Cities of Words
Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life
by Stanley Cavell
Belknap, 458 pp. $29.95
PICK UP A SCHOLARLY BOOK these days and you'll encounter chapters that mingle high and low culture with promiscuous aplomb. One study applies deconstruction to advertising jingles; another links the Bilbao museum to the racial composition of the French national soccer team. This indiscriminate coupling is supposed to be a sign of currency, showing that the professor has enough conscience to nod to the oppressed and sufficient irony to avoid investing too much in any one text or opinion.
But what about when an eminent Harvard philosopher mixes things up so? For thirty years, Stanley Cavell has examined subjects far from the realm of analytic philosophy: Shakespeare, Thoreau's Walden, Hollywood movies, and the vatic essays of Emerson. In them he found philosophical questions differently asked: How should we live our lives? What kinds of persons should we be? Emerson is the great expounder of such questions, he now maintains, and Shakespeare, Thoreau, and, yes, classic Hollywood films brilliantly act them out.
This new book, Cities of Words, brings the intellectual objects of Cavell's career--philosophy, drama, film, and Emerson--into one volume. It is presented as a summary review, with chapters on nine philosophers, four writers, and thirteen films, the materials derived from years of lecture notes. Emerson's rebukes to conformity are paired with The Philadelphia Story, John Rawls's Theory of Justice gives way to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale is measured against Eric Rohmer's Conte d'Hiver. Cavell unites them with the theme of Emersonian Perfectionism, defined as "a register of the moral life that precedes, or intervenes in, the specification of moral theories which define the particular bases of moral judgments or particular acts or projects or characters as right or wrong, good or bad."
Such a "register" isn't an idea or a theory or a disposition. It's a deep personal outlook, a sense of self, a vision of what kind of person one should be and what kind of society we should create. The outlook shapes the individual's whole conduct, not this or that action, as a moral entity to be judged. Emerson located the perfectionist impulse in an experience of shame, as when we recognize and abhor our conformity; or in a case in which mass opinion rises against a dissenting voice; or, more positively, in a moment when a spiritual presence briefly enters the soul and orients the mind to the reality of things. Such episodes, though rare, spark a drive for moral betterment, leading to the exhortations for which Emerson became famous: "Build, therefore, your own world"; "The only sin is limitation." When the register changes, so do thoughts, memories, feelings, and tastes: entire lives.
Cavell invokes Locke, Kant, Aristotle, Mill, and Freud to concentrate the moral tradition on perfectionist notions, and as he rambles through the Categorical Imperative, utilitarian ethics, and distributive justice he occasionally makes some useful broad observations. One example is his point that Rawls's egalitarian notion of society leaves no room for excellence in culture. Another is Cavell's emphasis on the disgust with present circumstances in toto that initiates a moral advance, as in Thoreau's decision to go to the woods. For the most part, though, with the exception of Emerson and his follower Nietzsche, the philosophical discussions in Cities of Words are flat: not faulty, just spiritless.
BUT WHEN CAVELL turns to the films, the commentary picks up. His sentences become crisper, his thoughts more agile. In part, that's because Emersonian perfectionism advances through concrete situations, not discursive reasoning. It takes a specific event to shake a "register," to make an individual perform a complete self-inventory. Emerson prepares it by spouting provocative aphorisms and calls for renewal, but the films do better, representing such transformation in drama. They lead characters to moral crises and fateful crossroads, as when in The Philadelphia Story Tracy (played by Katharine Hepburn) recoils from her own identity as a "scold," gets drunk, awakens the next morning, and turns her criticism inward. In effect, her "register" metamorphoses: She breaks off her engagement, alters her relations with family, and remarries her former husband (played by Cary Grant).
But Cavell may do better with film than philosophy for a simpler reason: He seems to like movies more than he likes books. He calls Stella Dallas and It Happened One Night "masterpieces," and he spins some elaborate readings of images and dialogue. In this, Cavell--who is a thinker of some seriousness and an intelligent man--stands amidst the idiotic cultural-studies professors who cite Heidegger or Foucault only to speed toward the real object: The Matrix trilogy, Benetton ads, and serial murderers. One suspects the scholarly gesture is a duty and the turn to popular culture a pleasure. In Cavell's case, it seems, the Kantian a priori pales next to Bette Davis telling Paul Henreid, "Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon; we have the stars." Mill's happiness principle can't compete with Ingrid Bergman's tears in Gaslight.
To be sure, philosophers have recognized this temptation ever since the Republic, and Cavell acknowledges the frivolousness of mass entertainment. He eschews the hip pose of the campus culture critic, and even admits that the removal of the film chapters from his book would not "intellectually be much of a loss." But why include the films in a rumination on moral perfectionism at all? As a capstone statement to a long career in philosophy, Cities of Words is a strange but symptomatic book. It attempts a grand fusion of traditional intellection and film criticism, of Kant and Howard Hawks, but the blending never comes off. Instead, the excitement of star images eclipses the rigors of reasoning. If a distinguished philosopher can't sustain philosophy in the face of glamorous movies, one wonders whether the mingling of high and low in the humanities today isn't just a middle step in the loss of higher wisdom altogether.
Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University.