All Things Shining: first, the bad

My opinion of All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s book on “reading the Western classics to find meaning in a secular age,” changed dramatically two chapters from the end. I spent the bulk of the book disagreeing with it at nearly every turn, felt much better about the end, and thus decided that I liked it after all. But the problems of the first part remain, so first let me get all negative with that, and then tomorrow I’ll tell you why it wasn’t all bad. I think in reality the problems probably outweigh the good bits, and my overall positive feeling might be generally unwarranted, but so be it.

The premise of the book is that, whether or not you are a religious believer, Western society has left behind a culture where people can truly derive meaning for their lives from religious belief, and that we are all in danger of “nihilism.” My first trouble with the book came from the constant refrain of “the dangers of nihilism,” “the problems of nihilism,” “the threat of nihilism,” and so on. As, ahem, a nihilist, I couldn’t see what the danger was; nihilism doesn’t entail despair, but for Dreyfus and Kelly, it seemed to. The big voice of nihilism in the book is Nietzsche, and I can certainly understand that many people wouldn’t very happy attempting to live with him as their guiding philosophical light. The threat of nihilism is also very tied up with what the authors call the “contemporary burden of choice.” How can we humans decide what to do with our lives, from the largest to the smallest decision, without a fundamental guide to the meaning of it all?

The authors start by examining a couple of contemporary solutions, in a chapter that sort of amazingly compares David Foster Wallace to Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). According to the book, Wallace believes that we must all create our own meaning, basically from whole cloth. We endow our lives with meaning through sheer force of will, and it ain’t easy. One example: next time you see a horrible, “fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady” screaming at her kids in line in front of you, try to imagine who she is outside of that line:

Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider.

But this is hard, and probably outside the realm of possibility for most people. Gilbert, by contrast, recognizes that this kind of individualism is untenable. She speaks against the idea of the artist as the sole originating source of his own creation, saying, “I think that allowing somebody…to believe that he or she is…the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. …And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.”

Instead, Gilbert believes in some kind of “inspiration,” citing favorably a woman poet who described poems as coming to her like a physical object on the wind, blown toward her and she must run to write them down. My problem with both of these paths: neither Wallace nor Gilbert seems concerned at all with any kind of truth. To create our own meaning under Wallace’s regime, we have to give this lady some absurd level of benefit of the doubt just so that, instead of being angry, we can feel some sympathy for her. No wonder it is hard to live this way, when you know as you are doing it that you’re making stuff up to make yourself feel better. And while artists may feel inspiration come from the outside, there is not actually a poem “coming at [them] from over the landscape.” And the most frustrating thing about this, in turn, is that Dreyfus and Kelly don’t even consider it—don’t even consider that if we want to find meaning, it might have to come from something real in order to work.

On to the ancient Greeks! Now the book begins to trace a path from Homer through the Western classics to find how ways of finding meaning have changed. And this is where things start to really go off the rails. The authors examine The Odyssey and, to a large extent in my opinion, botch it. Discussing “what we should hope to retrieve from the Greeks,” they note that “it must be consistent with our understanding of the physical makeup of the universe.” So what meaning can we gain when we ourselves are no longer polytheists? For example, they describe the part where Odysseus has returned home and, along with Telemachus, begins to fight off the suitors infesting his home. The suitors throw their spears at Odysseus, “but each shot missed its mark—Athena’s work.”

The idea here is that it must not have seemed merely arbitrary or fortunate to Odysseus that these enemy spears missed their mark. It must have seemed to him, rather, that there was some meaning or purpose in this fact, the he was being cared for in the event. Homer’s way of expressing this is to insist that the spears missed Odysseus because Athena was protecting him from the enemy attack.

…Obviously we cannot believe that some supernatural entity named Athena actually caused the spears to turn aside. Even if we replace Athena with the Judeo-Chrsitian God, our secular age typically rebels at the thought…. What relief, what amazement, what gratitude one must feel! And can it possibly have been bind chance? By any natural measure, it must seem to Odysseus, things should have gone the other way. One experiences this—or at least Homer’s character experienced it—not just as mere luck or good fortune, but as an event that tells him he is well cared for.

This is all wrong. Of course a supernatural entity named Athena actually caused the spears to turn aside. This is a poem! Athena is no less real than Odysseus, both within the world of the poem and within our real contemporary world. I don’t believe Athena really exists, for real, but I don’t believe Odysseus does either, or the suitors, or their spears. Athena and the other Olympians play a very real role in the events of The Odyssey; they are not just metaphors or symbols or something. The question isn’t of what Odysseus felt being presented by Homer as reality, but of what Athena’s actions themselves mean and why she is helping Odysseus. This isn’t ultimately very much of a problem for the book’s overall goal or thesis, but it’s the kind of weirdness that drove me crazy as I continued to read.

There is a more real problem with the authors’ ideas about the ancient Greeks, both of Homer’s time and the Athenian Golden Age, as well as with their ideas about early Christians and everyone up through Kant. It’s a claim I’ve heard before, but which I don’t believe and which I don’t think is actually supported: that up until the Enlightenment, people didn’t really think of themselves as individuals. According to the book, in Homer’s time people considered “moods” “public and shareable,” not interior. You’ve heard it all before, I’m sure—back when people didn’t know how to read silently, and thought of themselves as firmly a part of a God- or gods-given social order (à la medieval Europe), etc etc, they were like some sort of automatons who barely knew how to think or feel on their own. But think how easy it was to find meaning when you had no mind of your own and just knew your place as a serf or a divine-right king!

So how do we know people didn’t think of themselves as individuals? One example, from Homer: when Odysseus arrives back home, he’s in disguise and doesn’t reveal himself to his wife, Penelope:

[H]e pretends to be an old friend of Odysseus’s, and tells her of their last counter. Hearing the stories of her husband, Penelope bursts into tears. It is hard for Odysseus to see his dear wife in such a state, but he cannot show her how much he is moved for fear of giving away his identity. Homer marvels at his ability to conceal his sadness in this situation. He speaks with awe of that “master of invention” who has the trick of weeping inwardly while his eyes remain as dry as bone:

Imagine how his heart ached for his lady,
His wife in tears; and yet he never blinked;
His eyes might have been made of horn or iron
For all that she could see. He had this trick—
Wept, if he willed to, inwardly.

The idea of an inner experience was so peculiar to the Greeks….

Now, Odysseus is certainly supposed to be more cunning than average, a better liar, and all that. But really—would not a contemporary narrator also marvel at the ability of a man to keep his identity secret from a long-lost wife he’s finally been able to return to, after twenty years, when he still loves her and intends to reunite for real in a few days? Not because inner feelings are inconceivable, but because the strength of these feelings would be overwhelming for anyone. See this excellent hit piece in the New York Review of Books for better reasons than I can give about why this idea is junk.

I have lots more issues with specific points, but most of them relate to these basic ideas: problems with the “problem of nihilism,” problems with some readings of the literature, and problems with the concept that the idea of an interior life had to be invented before people realized private consciousness existed. The biggest problem, though, is the first one, and that’s the one that’s patched up the best in the chapter that turned things around for me. That chapter hinges on Moby-Dick, and they begin to get things right on some level, at least for me.

8 comments to All Things Shining: first, the bad

  • Oh good – I don’t have to recommend the Gary Wills piece. I was going to ask you about some of that. They don’t really write that Wallace was “the greatest writer of his generation; perhaps the greatest mind altogether,” do they? Wills must have transcribed the quotation incorrectly. And the reason he’s the greatest mind is that he writes about tennis? Wills simply made that part up, yes?

    Not only was there a concept of the individual before the Enlightenment, there were many concepts, some of them contradictory. People have written on this subject. Books and so on.

    Not that any of this means they can’t get one part of their argument right. Still, I admire your toughness for getting that far. The “whoosh” business would have done me in.

  • Re: Wallace—oh, but they do! That is nothing less than the first sentence of the second chapter, and, get this, it’s footnoted! “See, for example, David Lipsky, ‘The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace,’ Rolling Stone, October 30, 2008, for an example of the former claim. See A.O. Scott, ‘The Best Mind of His Generation,’ New York Times, September 21, 2008, for an example of the latter.” So I guess we have A.O. Scott and the Times to blame for a big part of that. Maybe I will read that article later, maybe not. I haven’t actually read any of Wallace’s books—anathema in the litblogging world!—so I can’t speak much to either issue. Except to say that it does seem a bit much.

    People have written on this subject. Books and so on.

    Yeah, for some reason, I haven’t read any of them, although it’s an area of interest. But I did take the issue to my partner who was just like “no no no no no, no historians believe this at all.”

    And yeah, the “whoosh.” For a bit I was like…is this self-help? I mean, I guess it is self-help. Kind of weird self-help. I mostly kept going because of who recommended it to me, and it was a super, super fast read.

  • poet who described poems as coming to her like a physical object on the wind, blown toward her and she must run to write them down.

    PUKE. Oh man, I hate this kind of nouveau-Romantic claptrap. If only Coleridge and Byron had admitted that they worked hard on and revised their poetry. Maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.

    The kind of argument you describe vis-a-vis both the screaming lady in line and The Odyssey always leave me completely nonplussed. I seriously don’t get what it is I need to reconcile when I see people behaving badly in public. I’m sure they’re doing the best they can and often that’s not very good. I mean, why the mental gymnastics? Surely we have ALL behaved badly in public at one time or another. It’s not like witnessing some woman screaming at her kids in the supermarket is going to burn me with bitterness from within or strip my universe of value. Humans just act poorly sometimes. It doesn’t have to MEAN anything. I feel no need to construct an elaborate metaphysical structure in order to incorporate this woman’s behavior into my universe. Temper tantrums happen; it’s not some big mystery.

    And as for the line “it must be consistent with our understanding of the physical makeup of the universe”: huh? Does the enjoyment or emotional truth gleaned by millions of people from Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter books have to be “consistent with our understanding of the physical makeup of the universe?”

  • You’ve heard it all before, I’m sure—back when people didn’t know how to read silently . . .

    From your fascinating post I ended up having this bubble burst, about Augustine being the first recorder of a silent reading incident. It bothered me when I read Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading; I enjoyed it tremendously but found it troubling. Thanks.

  • Emily, I love your reaction to the woman shopping. I think at least to some extent we’re supposed to “reconcile,” like, trying to make ourselves not angry about the situation. But like you say, there is a vast gulf between being annoyed we have to listen to someone yell and having our universe stripped of value. You’ll see in my next post that a big part of my problem with this book ends up being, “why is this even a question?”

    And your analogy about the Odyssey thing is great too. It was so weird. Of course, there is some level at which we universalize what we can “learn” from literature, otherwise we wouldn’t be learning anything except exactly what happens in the text of whatever we’re reading. But that just makes no sense.

    Anthony—Yes, these persistent little myths…and what’s so odd about this business about interiority is how ridiculous it seems on its face. I ended up having a nice discussion with my boyfriend about how bizarrely difficult it is for disciplines to disseminate what is very common or accepted to outsiders doing interdisciplinary work.

  • Whoa, I admire you for sticking with this. I probably would have been throwing it against the wall during the Wallace/Gilbert discussion.

    I am curious about the title and their thesis…this idea that we are truly in a secular age. I can’t help thinking that most societies/people still get their “meaning of life” through religious institutions. As an atheist myself, I’m curious how they establish their thesis and then what they offer to support it. The nihilism bashing concerns me. Definitely looking forward to your next post.

  • While I would probably disagree with the majority of what this book tries to say, it does seem to at least raise interesting questions. I don’t think I’d be able to stick with it, though. The thesis seems more loud than actually relevant…

  • Michelle—I answered your question a bit in a comment to the follow-up post. I do think most people still get their meaning this way, although I’m sure for many it’s not quite as firm as it once was.