Friday, June 11, 2010

Cavell and Romanticism

Stanley Cavell is a unique figure in philosophy and literary criticism, not quite having a home in either but tending to demand attention nonetheless. I'm not sure how Cavell's fortunes are faring in Philosophy Departments, though I suspect he'll go the way of Santayana, but if you're working the streets of Romanticism these days, particularly Emerson or Thoreau, Cavell shows up on the litcrit radar. As well he should, for despite Rorty's strictures against taking philosophical skepticism seriously, if one were to, Cavell is one of the few to show how. The route through is to deflate its philosophical character, which following Rorty we should say is its "Philosophical" character. And by returning to what Cavell calls "the Ordinary," we can better see what live issues there are surrounding the hubbub Descartes created (or Pyrrho for that matter), though perhaps not why we should call it "the Ordinary" and make such a big deal "O" of it. On the other hand, the way I read Cavell is as I read Rorty's talk about metaphors as the engine of cultural change, which is an important point to make.

I stumbled into philosophy by accident, a random obsession with Pirsig which, stumbling into a book at a bookstore one fateful Christmas-break day, blossomed eventually into a random obsession with Rorty. There are perhaps two philosophers with which I wonder what I would think should I have become obsessed with their writing rather than Rorty's, two writers who hold a candle in my imagination. But I doubt Bernard Williams would have captivated by attention in just the same way. Cavell would have.

References are to Cavell's In Quest of the Ordinary.


One of the unique things about Cavell is the payment one receives by close reading him. I take the following passage, describing his relationship with Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, to encapsulate Cavell’s understanding of the Romantic project:
But I had never been able to stay with it for longer than a chapter, and maybe half of the next, before closing the book with fear and frustration—both at the hopelessness in its ambitions for reconstituting the history of thought, by means, for example, of its elated obscurities as it translates Schelling on the task of something called uniting subject and object; and at its oscillation of astounding intelligence and generosity together with its dull and withholding treatment of Wordsworth’s sense in claiming for poetry the language of the rustic and the low. (Cavell 41)
If we aren’t careful, I think it might be easy to read the “hopelessness” as driving his fear (ambitions too tall) and the “oscillation” as driving his frustration (“why can’t Coleridge give Wordsworth a break?”). I think, however, that Cavell feels both fear and frustration at both the “hopelessness” and “oscillation.” Romanticism has lofty goals and ambitions and this loft produces “elated obscurities.” The trouble, and where the conflict and oscillation comes, is that the overall ambition of Romanticism, as Cavell understands it, is the reconstitution of what he otherwise calls “the Ordinary.”

To restate Cavell’s thought: philosophy began as a flight from the everyday, and began building its floating thought-castles to replace, in some fashion, the bleakness of the ground it wished to flee. The Romantic perceives this flight as misguided and wishes to replace, in some fashion, Philosophy. However, doing so means fighting them on their own ground, which is to say, in the air. And there is a sense, no less, that the impetus to philosophy—skepticism at pieces of the everyday—wasn’t wrong, and should be reconstituted in the replacement Romanticism. This resketching of Cavell, I think, catches his point about “romanticism,” with its lowercase “r,” being not just an historical entity, but a current of thought that runs everclear. But while this is the case—which makes lowercase philosophy a deathless force—the historical entities known as Romanticism (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc.) and Philosophy (Plato, Descartes, Kant, Schelling, etc.) must still be contested on their own terms. The question of what the “terms” are is, again no less, what is in part at issue and causing of the loft of ambition needed to engage.

Cavell is frustrated at having not just to contend with these obscurities, but produce them himself in trying to reconstitute the history of thought. This frustration then also fuels his fear that these ambitions might be too great, that the philosophical acts required might be all for naught. Is there something special in this for romanticism, though? Why would this frustration and fear loop not just be the regular fears and frustrations of the ambitious? Why is Cavell, as I think he is, especially confronted with this double problem by Coleridge’s text? So far I’ve been concentrating most on the hopelessness-of-ambition part of Cavell’s two-part fear and frustration. In glossing the “history of thought” bit, I’ve attempted to hint at how the hopelessness of philosophical ambition (and the attendant annoyingness of philosophic diction) is entwined with Cavell’s problem with Coleridge’s oscillation. Attending to what Cavell confronts in Coleridge’s confrontation with Wordsworth, I think, will give us the problem that is specific to romanticism.

Cavell’s frustration with Coleridge’s “elated obscurities” is counterpointed by his frustration with Coleridge’s attitude towards Wordsworth’s “claiming for poetry the language of the rustic and the low.” The fact that poetry should have to lay claim to “the low” articulates poetry’s natural, tall position in the equation. The oscillation that Cavell feels is between Coleridge “getting” Wordsworth and then not, between “praising his power and promise” and then “cursing him” for “failing his power and breaking his promise” (41). “Getting the hang” of Wordsworth, I think, is an appropriate idiom to import, and Cavell’s word is “generosity”—Coleridge gives something to Wordsworth when he understands him properly, the sense in which he claims the low for poetry. Cavell unpacks this oscillation as Coleridge’s projection of “the achievements back into promises” (41). That is the key, hiding as it is in Wordsworth’s use of what Coleridge said to him in the 1815 supplementary essay to the Lyrical Ballads: the great poet creates “the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.” What Coleridge acts out unconsciously in his critical glance at Wordsworth and what Cavell senses in the promise and problem of romanticism is that the poetic, visionary, prophetic achievement opens the view in which the achievement can be seen at all, but it is always a partial failure for it cannot itself step through the opening. The achievement creates the terms by which it should be judged, and predictably enough the letter is found wanting by an evolved and retrospectively glancing spirit—an ungrateful spirit created by the letter. In other words, the oscillation is a necessary trait of romanticism, for the more Coleridge gives to Wordsworth’s achievement, the more he changes into his vision, and the more he sees is wanting because of the more he sees.

To help better understand this swing from praising the vista to damning the groundbreaking limitations, we might add Cavell’s brilliant summary of his The Claim of Reason: the “mark of the natural in natural language is its capacity to repudiate itself, to find arbitrary, or merely conventional, the lines laid down for its words by our agreement in criteria, our attunement with one another…” (48). If we go the other way at this suggestion, it brings to light philosophy’s relationship with poetry—the “artificial” in language is that which is stipulated, that which by definition does not need agreement for it asks for none, that which asks for no generosity. The process of agreeing to stipulations is the passing of poetry into “natural language”—the “getting the hang” of an idiom. A vision opens a future in which its taste can be enjoyed, but it only becomes the present as people generously pass through the opening. This is the hidden flipside to the Fall story that “seems a romantic’s birthright”—poetry passing into theology, in Blake’s terms, is the fate of any vision to be enjoyed, and yet its enjoyment is its fall from grace, from pure poetry into something understandable, agreed upon, attuned to. By claiming the language of the low for poetry, Wordsworth was internalizing the dialectic of life and death lived by the poet’s metaphors.

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