I WAS A GRAD STUDENT in English at Harvard in the mid-90s, but physically there for just three years, anxious to move to Brooklyn for a relationship as soon as I became ABD. In that brief but intense period of time, I tried to take as many courses offered by Stanley Cavell as possible. In my last year, I asked him to be a member of my dissertation committee. Looking back I'm still flooded with gratitude (and astonishment) by the fact that he said yes.
At the time I couldn't have said why I felt so attuned to Cavell's writing. I just knew, after reading his essay on moods in Emerson and Nietzsche ("Aversive Thinking") and then his books on Thoreau and remarriage comedy (The Senses of Walden, Pursuits of Happiness), that I wanted to read more, and to think and talk with him as much as possible about the things he thought were interesting. All the more so when I realized that, in person, Stanley Cavell was exactly like the voice his writing projected. That voice, no matter what it happened to be speaking about — Shakespeare and the avoidance of love, Jacques Derrida and J. L. Austin, the Hollywood women's film of the 1930s and 40s — was unfailingly generous and infectiously interesting. It was a meta-philosophical voice, preoccupied less with the wrongness of skepticism (that is, with skepticism understood as intellectual error, thereby capable of intellectual correction) than with its status as a basic condition of human life and also as a kind of madness, a denial of our shared reality with other minds. Cavell's voice was a kind of therapy against that madness. It was also an utterly and profoundly non-snobby voice: the voice of a philosopher concerned with philosophy's aversion to the ordinary, and with the nondiscursive aspects of ordinary language — its affect and force, its ontology as action — that seemed to interest so few other philosophers of language at the time. It was, finally and significantly, the voice of someone deeply interested in how gender inflects both of these problems.
I took four courses in a row with Cavell, all in the philosophy department: two graduate seminars on Lacan, an undergraduate lecture called "Aesthetics: Opera and Film," and a graduate seminar on King Lear. I loved these courses, even when I wasn't sure I understood what they were truly about. (It's called "Opera and Film," but what's it about really? I kept asking myself.) This was mostly due to my ignorance; I was still playing catch-up, in part by reading as much of Cavell's work as possible. But I think it was also due to the genuinely open and experimental nature of the courses Cavell taught. He was trying to work out certain questions in them, with us. This felt really thrilling.
"Opera and Film" was one of my favorites. The syllabus, as was always the case in Cavell's courses, was not so much eclectic as complex. We listened to and/or watched Carmen, Don Giovanni, Tannhäuser, The Lady Eve, Now Voyager, Moonstruck, Smiles of a Summer Night. We read J. L. Austin's How to Do Things With Words with Shoshana Felman's The Scandal of the Speaking Body: Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages, Catherine Clément and Susan McClary on women in opera, Baudelaire on Wagner, and selections from Cavell's own The World Viewedand A Pitch of Philosophy. Sometimes, delightfully, he would pause during a lecture, walk to the piano o...