Why not just go fishing?

Reading the Sunday New York Times two weeks ago, I ran across the review of a new book, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. Three or four paragraphs into the review and I was hooked. By the time I was half-way through I had already ordered the book from Amazon. It showed up on Tuesday and I finished it last night.

The authors, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, conduct a fascinating close reading of great works from Homer to David Foster Wallace. Indeed, the writers, thinkers and theologians they cover almost amount to the reading list for my freshmen Humanities sections. I could give the book to my brighter students and they would have no problem following the argument as it skips from Homer to Saint Paul, from Dante to Luther, and then on to Shakespeare, Descartes, Emerson...

I wish I could say I was as excited now that I have finished All Things Shining as I was when I began, not least because I am sympathetic to the book's thesis. Even so, I confess a bit of disappointment. Dreyfus and Kelly, philosophers by trade, offer up a secular brand of Homeric polytheism as the tonic for our post-Nietzschean blues. They want to sacralize the experience of modern life, but not by re-grounding it in some rigid, dogmatic creed that shuts out all other ways of experiencing sacred meaning. Rather, they want us to open ourselves like the ancients to the gods' waxing and waning presence.

Their argument begins with some speculations on David Foster Wallace's suicide, a writer whose work they see as emblematic of the nihilistic trajectory of the Western mindset. In Wallace's fiction (some of it as yet unpublished) Dreyfus and Kelly see the desperation of a writer and highly-intelligent man trying to foist a sense of the sacred onto the randomness and meaninglessness of contemporary existence. This sacredness, however, had to be created ex nihilo with the individual will. For the postmodern intellectual, they argue, the idea of locating meaning (sacred or otherwise) beyond the self has been a non-starter at least since Kant.

Wallace apparently could not accomplish this nearly impossible task and (though the authors acknowledge they are speculating) he succumbed to despair and took his life. In the end, he was unable to follow Nietzsche's advice by becoming a god himself. On the other hand, there was also no going back to a traditional view of meaning as certain, immutable and external to the individual. So the long line of Western thought from Homer to Heidegger has just hit a dead end.

Or maybe not, say Dreyfus and Kelly. Perhaps in our end is our beginning, for they propose we take a cue from Homer and resurrect the pagan pantheon, not literally of course but also not exactly metaphorically either. What they admire in the Homeric Greeks was a capacity for giving themselves over to moods and states of being that are endlessly presenting themselves in human life. The gods in Homer can cause people, things and moments to "shine." Odysseus is made to shine in the Phaecian court, Helen is made radiant by Aphrodite, and more than once the gods give strength or cunning to the heroes they favor.

Key to the book's argument here is that such moments in life are compatible with a modern view that sees meaning as shifting, unfixed and seemingly random. At the same time---and this is crucial--participants in these shining moments feel swept along by some external force or mood. Dreyfus and Kelly note that people performing heroic actions almost never locate the source of their motivation in themselves. They act as if they were in the grip of a dream (or a god).

What the authors hope to establish is that these experiences--and our concomitant gratitude for them--can stand in for the sacred in secular life. We can be grateful to the universe for the beautiful moment, the heroic action, the well-made object. In other words, our lives can have a phenomenological sacredness if not a divine one. Moreover, shining at its best is experienced communally. Dreyfus and Kelly speak of those present at Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, and the incredible moment when a fatally-ill Lou Gehrig acknowledged he was the luckiest man alive.

Okay, first what I admire about this book. The authors take paganism seriously. I have often argued in class that Homeric polytheism wasn't all bad. For one thing, it avoided the "problem of evil," which has so often bedeviled monotheism. Let's face it: crazy things happen when you inhabit a universe occupied by very powerful but very capricious gods. Sure an angry Poseidon may scuttle your raft and send you swimming through a treacherous reef in search of shore, but you might find yourself favored and protected by the gods as well. When a half-dozen suitors hurl their spears at Odysseus from point blank range and miss, he doesn't shrug and call it a coincidence. No sir, he shows some proper gratitude to the universe and says, "Thank you, Athena!"

Or as the hit man Jules says in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction when something identical happens, "That shit wasn't luck. That shit was something else." And I agree with Dreyfus and Kelly here. There's value in saying thanks to "something else" even if it was just luck. Secular humanists and filthy atheists ought to show a bit more gratitude to the universe for its random blessings. If nothing else, it's good for their fictitious souls.

Still, I can't help thinking that the authors of All Things Shining both oversell and underestimate their argument. The Nietzschean dead end they describe is not really a problem for the overwhelming majority of people who continue to locate sacredness in the traditional manner. It may be an issue for philosophy professors, postmodern novelists and a few pinheads like me, but last time I checked this was still a fairly religious world.

I also wish they had used some other term than "whoosh" to describe these shining moments. It reminded me of "flow," the word positive psychologists use to talk about peak mental functioning. I have issues with positive psychology (see The Smell Test). I also felt uneasy at how many times they lodged shining moments in the communal experience of sporting events. I guess they were looking for widely identifiable instances in contemporary life for the phenomenology they describe, but--and they acknowledge this--such things can also happen at Nazi Party rallies. There are gods for anger, strife and war as well as for finely-made cups of coffee and happy sports arenas.

Sometimes, too, while reading the book, I found myself thinking these guys just needed to forget about the Great White Whale and grab a fly rod. I enjoyed their trek through the Western Classics tremendously, but for my money nothing can teach you humility and gratitude like a wild Brown Trout.


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