant star of feeling: a sentiment so depersonalised that the words could be used by any number of other people who enjoyed the film too. One remains in aesthetic isolation. How to avoid this? Of course for Cavell as a philosopher the answer resides in the complexities of philosophy meeting the ordinary as he sees it in Thoreau and Emerson, but also the ordinary as a philosophical stance where he talks of the “appeal of the ordinary” in J. L. Austin (Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow), the idea in Wittgenstein that “all that is great and important be given up to experience.” (Pursuits of Happiness)
It would be absurd to insist Cavell writes in an unconvoluted style, but this is prose closer to Henry James than to Kant, closer to a mind determined to think closely rather than rigorously. There is no great thesis at work in Pursuits of Happiness much beyond the idea that a series of classic comedies work remarriage scenarios: that it is about second chances in one form or another. In The World Viewed a summary of the book’s point would be impossible: it is a meditation on the possibilities of thought available in film; not a thesis on what film is. Many of the claims Cavell makes in his work are the personally amplified: an opinion offered but never unqualified. The opinion remains as a point of contestation. At one moment in The World Viewed he says: “the fact is I cannot call back the faces of critical minor leads in several of the best recent neo-Hollywood films – In the Heat of the Night, Petulia, Pretty Poison, Bullitt.” In itself this may not be surprising he says, as he accepts that, unlike a generation earlier, the actors haven’t been in enough films to become memorable. But he thinks that “they could not become memorable. I have no sense of the range of role or temperament they may occupy, and these isolated films have been insufficient to establish that sort of resonance for them.”
When he says in Pursuits of Happiness that he thinks comedies of remarriage became available due to a combination of various circumstances, he creates an argument through feminism that completely bypasses feminist thinkers; relying instead on innovative supposition. First he comments on the age of the actresses. “What suits the women in them – Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck – for their leading roles? All were born between 1904 and 1911, about the years you would expect given two assumptions: that the leading women must be around thirty years old as the genre is forming itself, neither young nor old, experienced yet still hopeful.” A second is that “within four or five years of the establishment of the talkie’s material basis, it found in the genre of remarriage one of its definitive forms, as though cinema could barely wait to enter into the kind of conversation required of the genre and made possible by sound.” The third is that their mothers “would have been of the generation of 1880, the generation of, for example, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frances Perkins, Margaret Sanger. A distinguished generation one would think, and one is asked to think about it because in the fiction of our films the women’s mother is conspicuously and problematically absent.” Cavell isn’t interested in addressing what various feminist film writers have to say about the films, but instead wonders what he has to say about them. It is as if he hasn’t gone in for the accumulation of critical data and crunched it into a new formulation or an astute summary. Instead we sense a mind thinking idly, watching the films and musing over how old are these women as characters and in life. Who might their mothers have been, and is this partly why the films present them as absent?
We might claim that Cavell is a properly idle thinker, and see this not so much as a failing; more that there is in much of his work a refusal to think rigorously. But how does this square with his persistent claim that we need to work an idea through to its conclusion? Yet he also says, “reading in, therefore, going too far, is a risk inherent in the business of reading, and venial in comparison with not going far enough, not reaching the end…” There is a tension between, rather than a paradox concerning, interpreting too much or too little, but taking into account what we have earlier discussed, too much would be where the analysis takes us too far away from that common experience and too close to an abstract one.
Even when offering the equivalent of lit crit analysis, Cavell does so as if obviously on his way to somewhere else. At the beginninng of his essay on The Lady Eve in Pursuits of Happiness he discusses the Garden of Eden, the presence of the snake in the film, the apple that Eve drops on Curly’s head. But as he says, “such considerations merely scratch at the surface iconography of this film.” It won’t quite tell us what one thinks or feels about the movie; of how one experiences it.
What then passes for experiental remarks? In the essay on It Happened One Night Cavell says “what this pair [the characters played by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert] does together is less important than the fact that they do whatever it is together, that they know how to spend time together, even that they would rather waste time together than do anything else – except that no time together could be wasted.” What makes the remark experiential rests on its capacity to extract from a situation a perception that seems simultaneously to say something about the characters’ relationship in the film, and something about how Cavell sees a couple. It is both perceptive about the film and revelatory about the person writing on the film. We find this astuteness in numerous remarks. On Lady Eve he says: “the insistence of these films on the absence of children seems to me to say something more particular still. Almost without exception these films allow the principal pair to express the wish to be children again or perhaps be children together.” Cavell adds, “in part this is a wish to make room for playfulness without the gravity of adulthood…” (Pursuits if Happiness). In The World Viewed, discussing Godard, he says: “In the passage on Contempt during which Brigitte Bardot turns her bright body in bed as part of a questioning of her lover, she is flooded in changing centrefold or calendar hues. Godard perceives here not merely our taste for mild pornography, but that our tastes and convictions in love have become pornographized, which above all else means publicized, externalized – letting society tell us what to love, and needing it to tell us whether we do.” (The Wold Viewed)
In all three instances (and in numerous others), Cavell tells us what to think and how he feels. When a critic tells us what to think without making evident how he feels, we end up with a properly empty opinion. “You won’t see a better film this year.” “Anyone with taste will know this is a masterpiece.” “A film that will give you food for thought.” But how does one arrive at full opinion, how to have a thought about the film that also reflects a feeling? Earlier we discussed going too far analytically, but we of course must also accept that this is rather more evolved and ambitious than the critical proclamations we have just caricatured. But it still seems like a variation on telling us what to think if we don’t quite sense the writing reflects what the theorist is feeling. When Laura Mulvey says in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ that “an active/passive heterosexual division of labour has similarly controlled narrative structure. According to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like”, do we know what she feels? Mulvey’s is of course a very important essay, but we often find remarks in it that indicate no existential bodily relationship with the material, and settles for assumptions about the other sex.
Cavell isn’t impervious to such generalisations either, but they are much more embodied, however problematic. “In paintings and in the theater, clothes reveal a person’s character and his station, also his body and his attitudes. The clothes are the body, as the expression is the face. In movies, clothes conceal…a woman in a movie is dressed (as she is, when she is, in reality), hence potentially undressed.” (The World Viewed) Both Mulvey and Cavell’s are potentially sexist statements, and Cavell’s probably the more troublesome; one that might even justify Mulvey’s claims. However, while Mulvey offers feminist objectivity, Cavell practises a masculine subjectivity. He takes responsibility for the experience of watching the film: his remark is that of a man conforming to Warshow’s claim, no matter how troublesome we might find the remarks. Mulvey doesn’t so much take responsibility for her own views, but assumes to know the perspective of the opposite sex. Her remarks might be exemplified in Cavell’s comment, but we nevertheless can see there is a difference between expression and attribution. Cavell expresses his idea that films contain nude bodies underneath the clothing as he feels a painting of a dressed person does not, and to explore his position he uses the woman as an example, adding, “a nude is a fine thing initself, and no reason is required to explain nakedness; we were born that way, and besides, “the human body is the best picture of the human soul.” But to be undressed is something else, and it does require a reason; in seeing a film of a desirable woman we are looking for a reason.” Some might balk at Cavell’s assumption that the reader would like to see a naked woman, but this is the writer’s perspective we are invited to share; it isn’t an attribution we are expected to agree with. When Mulvey says an “active passive heterosexual division of Labour has similarly controlled narrative structure”, we have much more a comment that isn’t about experiencing cinema but making certain claims from a position beyond Mulvey’s own perceptions. This of course doesn’t make Mulvey’s insights worthless; far from it. But it does make them very different from Cavell’s in their presentation. When she says “the paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world” we might say hang on a minute. When she adds, “an idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies”, we might find the Freudian bolstering too flimsy a foundation upon which to premise the gaze in cinema as masculine. We may feel she is reading too much into it because she has read too much Freud, and while Freud is a monumental thinker that doesn’t mean we have to take what he says as a given. By predicating her article on Freudian psychoanalysis, the essay can be ingenious but problematic. When Mulvey believes: “woman’s desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to it”, a twofold insistence is present. A Freudian underpinning meets a feminist militancy. “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied in her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” Are we getting closer to the experience of the film or further away from it? There are important issues of representation being addressed here (Mulvey’s piece isn’t one of the most quoted in film studies for nothing), but the tone often feels at one remove. This of course is partly Mulvey’s very point: how can she experience the film if it is so designed to reflect a male gaze rather than a female one? She has to read too much into the film because it is attending so little to her.
However, therein lies the danger of assuming women could not write about cinema from a position other than militant resistance. True, when in The World Viewed Cavell mentions humane criticism that deals with whole films, he dicusses mainly men: Warshow, Bazin, Parker Tyler, Andrew Sarris, Manny Farber. But he also includes Annette Michelson and Pauline Kael. Kael especially was a critic given to experiencing films, often invoking the sexual when referring to them. Her first three collections (all published before Mulvey’s essay) were I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Going Steady, as if each book suggested getting deeper into a relationship. Her fourth was called Deeper into Movies. David Thomson in an essay ‘The Godmother’ in Overexposures reckoned “Pauline is most aroused by the looming of sex and danger in movies.” In a lengthy piece called ‘Hooked and Gridlocked’, in Cineaste, Michal Oleszczyk quotes another critic noting that “Kael exulted in the crude vitality that she identified with both movies and America.” A lot of people have questioned Kael’s taste, her judgement and even her prose style, but few would deny that she knew how to experience a film, even if the consequence of that experience was sometimes to end up saying more about herself and her own prejudices than about the film she was watching. Oleszczyk quotes her on Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise: to see it as “a knockout of a movie you’d have to tune in to its minimalism so passively that you lowered your expectations. The film is so hemmed in that it has the feel of a mousy Eastern European comedy; it’s like a comedy of sensory deprivation.” Kael’s responses are, nevertheless, often as vivid as the films she describes. We see not only the film up there on the screen that she is writing about, but also the person sitting in the cinema seat watching it.
Does this make Kael a better writer on film than Mulvey? Not at all, or not necessarily. It depends how we look at it: Mulvey reads into the film far more but seems to experience it far less, and what we are looking at here is the notion of experiencing cinema through a Cavellian perspective. When Cavell says in Pursuits of Happiness “I do not think that we are being told that marriages as happy as the ones in these films promise to be are necessarily incompatible with children, that the foregoing of children is the necessary price of the romance of marriage” he is experiencing the problem the film explores as if almost a dilemma in one’s own life, or at least of one’s own society. It is as though the experience of the film has provoked a thought, and Cavell wants to muse over what the film has generated in him. He has no great thesis to offer, but does feel obliged to attend to a problem the films address. It is the sort of question you could easily put to almost anybody: do you think your marriage would have been different if you hadn’t had children? Would you even have got married if you weren’t going to have children?” It is elevating the colloquial. When he discusses the difficulties of knowing what to say about our lives in The World Viewed, Cavell sets out to explore exactly that. “We are saying something now, always, or allowing it to be said. When someone is born, or someone dies, or marries, or graduates, or has a birthday, millions still allow an ordinary drug store card to express their sentiments.” How we might ask does art go beyond this sentiment without undermining it, and how does someone like Cavell talk about such sentiments without reading too much into them, without simply using them for some abstract end?
This is partly where classic Hollywood comes in, with Cavell insisting that many of the comedies he discusses are significant works of art, and can subsequently bear the scrutiny of analysis that he wishes to offer. “And it happens that at the same date there was a group of women of an age and a temperament to make possible the definitive realization of the genre that answered the Shakespearean description, a date at which a phase of human history, namely, a phase of feminism, and requirements of a genre inheriting a remarriage structure from Shakespeare, and the nature of a film’s transformation of its human subjects, met together on the issue of the new creation of a woman.” Obviously for many a critic this notion of the merit of a given work wouldn’t be that important. No matter how bad the film numerous critics will have plenty to say about it. But will they as a consequence be reading too much into it? An ordinary film fan might have a few problems with the working of Cavell’s mind, the Jamesian aspect of his sentences, but he is nevertheless often interested in what would engage the typical film viewer. When speaking of Adam’s Rib he says “She [the wife] is aggrieved and he [the husband] doesn’t see why; his not seeing why magnifies the grief, is part of the grief. The reciprocity of marriage makes it a fertile field for revenge, understood as getting even or as teaching a lesson.” Here we have the everyday problems of marriage contained within an elevated colloquialism.
Is this partly what Cavell means when he talks of criticism as a performance, and also of a certain critical aimlessness? We are reminded of his remark about metres of verse etc: “such remarks, I feel, say nothing…” Yet if such an approach says very little, how to avoid saying too much? Is avoiding film theory a part answer to this? Thus Cavell isn’t interested in an abstract account of film as a meta-subject, as an argument within the discipline of film studies, with cognitivism going to war with Semiotics, gender studies in agreement or disagreement with psychoanalysis. These debates would seem to be sterile for Cavell, part of an irrelevant turf warfare that has rivals skirmishing on the sidelines while the main action is happening elsewhere.
Presumably this is why he cares little to involve himself in certain thinking even when he would appear to be encroaching upon it. In Pursuits of Happiness he discusses, in the essay on It Happened One Night in a footnote, the importance of a carrot in the film without feeling it has to go through the psychoanalytic or semiotic grinder. As he says, “in one discussion of these matters it was pointed out to me that a carrot is a phallic symbol. I confess to feeling sometimes that certain information is after all really better repressed.” Instead Cavell concentrates on other aspects of the vegetable, saying “seeing her eat this food of humility, Peter is won to her. He had liked the taste she showed in people (except for the man she got married to, but then, as her father said, she only did that because he told her not to), but he has despised her exemption from the human condition.” “Eating the carrot is the expression of her acceptance of her humanity, of true need – call it the creation of herself as a human being.” In the footnote he adds that some have wondered how he could have missed the blatant symbolism in the carrot. He believes though that sometimes criticism needs to know when it “must state the obvious and when it must avert its stating.” “An interpretation offered at the wrong place, in the wong spirit, is as useless, or harmful, as a wrong interpretation…surely we do not need to be told that their relationship has sexual overtones.”
Cavell understands that there is stating the obvious on two ‘levels’, even if he happens to ignore the semiotic terms that define them: the denotative and the connotative. The first literal; the second abstract. Why concern ourselves with the abstract if it is less interesting than the actual, Cavell seems to be saying. Once we decide that the carrot is phallic and connotative, we might be missing out on all the subtleties available to its literal meaning because we aren’t paying close attention, merely abstract attention. This doesn’t mean Cavell is blind to the connotative: the first page on Lady Eve is an exemplary account of symbolic analysis. The title he tells us invokes the Garden of Eden as Cavell notices, as we have observed, the presence of the snake in the film, how the male central character Henry Fonda is hit on the head with an apple, and that this male figure is constantly falling over, indicative of falling in love and potentially falling from grace: Fonda is presented as a someone of great innocence, oblivious to the ways of the feminine.
However this is analysis, as we’ve earlier suggested, on its way to somewhere else, laying out the connotative all the better to explore the textual and contextual: to muse over the characters’ actions, the milieu from which they derive, and upon which Cavell can read the material without constantly feeling obliged to generate abstract purpose. Innocence becomes not a biblical question with symbolic portent; more an existential response to the world. The comedies of remarriage take the weight of obligation often felt in a relationship, and turns it into a playful one. If many a Hollywood film ends with the idea that the couple will settle down and start a family, here the films work with the notion of whether or not they should get back together; can they generate enough fun to reunite; not just find a given sense of purpose? Even if some of the films aren’t strictly remarriage comedies, like It Happened One Night and The Lady Eve, they work into their structure the importance of not quite growing up. It Happened One Night doesn’t detail the early days of marriage between Ellie (Claudette Colbert) and her husband, but the burgeoning relationship between her and journalist Peter. They have their honeymoon period before the event and while inside her apparent marriage, without the film presenting it at all as an affair. In Lady Eve, after the first attempt at seducing Curly fails when he suspects her of gold-digging, Jean tries again posing as Lady Eve. In each instance, a playful premise is set up in which responsibilities are ignored and the spirit of fun is activated. These characters don’t have children not because they don’t want them (though perhaps they don’t), but because they are children. The films invoke the spirit of childhood in adulthood. “The absence of children in these films is a universal feature of them.” Cavell reckons the point of this is to say: “The direct implication is that while marriage may remain the authorization for having children, children are not an authentification of marriage.”
Can we extend this to argue that Cavell might see the university system that he has taught in for many years likewise? That a university is not a place where one produces, first and foremost, but thinks; where one plays with thought? When in Pursuits of Happiness he insists “I would like to say that what I am doing in reading a film is performing it…” we are reminded of Cavell’s own past as a Jazz musician: during his teens he was the only white member of a black band in Sacramento. The importance is to find environments in which to play, whether it happens to be in the institution of marriage or the institution of the university. If for many, marriages are supposed to produce babies, then are universities places to produce research – to further knowledge, to give birth to new thought? Cavell’s reluctance to absorb new thinking in film (semiotics, gender studies and structuralism as a discipline) rests in seeing institutions as something else, as a place in which we generate ideas; not always having to construct theories with them. As he says in The World Viewed: “memories of movies are strand over strand with memories of my life. During the quarter of a century (roughly from 1935 to 1960) in which going to the movies was a normal part of my week, it would no more have occurred to me to write a study of movies than write my autobiography.” Cavell then says that “having completed the pages that follow, I feel that I have been composing a kind of metaphysical memoir – not the stories of a period of my life but an account of the conditions it has satisfied.”
The question we might ponder is if marriage can satisfy certain conditions as an institution, can the university do likewise, can it rid itself of givens and provide itself with possibilities? Here it might be useful to compare and contrast briefly the other film philosopher whom we mentioned in the opening paragraph: Gilles Deleuze. In an article on Sartre, Deleuze discusses the difference between a private and public thinker, between someone working out of institutional confines, and the thinker determined to find his own non-institutional path. “Private thinkers” are in a way opposed to “public professors. “Even the Sorbonne needs an anti-Sorbonne, and the students don’t really listen to the professors except when they have other teachers also. Nietzsche in his day had ceased to be a professor to become a private thinker: Sartre did the same in another context, and with another outcome.” Cavell in some ways echoes Deleuze’s remarks. “The issue of professionalization strikes another note. I don’t mean you didn’t deliberately strike this note. But for the past 200 years, let’s say, philosophers have been professors of philosophy. Kant is the philosopher that showed us that you can be a professor and produce great philosophy. It wasn’t clear before. Descartes wasn’t a professor of philosophy, Locke wasn’t, Hume wasn’t, Schopenhauer wasn’t, Spinoza wasn’t.” (‘Conversations with Stanley Cavell’) Where does this place Deleuze and Cavell? If they never quite became private thinkers, were they at least close to private professors? Were they figures who accepted institutional roles but refused institutional assumptions? Deleuze worked for five years at the university of Lyons before taking a more radical position at Vincennes, where he taught throughout the seventies. Cavell worked for many years at Harvard after a few years at Berkeley, and started teaching film at a time when its status was not high, and where Cavell admitted that writing on and teaching film caused some problems. “It’s caused me a certain amount of grief, that’s true” he says, in answer to the question “was it a matter of some controversy when you, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, started writing about film?” (‘Conversations with Stanley Cavell’)
Becoming a private professor within a public institution is a means by which to express common concerns without falling into those of a strict discipline. When people use a term now like interdisciplinary it suggests that what matters are the disciplines themselves, but the teachers have been given a bit of a free rein. For thinkers like Deleuze and Cavell the very idea of the interdisciplinary would seem straitening: they can easily move from one discipline to another with no more than a semicolon or parenthesis. When Cavell discusses Antonioni’s work in The World Viewed he says in brackets: “(the town development in L’avventura, before the appearance of the crowd of brute-men, is a transcription of Chirico).” Deleuze in Cinema 2: The Time -Image thinks nothing of putting Kleist and Gene Kelly in the same sentence; of using Bergson to suggest how Jerry Lewis escapes the Bergsonian mechanics of humour. The private professor might not possess the existential freedom of Nietzsche or Sartre, who do their thinking out on the mountains or in cafes, but that doesn’t mean their thinking isn’t their own.
Yet for Cavell this thinking is one’s own in a particular kind of way. In ‘Conversations with Cavell’ the interviewer says: “You also write somewhere else, 'I understand philosophy as a willingness to think not about something other than what ordinary human beings think about, but rather to think undistractedly about things that ordinary human beings cannot help thinking about.'”. Cavell says in reply: “in a certain mood, if you ask me what philosophy is, I could answer it's to think undistractedly about what we can't help thinking about.” Of course he would give a different answer according to the nature of the question, but the gist of it is that one thinks the abstract only because of the nature of the concrete. When he says in Pursuits of Happiness “one consequence of our sophistication is that if we are to continue to provide ourselves with the pleasure of romantic comedies, with this imagination of happiness, we are going to require narratives that do not depend on the physics of virginity but the metaphysics of innocence”, this is a complicated thought capturing a very straightforward problem. We cannot expect any more that innocence is reflected in the virginal, so often art has to find it by other methods. A woman might have had a number of lovers in the past, but that doesn't mean she isn't capable of being as true in her love as someone who has never been to bed with anyone. Indeed can one not trust the feelings of the woman of experience more than the woman without it since she is comparing that experience to others that might have fallen well below the desire she feels presently?
Cavell is talking of course about the comedies of remarriage where the women are often in their thirties and likely to have had a number of sexual encounters, but this doesn't make them incapable of innocence as a consequence. It is surely a thought though that goes far beyond the contours of the immediate subject Cavell is talking about, and towards a broader question of relationships where few can expect a sexual tabula rasa. It is a proper question of philosophy too often ignored, but that film perhaps can help us formulate. Indeed can film not help us ask many questions about sex and relationships that philosophy has sidestepped? Why are there so few sexual relationships within marriage in film; what does this say about our assumptions about sex if the arena in which it is most justified, legitimized and sanctified is rarely a filmic exploration? If Don't look Now and A History of Violence immediately come to mind it is because so few others manage to do so.
This is the sort of question that allows us to read into films without over-reading them. It is like a variation of Milan Kundera musing over why most people have children in life, half the population in literature “exit the book without having reproduced.” As Kundera says, “most protagonists of great novels do not have children.” Like Cavell's remarks about the childlessness evident in the comedies of remarriage he explores, this is an unequivocal point that isn't just a blank statement. It adds up to a remark and opens up a very interesting field of enquiry. As Kundera lists major literary figures including Tom Jones, all of Stendhal’s protagonists, many of Balzac’s, Dostoevsky’s and all of Musil’s major characters, so we notice how unimportant family life is to so many important books. Kundera hasn’t closed off the meaning of the world by narrowing down a specific symbol in a novel; he has opened up the world and literature’s possibilities.
This seems to be quite different from the obsessively interpretive criticism practised by someone like Alexander Dolonin, the sort of critic we would have to make up if he didn’t exist, someone whose insistent need to interpret appears to be the antithesis of Cavell’s. While Cavell can say that he is interested in the sort of thinking an ordinary man can’t leave alone, Dolonin is preoccupied by the sort of symbolic interpretation that seems closer to mad fixations rather than a preoccupying problem of existence. He writes intelligently, cogently and yet with a sense of wrong-headedness where nothing is accidental, everything is part of a grand interpretive plan. In his analysis of Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols,” this half makes sense. After all, within the story the narrator talks about ‘referential mania’, the desire to make sense of things that have no obvious connection. Dolonin thinks this is Nabokov telling us to do likewise, even if in the story the mania drives the character who is doing it more than half mad. Yet Dolonin thinks we should embark on such an adventure too: “Most of the critics have embraced William Carroll’s provocative idea that those readers who interpret numerous “signs and symbols” in the story as clues allowing one to solve the puzzle are guilty of “referential mania” and therefore bear an “esthetic responsibility” for the boy’s death.” For some this might be interpretation too far, but for Dolonin we should go further still as he explores the story through numerology and sign systems. “With its emphasis on numerical sequences and patterning, the transmitted six acquires several meaningful connections and implications. It should be noted at once that the ciphered message comes after midnight, when Saturday, the sixth day of the week, has already begun. The Holocaust background of the story suggests an association with the Star of David, a six-pointed symbol that signifies a union of man with a divine principle.”
What we notice with Dolonin and many critics and theorists who ‘read too much into things’, is that they are happy with interpretation not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. When Cavell discusses The Lady Eve and the bible, it isn’t to say this is the end of the conversation, but the beginning of it. It is something we might usefully get out of the way, as though he acknowledges that of course the text is an object, a fixed thing, but it is also, as Hemingway would say of Paris, a moveable feast. Indeed cinema, perhaps more than any of the arts, possesses this quality, and partly why some early theorists believed that because recorded reality was not art, the manipulation of the image was the only way in which film could justify its status as an art form. As Dudley Andrew notes, talking of Rudolph Arnheim: “Film may mechanically record the sensations which the retina gathers but it does so mindlessly, consequently non-representationally. Film art is based on the manipulation of the technically visible, not the humanly visual.” (The Major Film Theories)
Cavell has always been more inclined to see film as humanly visual rather than technically visible: that he wasn’t especially interested in the way the image was manipulated, but more in what the image revealed. In The World Viewed he says: “That it is reality we have to deal with, or some mode of depicting it, finds surprising confirmation in the way movies are remembered, and misremembered.” Of course this wasn’t a naive faith in the image, and there are plenty passages in The World Viewed commenting on film as a medium brought into being by aesthetic intentions, but where for Deleuze film is an art through the great filmmakers who constantly push its possibilities, Cavell emphasises what is in front of the screen; what is recorded. “It is in thinking of the power of an art as such that I think again about a hesitation I have sometimes felt toward regarding the movie as an art at all, its effects being too powerful or immediate to count as the effects of art.” To read too much into things, especially in film which contains so many contingent and manifold elements, would be to restrict one’s thinking about film by overly crediting the intentions of the people behind it. The complexity of what we see often interests Cavell more than the potentially complex intentions of those making the thing: he prioritises the humanly visual over the technically visible. Thus when he quotes Wittgenstein in Cities of Words, saying “where Wittgenstein describes his effort in philosophy as one of “returning words from their metaphysical to their everyday use, I habitually speak of the task of accepting finitude”, we can see how much life matters.
This is an idea Cavell picks up on especially strongly in the chapter on It Happened One Night in Pursuits of Happiness. Cavell quotes Philo of Alexandria: “our experience, so limited in extent and duration, can never provide us with a significant conjecture concerning the whole of things.” Cavell adds that the whole of things “cannot be known by human creatures, not because we are limited in the extent of our experience, but, as we might say, because we are limited to experience, however extensive.” It is here that we clearly see the problem of the humanly visual interesting him a lot more than that of the technically visible: he is less interested in making assumptions about what is behind the camera when there is much to say about what is in front of the lens. Is there the idea that reading too much into something is a little too close to playing God? After his remark about being limited to experience, Cavell says: “put it this way: to know the world as a whole or the world as it is in itself, would require us to have God’s knowledge, to know the world, with every event and all its possibilities directly present.”
Perhaps the limits we need to set ourselves when reading into something without going too far, yet reading into the art work without backing away from it too soon, requires a certain aesthetic agnosticism. We cannot quite know the art work’s intentions, but that doesn’t mean we don’t believe in them. We have to say what the art works means to us, not what it means. One needs to avoid two things: what Milan Kundera calls con-fusions and also misomusy, both explored in The Art of the Novel. “Irrational logic is based on the mechanism of con-fusion. Pasenow (in Broch’s The Sleepwalkers) has a poor sense of reality; the causes of events escape him; he will never know what lies hidden behind the gazes of other people; yet although it may be disguised, unrecognizable, causeless, the external world is not mute: it speaks to him.” Consequently, Broch shows his characters are “not capable of facing reality. Before their eyes everything turns into a symbol…and it is to symbols they are reacting when they believe they are acting upon reality.” Kundera talks about “symbolic thought” as the novelist accepts that “we need only examine our own lives to see how much this irrational system, far more than any reasoned thought, directs our attitudes.” A misomusist, meanwhile, is someone who has no feeling for art. “He is humiliated by something which is beyond him.” If Kundera accepts that it is very difficult in our own lives to avoid symbolic thought, how much harder is it for many to do so when faced with a text they feel they ought to interpret and examine?
Yet the flipside is that people can see things as they are and take everything at face value; anything abstract or obscure is trying to have one over on them. The misomusist, often described as an active opponent of the arts, can see what is what: the opposite of the symbolic thinker, but at what cost? They become symbolic atheists: only the concrete and the clear should be allowed. But the con-fused thinker is always looking for a higher symbolic calling, refusing to see what is in front of their eyes and insisting on what must be sitting behind the reality we live, the art we absorb, the society we exist within. Thus Dolonin thinks nothing of saying: “those who refuse to look for a hidden closure beneath the deceptive openness of “Signs and Symbols” are more guilty of a “referential mania” than their opponents because they, like the insane boy, believe that everything in the world created by Nabokov refers to them and they are free to project their own doubts, uncertainties, and fears upon it.” Now while Dolonin does accept that his reading needn’t rule out ethical, historicist and psychological interpretations, this notion that there is a problem with the reader projecting their own doubts etc. upon it is often less dangerous than projecting what one sees as the author’s intentions on the material. When Cavell says of Bringing up Baby, “nor would I put it past [director] Howard Hawks, or those whose work he directed, to be alluding in their title to, even providing a Feydeauian translation of, Feydeau’s On Purge Bebe”, he adds, “this would solve nothing, but it might suggest the following line of questioning. This line of questioning would be: Why, and how, and by what, is such a source tapped in this film since neither the treatment of dialogue nor of character nor of space nor of the themes of sexuality and marriage in Bringing up Baby are what they are in Feydeau.”
What interests Cavell hardly at all is Hawks’ intentions in the way that Dolonin can say of Nabokov’s, “these allusions to procedures of deciphering and acrostical reading conjoint with the theme of death serve as invitations to decoding: they are supposed to alert the reader to the acrostical code used for encrypting the relevant information and make him apply it to the stylistically marked passage at the very end of the story.” Cavell is looking for some sort of family resemblance (in Wittgensteinian terms): something that can link Shakespeare’s comedies, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Feydeau. It is not even a question of how much these writers have influenced the comedies of remarriage; more what they have in common. To insist on finding out whether Hawks, Capra, Cukor and others had been influenced by these writers is of less importance than what Cavell sees them having in common. Cavell will take the responsibility for the perception as if refusing a higher influence. Dolonin is more inclined to search for intentions on Nabokov’s part. Here the novelist plays God and Dolonin is the sectarian disciple.
Cavell however constantly offers the agnostic, a critical version of his comment on being limited by our own experience. To understand the resemblance between Elizabethan drama, the birth of modern theatre and fin de siecle farce Cavell has to find the means by which to justify it not in assuming authorial purpose, but in critical comprehension. Of course this isn’t to say Dolonin only wants to attend to a higher authority, but he does assume his reading of ‘Signs and Symbols’ would come with the author’s approval. He opens his essay on the story thus: In his famous letter to Katharine A. White, the chief editor of The New Yorker, while explaining the intricate riddle-like structure of “The Vane Sisters,” which had been rejected by the magazine, Nabokov mentioned that some of his stories written in the past had been composed according to the same system “wherein a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semi-transparent one.” As an example, he named another story with such an “inside”–“Signs and Symbols,” which had been published in The New Yorker.” Once he feels he has the go-ahead of the author he can read into it as much as he likes.
If Cavell is suspicious of higher authorities of any sort, it is because then the idea of insisting on as many readings as possible gets lost. If he feels he has to rely on what the directors of the films think about the work, then this would restrict him enormously from reading into them, or leave him sometimes thinking the obvious because the obvious has been put there, even if it is not always the obvious that he is likely to find there. It might be clear that It Happened One Night plays up the Depression era setting and that part of Claudette Colbert’s charm as the runaway heiress rests on meeting along the way people who are suffering as she never will, and noticing it, but these seem a minor issue for Cavell not because he has no interest in the social dimension; more that the social dimension will not in itself allow him to comment on the film. Colbert, quoted in a biography on Gable, said “it was right in the middle of the Depression. People needed fantasy, they needed splendor and glamour, and Hollywood gave it to them. And here we were, looking a little seedy and riding on our bus.” If It Happened One Night works so well perhaps it rests in the combination of the seedy world and the glamorous couple. But we don’t need a quote from someone involved in the film to justify that statement; we should maybe attend to the specifics of the film, and in the process find something much more self-revelatory. When Cavell talks of the blanket that is used to protect the woman’s modesty as Colbert and Gable share hotel rooms along the way, he says “I am not unaware that some of my readers – even those who would be willing to take up Kant and Capra seriously….will not fully credit the possibility that a comic barrier, hardly more than a prop in a travelling salesman’s joke, can invoke issues of metaphysical isolation and of the possibility of community – must invoke them if this film’s comedy is to be understood.”
We would be surprised to hear Capra, Colbert or Gable insist that the question of metaphysical isolation is vital to the film, but that doesn’t mean it is irrelevant to it, and imagine how hampered we would be if we really did have to trust the teller? We don’t avoid going too far by going no further than the meanings imposed upon the film by those involved in it, we avoid going too far by failing to speak for ourselves in the process of trying to talk about it. We should keep in mind the Cavell remark about expressing oneself satisfactorily. When we decode a system we do not express ourselves, we solve a problem. Dolonin’s analysis of ‘Signs and Symbols’ seems closer to code-cracking than expression. That is what happens when we read too much into something; the self-expressed often becomes less important than the code the writer is determined to break: we are back in Bletchley Park.
To conclude, let us quote a remark Cavell makes on Bringing Up Baby in Pursuits of Happiness. “I have thus, encouraged by the film, declared my willingness, or commitment, to go back over my reading of it, construed as my expressions of attachment to it. Reconsideration of attachments, and of disaffections, ought to be something meant by education, anyway by adult education, by bringing oneself up.” Again we notice the importance of oneself, the idea that writing on film is for Cavell a form of autobiography. While many a critic might feel it dangerous to put one’s self and sensibility at the centre of analysis, Cavell would be inclined to say that the opposite approach is far more troublesome still. If it said that everyone has a novel within them, this doesn’t mean that we would all want to read it, but there is the suggestion that everyone has the desire to write one. It is the type of desire that Martin Sheen’s character expresses in Badlands, when he believes he “has a lot to say” as he goes in to a Record Your Own Voice booth and finds himself unable to furnish the record with sixty seconds of his own thoughts. It is a scene Cavell invokes in a footnote at the end of The World Viewed, but he does so not to mock Sheen’s inability to express; more the difficulty of expression. What can we say for ourselves Cavell seems so often to wonder. Yet the answer to this difficulty isn’t to retreat (to settle on film facts) nor to abstract (the need for complicated theory), nor readily formulate (the predictable short-hand of journalism) but perhaps to sublimate, to find in the things we love a means of expression. For most, watching a film is enough: we can discover in the film experience many thoughts and feelings that we can call our own. “The movie seems naturally to exist in a state in which its highest and its most ordinary instances attract the same audience (anyway until recently). Anyone ought to be able to rise to the occasion of recognition at the end of City Lights, to the eloquence of Garbo’s moods…to the power of justice in Henry Fonda’s young Lincoln, to Emil Janning’s despair…” (The World Viewed) But only a few perhaps can write about film by seeing that such ‘sentiments’ are vital to cinema and ourselves. Cavell is one such man, someone who refuses at the same time to deny the complexities that underlie such apparently straightforward responses.