“Return of the Gods”
A Review of
All Things Shining:
Reading the Western Classics
to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.
By Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly.
Reviewed by Alex Joyner.
All Things Shining:
Reading the Western Classics
to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.
Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly.
Hardback: Fress Press, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon: Hardback ] [ Amazon: Kindle ]
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Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly believe that the long, ongoing, Western project has resulted not only in the loss of one god but many and that is a problem. “As autonomous subjects we have closed ourselves off to the calling of the gods, and it is in this sense that we have banished them. Nobody seems to have noticed this” (201). The problem is not, as Thomas Hardy noted in his poem “God’s Funeral,” that we “were tempted to create/One whom we can no longer keep alive.” The problem is that we have become insensitive to the presence of the sacred and so have constructed a sense of self that is overburdened with autonomy and the crushing necessity of choice. The gods would woo us back.
In their book All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, the two philosophers narrate the journey that has led from the polytheistic world of Homer and the classical Greeks to the nihilism of contemporary society. Dreyfus and Kelly make for entertaining guides through a greatest hits of Western lit. Their choice of subjects (in a book that seems quite slim given its topic) ranges from the expected (The Odyssey & Dante) to the offbeat (Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame and Pulp Fiction). Along the way they manage to kick up a number of provocative questions about the evolution of modes of meaning in Western culture all within a fairly coherent narrative structure. As a focused jaunt through theological anthropology, it is successful.
An early chapter sets the table by analyzing the quandary of contemporary life through a stark contrast of Gilbert and the recently-deceased novelist David Foster Wallace. Wallace is attracting a lot of interest these days in the wake of his 2008 suicide. A brilliant writer and thinker, Wallace left a number of influential shorter works along with a masterful novel, Infinite Jest. Dreyfus and Kelley draw on this body of work and an unfinished novel by Wallace, The Pale King, which will be published this spring. In doing so they make the argument that Wallace illuminates the nihilism of the age. The shining things of the world have passed and the old anchors of meaning are gone. Nothing is given anymore; what remains is the free will of the modern subject. Wallace’s lesson, the authors say, is “that the choice to experience the world as sacred and meaningful–to do so by dint of effort and will–is a choice that is within our power to make” (46).
If Wallace is the heir to Friedrich Nietzsche, Elizabeth Gilbert is presented as Luther’s child. Just as Luther denigrated the ability of his will to achieve salvation, so Gilbert does not claim credit for any individual genius that might be attributed to her writing. The authors attribute to her the belief “that one writes well only when the god of writing shines upon her, only by the grace of the attendant spirit–the genius–who comes to tell her what to write” (57). Between the poles of Wallace’s joyless, determined will creating meaning by heroic effort and Gilbert’s passive, receptive will disconnected from any sense of mission Dreyfus and Kelly set their narrative.
In Homer the authors find a polytheistic age where humans are not burdened by the question of what to do. The gods hold out models of excellence in different realms to which human actors respond. This is a world for which the notion of an interior life is foreign. Dreyfus and Kelly describe Jesus and Descartes as an unlikely pair who reconfigure the world to allow for the development of an autonomous subject. Augustine, Aquinas, Dante and Kant are the handmaidens of that development.
The highpoint of the book is a long and wonderful reading of Moby Dick. In Herman Melville, the authors see a prescient prophet of the modern world – one who could outline the dangers of the search for a monolithic truth. Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, can see how the fanatical Ahab is doomed because he is after some transcendent truth in the pursuit of the whale. The joy of “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country” (156) are all there to be had and yet “hidden from us because we’re trying to look past it, to find something deeper” (157). Perhaps, the authors suggest, this is a return to a polytheistic worldview that offers an alternative to the disenchanted world in which we find ourselves.
It is in the summary chapter, however, that the shine of this book begins to show some serious tarnish. Having lamented the loss of the sacred, the authors offer up a very thin gruel as an alternative. The last game of Yankee legend Lou Gehrig begins a chapter that compares the rapturous fellow-feeling of the crowd at great moments of sport to the unmediated experience of Greeks with their gods. If this seems reductive in the extreme, it gets spelled out more clearly. “There is no essential difference,” we are told, “in how it feels to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Lord, or to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Hail Mary pass, the Immaculate Reception, the Angels, the Saints, the Friars, or the Demon Deacons” (177). Really?
Openness to this feeling (described a bit tritely as “whooshing up”), attention to the development of skill, and a technological way of thinking that pays no heed to sacredness are described as the three modes available to contemporary people in combating the nihilism of the age. Each may be appropriate at different times, but a well-lived life will involve an interplay between the modes.
As a Christian taking up this book I find several places where I wanted a more robust reading of the history of Christian thought. After offering a largely sympathetic analysis of Jesus as a reconfigurer of the first order, the authors dismiss the entire period from Augustine to Luther as a failed attempt to meld Christianity with Greek thought. They present Dante as the apex of medieval thought and applaud his placement of his love, Beatrice, as the intermediate focus of his desire but seem to think that she and the world are discarded by the desire for God that follows.
Finally, I wanted an ending that would not merely haunt the edges of the modern world looking for bits of shining. Baseball games and coffee shops (another site of extended reflection in the book) are insufficient loci for developing deep, communal engagement and resistance to the powers of this world. Jesus did more than just internalize the kingdom; he confronted it. And the gods who are calling Dreyfus and Kelly seem poor substitutes.
In the end, the book is a great read that will make you return to the classics with renewed thirst. It will provoke significant questions about the human condition in the current age. It will provide you with a narrative that is ambitious in its scope but which fails to fulfill the promise of its introduction. For just that reason, it is worth reading to think through what it is that our own Christian narratives have to say to a world that has lost its luster.
Alex Joyner is pastor of Franktown United Methodist Church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and is the author most recently of Hard Times Come Again No More: Suffering and Hope [Abingdon, 2010. Read our review…]
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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