James Klagge's Reviews > Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory

Little Did I Know by Stanley Cavell
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Jul 21, 11

bookshelves: academia, memoirs-autobio, philosophy
Read from July 11 to 20, 2011

This is a memoir by a retired Harvard philosophy professor. I've never met him, but have read a few of his books. His highly cultured and literary style is not mine, but I have benefited from his work. I partly read the book with the hope of hearing stories about famous philosophers. In particular he was a good friend and colleague of Rogers Albritton, who left Harvard in 1972 to teach at UCLA, where I had him for several seminars and on my dissertation committee. It was from Rogers that we learned about Cavell's work. Last year I read an on-line blogged autobiography by another philosopher from about the same generation and an overlapping academic circle--Robert Paul Wolff. Wolff knew both men somewhat and described/contrasted them as follows:
"[Cavell] was very much a presence during the years I knew him in Cambridge, a burly, balding man with blond hair whose aura seemed to fill a good deal more space than his mere body. All of us looked forward with a slightly malicious anticipation to the moment when he and Rogers Albritton would first meet. They were equally brilliant, equally tortured and complicated, equally incapable of adopting or stating a philosophical position straight out, without doubling back on it, viewing it from an ironic distance, undercutting it, and then reaffirming it. But it was as though Rogers was Stanley turned inside out. The more Stanley expanded to fill all the available ego space, the more Rogers shrank into himself. It was a little as though Walt Whitman were to encounter Emily Dickinson."
I don't know about the accuracy of the contrast, since I don't know Cavell, but it rings true for Albritton. This comparison helps me see why I was attracted to Rogers, and suggests I would have had difficulty warming to Cavell. Cavell didn't have as much to say about Rogers as I had hoped.
Cavell chose to write this memoir as a sort of journal extending from July 2, 2003, to September 1, 2004, with dated entries ranging from a few to several pages. While this might have started with a purpose (relating the present circumstances to the past), this did not seem to operate for long. It seemed more to offer breaks to move on to other topics. It also permitted an undisciplined approach to chronology that produced more confusion and repetition than seemed necessary. The oddity of the approach came out when it became clear (he said as much) that he went back a few years later and corrected or elaborated sections, but did not change the entry dates and left the archeological evidence of the earlier version. E.g., illustrating this point as well as his writing style (p. 480): "The day before they left us, Claude visited Rene Char at his house in a neighboring village. I was about to say it was Cavaillon, but that is too big and bustling a place, where market day brought forth melons enough to sweeten the palates of parched multitudes. So is Carpentras too big. The other names that still register with me are Goult, Apt, and Bonnieux. (I have, after a happy search, just turned up the name of the reasonably neighboring village that Char was born in, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorge.)" This reminds me of an anecdote (though I'm still trying to remember the source) about a reasonably wealthy man in the past who could not find his umbrella and sent a servant to a neighbor's house with a note along the following lines:
"Dear So-and-so,
I cannot seem to find my umbrella and I have a feeling that I may have inadvertantly left it at your residence when last I visited there. If so, would you please give it to the man who delivered this note.
Many thanks,
Such-and-such.
P.S., I just found the umbrella in question, so please ignore the above request."
It was interesting to find that a tenured professor at Harvard could feel hurt that his work provoked little positive response for many years, as he tells it. I suppose these things are relative. One of the things Cavell reflects on in his work is for whom one is writing, or talking, and how we can have a claim to make the claims we do. I have recently published a book, and it is weird to await but get rather little response--as though one gave a long speech only to then notice that no one was paying attention, or that many people heard but have nothing to say in response. My wife is a preacher, and I have preached several sermons myself. In a typical mainstream Protestant church there is no response to a sermon--no vocal response during the sermon, and often no (substantive) response afterward. It can be as though no one was listening. And if one said some such things in a supposed conversation and got no reply that would be very strange. You have laid yourself bare, and others just stare. My sermons have nearly all been given in a smallish Black church where call-and-response is not automatic but is possible. And I always try to provoke such response. But there does not seem to be anything comparable in publication. So one waits. (Well, in this internet age, I do have 2 on-line reviews, 2 Goodreads reviews, and 2 Amazon reviews.)

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