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Reviewed by:
  • Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory
  • Emily Budick
Stanley Cavell, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010. 584 pp.

I begin this review of Stanley Cavell’s extraordinary memoir Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory by quoting (with the single substitution of the word philosopher for the word painter) the opening lines of an essay that has been very important to Cavell throughout his career, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”:

I read the other day some verses written by an eminent [philosopher] which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. . . . To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men, — that is genius.


Cavell’s genius, I want to suggest, admonishes us in this book to take on the imperatives of what I want to call Cavellian self-reliance — a stance (to apply to another Emersonian concept Cavell employs) that is as much psychoanalytic as philosophical and far more Jewish than Transcendentalist (538). By genius I do not mean merely the superior intellect or talent that Cavell undeniably displays in abundance. Rather, I use the term as Emerson does to suggest an attendant spirit, a specificity of being that, in view of the cognate term genus, also implies that individual genius is an exemplification of the human as such. Cavell will stand up for us fellow humans by standing for us; or, to echo the language of another of Cavell’s predecessors in the American tradition, Henry David Thoreau, he will provide an account of his life so as to take account of that life, sometimes to settle accounts, always to be called to account, and, finally, and most importantly, to count as a human being in a world of such other similarly constituted human beings.

As might by now be clear, Little Did I Know is neither a conventional autobiography nor even a traditional memoir. To be sure, there are abundant materials concerning Cavell’s childhood, his early engagement with music, his shift to philosophy, and the subsequent burgeoning of a career that inextricably intertwines itself with the story of philosophy’s own transformations in the twentieth century. The memoir also records his personal terrors and triumphs as what he identifies in a kind of Whitmanesque catalogue as being a “father” and “grandfather” — “son,” “American,” “depressed patriot,” “Jew,” “white man,” and “professor” (539). Nonetheless, the book is primarily an inquiry into the significance to his own personal life of those people, places, and events that generally form [End Page 163] the focus of an autobiographical narrative. It foregoes chronology and comprehensive coverage for the more rigorous philosophical work of what can only be called psychoanalytic self-accounting.

As if in imitation of an extended psychoanalysis (in which the analyst is also the analysand), the sections of the memoir are ordered by the date of their composition; the excerpts from memory that are brought to the surface of the text are controlled by their associative links, not by the external, temporal narrative to which they belong. Psychoanalysis is not incidental to Cavell’s purposes. Psychoanalysis, he would remind his readers, is a form of philosophical thinking, too long banished from and disowned by philosophy. What psychoanalysis takes seriously is that the lived life matters in the construction of consciousness, and that consciousness is the only instrument through which we humans have access to our shared, not to mention our private, worlds. But, whereas psychoanalysis treats the madness of individuals, philosophy, we might say, treats, psychoanalytically, the madness of the world.

“It’s a mad world, my masters,” Cavell writes early on in the memoir, and he will “say again” many pages later “It’s a mad world, my masters,” adding, tellingly — “I speak as a child” (19; 310). Both comments are moments of personal, autobiographical, and, finally, philosophical insight. The line first occurs after Cavell has recorded a series of painful moments in his relationship to his father, culminating in his father’s enraged destruction of the son’s clarinet case: “Maybe...


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pp. 163-166
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