Here, Stanley Cavell names this new genre of American film–“the comedy of remarriage”–and Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Here, Stanley Cavell examines seven of those classic movies for their cinematic techniques, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Pursuits of Happiness: Cavell and Film Criticism. Leland Foague. In “Harvard Film Studies: A Review, ” Brian Henderson justly scores Stanley Cavell (among.

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Human thought possesses for Stanley Cavell both a tragic and a comic dimension. There exists indeed an acknowledged link between tragedy and philosophy but the connection between philosophy and comedy seems to common perception, at least obscure.

Our whole philosophical tradition begins according to Plato with a tragic conflict between the philosopher and the polis. In examining himself and investigating his fellow citizens, Socrates has performed a critical service to his city. But the city condemns the philosopher to death and there arises a tragic alienation of philosophy from politics in which both are permanently left poorer.

Philosophy will, indeed, look ridiculous to the outsider, as Plato granted, but does this establish an inner link between comedy and philosophy?

Pursuits of Happiness — Stanley Cavell | Harvard University Press

Cavell perceives, however, a significant connection between all three — between philosophy, tragedy, and comedy. Philosophy, he writes, is deeply related to tragedy by beginning in wonder and just as deeply to comedy by continuing in argument. But is philosophical argument always comical in nature and is there always or essentially a comic dimension to philosophical thought?

It is certainly easier to assume an asymmetric relation between philosophy, tragedy, and comedy. For the present, we still live in the age of tragedy, the age of moralities and religion. Can Cavell deal adequately with the tragic and comic aspects of politics? In seeking to answer these questions it is useful to locate him in relation to other political thinkers.

Protagoras and Aristotle, Max Weber and Carl Schmitt prove, in this context, important reference points. We may still, in the end, do no more than append an additional question mark How are we to understand the place of tragedy and comedy in thought, in politics, in life? Despite the initially intriguing affinity between Nietzsche and Cavell with respect to this question, we may end up asking which of the two has seen more deeply.

Is it Nietzsche or is it Cavell? Their heroines are, in every case, married women who have for some reason or other separated from their partners. None of this seems to bear in a major fashion on either philosophical or political matters. Still, there is no doubt that Pursuits of Happiness seeks to rethink the nature of philosophy and, in turn, its relations to tragedy and comedy.

By perceiving such affinities, so Cavell assures us, we are likely to attain a deeper grasp of both film and philosophy. Film is particularly useful, so Cavell, for coming to terms with philosophers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Austin, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger who seek to bring philosophy back to the ordinary condition of everyday life.

Precisely this condition is depicted in film and specifically in the comedies discussed in Pursuits of Happiness.

Such films can therefore serve a distinctively philosophical purpose. This ordinary condition of everyday life proves, however, to be also a political one. Cavell alerts us to at the start by means of the title of the book.

Cavell means to speak not of the politically ratified pursuit of happiness, but of multiple and individualized pursuits of happiness. We can pusruits what he has in mind by turning to his discussion of The Philadelphia Story of The film is for Cavell about the diverse kinds of happiness and unhappiness of its protagonists: But this is not meant to depoliticize the pursuit of happiness of which the Declaration of Independence speaks.

Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage – Stanley Cavell – Google Books

Cavell intends, rather, to give the multiple pursuits depicted in The Philadelphia Story and in the other comedies discussed in the book a newly political meaning. However, this is possible only if we purauits a new and broader conception of politics. Cavell seems to be telling us then that we will not begin caevll understand the actual nature of our political situation unless we first grant the multiplicity of ways in which happiness is and can be pursued and hence also the multiplicity of ways in which these pursuits can be achieved or can fail.

Comedy and tragedy, we might rephrase him, both have many shapes and embodiments; myth, theater, and film tell us just this in their multiple stories. Comedy and tragedy, thus understood, are at the same time political in nature — not, of course, in the sense of the great politics of states and acts of governments, of war and peace, of leaders and rulers, but in the broader sense of a politics in which individual people pursue their individual happiness and in which they together negotiate the terms of that pursuit.


What had once seemed separated by sharp divisions has now come to be joined and at this juncture appears at the same time a new understanding of the political. The political rests, in other words, on this view first and foremost at the level where fates differ and the forms of happiness and unhappiness multiply. Cavell proves, thus, to be engaged in a rethinking of our classical picture of politics — a picture that has come to us all the way from Plato and Aristotle.

Only what occurs at this upper stratum of the organization of public life is genuinely to be considered politics. The ordinary and everyday may be subject to political regulation but they lack a political character of their own. There must follow from this a sharp division between political and civic life and eventually also the modern distinction between political and individual liberty. But even then, it is remarkable how little the Republic cares about the lives of ordinary people.

The former is the sphere in which man and wife, parents and children, masters and servants interact and it is as such a thoroughly non-political sphere. Politics happens for him, rather, in the public arena where independent males take turns in governing their city. The Platonic-Aristotelian definition has survived for more than two thousand years and is still often taken for granted.

We can find its traces even in such a determinedly anti-Platonic writer as Hannah Arendt. While she is eager to reject the conception of politics as rule, Arendt still considers the distinction between the public and the private to be fundamental and still holds that politics can take place only where there exists a distinctively public sphere. Cavell, in contrast to this pursuiits long tradition and cavelll the influences of philosophers of the ordinary from Emerson and Thoreau to Wittgenstein, Austin, and Heidegger, proposes, in effect, a radical revisioning of politics in which the ordinary, the private, the everyday, the small scale, and the insignificantly personal can all be conceived of as political in character.

There exists then not only a politics of the state, but also a politics of marriage, of the family, of friendship, and of a manifold of other human conditions.

This does not or should not mean that we can altogether neglect the large-scale politics of government and the state; it involves rather a broadening of our conception of the political beyond the narrow confines of the Platonic-Aristotelian model, and it implies presumably also involves a commitment to the idea that the great pugsuits of the public sphere is based on the happinses of the ordinary and can be understood only in its terms and by means of its characteristic notions.

Cavell is thereby reviving, without perhaps realizing it, an understanding of politics first advanced by the sophist Protagoras — a conception explicitly denied in the Platonic-Aristotelian model. The first was that human beings are forced to engage in politics because the gods do not take care of them and they are compelled, instead, to take care of themselves. In order to flourish, they must create their own human ;ursuits, make up language, produce clothes, build houses, and obtain food.

And to this Protagoras adds that human beings are not naturally organized in political institutions and that there exists no natural political order and, indeed, no naturally established human hierarchy. Human beings are, rather, naturally unqualified for political life and awkward in their relations with each other. For Protagoras it cqvell that they need to foster two kinds of basic skill, if they are to survive. The first are technical skills and the second political ones.

While Protagoras thinks that everyone is endowed with political competence, this endowment is to begin with lursuits as a basic, raw, and undeveloped capacity. Politics in the broad sense is, in fact, embodied in all the acts of care that hppiness, nurture, and maintain these qualities.

Thus, even child rearing is og be thought of as a political undertaking. And the same thing must be said of the inculcating of manners in school, of instruction in writing, the reading of good poets, and the learning of inspirational poems. Whoever strays outside the lines, it punishes.

For Protagoras, too, was a teacher and saw himself as teaching political skills to his students and as such understands himself to be serving a political function. At the heart of politics lies, on this view, a cultivation of the individual that is thought necessary to make him purxuits suitable member of the polis and this pursutis takes place at all levels of instruction. It is to this Protagorean tradition in political thought that Cavell, nappiness effect, refers us back in Pursuits of Happiness.

Like Protagoras he seeks to attain a broad understanding of the scope of politics. Like him, he allows for a politics of the everyday and the ordinary, not only for a politics of government and the state.

Like Protagoras, Cavell conceives, happihess politics, moreover, as a paideia, hence his emphasis on films of conversation and on the affinity of these films to philosophical conversation. It is in the pedagogy of conversation that both the comedies of remarriage and philosophy acquire their political character.


We can read his book as evidence for cavvell weakening of this classical conception over the course of the last century and a half — a process that is by no means completed but one that has already begun to undermine all our traditional philosophical conceptions of the nature of the political. What matters to Cavell and what matters to him in the comedies he examines are certainly not the great economic and political issues pursits the time in which these films were made and in which their stories take place.

These films are preoccupied with private lives not public situations; their stories are romantic in tone and full of the entanglements and uncertainties of love. The remark dismisses the Depression, of course, too quickly as a merely economic matter and hence as not being of genuine og concern. It is for this reason that public politics occupies so small a place in the world of these films. For we are not meant to conclude that the great political issues of the time are of no concern in these comedies.

They are of increasingly larger scope and lead thus pursuuits what we may think of as the more private to the more public-political. The first and most specific concern of these films is for Cavell a feminist one.

And so are all mother figures. The heroines of the comedies of remarriage are not public figures; they live for the most outside the political spotlight; they are played, moreover, by actresses recognizable in their own rights but not necessarily as feminist leaders. They set out to create the new woman by means of the female roles in their stories but at the same time also through the leading actresses who perform these roles Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Sandwich.

In their narrative content they can be said to be concerned with the one and in their reality as films with the other task. Looked at in either way, these films can be said to have an educational meaning.

Even in these comedies it is, as Cavell points out, once again the men who assign to themselves the task of undertaking this education, hence their frequent, admonishing lectures in these films. The effect is a cafell kind of interaction between men and women. The concern with the creation of a new woman becomes thus at the same time a concern with the union of the two, that is, with marriage, and beyond that ;ursuits the union between human beings in general.

While physical virginity is no longer an issue in this connection, a new, spiritual virginity still is and with it the possibility of a new understanding of sexual union and marriage.

Comedy of remarriage

The question of the new woman, of a new identity thus forces us to examine what constitutes a union. Divorce is conceived as a legitimate way out of a failed relation.

Since the couple is depicted as previously married, virginity is, in one sense, no longer a condition for the new union, nor are children present in these films for they, too, hap;iness longer authenticate marriage. The couple itself is rather seen to attain a new innocence in re-establishing their bond and in doing so they often recover a childlike innocence. The new union assumes rather that both parts are equal in their ability to engage in a conversation in which their union is always at issue.

Cavell is also ready to recognize that the constitution of a union including a political union typically involves an overcoming of obstacles and that it may even involve the battling against an adversary, as in the founding of the American republic, we need not hold that every union between a man and a woman requires an antagonist and the same is presumably meant to hold true at the national and pkrsuits level.

And he makes sure that we do not forget this important conclusion, first drawn in the discussion of Bringing Up Baby, by reaffirming it in his chapter on The Philadelphia Story where he writes: These considerations lead Cavell immediately to his third and most far-ranging and most explicitly political topic. For it may still be thought at this point that these films are mostly concerned with petty quarrels and reconciliations, with the overcoming of minor obstacles, and indeed with all the parochial twists and turns that make for comedy.

What gives us reason to call these maneuverings political? Why speak here of a micropolitics of everyday life? Is it simply because we recognize similarities between these stories and the events that constitute what we usually call political? Who would deny these such correspondences and parallels?