Provocation from Another Soul

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

In our May 12 issue, Christopher Benfey reviewed Here and There, an essay collection by the philosopher Stanley Cavell, who died in 2018. Cavell is renowned for the enormous range of his writing, on subjects including the “ordinary language” philosophy that arose from the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin, the importance of Kant’s epistemology to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the use and subversion of cliché in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, and the innovations of Hollywood screwball comedies such as It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby. (Cavell coined the phrase “comedy of remarriage” to describe these films, which had to evade the Hays Office’s efforts to suppress depictions of divorce and adultery in the 1930s and 1940s; the term has become standard in discussions of the genre.) It seems fitting that Cavell, who was part of the Harvard philosophy department from his time as a graduate student in the mid-1950s until his death, changed his birth name, Goldstein, to an anglicized version of his family’s Polish name, Kavelieruskii—there’s something romantic about this thinker who kept charging beyond the bounds of academic philosophy in search of a fuller engagement with art and life.

Benfey, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke, is also a writer of impressive breadth. Since his brief time on the editorial staff of the Review in the mid-1980s, he’s written extensively for the magazine on nineteenth-century American art and literature—his specialty—while also reviewing books and exhibitions on John Cage and Merce Cunningham; the “micrographia,” or miniature script, of the eighteenth-century artist and magician Matthias Buchinger (who was born without hands and feet); hummingbirds; and the Japanese tea ceremony.

Benfey studied with Cavell at Harvard in the late 1970s and stayed in touch with him for decades. This week, over e-mail, he shared his thoughts about the posthumous essay collection and Cavell’s influence on his work.

Andrew Katzenstein: In your review of Here and There, you note that Cavell had intended to become a composer but dropped out of Juilliard, which he later referred to as “the major intellectual, or spiritual, crisis of my life.” Although he avoided writing about music for much of his career, Here and There contains five essays that he described as “proposals” for “what a philosophy of music should be.” How did his own fraught relationship to music, including his continuing practice of it, inform his thinking about the philosophy of music?

Christopher Benfey: I’m guessing that a lot of people who write about the arts have a fraught relationship to a particular art form. Many of us had some success as a poet or painter or pianist in our youth, and at some point—for love or money—we changed horses. What the best critics take from such disappointments is a deep respect for art and artists rather than resentment. In going back to Cavell’s work for this piece, I was struck by his sheer gratitude for the films and music that he loved. He’s never jaded, never condescending.

The trauma of leaving music had an additional source for Cavell. Music was the family business; the expectation was that he would have the career that his mother, a gifted pianist, had sacrificed in raising him. (Children of immigrants, as I can testify from personal experience, are particularly familiar with such expectations.) For Cavell, leaving music behind, and specifically leaving Juilliard behind, was also, in a way, leaving his family behind, which is what we all have to do in this life. In Cavell’s five essays on music, there’s a moving sense of return, of homecoming, but also of mourning. Twice in these essays he quotes Walter Benjamin on the relation between mourning and expressiveness, as though the connection is self-evident.

In an obituary shortly after Cavell died, you compared his teaching style to a jazz musician’s improvisation over a standard tune. What were his seminars like? How was his teaching style reflected in his writing?

He was a dazzling teacher. You felt that he was opening his private studio to you, showing you how philosophy gets done rather than simply reporting his findings after the fact. I jotted down something he once said in class: “Philosophy doesn’t happen every day.” It did seem to happen every day for him. I recently came across Helen Vendler’s description of Robert Lowell teaching, how he demonstrated an “example of a mind in action, a mind brooding as much on life as on literature.” You could say the same thing about Cavell. He gave you the sense that philosophy mattered, that art mattered, that life was grievously impoverished without these things. And he was brilliant off the cuff. Someone brought to class, I don’t remember why, Robert Hass’s poem “Meditation at Lagunitas.” Some of us tried to say smart things about the poem. I mumbled something about how the repeated word “blackberry” at the end was like a mantra (meditation, get it?). Cavell then remarked, “I see the poem as turning on the distinction between talking and saying.” He was a brilliant literary critic, as he demonstrated in his Shakespeare and Thoreau books. But I think he felt that the critics he admired—William Empson and Northrop Frye and Kenneth Burke—had done a pretty good job in that arena. Movies and music and Wittgenstein needed him more.


You also invited Cavell to a conference at Mount Holyoke to discuss Wallace Stevens—you mention this briefly in a footnote in the piece. Did anything about your professional interactions with Cavell crystallize your thoughts on his work?

His readiness for new enchantments was one of the things I loved about him. I first met him in 1977, when he was in the early phase of his intoxication with Emerson, and when he told anyone who would listen that Nietzsche’s love affair with Emerson was the key to modern philosophy. At the time, I was trying to make sense of Emily Dickinson’s philosophical sophistication, and Cavell’s encouragement meant the world to me. In an effusive 2006 e-mail, I tried to acknowledge the debt: “I need to tell you that you gave me nineteenth-century American literature, gave me the confidence that those writers would be fully responsive to whatever I could bring to them, that they wouldn’t let me down, not for a lifetime.” In his reply, Cavell mentioned his pleasure in surveying his own life for his memoir, the publication of which allowed him “to live posthumously a bit.”

My invitation to Cavell to talk about Stevens was purely selfish. I was hoping that he’d become enchanted by Stevens, whom he’d quoted here and there over the years, and who had written prose texts (as Cavell notes) “directed intensely and explicitly to philosophy” without getting much of a response. I didn’t realize at the time that I was pushing Cavell into relatively unfamiliar territory, occupying his time, as he mentions in Little Did I Know, “on and off for much of a year” in preparation. I’ve come to see how his work often advanced in this way, responding to invitations that allowed him, as he liked to say, to educate himself in public.

You’ve written extensively about dance, having studied it in high school—as you noted in an essay for the Review published in 2020. You’re also a violist, but, like Cavell, you’ve mostly avoided writing about music. Do you feel inspired by his example to try music criticism?

Other than the occasional tyrannical conductor, there hasn’t been much trauma in my own musical life. Violists are easily overlooked! I wouldn’t say that I’ve avoided writing about music; I’ve rarely been asked. I do play a ton of chamber music these days, in several different groups, but I feel obscurely that I lack the authority to write about music. This feeling of inadequacy may stem from the fact (lamented by Cavell) that so much writing about music is anchored in formidable technical analysis. To which Cavell would say, if music is an important part of your life, why not write about it?

Has Cavell been a stylistic influence on your writing? One wouldn’t necessarily guess it from reading your work. Let’s just say that you don’t seem to draw on Proust or late Henry James to the degree that he did.

Then again, Cavell didn’t write at all like J. L. Austin, his most important teacher, who adopted a clipped Oxford manner. Maybe he was alluding to such deviations from mentors when he chose, as the epigraph to The Claim of Reason, a sentence from Emerson: “Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.” Am I dodging the question? Another answer might be that I went directly from graduate school to working for Bob Silvers for two intense years, a sort of postdoc in how to write.

The new volume of Cavell’s writing has a long essay on collecting, called “The World as Things,” in which he suggests, among other things, that Wittgenstein’s philosophy was a “procedure of collecting.” Do you think Cavell had his own unorthodox philosophical approach in mind here as well as Wittgenstein’s?

Absolutely, and in at least two ways. Cavell was always collecting new intellectual passions—in his late work, for example, Benjamin and, more surprisingly, Maurice Blanchot, whose formidably difficult book The Writing of the Disaster fascinated him. And the way Cavell wrote—especially in his time-traveling memoir, Little Did I Know, and in late essays like “The World as Things”—can feel more like an assemblage or collage than a linear narrative or argument. It was important to me to begin my own piece on Cavell with an image of collecting, that jar he filled with objects as a lonely child in Sacramento.


At the same time, though, I’d say there was something in Cavell’s temperament that resisted such procedures of collecting, that pushed hard for a single line of argument or inquiry. His steady attention to skepticism, for example, and how it manifested itself in the things he cared about—Shakespeare’s plays, Emerson’s essays, Mozart’s operas, Hollywood romantic comedies—suggests more the intellectual hedgehog than the fox. That tension of big argument and accumulated detail aligns with the stylistic push and pull between operatic amplitude and epigrammatic fragment that I explored in my piece.

You’ve discussed in a previous interview your practice of keeping notebooks, which serve as the basis for some wonderful and unclassifiable essays on such unexpected topics as onions, rattlesnakes, and coincidence. Does writing for you resemble collecting, as a way of preserving and classifying the tumult of experience?

I’m afraid so, though the tumult remains. I was a passionate collector, of just about everything, as a kid. In landlocked Indiana I assembled an ambitious collection of seashells. The first chapter of my book The Great Wave, about the intellectually omnivorous Gilded Age Japan hand Edward Morse, is called “A Collector of Seashells.” But I’ve also resisted conventional ways of structuring essays, the topic sentences and transitions and conclusions that are inflicted on us in high school. That’s the positive way of saying it. A professor of mine in college said my papers read like letters home. In certain ways, for better or worse, they still do.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in