All Things Shining: the good

After a chapter on “The Attractions and Dangers of Autonomy” (a phrase that made me want to throw the book across the room even more than “the dangers of nihilism”), the authors of All Things Shining get on to “Fanaticism, Polytheism, and Melville’s ‘Evil Art.'” Here the focus is on Moby-Dick, and the claim is that Melville has solved the problems that have led up to this point and found us a way to meaning that works for the post-Enlightenment age. Dreyfus and Kelly are, like me, great fans of Ishmael, so here I started to warm up to them.

After the oddities of some of the discussion of Homer, I was worried that the interpretations presented of various bits and pieces of Melville’s masterpiece would not sit well with me either, but that proved not to be the case. The authors do a fine job discussing Ahab’s obsession, Ishmael’s attitude toward Queequeg’s religion, Queequeg’s place among Christians after leaving his home island, the whiteness of the whale, and especially—here they were truly helpful to me—Pip. And earlier they have a good discussion of Bulkington and his appearance in the chapter “The Lee Shore.”

One passage discussed in the book is the one from Ishmael’s entrance into the Spouter Inn, where there is a painting representing something quite indeterminate in the entryway. Ishmael has his own ideas about what it might be, and discusses it with some other fellows, and comes to a tentative “final theory of my own.”

Ishmael’s satisfaction with his interpretation of the picture at the Spouter Inn reflects Melville’s content with his wicked book. “[N]o hopefulness is in it,” Melville says, “no despair. Content—that is it.” The account is a good one, in both cases, an interpretation that makes much sense of things as they stand. But there is no hope that it is more than this, no longing for some further, final, ultimate truth; and there is no despair, either, at the thought that such a deep and final truth might not be found. The medieval picture of a secure and final and certain foundation—of God as the deep and final source of all that is—has been left behind. As Ishmael says, “I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity.”

This last is part of a line from the great chapter 94, “A Squeeze of the Hand.” Ishmael describes squeezing spermaceti back to its liquid state along with his fellow whalers, a very pleasant task, and explains that:

For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side; the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally.

I think it quite right that Dreyfus and Kelly should have selected this as one of the more basic statements to live by, since it’s one of the more basic statements I live by. But while they’ve made the right decision here, I still think it just shows up how wrong much of the rest of the book is.

As they note, “[w]hat Ahab hates most thoroughly is the idea that the universe might be inscrutable to the last; that ultimately there might be ‘naught beyond.'” But this is the problem with so much of the premise of All Things Shining. Though the authors come to the conclusion that we must change our ideas of “attainable felicity,” instead of just coming out and saying so, they premise a whole book on a search for meaning that isn’t there. If there is nothing behind these pasteboard masks, naught beyond, and “the surface events themselves—contradictory and mysterious and multiple as they may be—are nevertheless all the meaning there is,” why haven’t we simply maintained that from the first chapter, instead of spending 150 or so pages complaining about nihilism? This may not be Nietzsche, but as far as I am concerned, it is nihilism, at least some subtype thereof. They should have been shouting from the rooftops from the very beginning that the problem isn’t nihilism, but despair and anti-nihilism. David Foster Wallace’s problem wasn’t being a nihilist, it was being like Ahab and failing to accept nihilism, which just ain’t that big of a deal. The fact that Melville wins out on the answer to this question means that all along, the answer was, “you’re asking the wrong question.”

I do have a few quibbles with the focus of the chapter. There is great weight placed on ideas of “communal” felicity, as though Ishmael only finds meaning when squeezing spermaceti in a circle. Community is unquestionably important for Melville, but so is aloneness, and there is certainly no barrier to felicities attained by oneself. This focus on community, along with anti-individualist issues in earlier chapters, leads to some problems with the authors’ final push toward meaningful types of happiness for our current day and age. At the very end, they do recognize the problems in the kind of mob happiness they’ve been talking up, and go on to develop examples for individuals operating alone, which is good. But again, there seems to be no reason to go through this development; they could have started out on a better track instead and never had to note that the same sentiment that makes you jump up and shout for a home run also made people jump up and shout for Hitler (yes, they Godwin themselves, thankfully).

But after Melville, and some thoughtful passages on developing interests and competencies that are meaningful and happy for you personally, I was left feeling upbeat, which is really why I gave this the thumbs-up at the end of it all. At least in the end they are giving you the right idea.

3 comments to All Things Shining: the good

  • Yeah, this seems to me, like it does to you, like a LOT of rigamarole to reach a conclusion that is fairly obvious to begin with. But I don’t know – maybe we’re not representative. Maybe most people or many people are in the Wallace/Ahab camp, really RAGING against the idea of a godless universe. I can’t say I have ever met these people; most of the folks I know are either contented nihilists or contented believers. But who knows? Maybe that’s a big contingent. Do Dreyfus & Kelly do any prep-work to establish that their odd-seeming starting position is shared by a wide range of people? Or do they just assume that it’s a logical place to start?

  • Too bad the “solution” did not work so well for Melville. Although if it had, there would have been no Clarel readalong, so everything, as usual, worked out for the best.

  • Emily—That’s a great question. One of the things I found kinda odd was their explanation of why even for believers the fact that we’re in a “secular age” made choices problematic: “[I]nsofar as a religious believer’s belief in God is consistent with the idea that there are admirable people who nevertheless do not believe, as for the most part is the case in the modern West, then religious belief cannot by itself close off existential questioning. For the idea that a nonbeliever is not ipso facto execrable means that nonbelief is a choice that even a believer must take seriously.” I question this on two grounds: first, I don’t think they need to consider us “execrable,” only hellbound. Second, I don’t know a lot of real believers very well, but my grandparents are/were extremely devout Catholics who I don’t think do much much of this kind of existential questioning at all. So based on my personal experience it’s still very possible for a religious person to, you know, believe it’s all according to God’s plan, like Dante did or whatever.

    That said, I do think there’s probably a decent contingent of people who have this problem with “the burden of choice,” or at least a lot of people have decided to write as if they did. From behavioral economics studies of people who can’t pick out jam when presented with dozens of varieties to continual refrains about some
    lost “simple life,” I think choice does scare people.

    AR—Well, he did make it as far as Clarel, so it must have worked a bit. But you’re right, he continues to be a seeker long after he seems to tell “us” he’s not. Not just Moby-Dick (and Ishmael is a seeker of a different kind, so we’re not talking about a total closing off or anything here). E.g., his telling Hawthorne he is “pretty much resigned to being annihilated” (I didn’t look up the actual quote but it’s quite close to that), just as he’s about to set off on the Clarel journey. Of course, some days I don’t really want to get out of bed either. We’re all human.