Sunday, November 19, 2006

I realize I should have posted this yesterday, as a part of the post on Cavell, Emerson, St. Paul and life in (the conceptual space called) America.

This is from Page 261 of Cities of Words, at the end of the essay on Ibsen's contribution to the register of what Cavell calls Emersonian moral perfectionism (about which a note at bottom):
begin quote
When Nora says she realyy doesn't know, that it's hard to say (a wonderful expression) [and I invite you all to remember that "wonder" Englishes thaumazein, so that Cavell is also making a statement about what it is that philosophy does, i.e. the hard thing, saying that which is hard to say.], whether she has some moral sense, she is not expressing an uncertaintly about some fact about herself but an ignorance of her relation to her experience. The inability to judge amounts to the lack of that possession of speech which Aristotle declares fits one for membership in a polis, makes one able to participate in a Rawlsian conversation of justice.
Let's move to a conclusion by noting that [Ibsen's play, A Doll's House] closes, after all, in a religious register, upon the image or invocation of a miracle, indeed of a greatest miracle, one produced by this woman's sense of having lived a life of violation, of having accepted the denial of her existence as a human being, the realization of which makes her want, as she cries out near the end of the play, "to tear herself to little pieces" (perhaps as if to show the world, which she cannot tear to pieces, what she thinks of its worth). SHe describes the miracle as creating between her and Torvald a genuine marriage, namely a change which would be redemption.
There is a change associated with salvation in the Christian Bible, 1 Corinthians 15 (a portion of which Emerson quotes in "Self-Reliance"): "Behold! I show you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For the corruptible must put on incorruption and the mortal must put on immortality." Linking this to the change called marriage puts marriage (whatever that will be recognized to be) under mortal, or say religious, pressure in the modern world, namely to achieve incorruptible union in a world none of whose corruptible institutions can validate the fact of genuine marriage, not church or state or family or allowed sexuality. The uncanniness of the fit between Paul's Letter to the COrinthians and the end of Ibsen's A Doll's House is unlaughably comic, or dreamlike, when you consider that the twinkling of an eye in which Nora's change comes about occurs at bedtime, when, as Torvald abruptly discovers, she is not, and he is, preparing to go to bed ("We shall not all sleep"). But perhaps it is no more comic or dreamlike than Ibsen's use of the image of changing clothes as a modern parable for being changed.
Some extreme statement is being suggested here about the secularization of modern life, about the relocating or transforming of what is important or interesting to human life, as turning our attention from celestial to terrestrial things, or rather suggesting that their laws are not different.
end quotation
About moral perfectionism, I ought to say that I understand Cavell to mean a perfect committment to the good life, where perfect means "thoroughgoing" in its acception of "absolute" or "unstinted". Emersonian moral perfectionism is lived, so far as possible, in and through the constant and unflinching consideration of the questions: what does the good require of me? This question can manifest itself in many guises. One of the most important is the following acception: given that a situation x requires me to choose between the preservation of the current state of my relation to the good (the beautiful and the true), against the incursions of a potentially deleterious element, on the one hand, and on the other the chance to move into a further, better, relation to the good (the beautiful and the true) by stepping out of myself, and therefore risking the loss of myself (my undoing, which is the opposite of perfection), which (if either or any at all) path does my committment to the good life require me to take? To pull the trigger? To say, "I do."? To turn the other cheek? To come to a full stop? To cross against the light? To play poker in the garage? To have a drink? To take a nap, a walk, a coffee or a movie, and alone, or in company, and if in company, in which company?
I think here of Robert Frost's reflection in "Road Less Travelled", among the myriad pertinent instances of what I will call Cavellian facets of perfectionism. In that poem, Frost says "I took the road less travelled-by / And that has made all the difference." I understand the poet here to be reminding us that we can only know the difference our choices have made, and never the difference they will make. The poet, in other words, is admonishing us against our basing our decisions on something that is very like an intention, and even more like a belief (which on this reading can be nothing more than -?an expression of?- a desire). Does this place us outside the radius of prudence? I think not. I have the sense that Cavellian perfectionism, over and against Emersonian perfectionism, would be (going) after virtue in the way of Augustine, i.e. recognizing the need for virtue in our limitations and the possibility of virtue in our recognition of our need-ful-ness. Is the choice to go down the orad less travelled a prudent one? The poet is saying that responses like, "no, because there are like to be lions and tigers and bears," or, "Yes, since the chances for character-building adventure are greater," are unhelpful to our efforts to determine moral status, whether that of the act or that of the agent.

1 comment:

APERITUS said...

I stopped short when I came to thaumazein "englishes"... I hadn't seen the verb but was immediately drawn to it as it is shorter than its latinate synonym. Then I got pissed off 'cause my greek lexicon (which I needed to respond substantively) was not where I had left it, and so I left this measly post which was intended only to ask whether "englishes" is original to the author, or what?