- Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory
Stanley Cavell begins his autobiographical volume Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory, with the recollected proclamation that his heart would soon be catheterized; that we (he and his cardiologist) must look at what is going on inside the heart. To the reader immediately absorbed into the concern of the narration's moment, the subtleties of philosophical thought underlying the words can elude attention altogether, as when Henry David Thoreau's surveying of the depths of the pond in Cavell's beloved Walden masquerades as nothing more than that. On the surface of this monumental work, an aging American philosopher faces his own mortality with an attempt to trace in writing the worthy occasions, deliberate or accidental, of his life. Imbedded within that surface, a more complex weave and investigation play themselves out over the work's 548 pages. The date on the initial entry reads "July 2, 2003," as all the entries are dated, and before we arrive at the promised cardiological procedure, we have taken a long detour through childhood in Atlanta, a mother's musical career, a father's failed pawn shop, a family's relocation to Sacramento, a second relocation back to Atlanta, and a semi-remembered car accident that forever damaged the inner workings of the author's left ear. The writing oscillates, or retreats periodically, from the advances of the narration into [End Page 203] extended passages of contemplation, and before long Cavell takes the time to elucidate the parallel procedures at work—the date of each entry signifies the moment of its initial draft, and those dates proceed chronologically to "September 1, 2004," a chronology that includes events in that present time (the heart procedure for example) and echoes in miniature the chronology of the narrated life events from childhood through the teaching years at Harvard. In counterpoint to both, a tertiary resolution asserts itself from the rewriting through the passages that began after September 1, 2004, and extended the project some four years longer. A sense of last work haunts the book from the outset, and the manner of the haunting takes this form: interwoven, even contradictory, modes of thought as superimposed temporalities, moments telescoping out of moments, or knowledge out of memory, and the necessity of pausing to elucidate the differences of the time of the writing. The density of texture constitutes the style and in some ways the subject; a style that might be considered the late style, and the subject of the imperative to look at what is going on inside the heart. The sustained act of such looking, attempted in public, Cavell comes to recognize late in the book, characterizes the oddness and mixed reception of his life's work, seen now in retrospect as less an enactment of philosophical thought and more an attempt at the labor of philosophy's preconditions. In the wake of such realization Little Did I Know seems a diligent and thorough work of preparation, of the felicitous preconditions for departing this life.
Some readers may know Cavell's writing on Beckett and Shakespeare, others his work on Thoreau and Emerson, J.L. Austin and Wittgenstein, still others his work on the "remarriage" comedies of Hollywood. Perhaps few will know all those strands of his thought, but they present themselves here in equal measure, perhaps even in equilibrium, for the first time. He recollects a pivotal moment of his student years at Berkeley in the 1940s when he composed incidental music for a production of King Lear.
It was here, playing music cues at the piano for scene rehearsals, and for run-throughs, and, assembling and rehearsing a small orchestra, conducting dress rehearsals and eight performances, that I came, not without considerable anxiety, to the first clear inklings, consciously and unforgettably, that I was more interested in the actions and ideas and language of the play, and in learning and understanding what might be said about them and what I felt I had to say about them...