This terrific review of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrence Kelly’s new All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age comes to us from new Mbird contributor Zach Williams:
One must always bear in mind when reading a book like All Things Shining that unbelieving friends have surrendered all conscious hope of waking up after dying. The empiricist in me greeted the authors’ proposal formula for a meaningful life in a post-Christian era—consisting of kind of purposeful superficiality, wonder at the incidental goods delivered by the world, and gratitude for the acts of the nonexistent gods—with a measure of consternation. How could a person muster the will to a play out the Life of Meaning in a flourish of cosmic playacting? But the project became more plausible once I reminded myself that authors Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly and others like them aspire to end life smiling while looking backward in time rather than forward. Phenomenology over metaphysics, Kelly and Dreyfus urge us, and indeed, there is not much use for a truth claim when a man wonders which tug upon his deathbed’s sheets will be the last of all his sensations.
The deathbed is as bound and un-free a place as exists in the world. Contrast it to the vast and multi-dimensional freedom—political, social, economic, ideological—we enjoy in this era. Do we really “enjoy” them, though? Kelly and Dreyfus believe we have come to the end of our enjoyment. Their diagnosis is not new. The freedom to choose from an endless stock of identities, careers, ideologies, cultures, and so on, has left us inert, without a basis to choose among the stock in making a life choice. This paralysis is nihilism. The burden of choice is the primary quandary of the godless age. Nietzsche delighted at freedom’s endless possibilities; the authors are exhausted by them.
Nor is the authors’ solution entirely new, but manner of describing it appears to be. They find inspiration in Homer’s Greeks, for whom excellence lay in being in sync with the gods and their moods at any given moment, so as to respond appropriately without thinking. Athena directs spears thrust by six of Penelope’s suitors and was thankful. At a dinner party thrown by her husband Menelaus, Helen tells the story, of her affair with Paris, approvingly, the dalliance that led to that little difference in perspective called the Trojan War. The cuckolded Menelaus looks upon Helen as “shining among women.” Why? She embodies—passively, acceptingly, with no resistance—the mood given by Eros. Helen has lived the best life because she is in sync with what has been given to her; she responds with awe, thanks, and wonder to that which is sacred in her culture (which, as you can tell, was not marital fidelity). The authors mix a dose of Martin Luther (whom they admire) with the strain of literary modernism that praised the small, the local, one’s little corner of the universe, in rejection of every ism. Here I think of Frederic Henry retreating to the woods with Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. They reject the illusion underlying Nietzsche’s free spirit while refusing to descend into the postmodernist miasma.
In sync with the gods in a world of no gods? Hence the description of cosmic playacting. But it is not metaphysics that matter; the metaphysical emptiness of the authors’ proposal is irrelevant, of course, because the world is metaphysically empty. Phenomenology over metaphysics, the authors insist. In dwelling on man’s experience—or urging us to experience experience—the authors are content not to theorize the experience they endorse. A reader probably could not describe All Things Shining’s idea of the good life in a sentence or two. The book is not a treatise but a provocation and reflection on acceptance, passivity, and thankfulness. It turns philosophy’s late interest in phenomenology into an ethical mandate—an anti-ethical ethical mandate. At the self-conscious smallness of the authors’ final description of the meaningful life will leave many wondering, “That’s it? Really?” But again, one must always bear in mind about his unbelieving friends . . .
To quibble with the authors’ rejection of metaphysical commitment is to fixate overmuch, and pointlessly, on the obvious. And there is much to appreciate in the authors’ aesthetic sensibility; they tap into Chesterton’s “sacred intoxication of existence,” his affection for the “startling wetness of water” and “the unutterable muddiness of mud”—and in the authors’ case, the irreplaceable aroma of coffee. Kelly and Dreyfus respect mystery and do not try too hard to penetrate it, which is more than can be said of more than a few churchmen. They can appreciate these things because they wisely conceive of man at his best as supplicant and receiver of gifts, as properly responsive to a force outside himself. As I said, the authors’ solution is not entirely new: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.” So Edgar urges his father in King Lear, picking him up after an imagined fall from the cliff.
Actually troubling, though, is the level of trust Kelly and Dreyfus put in the universe’s generosity. The authors are not blind to the risks associated with their prescription. “There is, after all,” they explain, “a vanishingly small distance between rising as one with the crowd at a baseball game and rising as one with the crowd at a Hitler rally.” The authors’ self-conscious approach to this problem makes Gary Wills’ chief criticism—that Kelly and Dreyfus champion the power of a cup of coffee to defuse a Nazi rally—a bit of a caricature. But every caricature distorts a realistic picture. The world discloses much more of the gods’ furies than their blessings, and perhaps even more of their indifference. The authors’ supplicant man blows over in the tornadoes of Tuscaloosa and Joplin. That is, of course, a hazard of his design.
The literary reflection of the Nietzschean free spirit the authors fortunately reject is, of course, Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz. The authors’ vision brings to mind another Conrad creation. Nostromo is imbued with the physis, the charisma, the free and easy, the unthinking, which Kelly and Dreyfus call the sacred, and the silver that corrupts everyone around him cannot corrupt him. He is in sync with the gods, Zeus perhaps, so he is called the incorruptible. But of course the silver corrupts him; Ploutos ensnares him. He is felled by his surrogate father’s rifle, but he is really felled by the god of wealth’s power. He remained in harmony with the gods, only one passed him off unto the lordship of another.