Stanley Cavell, again

Colin Burrow has written a persuasive piece in the LRB on Cavell, probably reviewing the same book that led me to him a couple of months ago; this inspired me to have another go. Burrow mentions Cavell’s Must we mean what we say? which includes an essay on King Lear. What is so engaging about Cavell — but also can make him hard to follow, especially on less familiar ground — is the subtlety with which he refuses to take sides, feeling his way to more interesting questions. The Lear essay opens with a discussion of the shift in emphasis, perhaps after the war, in Shakespeare criticism from character to language; so it is commonly asserted, but of course that makes no sense, because one cannot attend to either in isolation from the other; most especially in a play. And yet, clearly there has been a shift … and so he goes on, clearing the ground for his own approach to the work. I’m looking forward to following his argument further. Lear‘s themes of sight, blindness, recognition, acknowledgement, and so on, have an obvious resonance with my recent preoccupation with mutual knowledge. Burrow himself offers what appears to be a more optimistic account of the possibilities there. Perhaps it’s a separate post, but I will just say now that what struck me is that all the examples he gives of deep knowledge of others are positive. Doesn’t this relate to the themes from Lear? Such insight is granted, allowed, not taken unawares or unwilling. Its place is the hearth, not the forum. I was reminded of the end of this post:

Mind is material, not in the sense of a reduction to grey matter, but because it can only travel when embodied acoustically in molecules vibrating in space and time — or of course markings inked on paper or gouged out of stone. From the necessity of embodiment follows the public nature of the tokens as well as the need to play out their exchange in real time, in the flesh. For ethological reasons, that generally feels most comfortable in gatherings small enough to fit round a table; the very fact that it takes a certain amount of time to walk out of the room affects the tenor of the conversation.

Were I writing that today, I might well add that this goes a long way to explaining the fractious tone of the internet, where however beastly you are, there is no risk of a punch on the nose. The relevance of the thought here is that it is with friends that we are intimate, because we trust them to be charitable. Those to whom we are disinclined to be charitable, because they are not our friends, will be encountered in public, not in private, in a context where one is more guarded, and the rules of engagement rest on civility rather than love.

Relations between children and parents may be an exception. The child in adolescence moves from adoration of his parents to a lively sense of their flaws, tempered in the end by the recognition that weakness is part of the human condition.


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