Ordinary Faithfulness

Philosopher Stanley Cavell, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard, who died on June 19 at age 91, published his first book, Must We Mean What We Say?, during the strike. The book’s essays cover a broad range of subjects, from modernist music and Beckett’s Endgame to Kierkegaard and King Lear. But one area—political theory—is noticeably absent. And yet, two essays, which were composed over the course of the ’60s, speak directly to the most pressing political issues of the decade: civil rights and the war in Vietnam.

Stanley Cavell, 1926–2018

Photograph © Charles Bernstein/PennSound

Early in the morning on April 10, 1969, four hundred police stormed into University Hall, Harvard’s main administration building. In under twenty minutes they forced out three hundred students using billy clubs and mace, dragging many occupants out by their hair. Nearly two hundred were arrested, and forty-one were seriously injured.

The previous day, three hundred members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had occupied the building and issued demands. Three of them dealt with the SDS campaign to end the campus Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program, which, they claimed, made the university an accessory to genocide in Vietnam. The other three addressed rising rents and planned evictions in Harvard-owned housing in Cambridge and Roxbury.

After “the bust,” as it came to be known on campus, thousands of students—radical and moderate alike—voted to boycott classes in protest. Harvard went on strike.

Philosopher Stanley Cavell, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard, who died on June 19at age 91, published his first book, Must We Mean What We Say?, during the strike. The book’s essays cover a broad range of subjects, from modernist music and Beckett’s Endgame to Kierkegaard and King Lear. But one area—political theory—is noticeably absent. And yet, two essays, which were composed over the course of the ’60s, speak directly to the most pressing political issues of the decade: civil rights and the war in Vietnam.

The urgency and promise of the civil rights movement broke into Cavell’s essay on Beckett, “Ending the Waiting Game,” in the form of a long parenthetical paragraph. “At some point another feature of our time is apt to enter the resonance of these lines, another mine of response running under the original meaning of Hamm’s name: the new sense of blackness,” it began. Cavell was noting that by naming the main character in Endgame Hamm, Beckett evoked the Biblical myth of Ham, who saw his father, Noah, naked, and was, as a result, cursed to have his descendants live as the servants of men. The myth became one of the beliefs used to justify slavery and Jim Crow segregation in the United States. But Cavell goes on to suggest that the “new sense of blackness” fostered by the civil rights movement was, by disputing such unquestioned ideas, causing “the reversal of the curses and covenants which have created this world.” “The demand for the end of the world in which blacks and whites are dependent upon one another for their own view of themselves, for their own sense of worth—this demand is now irreversible,” Cavell wrote.

How did a reference to the civil rights movement end up in an essay on Beckett? When Cavell began writing “Ending the Waiting Game” in the summer of 1964, he was one of three Harvard professors to join his students at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, where they organized a summer education project during Freedom Summer, the massive civil rights campaign led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register black voters in the south’s most brutal state. Cavell arrived only days after the bodies of three SNCC activists—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner—were found in an earthen dam. Cavell’s reflections on this experience in his memoir, Little Did I Know, help explain one of the more cryptic lines from his passage on racism in the Beckett essay: “The question is whether enough men can afford the knowledge that the way the world is comes down in the end to what each son is doing now, sitting within his ordinary walls, making his everyday demands.” The “son” that the Cavell refers to here is not Noah’s. It is Cavell himself: a week before he left for Tougaloo, the philosopher’s mother, fearing for his safety, had begged him not to go. But Cavell did not listen to his mother’s pleas, and instead followed the example of his students by going down to Mississippi.

Relationships between parents and children are also a central theme in “The Avoidance of Love,” the final, and longest, essay in Must We Mean What We Say? But this seemingly academic study of Shakespeare’s King Lear becomes, in its final pages, a jeremiad about the war in Vietnam, understood in terms of the mad king’s demand for impossible devotion, and the false professions of hyperbolic love offered by two of his daughters, Regan and Goneril:

People say [America] is isolationist, but so obviously it is not isolationist: since it asserted its existence in a war of secession and asserted its identity in a war against secession it has never been able to bear its separateness. Union is what it wanted. And it has never felt that union has been achieved. Hence its terror of dissent, which does not threaten its power but its integrity. So it is killing itself and killing another country in order not to admit its helplessness in the face of suffering, in order not to acknowledge its separateness.

Tragedy, Cavell argued in the essay, is about “the incompatibility between a particular love and a particular social arrangement for love.” And the war in Vietnam brought America’s social arrangement—its own “insatiable” need for love from all of its citizens—into conflict with another, more common, form of devotion. “And we have known since Agamemnon that the child of a king may be sacrificed by its parent for the success of the state,” Cavell wrote, referring to the death of Iphigenia in Aeschylus’s ancient tragedy. “But we had hardly expected, what now is apparently coming to be the case, that the ordinary citizen’s ordinary faithfulness to his children may become a radical political act.”

Throughout the ’60s, Cavell engaged frequently in such radical acts of “ordinary faithfulness” to his students. Returning to Cambridge from Mississippi in the fall of 1964, Cavell addressed a Harvard rally in solidarity with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, where he once taught. Two years later, he supported students demanding that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara answer questions about Vietnam during a campus visit. In 1967 and 1968, Cavell called for leniency for activists who staged campus sit-ins against napalm manufacturer Dow Chemical and Harvard’s ROTC program. And in 1968 Cavell risked a $10,000 fine and five years in prison by publicly abetting the draft resistance of Harvard graduate student Roger Wertheimer.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Cavell, with his colleague John Rawls, proposed on April 17, 1969 (the day that Must We Mean What We Say? was published) a faculty resolution that eventually led to the creation of Harvard’s department of African American Studies. Black students had launched their campaign for the department a year earlier in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. But the cause became a campus-wide demand during the strike. Cavell recounted the incident in his memoir, where he suggested that black student activists were going to various department meetings at Harvard in search of a faculty member to sponsor their resolution.

But Tracy Strong, then an instructor at Harvard, remembers things differently. He recalls his friend, graduate student Barry O’Connell, suggesting that the activists ask Cavell, though none of them actually knew him. “We did know that he had worked in the south for civil rights,” Strong told me. So, at 2:00 AM, they called the professor they knew only by reputation. “Without hesitation he agreed to meet that night,” Strong said. When Cavell arrived, he did something unexpected. “For at least thirty minutes he proceeded to lay himself out on the line,” Strong said. He told the students “who he was and how he had become that. This was not ‘I have done this and this and this.’ It was ‘this is the person you are asking to help you: will you accept me as I am?’” 

Laying yourself out on the line: that is a pretty good definition for what philosophy is, according to Cavell. In his magnum opus, The Claim of Reason, published a decade later, but based on his 1961 dissertation, Cavell wrote a parable of philosophy: the allegory of the bad student. It is a familiar scene. Cavell (following Ludwig Wittgenstein) imagines a student who is struggling to learn a lesson in counting. The student’s endless questions become unanswerable, leading the teacher to fall back on one or another of the phrases used by parents and educators for millennia (“Because I said so,” perhaps). But Cavell then turns this scene on its head, transforming the bad student into the educator:

If the child, little or big, asks me: Why do we eat animals? or Why are some people poor and others rich? or What is God? or Why do I have to go to school? or Do you love black people as much as white people? or Who owns the land? or Why is there anything at all? or How did God get here?, I may find my answers thin, I may feel run out of reasons without being willing to say, “This is what I do” (what I say, what I sense, what I know), and honor that.

Philosophy is, in other words, “the education of grownups,” a form of “conversion” or “rebirth” in which the teacher learns from the unrelenting curiosity of the student. But such reversals are only possible if good students—those adults who have learned too well the lessons that are now being questioned (like the myth of Ham)—are willing to examine who they are and how they became this way. They must be willing, that is, to lay themselves out on the line.

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