Little Did I Know

By Stanley Cavell

Stanford University Press
July 2010
584 pages


Reviewed by Josh Billings


Beginnings are hard for everyone, but for the memoirist they’re impossible. Where do you start? The first answer is of course birth, and for most people this is a good solution despite the fact that it is also a lie. We do not remember our birth; certainly we do not remember it as the Krakatoa-level disaster that it was at the time. But if not there, where? The problem has an annoying number of possible solutions – so many in fact that if you think about it too long you’re liable to find yourself not beginning at all. The pressure to start right is just too huge: facing it we feel lost, as Emerson put it, "In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none." Escaping this middle requires a little narrative subterfuge: it means writing the beginning over something that we know is actually only a beginning. So, before we have even started we are lying, and not just in some superfluous detail, but in our very foundations, the keystones of our project. 

Most writers – at least the ones that end up putting pen to paper – deal with this problem of beginnings the same way they deal with all their problems: by writing about it or (more often) ignoring it. They lunge into their stories like horses fording a flooded river; or they taxi down the generations like jets preparing for takeoff. Here, for example, is the first sentence of Konstantin Paustovsky’s Story of My Life: "I was in my last year of school in Kiev when the telegram came saying that my father was dying on a farm at Gorodishche, near Belaya Tserkov."

And here is the opening of The Education of Henry Adams:

 Under the shadow of Boston State House, turning its back on the house of John Hancock, the little passage called Hancock Avenue runs, or ran, from Beacon Street, skirting the State House grounds, to Mount Vernon Street, on the summit of Beacon Hill; and there, in the third house below Mount Vernon Place, February 16, 1838, a child was born, and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Brooks Adams.

The sentences differ in more than just length. Paustovksy grabs us by the shoulder; we can imagine him talking to us, in a bar maybe or post office: someplace, anyway, where a lot of people can overhear him. Adams’s opening meanwhile feels less written than engraved. Its irony is not just thick but thickened, as if to make us better hear the sound of his quill scratching over heavy sheets. The two beginnings are as different as November in Boston is from May in Kiev; but they accomplish the same goal, drawing us into their authors’ stories so successfully that, by the time we realize what’s happening, we’ve begun.

Stanley Cavell’s Little Did I Know begins, both dramatically and self-consciously, with a birth. Its author is in the hospital, looking forward to what may be a life-threatening procedure. Instead of watching "Law and Order" reruns or finishing the crossword puzzle, or perhaps after doing both these things, he opens up his laptop and starts writing:

The catheterization of my heart will no longer be postponed. My cardiologist announces that he has lost confidence in his understanding of my condition so far based on reports of what I surmise as symptoms of angina and of the noninvasive monitoring allowed by X-rays and by the angiograms produced in stress tests. We must actually look at what is going on inside the heart.

Like a good doctor, Cavell keeps his voice down, refusing to suggest more than he knows. His reticence puts us in an interesting position – for with 500+ pages in front of us, we assume that what we’re reading here is what it seems to be: the beginning of a book, instead of the end of an author. We don’t know this for sure, of course; but then maybe unsure is not a bad thing to be, given the seriousness of the situation. After all, if we really have lost confidence, won’t pretending otherwise just make things worse? Won’t it prevent us from seeing, as he seems to be implying we must, "what is going on inside the heart"?

Little Did I Know is an attempt to do just that. It’s an exploration; a travel-journal kept during one man’s search for that most elusive thing: a story. Like Burton in Arabia or Freud in Vienna, Cavell remains bracingly unflappable in the face of his discoveries; at the same time he refuses to let us forget that the heart is a harder thing to look into than a basement. The problem (as so often happens in medicine) is one of instruments: we need to know not just where to look but how. We need something to look through, in other words – but then isn’t that what the memoir is? Perhaps; but as many cardiac patients will tell you, even the most refined technology has its limitations. The stringing of his life’s high points into a sort of Mount Rushmore seems pointless to a man on the operating table. It’s a valedictory exercise: a rehearsal of meaning, rather than its discovery. As Cavell himself says, it is not so much wrong as useless:

Such a narrative strikes me as leading fairly directly to death, without clearly enough implying the singularity of this life, in distinction from the singularity of all others, all headed in that direction. So the sound of such a narrative would I believe amount to too little help, to me or others.

The idea that a person might get "help" from a book – either by reading or by writing it – is an important one to Cavell. As a philosopher and essayist, he has called works useful not just because they contained ideas, but because they showed us how to use them, in our lives. His own books have been simultaneously tools and manuals; Little Did I Know is no exception; but then what kind of story does it make for us? What kind of story does it show us how to make out of our own lives?

Like all great inventors, Cavell gets his best ideas from the past. His book, which he subtitles Excerpts from Memory, would seem totally ordinary to the eighteenth century parson who, along with most of his literate parishioners, no doubt kept his own daybook full of musings and flagellations. Calling a record like this fragmentary ignores the fact that it never tries to be seamless: that it evolves its shape by accumulation and from the inside out, more like a beach or snowbank than a sculpture or painting. So the individual entries in Little Did I Know are various: a collection of digressions that we can imagine helping bed-bound Cavell write his way through. Write his way through what? Well, anxiety, for one thing. The worry that the moments of his life won’t add up to a story, or that the story they add up to will be one of wrong choices and wasted chances – a failure, in other words. It’s a terrible and very real possibility; but then, as Cavell reminds us again and again, the only way to get rid of these fears definitively would be by knowing the end of the story. At which point we’re back to trusting instruments that we suspect may be telling us what we want to hear instead of telling us the truth.  

In its fidelity to its anxieties, Little Did I Know is really an antimemoir: a book that remembers its story as it goes instead of filling in a shape it already knows. It’s a "philosophical diary," as Cavell puts it, the unexpected offspring of one of the most patrician literary genres and one of the most democratic, or at least common. Like all diaries, it is full of long sections of narrative that would look completely natural in a novel or biography; but its highest notes combine the diaristic and philosophical impulses into a sort of reverie:

To recognize the end of the day and get to bed, I developed the ritual of eating a box of Oreo cookies together with a can of applesauce. But really the ritual is equally describable as an effort to stop myself from eating the entire box of cookies, a sequence of five (was it?) pairs, each pair stacked in a pleated pliable plastic cup, and from finishing the accompanying applesauce, having conceived the idea that this was not a sensible diet. I slowed the eating by inventing new ways of going through the cookies. One way was to nibble around the circumference of a cookie before finishing off the remaining rough-edged center; another was to twist apart the two wafers of each Oreo, eat of the sugary middle spread from whichever of the wafers it largely adhered to, intending to eat only that one of the double cookies. But each night I lost the battle to stop eating before the package and the can were emptied. I recognize that to this day I unfailingly at the end of a meal leave some portion of food, if sometimes quite small, on my dish – as if to reassure myself that I am free.

Paragraphs like this one – which lean from almost every page of Little Did I Know – support Cavell’s intuition that the best way to tell your story is to just pick a point and start talking. As a technique this sounds boring and usually is (try reading one of your old journals, or most blogs, or Tristram Shandy for that matter); but its risks are really no different from those of any other art form. A piece of writing is interesting or it isn’t, meaning that after a certain point it either repays our effort enough to keep us believing in it or it doesn’t. In Little Did I Know’s case, this payment comes in the form of attention: Cavell’s first, and then ours. The solid surfaces of life answer to his knock, opening like the doors of a gigantic advent calendar. Philosophy likes to do this kind of thing, of course – to show us that the world we live in is not the simple place we thought it was – but the difference is that where other writers perform their dis- and re-enchantments with the flourishes of a stage magician, Cavell lays his tools out like Mr. Wizard, encouraging us to try the trick ourselves. To unconvinced readers, the idea of focusing such close attention on their own Oreos borders on the ridiculous, but for Cavell this charge itself misses the obvious fact that we live philosophically, which is to say we live ordinarily: neck-deep in a sea of consequence. Most people "get" this ordinariness – meaning, most people take it as natural, unmysterious. But philosophy never gets it. An adventurous genre, it lingers instead of leaving, opening the doors and windows of the way station it has decided to treat like a home. Like Socrates, it is cheerful; like Emerson, hopeful in spite of itself. Happy, even, that most of our questions will never be answered for good.

"I myself am better at beginnings than endings," Cavell admits in one of his book’s last chapters. "I mean in my life with others. In writing I am better at endings." Actually, he is unremarkable at both, at least compared to what he’s best at, which is what most writers admit gives them the most trouble no matter what the genre – namely, middles. At middles, Stanley Cavell is a genius. This makes his book – whether you call it a memoir or diary or piece of experimental philosophy – a great tool for those of us who spend most of our time looking for ways to begin or put off beginning or end, or forestall an ending. It bets, formally and philosophically, that middles are not just the best, but the only places to begin. It shows us that this is true. In this way it gives us hope, the one thing Emerson thought useful to the person (or nation) paralyzed by disappointment.