Happy endings for heart and soul

Cities of Words
April 8, 2005

Stanley Cavell's Cities of Words takes us on an examination of moral philosophy as illustrated in Hollywood classics such as The Philadelphia Story and The Lady Eve . The work is characterised by Cavell's desire to show that philosophy can indeed help in our questfor the good life, for the good city.

The text consists of a series of "pedagogical letters" on moral perfectionism, each of which introduces us to a giant of moral thinking such as Emerson, Kant, Rawls, Nietzsche, Plato, Aristotle and so on, critically assesses that figure's major reflections on morality and discusses such reflections in light of the ordinary, everyday experiences of the characters in the films. These letters are additional proof from Cavell that "film, the latest of the great arts, shows philosophy to be the often invisible accompaniment of the ordinary lives that film is so apt to capture".

Cavell searches in himself, as well as in the great moral thinkers, for those words that ultimately illuminate the path that leads to one's true self, to the "unattained but attainable self" that Emerson so poignantly describes. The words that he finds point to the struggle of a divided self who is humbled by the vicissitudes of life in the great city and who consequently has a "secret melancholy" that leads her to question her existence, her place in the good city, the goodness of the city. For Cavell, this struggle that he calls "moral perfectionism", constitutes the "moral calling of philosophy" and "proposes confrontation and conversation as the means of determining whether we can live together, accept one another into the aspirations of our lives".

Such confrontation and conversation calls for an analysis of questions such as: can philosophy or philosophers speak for us? Who has knowledge? Who can take away our voice? How does one rediscover one's voice? What is the relationship between the sexes? What is the meaning of friendship? In dealing with these questions, Cavell shows his characteristic breath of knowledge and creativity. Particularly interesting in his analysis of moral perfectionism are his discussions of John Stuart Mill's critique of society given its inability to demand happiness and his discussion of the Aristotelian view on "friendship for virtue".

In Cities of Words , Cavell once again reminds us of the practical importance of philosophy. He not only offers insightful commentaries on the giants of moral philosophy but also prompts us to engage in the much-needed conversation about the good life.

However, one cannot overlook the fact that Cavell needs to revisit the cities that he constructs through an analysis marked exclusively by male thinkers and a preference for early Hollywood "remarriage comedies" that conclude with the promise of the good life that marriage affords. Cavell briefly mentions the now-established critiques of the institution of marriage and realises the problems associated with unequal power relations in marriage that the comedies themselves illustrate. But he quickly dismisses these theories and states that the characters in the movies never conclude that the institution of marriage is cursed. And he adds: "Nor is this conclusion reached by me or most of my friends." We are left wondering about the many words of those who may not be Cavell's friends but who are also part of the very society whose justice Cavell is so worried about. The many words from thinkers such as Astell, Luxemburg, Arendt and de Beauvoir, and films such as those of Jane Campion, Mira Nair and John Sayles, all of which need to be included in the conversation about who we are and who we need to become.

Mariana Ortega is lecturer in philosophy, John Carroll University, Ohio, US.

Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life

Author - Stanley Cavell
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 458
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 674 01336 0

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