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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Studying Music

Now, as an undergraduate, you were torn, I gather, between being a writer and being a musician, is that a fair description?

It's a fair description, especially of the latter two years of my [undergraduate] life. In the first two years, I was completely absorbed in the life of music, particularly as it related to theater at Berkeley. Berkeley in those days had no theater, but it had extremely energetic and wonderful actors and directors. And for one reason or another, it was I who showed up most often and was awarded the rights to write incidental music for the theater. So much of my first two, even three years as an undergraduate was spent composing music either for our annual reviews -- skits and songs -- or for productions, most smaller, for example, than writing the incidental music to King Lear.

Quite ambitious. What years are we talking about, that you were at Berkeley, by the way?

I entered Berkeley in '43, and had enough credits to graduate ... I didn't keep track of these things. I would take six music courses and do other courses, and so on. I just felt this was life, "I don't have any plans to graduate or do anything else." But by 1947, I had acquired enough credits and distribution requirements, so that in the summer of that year, I was told that I ...

Forced out. But you keep returning to Berkeley, so you must have really liked it.

I have over the years. Yes, Berkeley is the place of magic for me, still is.

As are the movies. We'll talk about that in a minute. But then you went to New York to a conservatory?

I went to New York to complete a portfolio of compositions to apply as a composition major at Juilliard. I was already past the age of the normal Juilliard student, so in the Extension Division they accepted me as a composition major. And within three months, two months, six weeks, I started playing hooky from my composition lesson, realizing that music was not over in my life, but the idea of spending my life as a composer was over. I no longer believed in what I was doing. It isn't that I thought it was bad, particularly, it's just it wasn't me.

I had acquired the beginnings of an education at Berkeley that went so far beyond music, that I was catching up and catching my breath, and being bewildered and now knowing what I wanted to do. Being in a theater was part of that, but taking courses in literature was another part of it.

And one of the ways you played hooky was you did what?

Ah, yes. Ah, you've sneaked a look at this text where I mention that. Right you are. Yes, well, while I was playing hooky I went to at least two films a day, and often to the theater in the evening. In those days, 42nd Street in New York was a place where you could see the history of the last ten years [of film]. It was before the porno street and before the reconstitution of the street. It was in the late forties, a place where ... reruns doesn't put it, it was slightly older than reruns. But if you went twice a day for months, you saw an extraordinary number of awfully interesting films, with a terrific audience, too, that really appreciated these films. I saw the complete theater season of 1947, which means I could see Lorette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie, which was still running, and I saw Marlon Brando in A Streetcar..., still running, and so forth. So I had my fill of the New York experience, as well as my sense of playing hooky from Juilliard.

I had enough of the Juilliard experience to know what it would have been like. I had wanted all my life to go, and that's what I did. But my father, being an immigrant, said, "First you graduate from college, then you go to conservatory." He wanted to see the piece of paper that said that I had credentials as an educated human being. But by then, the chance of starting a conservatory career was for me out of the question.

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