- On Meeting Stanley Cavell
In the marvelous book that we are celebrating today, Little Did I Know, Stanley Cavell devotes two pages—two absolutely thrilling pages, in my opinion—to our first encounter in Cambridge, Massachusetts one evening in the fall of 1962. For my contribution to this symposium, I thought it would be appropriate to describe the lead-up to that occasion from my point of view and then to go on and say something about the not quite immediate aftermath, by which I mean about what transpired between Stanley and me in the weeks and months that followed his definitive move to Cambridge one year later, in the fall of 1963.
But first that original, enchanted evening. As Stanley mentions, I had been an undergraduate at Princeton (where I was a contemporary of the painter Frank Stella, studied with the literary critic R. P. Blackmur, and also made early contact with the art critic Clement Greenberg), and then spent two years at Oxford (where I studied with no one, barely kept myself sane, played a lot of tennis on grass, and developed some important friendships). I went on to spend the following year in London as a special student in philosophy at UCL, where I studied with Stuart Hampshire and Richard Wollheim, began my career as an art critic by writing a monthly London Letter for the New York magazine ARTS (which exactly paid the rent), and entered into a lifelong critical engagement with the work of the British sculptor Anthony Caro, who had recently broken through to absolutely major achievement. I should mention that I was also writing poems, most of which were published in a new journal called the review, edited by one of the copains I made at Oxford, the strongest British poet of his generation, Ian Hamilton. At the end of the summer of 1962 I returned to this country and began graduate study in [End Page 937] the History of Art at Harvard, interspersed with monthly excursions to New York where I went around galleries and museums with Frank Stella and then returned to Cambridge to write a monthly New York Letter for Art International. I was in the first months of this demanding but exhilarating routine when Stanley and I met.
As Stanley explains, this came about largely through the mediation of Stanley’s friend and contemporary, also a philosopher, Marshall Cohen. Stanley and Marshall had been Junior Fellows together in the Harvard Society of Fellows, and when Stanley left Cambridge for a first position at Berkeley, Marshall stayed on at Harvard as an Assistant Professor (or Instructor, whatever they called starting positions at that time). Marshall’s specialty was esthetics, specifically the nature of metaphor, but in the end he was rejected for tenure; at that same moment Stanley submitted his dissertation, written under dramatic circumstances and completed at the last possible instant (as Stanley narrates in his book), and he was offered the open position. So in effect Stanley went directly from pulling countless all-nighters in an effort to hold onto his job at Berkeley to accepting a chair as the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard—a dramatic transition, to say the least. That had happened the previous year (1961–62), and in 1962–63, again as Stanley explains, he had a year’s fellowship to the Institute in Advanced Study at Princeton, officially to turn his thesis into a book (two decades later, of course, it Aufhebunged into that philosophical masterpiece The Claim of Reason). From Princeton it was no big deal to visit Cambridge, and that was what he did on this occasion (but on no other that year that I recall). For my part, at Oxford I had got to know several former Harvard undergraduates who had returned to Cambridge; in addition a particularly close friend of mine at Oxford, John Womack, Jr., was training himself in Latin American History at Harvard (he would spend his academic career teaching the subject there); which meant that when I arrived in Cambridge I had a small community of contemporaries waiting for me. And at the center of...