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August 2017 (IV)

22, 23 and 24 August

Tuesday 22nd

It was good to survive yesterday’s eclipse. I must have been hoping for a more crepuscular dimming of the afternoon light, because at a certain point it struck me that nothing had happened and that nothing was going to happen. Lots of people stood on street corners with their iPhones, special glasses, and even a kitbashed cereal box; the general mood was one of lighthearted glee. Free entertainment? Considering the terrified awe with which such an event would have been greeted a thousand or more years ago, I asked myself if it is necessary and inevitable that familiarity brings inconsequence in its wake. For myself, I have never been comfortable with the fact that the earth moves. Watching the moon blot out the sun is a discomfiting intimation of mortality, and I don’t mean my own.

I am now well into Stanley Cavell’s Cities of Words. I have not yet discovered the key to the title, although, reading ahead, I encountered the phrase in the essay on Pygmalion, which manages to be dense and hard to follow even without the baggage of philosophical exposition. Sometimes, of course, Cavell is hard to follow because he isn’t as clear as he might be about whether he is stating his own thoughts or summarizing those of his subject, with whom (it will turn out) he disagrees. Sometimes, he is hard to follow because he writes like Henry James; I want to say, jeeringly, that he thinks he’s Henry James. (I should talk!) In order to follow his train of thought through one paragraph, I nearly used a red pencil to underline the the thoroughfare of his sentences. This is not that paragraph; the book is full of them:

The imperative to conversation is meant to capture the sense that, even when the veil of ignorance is lifted, we still do not know what “position” we occupy in society, who we have turned out to be, what our stance is toward whatever degree of compliance with justice we have reached. To know such things is to have a perspective on our lives, on the way we live, and this is precisely the province of what I call, of what interests me in, moral perfectionism. The idea of conversation expresses my sense that one cannot achieve perspective alone, but only in the mirroring or confrontation of what Aristotle calls the friend (what Nietzsche calls my enemy, namely one who is, on my behalf, opposed to my present, unnecessary stance), what Emerson calls the true man, the neutral youth, my further, rejected self. My sense of this outlook can be put this way: Without the register of moral perfectionism Rawls’s theory cannot reach its goal of being able to say (to oneself, if no further) that one is above reproach, or rather, to do what that claim, were it sayable, is meant to do. (174)

“Above reproach”! Heavens, what a ride that phrase took me on! And then, inevitably I suppose, there was the comparison of the rules of morality to the rules of baseball. Scratch a philosopher, and a boy with a ball will emerge.

Coming up for air, I mused on the lack of interest that women seem to have in perfection, as well in the existence of universal truths. In my experience, even the most educated women glaze over a bit when these abstractions are harped upon. I perceive that they share — perfection and universal truth — a binary characteristic, and I already suspect that the male mind, at least as it is acculturated in the world that I live in, has a penchant for binaries. Perfection is simply the absence of every conceivable imperfection, while truths that fail to describe all situations at all times are not universal. Either they are or they aren’t. On/off. What I would call the woman’s view is the far more complicated project of doing better. We can always do better, and this is somehow a weightier truth than the unlikelihood of our ever doing quite as well as we might. I am not yet certain that Cavell’s impossible phrase, moral perfectionism, does not hide, behind its reliance on conversation, the suspicion or anxiety that there is something to be learned about how to think from women, something that might conduce to the abandonment of a philosophical tradition that is based not so much on a masculine viewpoint as on the notion that men are more fully human than women — that women don’t count. Cavell’s book, after all, is thematically devoted to the study of a series of films, some of them “comedies of remarriage” but all of them involving men and women. In the comedies, the friendships are invariably heterosexual, usually masquerading as romances. Without needing to say that men and women are equal, in the sense that they are the same, Cavell recurs to the suggestion that, for most of us, the best mirror is a member of the opposite sex. Our moral standing is not to be judged by impersonal standards but by the highly contingent judgment of a spouse. (Hence: comedy.)

Beyond the universal truths and the pursuit of perfection, there is the overpowering trend of Western philosophers to address the individual in isolation. In one delicious parenthesis, Cavell observes that “the featured four examples Kant presents after introducing the first formulation of the categorical imperative seem to me fantasies of essentially isolated, friendless people.” (133) Perhaps it is this very impression of Cavell’s that ought not to be set aside in a parenthesis. The default stance of rigorous philosophy since the pre-Socratic thinkers has been that of the isolated male for whom friendships are merely accidents of existence. In the perspective of the development of relations between the sexes, this stance seems little advanced beyond the idea that only high priests ought to be taught to read. Its vision is exhausted.

I suspect that women also resist the supposition, raised by positing the idea of perfection, that human beings are defective. I must say that I snorted loudly when, in his chapter on Kant, Cavell wrote of beasts and angels. Comparisons of human beings to beasts and to angels is, in my view, supremely stupid, as well as totally unhelpful. The idea that humanity occupies a step in the great chain of being between beasts, who have no spirit, and angels, who are all spirit, is as quaint as the “science” of the four humors. It can no longer be entertained in serious discussion. Human beings are what they are, the latest versions of a species; the same might be said of the cheetah or the oak. The geological record suggests that extinction, not perfection, is the end of the line.

And while we’re talking about women (actually, I am always talking about women), permit me to vent the outrage that succeeded a sudden insight that I had late last week, which was, that if any of the women whom I have known well in my lifetime were in Eve’s Edenic position, she would have done everything she could to hinder Adam from screwing things up by dallying in the vicinity of the forbidden tree. It might have been a losing battle, but she, unlike the tart in the Bible, would not have been caught dead chit-chatting with the serpent. In short, far from being the first, archetypal woman, Eve is nothing but a squeeze, a misogynist’s idea of the joke of God’s setting out to provide Adam with a helpmeet. What gave edge to my outrage was the sudden displacement of quietly reading a book of ancient wisdom by the sense of being stuck at a loud table during a Las Vegas floor show.

And while we’re talking about perfection, let’s remember God’s apology after the flood: I’ll never do it again. The God of the Hebrew Bible is nowhere represented as perfect. Like his cousins in the Greek pantheon, he bristles with characteristics that would be regarded as shortcomings in a mere mortal. (Even Jesus, if you read the synoptic Gospels all the way through, is prone to tantrums.) Linking up perfection and divinity was the brainwave of learned converts to Christianity in the ruins of the Roman Empire. Consecrating their cake before eating it.


Wednesday 23rd

Meanwhile: Reason. What is this thing called Reason, really? I’ll tell you what it is for me. It’s the concept that makes philosophy indigestible. My brain cramps whenever it is introduced, because writers’ invariable confidence in the very existence of Reason seems more foolish with every passing year. Reason itself is never analyzed. There seems to be no need to expatiate on what Reason really is. Everyone knows what it is. Everyone but me.

In the Nineteenth Century, poets and others complained about Reason because, basically, it took the mystery out of things, rendering all of life predictable and prosaic. There was a (now) very understandable anxiety about the nature of feelings. Did they express meaningful passions, or were they nothing more than the gossamer illusions of faulty machinery? Reason, by rectifying everything that it was used to examine, suggested that passions were a kind of madness, an obstacle to the achievement of the “advanced civilization” that railroads and other amenities seemed to promise. My problems with Reason have nothing to do with any of this. I am no Romantic.

Western philosophers have been declaring Reason to be a human characteristic, or at least a masculine characteristic, for millennia now. It was never good enough to recognize reason as a tool, like so many other human inventions. No: to the philosophers, we came into the world bodily equipped with Reason, as well as with speech. We didn’t make use of Reason; we were intrinsically Rational (unless we were mad). In terms of physiological evolution, these claims don’t hold up, but philosophers continue to talk as though human beings were created in their present form.

But reason is a tool, and we have taught it — the powerful part of it known as Boolean Logic — to computers. It cannot be argued that human beings are more rational than computers. Now that the pressure is off, in fact, it appears that the human mind is for the most part an unstable memory bank, with each memory prone to reconstruction every time it is summoned. There is nothing rational about the contents or organization of the mind. Growing up in civil society, we learn to apply a handful of mental rules of the road. If today is Monday, it cannot be Tuesday. If I leave you standing at the foot of the stairs that I climb to my bedroom, I cannot return to your side by climbing another set of stairs. If Britain has a powerful navy, and navies are the ultimate military power, and Britain so chooses, then Germany, for all its North Sea and Baltic seacoast, is landlocked. These reasonable statements are highly personalized — Monday, Tuesday; you, me; Britain, Germany — expressions of the laws of physics, discovered long after man was declared a rational animal. In fact, the Scientific Revolution was, implicitly, a protracted demonstration of just how unreasonable people really are.

And yet Stanley Cavell will go on, when talking about Kant, as though Reason really were a light in the mind that reveals certain obvious, self-evident truths.


We watched Gaslight last night. I hadn’t seen it in years, and Kathleen had never seen it at all. In Cities of Words, Cavell discusses George Cukor’s movie in between the chapters on Mill and Kant. Perhaps because of his preoccupation with words, he overlooks the connection between Gregory’s increasing impatience with Paula with the frustration of not finding the jewels in the attic. (I suppose that most first-time viewers, even after they begin to suspect Gregory of something, imagine that he is stumbling about the attic simply to make “inexplicable” noises that will drive Paula crazy.) Nor does Cavell reflect on how Gregory’s discovery of the jewels on the climactic night of the story becomes, almost immediately, Paula’s triumph over him. Not only has the detective exposed Gregory’s dastardly campaign to reduce his wife to maddened self-doubt, but the underlying purpose of this campaign has at long last met with success. In an alternative telling, Gregory could walk right downstairs, out the front door, and away from the scene of his crimes, a free man carrying priceless stones. That is not, of course, what happens. What happens is that, walking instead into his own room, he becomes distracted by the broken lock on his desk. This leads, through scenes of intricate peripety, to his being tied up in a chair.

Cavell describes what happens next as Paula’s

concluding cogito aria to her husband, the man in the audience to whom she communicates her unspeakable hatred — as her aunt had communicated her undeclarable love to her lover by displaying on the stage the jewels sewn into her gown, whose significance only the two of them understood — Paula invoking her madness as her excuse not to be able to help Gregory escape. After this tirade, adopting the abuse of language, coating it wholly in irony, she is essentially silent, and the detective’s last words to her, asking to come talk to her sometimes, furthers the sense that she is going to have to learn to speak again, where that means learn to trust and entrust words again. (115)

Kathleen and I both wished that this “cogito aria” lasted a little longer. Ingrid Bergman is never less than magnificent on screen, but in Gaslight‘s earnest parody of a mad scene she is grandly, and of course suitably, operatic. When she finds the brooch that she feared she’d lost at the beginning of her troubles, and pretends to regret that it is no use as a knife to cut Gregory free, she unloads in a moment of fury the compressed bill of particulars against him. She remembers every episode of his treachery, and every episode is a log in the pyre of her hatred. There is nothing left of him when she is done; even the “fire in my brain” of his longing to possess the jewels has been consumed. When she cries out, “Take this man away!”, it is one of the great Amens of cinema.

I wonder how long it will be the case that Charles Boyer’s virtuoso performance as a vile cad will draw so much of its power from the cultural condescension toward the mental capacity of women that still prevailed in 1944, when Gaslight was made. His initially smooth and humoring dismissals of Paula’s alleged lapses succeed in deflecting suspicion for as long as they do (at least to the first-time viewer) not only because he is suave and sympathetic but also because women are like that. How did Henry Higgins put it? “Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags!” It doesn’t take much to reduce Paula to a similar conviction. In fact, of course, Gregory is feeding his wife false premises. If he gives her the brooch, and she loses it without knowing how or when, there is no room for the fact that he did not give her the brooch at all, but slipped it into his pocket. If it weren’t so wicked, Gregory’s sleight of hand would delight us with it magic-act flouting of reason.

What really upsets Paula, moreover, is not that she is losing her mind but that losing her mind justifies her captivity in the house that she never leaves and in which she never entertains, her only feminine companion being the fantastically insolent parlormaid. When Gregory momentarily projects a visit to the theatre, Paula quite unreasonably forgives him for his snarky hostility. If she’s out of her mind, the loss of Reason is a very distant second to the need for fresh air. It is only after Gregory contrives for her to humiliate herself at Lady Dalroy’s, thus marking her as a social pariah (insofar as she is too sick for polite society) and foreclosing further public encounters, that Paula begins to sink into a mad-like melancholy.

In short, it may be that women have the reputation of being less rational than men because they quite reasonably find it to be less important than other things, such as the smiles of friends.

More anon.


Thursday 24th

The lead editorial in today’s Times ends with this paragraph:

On Tuesday, buoyed by his crowd in Phoenix, Mr. Trump was back to raging against just about everyone who crossed his field of vision, 77 minutes worth of anger that began, as the evening wore on, to exhaust even his most fervid listeners, who began quietly to fade away.

I wish I knew how much weight the final clause carries. Did fervid listeners really fade away? And what does it mean if they did? What if they left, not because they were bored, or not because of that, but because they wanted to continue to support the President? What if they left in a state of satisfaction, having heard what they wanted to hear, which is that their man is willing to break things, come what may?

How many Americans feel that way? How many believe that they only way forward is through the rubble of an unworkable present? I suspect that this number is much greater than that of outspoken Trump supporters. Established institutions, the Times preeminent among them, continue to warn against breakage as though this were not precisely what many Americans want.

We all agree that the country is divided between an élite that wants to maintain, and then improve, the status quo — count me among this group, no matter what I say — and a bloc of disaffected voters who resent having been ignored. There is also a third crowd, and I suspect that most Americans belong to it right now. They’re the ones who don’t care. For them, politics is noise that has nothing to do with anything. It goes on and on and it never changes anything. My question is this: what will they do when something breaks?

What if, for example, a government debt default has unforeseen consequences? Let’s go back to 2008. When Wall Street stood around and let Lehman Brothers fail (because Richard Fuld and his crew were so widely detested), nobody imagined that the repercussions would intensify minute by minute until even the short-term credit market, without which ordinary economic life in this country would come to a stop, was threatened. It took high-level, cooperative intervention to stave off that catastrophe. Wall Street and the White House worked together — fast. Can we count on anything like that if something breaks later this year? Even to ask the question is to shudder. To return to my broader question, what will ordinary Americans do when political breakdown turns out to have a big, sour everyday impact?

As I say, count me among the élite, even if it is carrying on like a pack of ninnies with the ocular acumen of Mr Magoo.

Permit me to sign off with a bonbon: Wealthy liberals tend to run for office themselves, while wealthy conservatives tend to hire agents to do the work. This is why each side regards the other as fraudulent.

Bon week-end à tous!