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Stanley Cavell

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Last month, Stanford University Press published Stanley Cavell‘s autobiography, LIttle Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory. I might have missed out on this if not for a cover story about him in last week’s Chronicle Review. I’m not a very consistent Chronicle reader anymore. I bring it each one in and dump it on top of the others, giving attention first to the parallel mounting piles of New Yorkers and New York Reviews. When I brought last week’s issue in, I didn’t even notice Cavell staring at me. I went back to the issue only after seeing a reference to the article in some blog post two days ago. (I don’t remember which blog, so I can’t give a proper hat tip.)

I just read the article, and now I’m about to order the autobiography, which I don’t want to receive too soon. After all, I have other reading to do.

I have long wanted to read Cavell. When I was an undergraduate, I came to understand that he was brilliant, a giant of the Philosophy department. (But they were all giants.) But I never understood what he did or why he was considered brilliant. I understood, among his colleagues, what John Rawls did and why he was brilliant. And Hilary Putnam. At least I presumed to understand. And I took courses from both of them. But Cavell was a mystery.

When the opportunity arose my final semester to apply for a spot in a seminar with him, I leapt. It was for majors only, or “concentrators”, to use the local terminology, and as a math and philosophy concentrator, I was eligible. I was doubly eager to take it, both to learn from Cavell and to learn more about NIetzsche, the subject of the seminar, having read many of his books, but never having studied him formally. I got in, and I viewed this as a perfect way to conclude my philosophy studies.

Alas, I didn’t get much out of the seminar. Cavell’s genius eluded me. Nietzsche’s too. Was it because I was insufficiently mature as a student? Or human? Or was it simply because the course was at best fourth among my priorities that term? No doubt a little of each. Ranking ahead of the seminar in my priorities were my senior thesis, my graduate real analysis course, and crew. Maybe not in that order. A true ordering, with another item thrown in, might be: crew, [big gap here], waiting to hear from graduate schools, senior thesis, real analysis, Nietzsche. Which is too bad. I really wanted the seminar to be special.

Now I get another chance. I can read Cavell’s autobiography and get a glimpse of what I was missing. Here’s a hint, from Thomas Hibbs’ Chronicle piece:

The recovery of the ordinary is Cavell’s way of responding to the dilemma of modern philosophy, which finds itself vacillating between peremptory certitude and despairing skepticism. . . . as a student at Harvard, Cavell would find himself elated as he listened to Austin’s lectures on such seemingly pedestrian topics as the language of excuses. What was it in these lectures that prompted in him such an exuberant response? It was, quite simply, an appreciation of the philosophical significance of the drama of ordinary speech. Austin’s philosophical manner arises out of a “perpetual imagination” of “what is said when, why a thing is said, hence how, in what context.” That is quite similar to Cavell’s description of his own experience working on Lear as “overtly and continuously demanding explicit and systematic exercise of imagination and articulation.” As was true in Austin’s classroom, so too in the theater you must “weigh with others every word.” Cavell would later call this, in an essay he would write for Austin’s class, the “theatricality of everyday life,” the way in which practical deliberation and language are suffused with a dramatic sense of how we understand where we are, where we have come from, and what we do next.

. . .

Asked to reflect on the therapeutic value of writing and publishing his autobiography, Cavell responds, “The process of composing the autobiography has provided me with some distinct reassurance, I might say inspiration, in my bid for certain lines of liberation in imagining that I am an acceptable participant in the human family.” That humble and grateful disposition toward his own work has been characteristic as well of Cavell’s attitude toward the various academic disciplines, arts, and human inquiries that have drawn his attention over many decades. Despite his at times oracular and prolix style, Cavell’s books will, for quite some time, provide readers the occasion to “begin again,” to discover philosophy not just as a discipline but also as a worldview to probe what Cavell, after Wittgenstein, calls “the uncanniness of the ordinary.”

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Categories: Books, Philosophy

Siena Art

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Basilica of San Marco in Venice.

[Marco Romano’s early-fourteenth-century sculptures of the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary]

As if I didn’t already regret our failure to get to Siena during last fall’s travels in Italy, reading Andrew Butterfield’s article in the New York Review of Books a couple of weeks ago only added to my disappointment. We could hardly have seen any more, and what we saw was wonderful, so I can hardly complain. But still.

This weekend marks the first anniversary of our departure, which began with family stops in New York, Paris, and Grenoble (where Joel was attending university for the fall). Then, on to Italy, leaving France and family behind on a train-filled Halloween, reaching Venice in darkness. We saw lots of art, as I wrote about last fall. Even after we left Italy, our immersion in Italian art continued. Returning to Paris, we saw a special Tintoretto-Titian-Veronese exhibition at the Louvre as well as their permanent collection of Italian paintings. Next, in New York, we re-visited the Met’s Italian art. We weren’t sufficiently ambitious at our next stop, in Chicago, to take in the Art Institute’s Italian collection, given that we were staying at O’Hare for a meeting. When we got to DC earlier this year, sure enough, we headed to the National Gallery for still more Italian art. Every time I saw a painting of Duccio, I would think, if only we went to Siena.

Well, we didn’t. But there’s always the next trip. And in the meantime, there’s Butterfield’s article to tell us what we missed, including two exhibitions: Marco Romano and the Sienese Artistic Context Between the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries at the Museo Civico outside the city and From Jacopo della Quercia to Donatello: Sienese Art in the Early Renaissance, at Santa Maria della Scala in town.

This excerpt from the article gives a good sense of what we missed:

[I]n Casole d’Elsa, a tiny village in the hills west of the city, there is a small but breathtaking show about Marco Romano, an early-fourteenth-century sculptor. He was previously little known—for instance, there is only one mention of him in Pope-Hennessy’s Italian Gothic Sculpture, the standard account in English of the subject. Yet to judge from the works in the exhibition, he was an artist of great accomplishment; and his rediscovery is a cause for celebration.

Almost nothing certain is known about the details of his life and career; his name suggests a Roman origin, but even that is unsure. A small group of his works has been identified in Casole d’Elsa (hence the show there), as well as in Cremona and Venice; and their style strongly suggests that he was a follower of Giovanni Pisano. The son of Nicola Pisano, Italy’s most innovative sculptor in the thirteenth century, Giovanni in turn was the greatest sculptor in the years around 1300. He made the wildly expressive marble statues of prophets for the outside of the Siena cathedral, among many other commissions; and he trained an entire generation of sculptors and architects. In the early fourteenth century, his former students helped plan and direct the construction of the Duomo of Florence, and also made churches and statues for many major cities of Italy, including Naples, Bologna, Milan, and possibly Orvieto as well. Marco Romano was a particularly gifted exponent of Pisano’s intensely emotional style.

The study of Romano is so new that the most ravishing work in the show has not yet even been properly photographed. Originally part of the high altar complex of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, since the early nineteenth century the two figures of the work have stood, all but forgotten, atop columns in the treasury of the church. (In the illustration on this page, I have joined separate images of the two figures in the group to give the first unified photographic image of it ever published.) This work, in gray marble with metal wings for the angel, is one of the most remarkable images of the Annunciation I have ever seen.

The angel Gabriel has just descended with seemingly violent force. His glittering iridescent wings are swept back and up as if to steady him against the impact of his landing, and a look of astonishment crosses his face. He may be an attendant on God the Father in Heaven, but he is overcome with awe as he kneels before the Virgin. She, too, appears stunned and overwhelmed. Her face is contorted, and the folds of her gown tumble down her front as if in response to a startled jolt of her body. It was common in the Renaissance to portray the disquiet of Mary at the onset of the Annunciation; yet no other image I know so forcefully conveys her momentary fear and bewilderment. Marco Romano sought to show that the miracle of the Incarnation is beyond understanding, both human and angelic. The figures look distraught and dazed by the mystery that engulfs them.

The sensitivity of psychological description and the ferocity of emotional expression in this work exemplify the strengths of Sienese sculpture in the early fourteenth century. Like Giotto and Duccio—indeed, even before them—Nicola and Giovanni Pisano placed the depiction of powerful emotion and dramatic narrative at the center of art. Marco Romano and Pisano’s other followers spread this new emphasis in sculpture throughout Italy up to the time of the Black Death in 1348.

Categories: Art