Oct. 14: Paul Frank’s passages

Below are the passages that Paul Franks (Philosophy, University of Toronto) will speak about at Thursday’s celebration of the publication of Stanley Cavell’s Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory (Stanford University Press):

Passages from Stanley Cavell, Little Did I Know

Paul Franks

  • “As a Jew I am bound from time to time to wonder in what sense the anti-Semitism punctuating European philosophical thought speaks for me, while I do not know what it would mean for me to claim that I speak for Jews, or essentially for Jews.— Such reflections are not said looking over my shoulder.  I mean to be speaking not by assuming cultural identities or purities, but from the posture in which I may discern the identities compacted in my existence, a matter of attaching significance to insignificance, and insignificance to significance.” (7)
  • “A few years later, in the late stage of preparing for my Bar Mitzvah, I asked my father more pointedly than in the past why he went to shul if he did not believe in what was being done there . . . He replied, ‘I go for my father.’ I swallowed my reply along with my contempt, and did not say, ‘Your father believes. You do not believe. Why should I go for you?’ . . .  How could I claim to know why a son does something or his father, and moreover to know the conditions under which it is worthy of being done? And how did I know what his father did or did not believe? More important perhaps, how did my father know this? . .  It would be a long time before I could locate the hollowness in my father’s claim of piety toward his father. Hypocrisy was not the issue.  Hypocrisy can make people act better as well as worse than they are.  There was something he could not say, something stuck behind the tongue, behind tongues.  There is no reason his father goes, but his father needs no reason. It is what he does. Without a reason, this son, my father, was bereft and incoherent.” (44-5)
  • “My high school band averted the perplexity it would present for me to invite a young woman roughly a generation older than I (more specifically, a bit more than two years older) to the annual dances . . . or the humiliation of not attending, or of attending the dance alone (I don’t know if that was done), if indeed these were humiliations—a state of unknowing as painful as the facts it did not grasp.  I also felt the exasperated, enforced silence in not wanting it known that I preferred not to participate in voluntary social events, that to attend was to be defeated.  Leading the band annulled this painful dilemma at the first downbeat.  I did not attend the dance; I was the dance.  I was present because I belonged there before anyone was in attendance; my existence was lucid, justified. . The profound, logical cost of leading the band was that I did not dance.” (75-6)
  • “[Lowell] had what turned out to be a Bible in his outstretched hands and approached me . . . saying, ‘I spent the day in Berchtesgaden. Hitler was a great man, a genius. You are my true Jew. Read this passage and tell us what it means.’  He was pointing to an early chapter in Romans in which Paul asks what advantage the Jews have, what the profit is of circumcision. My eye fell on the passage asking . . .: ‘Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance?  (I speak as a man.)  God forbid.’  The strength of Lowell’s mood frightened me. What he was saying was awful.  But I could not reply in this way to him, nor patronize him by dismissing the moment.  I felt that unless I wished to shame him and send him to hell I had to respond to the passage out of my sense of his mood.  ‘Well,’ I stalled, but said honestly, ‘I like Paul’s confession or caution in saying that he speaks as a man, that is, in unrighteousness as he speculates about God’s unrighteousness.  He is talking about the fact that Jews and Christians are all sinners.  But what is God to forbid?  Is Paul forbidding us to say something that would curse God?  Or is he saying that only God can forbid God from unrighteousness?  Only God could forbid his own existence. We can only pray that he forbid our speech from cursing God. As Saint Matthew says, our words condemn us. . . Lowell’s response was to give a laugh I had heard from him before, hard and brief, as much an expression of pain as pleasure, and, declaring that I was his Jewish genius, he took back his Bible and walked away.” (298-9)

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