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

The Belknap Press of Harvard U Pr 2004  458 pp. 29.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford  


For twenty-five years, the distinguished philosopher Stanley Cavell has published a number of significant books on the relationship of film to philosophy, beginning with The World Viewed (1980).  In Cities of Words he returns to ideas covered in several of his previously published works, what “women’s films” of the 1930s and 1940s can tell us about morality.

His concern in this book is with what he calls “moral perfectionism.”   Cavell rejects the rule-based theories of utilitarianism and Kant.  Instead, he says that we arrive at the best ideas about the Good Life largely through conversation between friends, a notion originated in Aristotle’s doctrine of friendship as the model for the moral life. 

He connects this idea of friendship as the pathway to the moral life with what he calls Hollywood’s “remarriage comedies” of the 1930s and 1940s (among them The Philadelphia Story, It Happened One Night, Adam's Rib, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town).

“Unlike classical comedies, where the problem of the drama is to get a young pair past the obstacle of an older figure, usually a father, and see them married (as, for example, in A Midsummer Night's Dream), these films concern getting a somewhat older pair who are already together past some inner obstacle between them and hence together again.”   Cavell suggests that these films dramatize the most important of the characters’ (and our) moral decisions: “how they shall live their lives, what kind of persons they aspire to be.”

He contrasts the remarriage comedy with what he calls the “melodrama of the unknown woman,” wherein “marriage is explicitly rejected as part of the woman's perfectionist ambitions” (among them Now Voyager, Gaslight, Stella Dallas and Letter from an Unknown Woman).  The melodramas pose the question of whether a woman can achieve happiness outside the marriage bond.

This would be enough for a substantial book.  However, as we learn early on, Cities of Words is based on a course on the Western moral tradition Cavell has taught at Harvard and the University of Chicago.  As such, most of the book is an explication of a slew of philosophers Cavell seeks to connect to the concerns of the films: Emerson, Locke, Mill, Kant, Rawls, Nietzsche, Freud, Plato, and so on.  Over the course of the book, the intersection of the sophisticated philosophical texts with the films does not make for a happy marriage.

Two problems beset the text.  First, Cavell can explain complex ideas in a compellingly succinct way.  “For Mill, in On Liberty, the reality of morality is discovered in the overcoming of conformity by the inclination or desire.  For Kant, the reality of morality is discovered in the overcoming of inclination by duty.”  However, most of the time the reader is beset by seemingly endless, comma-ridden sentences that require a map and a compass to get through. 

Second, it’s true that the reader need not consider whether Hollywood screenwriters under contract and on deadline decided to infuse their screenplays with deliberate allusions to Nietzsche, Freud, or Aristotle. Cavell never seriously acts as if the films’ authors intended to link the antics of Cary Grant with Plato’s Myth of the Cave.  Instead, the reader can (and should) ask whether the films in question can bear the analogical weight of being the cinematic enactment of great themes in Western philosophy. 

I don’t think there is necessarily a definitive answer to this question, but in the case of this book, the answer is no: Cavell tries to infuse these movies with more significance than they can bear.  Take, for example, a discussion of His Girl Friday.  Cavell is first concerned with comic and indirect references to the female character’s “behind.”  Then, sentences later, we read, “Here the ancient insight of Aristotle of language as the condition of the political joins the insight of Freud (elaborated by Lacan) of human desire as a (an unfinished) social (or say joint) construction, or reconstitution, of human desire out of biological need, of language as reaching in its expressiveness to the depths of individual construction and reconstitution.”  What?  Let’s get back to Hildy’s “behind.”

There is no question that film deserves serious consideration.  As Cavell notes, “I do not claim so tremendous a role for the films I discussed in relation to philosophy as Plato claims for tragedy, yet they have, in the vastness of their audience and in their power to affect it, claims over any of the other arts, high or low, to have provided moral education for the culture contemporary with them.” 

Given Hollywood’s current product, this is not only cause for concern, but something worth studying in detail.  Cavell himself has accomplished this quite successfully in some of his earlier works, such as Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1984), Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (1988), and Contesting Tears (1997).  Cities of Words does provide some valuable analyses of moral ideas in the Western intellectual tradition.  However, the book’s thesis that  Hollywood films enact the complex theories of the most sophisticated minds in the history of Western thought has the inevitable outcome of taking a sledgehammer to a mouse.