Stanley Cavell Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Philosopher Goes to the Movies: Cnversation with Stanley Cavell, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics in the General 
  Theory of Value, Emeritus; Harvard Universty. 2/2/02 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Professor Cavell, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you. Good to be here.

Where were you born and raised?

In Atlanta, Georgia, of all places, until the Depression hit and my father lost his business. And then we moved to where he could find a job with his brother, in Sacramento, California. And that didn't work and we moved back to Atlanta. And that didn't work and we moved back to Sacramento. And that didn't work, and so on. But when it came time for me to go to college, we were in Sacramento, so I moved ninety miles down the road and came to Berkeley.

So you come back as an alumnus.

Indeed I do.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your character?

My parents ... ? Entirely.

Give me an example about both your father and your mother.

Starting with the father, the pervasive air of the house was that of an immigrant who was trying to find his way in American culture. He was brought to this country when he was fifteen, plus or minus one, let's say. He was not exactly sure of his age. He had been trained as a watchmaker very young, and he kept finding jobs, work. It was a jewelry store that he had that went bankrupt in the Depression. A completely unlettered man, but in love with learning. Always spoke with an accent, which he hated. Loved eloquence, which he didn't posses, except in the form of being able to tell Yiddish jokes. He was famous in our small circle of acquaintances for being able to spellbind any crowd, especially at the dinner table, with stories, sometimes as brief as a few seconds with a saying, sometimes that would last twenty minutes. Now, to tell a joke and keep people spellbound for twenty minutes is an important matter, that's important talent.

I mention that about him because my most influential teacher in my life was J.L. Austin, whose philosophy consisted utterly, essentially, in an ability to imagine stories that could describe and make concrete various philosophical concepts. So Austin was completely fastidious and an impeccable speaker of English, and my father was anything but that. They had in common this ability to tell pertinent stories.

My mother was the artist of the family, and was, I think it's fair to say, an accomplished pianist in town, in that part of the state, or I didn't see any rival to her. One of the burdens I carry is the thought that she gave up her career as a concert pianist for me. So just exactly what I was to do with that piece of knowledge is something I'm still thinking about.

She made this known to you?

Well, yes, I would say, roughly. Though she was extremely loving, very fine, wonderful, interesting mother, it was clear that there was something undone in her life. But she was well-known, the most prominent commercial musician in Atlanta, since she played Vaudeville on the piano and she played on radio every day.

And she also played at silent movies?

Silent movies, certainly. That's a little before my time, but I heard many stories about that.

What sorts of things did you do as a family? I get the sense from the introduction to one of your books that you went to movies a lot.

We went to the films quite religiously, twice a week. I think probably lots of middle-class, lower-middle-class families did. And in those days, something like half of the population or more -- well more, 70 percent, 80 percent of the population -- went to films every week. And unlike now, when something like 10 percent or less of the population go to a film every week, we saw the same films. So the web of film culture pervaded American society in the great Hollywood years.

As a family, did you talk about movies?

I have to say, as a family, we didn't talk about movies. The level of conversation about film was about the same as the level of conversation now, which is "good or bad," thumbs-up/thumbs-down. Now, a lot more is known, professionally, about films, but it's still one of my sorrows about American intellectual life [how] film is treated, though, of course, at a much higher level. The daily journalists about film know a great deal more films than they would have normally known, and the history of film. But still, the idea is that what there is to say about film you can say in a column or two. I wish that the advent of film studies in the seventies had changed that to a greater degree than as far as I can see it has.

As a younger person, were there any books that you read that affected you in a profound way, that you can recall now?

As a young person, not particularly, except when I read The Count of Monte Cristo. I assured my mother that it was the greatest novel that was ever written. And then when I read Les Miserables, I told her I had changed my mind, and that was the greatest novel that was ever written. Otherwise, I just read the books around the house, and it was an unlettered household. So it was not until I went to college, really. And the fortunate part was that I went rather early because I was somewhat precocious. So in those days, they used to skip you [into higher] grades. An absolutely destructive custom, I think. It destroys your social life, if not your psychological life, and both at the same time. But it meant that by the time I was sixteen and showed up at Berkeley, I was so dazzled by the conversations that I found going on at Berkeley, that it seems to me that I didn't sleep for about four months.

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