Stanley Cavell’s Little Did I Know. Excerpts from Memory is simultaneously a true autobiography and a true meditation on philosophy, which raises the question of how to speak about it, particularly for someone who like myself has not learned yet, and probably never will, how to bring the two registers meaningfully and convincingly together. The present occasion, when we are gathered to celebrate Stanley’s work and the publication of his memoir, only adds to my predicament, making the use of a purely philosophical, scholarly detached tone feel somehow inappropriate. The remarks that follow are just an attempt to find a way in-between the properly autobiographical and the properly “professional” mood. I hope you will forgive me if it is not a successful one.
1. Surprising Truths
The “Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy,” first published in 1962, opens with a quote from the French dramatist and diplomat Jean Giraudoux:
Epochs are in accord with themselves only if the crowd comes in those radiant confessionals which are the theaters or the arenas, and as much as possible, . . . to listen to its own confessions of cowardice and sacrifice, of hate and passion. . . . For there is no theater which is not prophecy. Not this false divination which gives names and dates, but true prophecy, that which reveals to men these surprising truths: that the living must live, that the living must die, that autumn must follow summer, spring follow winter, that there are four elements, that there is happiness, that there are innumerable miseries, that life is a reality, that it is a dream, that man [End Page 954] lives in peace, that man lives on blood; in short, those things they will never know.(44)1
There is little doubt that theaters are no longer the privileged sites, the “radiant confessionals,” where humans come together to listen to their “confessions of cowardice and sacrifice,” and it is open to debate whether crowds come together any longer—or if they ever did—to listen to “true prophecy.”
But then, Giraudoux himself tells us as much, when he makes of our willingness to listen together to true prophecy the condition for “epochs to be in accord with themselves.” Living through World War I and II, the author of The Trojan War Will not Take Place (published in 1953) certainly knew that his time was not one of accord, and that whatever he might have hoped for, or from, theater was as difficult to achieve as the knowledge of the “surprising truths” that theater is meant to reveal.
It would be interesting to compare the hopes of a generation of French intellectuals, novelists, play writers, theater directors, and philosophers at the brink and in the aftermath of World War II (Jean Giraudoux, Louis Jouvet, Jean Villard and so many others) of making theater again, or anew, the place where people can learn together what the human form of life is, or should be, as well as what it has become at this time and place, with Stanley Cavell’s remarks on the importance of classic Hollywood movies for a specific moment in American democracy, on their power of framing a shared conversation about our personal and hence political pursuits of happiness. But this is not what I want to focus upon for our Symposium.
What I would like to call attention to instead is Giraudoux’s idea that our need for prophecy does not come from the hidden nature of the future, but from our natural, others would say existential, incapacity to know what is plainly in front of us: that we live in time, that we live in the world, that we live with others—in peace and on blood. What is truly mysterious, then, is not the content of such truths, but why they are and remain surprising to us; the problem of knowledge they raise, therefore, is not how knowledge can successfully explore, conceptualize, or categorize the world and its objects (humans included), but how knowledge eludes us, how we manage not to know what in a sense we cannot fail to know. In short, I take [End Page 955] Giraudoux’s quote to express perfectly, in...