Stanley Cavell

Excerpt from Pursuits of Happiness

The following is an excerpt and is reprinted here by permission of the publisher from Pursuits of Happiness: the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage by Stanley Cavell, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1981 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. The excerpt is of the very beginning of Cavell’s introduction to the book.

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Each of the seven chapters that follow contains an account of my experience of a film made in Hollywood between 1934 and 1949, an account guided by two claims. The first claim is that these seven films constitute a particular genre of Hollywood talkie, a genre I will call the comedy of remarriage. I am for myself satisfied that this group of films is the principal group of Hollywood comedies after the advent of sound and therewith one definitive achievement in the history of the art of film. But I will not attempt to argue directly for that here, any more than I will attempt explicitly to convince anyone that film is an art. The second guiding claim of these accounts is that the genre of remarriage is an inheritor of the preoccupations and discoveries of Shakespearean romantic comedy, especially as that work has been studied by, first among others, Northrop Frye. In his early “The Argument of Comedy,” Frye follows a long tradition of critics in distinguishing between Old and New Comedy: while both, being forms of romantic comedy, show a young pair overcoming individual and social obstacles to their happiness, figured as a concluding marriage that achieves individual and social reconciliations, New Comedy stresses the young man’s efforts to overcome obstacles posed by an older man (a senex figure) to his winning the young woman of his choice, whereas Old Comedy puts particular stress on the heroine, who may hold the key to the successful conclusion of the plot, who may be disguised as a boy, and who may undergo something like death and restoration. What I am calling the comedy of remarriage is, because of its emphasis on the heroine, more intimately related to Old Comedy than to New, but it is significantly different from either, indeed it seems to transgress an important feature of both, in casting as its heroine a married woman; and the drive of its plot is not to get the central pair together, but to get them back together, together again. Hence the fact of marriage in it is subjected to the fact or the threat of divorce. A significant question for us is therefore bound to be: How is it that this transformation is called for when classical comedy moves to film?

I habitually call these accounts of films “readings” of them. What I mean by reading a film as well as what I conceive a genre of film to be (matters internal to what I think film is) will receive specification in the course of the discussions themselves. Films other than the ones I give readings of belong to the genre of remarriage comedy; six or seven of them are cited along the way. But I take the seven featured here to be definitive of the genre, the best of the genre, worthy successors of the great comedies of the Hollywood silent era. Worthier than the Marx brothers or W. C. Fields? I might answer this by distinguishing the comedy of clowns from the romantic comedy of manners. Or I might rather answer by saying that while the characters of the comedy of remarriage are not worthier or funnier or deeper than the characters projected by the Marx brothers and by Fields, and the individual actors not specifically as gifted for comedy, the films as films of the comedy of remarriage are worthier successors of the great films as films of Chaplin and Keaton. Such claims are at best staked out in the pages that follow; a test of them awaits their fate under the pressure of whatever counterclaims may be advanced against them.

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The following “exchange” with Stanley Cavell comes out of a number of film courses I taught in the Department of Art History at the University of Queensland. The first, which ran from 1993 to 1995, looked at the work of Cavell, William Rothman and Michael Fried in terms of “modernism” and “theatricality”. The second, which ran from 1997 to 2000, took up the notion of “love” through Cavell and Lacanian psychoanalysis (particularly the work of Slavoj Zizek and Joan Copjec). In both of these courses, we read Cavell’s two great books – Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Harvard University Press, 1981) and Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (University of Chicago Press, 1996) – extensively. Other texts referred to in the following questions include Joan Copjec’s ‘The Symbolic without the Father: The Case of Melodrama’ in Lacanian Ink 10 (reprinted in expanded form as ‘More! From Melodrama to Magnitude’, in Janet Bergstrom, ed., Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, University of California, 1998).

In response to the request of the editor of Senses of Cinema (who had been alerted to it by Adrian Martin), I publish here my “correspondence” with Stanley Cavell. Although he only answers one of my questions, I include also his initial notes of correspondence because, as with everything he writes, it gives one an insight into his unique tone of voice, his intellectual curiosity and his generosity as a human being. To set the scene, a friend of mine delivered to Cavell (after he had given a lecture at a cinema in Paris on the “comedies of remarriage”), a note I had written him. Although there was a strong temptation to amend the questions, not least in response to the lightness of Cavell’s touch, I have resisted doing so. The “correspondence” is reproduced here in its chronological order.

Rex Butler 5 February 2001

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18 May 1999

Dear Rex Butler,

Given the magic words dropped in your e-mail handed to me at the Village Voice in Paris (a certain magic in that idea too) – “a film course based on my books,” “Rothman,” “Fried” – you can be sure I am, as you put it, interested in beginning a “conversation.” Whether this will add up to a publishable interview should, I think, await the results – if such a proceeding is agreeable to you. Having returned from Paris last week with a bronchitis I cannot seem to shake, I don’t feel particularly inventive or sparkling at the moment. But I’d love to hear what interests you, down there. (I’ve tried to make arrangements to accept invitations to Australia on more than one occasion, but teaching and family have never quite been in the right orbits.)

Best wishes,

Stanley Cavell

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27 May 1999

Dear Rex Butler,

I’m glad you took the opportunity. I like the sound of your letter and I am interested to know what questions you have. I’m happy to have a chance to respond, or, if I have nothing interesting to say in response, to see if I can locate the blank. When you have the chance…

Stanley Cavell

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The Questions 1-8

Two sets of questions were sent. Below are questions 1-8, to which Cavell responds in part. I also append here a supplementary question and note.

Question 1

A number of recent commentators on your book Pursuits of Happiness – Charles Musser, David Shumway – make the point that the genre of the comedy of remarriage you identify can be explained as a response to America’s rising divorce rate at the time. At a moment when the institution of marriage was under threat, it counselled reconciliation and thus re-affirmed the patriarchal order. But it seems to me these critics get things exactly backwards. It is not that these films are a response to rising divorce rates, but that the arguments or conversations they entertain about marriage are only possible while divorce is not a real option. Am I right here?

Question 2

Might this also account for the way that, when divorce finally did become more available, the genre ended? In other words, at this moment the films are no longer able to occupy a special space – romantic, utopian, critical, what you call a “green world” – outside of social reality.

Question 3

Another thing that has always intrigued me about Pursuits of Happiness is your account of genre there as always emerging “full-blown”. The example you give is the film It Happened One Night, which you see as marking the birth of the genre of the comedy of remarriage. And to the extent that these films are self-reflexive, we might see that moment when Peter and Ellie, in order to fool the detectives who have come looking for them, are able to invent an extraordinary conversation pretending to be a lower-class couple arguing with each other as emblematic of this birth. But I want to ask, if genre is such an improvisation which spontaneously arises out of nothing, with whom is it talking? Isn’t it in this sense always disputed or divided? Doesn’t it always only exist in relation to another? How to reconcile the fact that genre emerges at once “full-blown” and only in conversation with another?

Question 4

To consider further this matter of genre, you outline in your Introduction to Pursuits of Happiness the various conditions that must be satisfied before any new member can join a genre. Amongst these are that it must represent a “study” of the genre and bring with it some “new feature or features” to the genre. Does this allow us to resolve that seeming contradiction we saw above? A genre does indeed emerge “full-blown”, but only in retrospect. The inaugurating film always needs another after it to enable us to see in what it consisted. Is the history of a genre to be understood as the progressive explication of an “original” in this way? Does a genre end when this can no longer be done?

Question 5

This reminds me – not surprisingly – of Michael Fried’s “non-reductionist” account of modernism, as put forward, for instance, in his debate with T.J. Clark. In this, he says that “what the modernist painter can be said to discover in his work is not the irreducible essence of all painting, but rather that which, at the present moment in painting’s history, is capable of convincing him that it can stand comparison with the painting of both the modernist and pre-modernist past whose quality seems to him to be beyond question”. Given this, can we see the same kind of “modernism”, the historical pressure on available forms, in your understanding of cinema? Is it a matter of subsequent additions to the genre of the comedy of remarriage somehow having to “stand comparison” to It Happened One Night – a comparison that would, of course, also change our conception of that film?

Question 6

Continuing on from the last question, if it is a matter of each new addition to the genre of the comedy of remarriage having to “study” its conventions to see which still apply, is this to be done on the basis of which of them allow it to overcome scepticism, which you see as the essential task of all film? And to what extent might this be compared to Fried’s notion of an “absorption” that must suspend or defeat “theatricality”? That is, even though you don’t theorise it in this form, can we see the “melodramas of the unknown woman” as a historically more “advanced” version of the problem we see in the comedies? Is the progression from the comedies to the melodramas irreversible in this way (as we see the taint of melodramatic “villainy” increasingly emerge in the later comedies like Adam’s Rib)?

Question 7

Given this, is it right to speak of a possible “revival” of the comedy of remarriage, or even of the possibility that it has not ended? Wouldn’t any new addition to the genre – and critics have suggested such candidates as That Old Feeling, True Lies and Twister – have to pass through the historical test of the melodramas? Is it indeed a comedy of remarriage we should be looking for or some entirely new form that would carry on the same task of overcoming scepticism? Or must all this be thought in another way, and it is melodrama that comes before the comedies, in the sense that for Fried modernism only arises when pictorial conventions can no longer be taken for granted and are threatened by an always incipient theatricality? Or is the relationship between the two entirely otherwise?

Question 8

Finally, at the end of this long line of questioning, might it even be that the overcoming of scepticism is no longer what is at stake in cinema today? To refer one last time to the work of Fried, might it be said that, just as his arguments for the necessary defeat of theatricality seem to have suffered historical refutation with the “victory” of Minimalism and what follows from it, this is also the fate of such forms as the comedy of remarriage and the melodrama of the unknown woman? If this kind of cinema and the task it sets itself can be aligned with modernism, is this modernism now over? Are we in a period of post-modernism in this sense? Can we any more say that the overcoming of scepticism is truly what is involved in the special-effects driven blockbuster, the audience-interactive spectacle, the increasing resemblance of cinema to video- and computer-games, etc.?

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17 June 1999

Dear Professor Cavell,

I’ve been a worried over the past few days that perhaps my line of questioning is a bit too forceful, moves your position a little too much towards my concerns. In order to allow you to point to your own work a little more, may I ask you a supplementary question?

Rex Butler

Supplementary Question

I realise that in framing these questions I am perhaps forgetting the way you leave the question of the contemporary fate of the “comedy of remarriage” open in the Introduction to Pursuits of Happiness. However, I guess I am interested in getting you to consider the possibility that the development of the issues you take up there are cumulative; that if a film were to add to the genre it would now have to do so through the “melodramas of the unknown woman”, if also allowing us to re-read them. (We might think here of some of Fried’s arguments in ‘How Modernism Works: A Reply to T.J. Clark’.) Having said this, I cannot get over my surprise at seeing a film like Twister, which does in a way involve a couple getting divorced (you might remember the papers granting annulment lifting up off the bonnet of a car at the first whisperings of the wind). And I would say that the couple hanging on for dear life to the remains of a house and realising they are in love again while in the eye of a tornado is one of the more remarkable images of the overcoming of scepticism in contemporary cinema!

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Stanley Cavell’s Response

20 June 1999

Dear Rex Butler,

I appreciate the thoughtfulness both of your questions and of your repeated concern that I will find them somehow pushing me where I don’t feel like going. They do push me some, but nowhere I don’t want to go. Maybe unprepared to go. But it’s much too soon to say that. I hope there is no deadline on our conversation. It is hard to know where to begin; particularly hard, it may be, or so I’ve been told, with me; and likely to be especially hard for someone like you, who have clearly been thinking about many related issues. I’ll try to say some beginning things, maybe easy things first, searching for a useful level, not even trying to be very consecutive or fundamental.

I’ll take as an emblem, or decoration, for my initial responses, your marvelous remarks about Twister. I haven’t seen more than the usual trailers for the film – like many another special effects thriller I haven’t seen. I don’t – I don’t see how I could – keep up systematically with the things that interest me, except sporadically when by friends and acquaintances I am specifically directed to see or hear or read something. Now that I have to see Twister, I shall confess that my first query (to myself) is whether there is anything further to say about it – I mean anything further that the film says about marriage, skepticism, and the eye of a tornado. I already believe your perception, and feel quite sure it is worth making an expensive film to manifest. But whether it sets up an argument of the sort I tend to look for is something yet unsaid by you and unknown by me. What is at stake for me is the role of criticism in assessing the work an artifact does.

Take another instance. A few years ago, a leading expert on dinosaurs invited some of us with our children to visit a site he and his associates were exploring in Montana. For a lark we also attended the local theater’s showing of Jurassic Park, whose depictions of science the expert commented about – you may remember it was much talked about in its implications for popular conceptions of evolutionary science. The group asked me to say something about the film as a film, divided as to whether its worth stood or fell with its intellectual pretensions or rather with its power of suspensefulness, or whatever. I gave a little talk in which I tried to make it out that the film was creating an analogy, or question of analogy, between making a film and creating a dinosaur, capturing issues concerning the archaism and dangerous expense of film as such, and concerning the unforeseeable consequences, happy or unhappy, of any creation. I also suggested a precedent in the closing sequence of Bringing Up Baby, in which the skeleton of the brontosaurus, with its repeated, matching elements may be read as a metaphor for a strip of film, and whose collapse raises questions of the relation between work and love, between science and art, between present and past. I felt no doubt that such issues really were raised by the film, but I felt no impulse, interested as I may be in the issues, to pursue them further by thinking about this film.

This distrust as it were of the film may be, of course, simply a matter of my own age and my wishes for film. But what is at stake is the idea that has been essential to my motivation in giving what time I have to thinking about film, namely that certain instances virtually throughout its history have represented objects that are at once instances of popular entertainment and represent the work of the newest of the great arts. The working criterion of an object’s status as art, in this thought, is its bearing up under, inviting and resisting, a certain idea of criticism. If Jurassic Park holds out such an invitation, I was not moved to respond to it. That is a report, not yet a complaint about it nor about me. But matters get closer to home.

Take your question (prompted, I gather, by the commentators you mention in your Question 1) about whether the comedy of remarriage is any longer possible today. I have been asked the question on various questions but only recently have I stopped to think hard and long enough to provide the beginnings of an answer. (There is clearly resistance here on my part; perhaps it is worth my asking what has caused it. I think it is worth asking.) On two occasions in recent months (once in Paris, once for a preface to the forthcoming Italian translation of Pursuits of Happiness) I have offered the following list of not inconsiderable films made over the past decade and a half that seem to have a remarriage feel to them, sometimes emphasizing one or two salient features of the genre (for example, the principal pair’s mysteriousness to the rest of their world; or the characteristic enigmatic quality of the ending; or the woman’s demand or readiness for education) if not obviously taking part in the full argument: Moonstruck (with Nicholas Cage and Cher), Tootsie (Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange), Sleepless in Seattle (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan), Clueless (Alicia Silverstone), Groundhog Day (Andie MacDowell and Bill Murray), Joe vs. the Volcano (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan), Crocodile Dundee (Paul Hogan and Linda Kozlowski), Working Girl (Harrison Ford and Melanie Griffiths), Inventing the Abbotts (Joaquin Phoenix and Liv Tyler), Four Weddings and a Funeral (Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell), My Best Friend’s Wedding (Cameron Diaz and Julia Roberts), Everyone Says I Love You (Woody Allen, Goldie Hawn, and Julia Roberts), and three with John Cusak, The Sure Thing, Say Anything, and Grosse Point Blank.

But the very listing of these films raises the question whether these films, in the transformations of the state of Hollywood and of world cinema, to go no farther, in the past four or five decades, can be understood to be doing what the classical remarriages comedies were doing, call this confronting the threat of skepticism (“Are you sure, Dext?” “Not in the least. But you’re my redhead; I’ll risk it if you will.” – something like that) – hence to invite your excellent proposal that the question should be, or necessarily includes, what has happened to the idea of overcoming skepticism and whether we should not (also) be looking for new aesthetic forms that may be seen as unrecognized responses to an unanticipated version of the idea.

Part of my agreement with this is quite explicit in my work on Shakespearean tragedy, where I keep saying that the particular formulation of skepticism has to be rediscovered for each play in which it is claimed to play a role – to redetermine the object in question (a daughter’s love, a wife’s fidelity, a child’s father), and the passion in question (not always doubt), etc. And sometimes the issue of skepticism is a cover for an unacknowledgable certainty – as I propose in the case of Othello. Which suggests adding, skipping to a later question, that when you raise the idea that history may be turning against me (perhaps in the form of postmodernism’s draining the question of skepticism of its interest), there is the possibility that skepticism, as Muggsy more or less says to Hopsy, knows some further tricks of its own that postmodernism hasn’t thought of, for example, that postmodernism is itself a response to skepticism, designed as if to make skepticism passe, thereby embracing a burlesque of it. But before going very far with this, we should perhaps declare whether we agree that postmodernism has interestingly captured a historical moment, and whether and in what sense skepticism survives historical change.

The case with Fried is, in one obvious particular, different. He is prepared to say, in introducing his recent collection of his early essays, that painting did not continue as he had expected, saying the least. My claims for film explicitly refused expectations about its future, taking more interest in film’s ability (in its narrative vein) to remain serious without assuming the stakes of modernism.

A couple of concluding thoughts at the moment. First, I haven’t, I believe, thought of the melodramas I take up as historical successors of the remarriage comedies, but as more less contemporary – what shall I say? – counter-dramas. A work that fits into the unknown woman genre is Blonde Venus, which is a year or two earlier, I believe, than the earliest of the remarriage comedies. This does not affect your point that they need to be taken up into the question of what now seems possible, i.e., believable, as a continuation of the skeptical problematic (and it does leave intact my sense that the comedies are generically privileged). Second, my inclination is, of course, to say that these things cannot be pursued far and rigorously without taking up individual objects critically. But two questions arise here, for me: (a) Why haven’t I done this with the items on the list of new remarriage comedies (well I have a little with Moonstruck and with Groundhog Day, but not enough), as if I doubted the principal of the primacy of criticism, or my relation to these films; (b) Does this inclination tend to beg the question, namely the question whether criticism, or criticizeability, remains essential, and is recognizable, across historical bounds? After all, I have distinguished two forms or ideas of a genre (in a piece called ‘The Fact of Television’ which you may well not have seen), one I call genre as medium (which fits the way the members of remarriage comedy affect one another) and another I call genre as cycle (which seems to fit the way the episodes of a television series relate to one another – and is like the way genre is traditionally thought of with respect to film – e.g., Screwball Comedies, Film Noir, Prison Movies, The Return of, Son of X, etc.). Criticism works differently in the two cases, and I think one can make it out that in the latter case, genre as cycle, criticism falls primarily on the genre rather than on the individual object. I have barely begun thinking through the consequences of this difference.

I’m rambling, and feeling mighty uninspired. Do send on the rest of your questions – hearing more from you will give me more a sense of what I’m writing into, good and pertinent as each of your questions is. Is there something more extensive of yours I should read, that puts me in a picture you see yourself to be in or to be making?

With all good wishes,

Stanley Cavell

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Dear Professor Cavell,

What follows is the full list of questions I thought I’d put to you. There are certainly enough of them (even more than I first threatened you with). For that, I apologise – and hope you’re not so exhausted reading them that you don’t have the energy to reply! I still don’t think I’ve got to the bottom of your work, and I am all too well aware of the conceptual short cuts and vulgarisations I have imposed on it. You’ll also notice that a number of the questions introduce the work of other thinkers. I suppose I like to think of them as your interlocutors, and if this interview or conversation were ever to appear I would like to call it something like ‘Stanley Cavell and His Others’. Some of these questions overlap or at least return insistently to the same themes. No need, therefore, to answer all of them; but I think the thing would work best if you tried to answer them individually. I might try subsequently to cut the questions down, so that they are seen more as prompts for what you do end up responding to in them.

Thank you once again for your patience, and, as I said in my last communication, whatever happens it’s been a great pleasure re-reading and thinking about your work again (all those unasked questions…).

All the best,

Rex Butler

Questions 9-16

Question 9

May I now ask you about another writer who acknowledges your influence, William Rothman? His argument in Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze is strangely like your own with regard to the melodramas of the unknown woman. He contends there that Hitchcock’s cinema cuts through what we might call the scepticism of theatre – the ability to dissemble, to hide behind appearances – to allow us access to the characters and to the filmmaker himself. However, this is only to reveal them as fundamentally “unknowable”. Interestingly, though, this takes place through a passage from the neurotic, “feminine” Hannay of The 39 Steps to the psychotic, “masculine” Norman of Psycho (although, of course, in another way we might see Psycho precisely as a melodrama of the unknown woman: Norman’s mother). Do you have any general comments to make about the relationship you see between Rothman’s work and your own – and, indeed, between Rothman’s arguments about the necessity of defeating theatre and Fried’s?

Question 10

A striking coincidence occurs to me between Rothman’s argument in The Murderous Gaze and that of Slavoj Zizek in his essay on Hitchcock, ‘”In His Bold Gaze My Ruin is Writ Large”‘, which might allow us some way into Contesting Tears, your book on the melodramas of the unknown woman. The peculiar thing about Psycho, Zizek notes, is that we are forced to “identify with the abyss beyond identification” – Norman’s psychosis – and yet the ultimate riddle both of Norman and of the film itself is that there is nothing “behind” them. Their secret is only an effect of our identifying with them; they are staged for us and in a way do not exist before us. (The example Zizek gives is that scene in the film where Marion’s car momentarily halts while it is sinking into the bog behind the Bates Hotel: at that instant, we realise that our desire is the same as Norman’s, that our gaze has been included from the very beginning.) The same with Rothman: at the end of his book, he realises that the “enigmatic” Hitchcock he has sought to understand is none other than himself and has even awaited Rothman in order to be properly understood. Might this same conjunction between the infinitely deep and the shallow, the unidentifiable and what is only an effect of our gaze, be what is at stake in our “acknowledgement” of the “unknown” woman?

Question 11

To stay with Contesting Tears for a moment, one of the notable things about your argument there is that it is less apodictic and more speculative than in previous texts. For instance, for all of the controversy concerning your interpretation of Stella Dallas – controversy, of course, you knowingly predicted when you spoke of its “outrageousness” – it has been very little remarked that it is pitched only in a hypothetical register. You do not say that Stella definitely is thinking of breaking with Laurel by the time of her infamous “Christmas tree” episode at the resort, only that this is no less likely than that she is not yet thinking of breaking with her. Whether you believe your speculation or not, you say, is finally a matter of “taste”. Would “taste” here be a word for how we could acknowledge these women, that we can see or recognise their taste without necessarily having to share it? And do we not thus enter into the field of Kant’s aesthetics, the way taste is neither simply subjective nor objective but rather a matter of “consensus”? Would this “consensus” over taste be a way of thinking that human community that would overcome scepticism in your book?

Question 12

Speaking of “outrageous” hypotheses, there is one concerning Stella Dallas I have read recently that is, if anything, even more outrageous than your own. It is that of the Lacanian cultural critic Joan Copjec in her essay ‘The Symbolic without the Father: The Case of Melodrama’. In it, she suggests that Stella’s actions in the film are motivated not so much by a desire to break with Laurel as to get Stephen Dallas back with Mrs Morrison, the woman he had ended his engagement with at the beginning of the film. (This, of course, would be to make of Stella Dallas a kind of remarriage comedy, or at least put it in a very close relationship with one!) The reason Copjec gives for this is that Stella is a hysteric and, in order to sustain the illusion of a world in which desires can be satisfied and men and women can get together, she must deliberately sabotage the chance of her own happiness, as though this were just a contingent limit that could be overcome rather than the way things actually are. To translate this into your terms, she must subtract herself from the world or sacrifice herself in order to keep open the possibility of defeating scepticism for others, particularly men. Does this strike any echoes in you?

Question 13

But Copjec goes on to argue that in the film’s famous last scene, where Stella looks on at Laurel’s wedding through a window and then heads out alone into the surrounding world, it breaks with this melodramatic model. At this point, Stella, instead of wanting to stand outside of the world, proposing some artificial limit to it, gives herself entirely to it. It is what Copjec calls “love”, and it is in part at least the feminine love that unites Stella, Laurel and Mrs Morrison. She writes: “Love, which carries with it a sublime feeling, is: I am included in the all; I am part of the world. This is not a feeling of merging with the world, nor of the otherness of the world with respect to the self, it is rather the feeling that I, in my incommensurable uniqueness, form part of the world”. This again seems very close to your arguments concerning the “acknowledgement” or “recognition” of the unknown woman in Contesting Tears. Would I be right in saying this?

Question 14

Copjec’s association of woman with a sublimity of magnitude rather than might and with a world that, while never given all at once, nevertheless has no limit aligns her essay with her other work on Lacan’s formulae of sexuation and the possibility of a feminine ethics. Though I think she ultimately rejects or modifies it – “the imaginary limits the hysteric erects in the absence of the symbolic ones that fail her, and which secure her attachment to some otherworldly jouissance” – there is the fascinating question of the relationship of the women in melodrama to this jouissance, which you also comment on in Contesting Tears. We seem to be confronted in these films by the masochistic pleasure women take in their own self-sacrifice or renunciation. Charlotte in Now, Voyager never appears more happy or self-assured than when she gives up the one true love of her life; and who can forget that beatific mask Stella presents to us as she walks away from her daughter and into an anonymous future in Stella Dallas? What do you make of this “unknowable” pleasure – a pleasure at least beyond the reach of men? What could the relationship of a “feminine” ethics be to it? Is it a pleasure that stains even the most unself-interested obedience to the moral law, as Lacan pointed out in his ‘Kant with Sade’?

Question 15

On this “unknowability” of woman and its possible relation to Lacan’s formulae of sexuation, it seems to me important to read closely your description of Charlotte in Now, Voyager in the chapter devoted to that film in Contesting Tears. You say there: “She is and is not what she is… Every single description of the self that is true is false, is, in a word, or a name, ironic”. It is crucial to note here that woman is not simply unknown, or unknowable simply because we cannot say anything about her that is true. In a way, she does only exist within masculine categories, however ironically she appropriates them. Of course, the point here is that, if woman were merely an exception or unknowable, she would in fact be the ultimate male fantasy: the femme fatale or the virgin-queen of courtly romance. (And it is interesting that you contrast the heroines of the melodramas of the unknown woman to the femmes fatales of the film noir being made around the same time.) I might put two sets of question here. The first is: to what extent do you think what you are saying here is consistent with Lacan’s formulae of sexuation? How is this “unknowable” woman not simply a male fantasy? The second is: insofar as you are ultimately wanting to think all this in terms of some Emersonian notion of democracy, how can we be sure that the apparent “consent” these women give society is not ironic, a response to that “forced choice” that is the only real freedom we have today (for whom to vote, whether to “volunteer” for the army, to strive for sexual “equality”, etc.)?

Question 16

Once more on this notion of freedom, something extraordinary happens in these films when Charlotte and Stella make their vows of renunciation. Just when they should be least free, most constrained, they appear to be most free, most truly themselves. It is at this moment too that their femininity is at its most beautiful or even sublime. And yet, their “choice” also marks a kind of death. They have with this decision cut off all ties with society. They have gone all the way with their desire, on which they have refused to compromise. They remind me of that great female figure Antigone, who after burying her brother keeps on going, much to the mystification of those around her. Can we think of the “unknowability” of the women of melodrama in terms of their being subject, like Antigone, to a kind of unstoppable will or drive, as though they were somehow beyond their own death, or in the space “between two deaths”, the symbolic and the biological, to quote Lacan, a time of the settling of accounts and the accomplishment of symbolic destiny? This would be disturbing for men, who see in this some excessive essence of woman, but also for certain feminist critics, who see in it only a self-destructiveness or masochism instead of a possible new form of ethics, the necessity of “not giving way on one’s desire”.

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Stanley Cavell’s Final Response

15 February 2001

Dear Rex Butler,

Evidently I was too overwhelmed by your set of questions to go on with them – not so much overwhelmed by the questions themselves (they are meant to be, and they are, welcome guides to thought) as by the gathering of other deadlines into which they made their entrance. Each of them deserves at least the level of response I gave to the one question I took up, and I simply did not see ahead to that amount of time. It makes me, despite the awful one-sidedness, so far, of what you call our “exchange”, glad that your questions will be printed, offering the chance for others to respond to them, with or without much reference to my work. I find I’m even glad that my one response will appear. I was afraid, on anticipating its new arrival (I couldn’t find it on my computer), that what I said would seem just too stingy a response to your outpouring of thoughts, but it has a little more in it than I remembered.

Seeing your questions again, my eye fell on the repetition of the name Joan Copjec, whose essay I will find and read. But I am, mostly in the dark, moved to respond hurriedly (the time to do justice to an idea raised by you is still, or again, beyond me) to what you call her outrageous hypothesis (Question 12) that Stella’s actions in the film are motivated not so much by a desire to break with Laurel as to get Stephen Dallas back with Mrs. Morrison. But Stephen Dallas is back with Mrs. Morrison. I find Stella’s relation to that marriage to be more one of competition with Stephen for Mrs. Morrison – not that she wants her for herself exactly, but wants a fantasied connection. I appeal again (as in my essay on the film) to the two woman straining to keep their hands off one another in the mother-to-mother discussion in which Stella gives Laurel over, and to the concluding window as the medium of communication (signifying film as such a medium) between (these) women. Nor is Laurel “united” with them; she is divided, to me she at the end, at the wedding, seems dazed with perplexity (hardly surprising). There is, as you say, a remarriage element, and it is of interest, but there is nothing of a remarriage feel to Stephen’s relation with either woman – he refuses (not without good reason) Stella’s appeal to him for (what she means by) education; and he has nothing to teach Mrs. Morrison. (She has become who she is in the world through another man.) He is explicitly rebuked by Mrs. Morrison for being unable to read another human being, one with whom he has shared intimacies (“Can’t you read between these pitiful lines?” – meaning not that Stella is pitiful, but that her pretense begs to be deciphered). It is as if each woman is amazed by what the other needs, or can bear (epitomized by Stella’s lack of interest in Stephen’s correctness, and Mrs. Morrison requirement of him). He seems to me in the line of Jane Austen’s failed fathers, less ineffectual than Emma’s, less priggish than Anne’s. You ask (Question 15) “How is this “unknowable” woman not simply a male fantasy?” Well, “simply” is doing a lot of work there. I ask in reply, how are the men in such films not female fantasies? Recall that Olive Higgins Prouty wrote both Stella Dallas and Now Voyager. The men (with the notable exception of Dr. Jaquith) come in for some harsh portraiture in these tales (and, fighting for memory here, in other novels by best-selling women writers of the period, e.g., Fanny Hearst; I wish I knew the genre better) – I have said that Prouty’s books, while at times creaky, are better than their consignment to oblivion may imply.

I sign off by saying that I do not sense the veil of masochism in Stella or in Charlotte (Question 14), not at any rate at the end of what we see of them. The suffering they arrive at seems rather to be the pain Nietzsche associates with individuation, with aliveness to the self. (I do not see Jerry as the one true love of Charlotte’s life, whom she gives up, but as a love she has worn through, as Rilke puts the matter, like a glove. People who have not experienced one true love may, for that reason, be as unknown as people who have, for that reason.) But of course what is to be said here depends on (re)thinking through the relation of mourning to melancholia.

To be continued.

Stanley Cavell

About The Author

Rex Butler lectures in film in the Department of Art History at the University of Queensland.

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