All Whooshed Up

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LITERATURE MARCH 29, 2011

All Whooshed Up

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to find Meaning in a Secular Age
by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
Free Press, 272 pp., $17.95

WE ARE SURROUNDED by an upsurge of piety of all stripes, from Hindu to Hasid, BuJew to Mormon. More-radical-than-thou evangelical Christians jostle and duel with their Muslim counterparts. America has always been a land of ingenious spiritual seekers, and it still is. Its economic entrepreneurialism is fully matched by its spiritual entrepreneurialism. Walk into a bookstore, if you can still find one, and you will see a flood of books that celebrate the thirst for higher meaning in its many permutations (even as the crabby “new atheists” denounce the whole enterprise with their own evangelical fervor).

All Things Shining turns out to be, rather surprisingly, a prime example of the current religious revival in America. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly announce on their first page, in tones that would be familiar to Joel Osteen, that their book is directed to “anyone who wants to lure back the shining things, to uncover the wonder … anyone who is done with indecision and waiting, with expressionlessness and lostness and sadness and angst, and who is ready for whatever it is that comes next.” This is a spiritual self-help book by professors of philosophy, and those shining things are glazed with the sentimental wish to feel better about one’s life.

Dreyfus and Kelly yearn for faith, and of an unusual kind. Scorning the familiar monotheisms (as well as Eastern religion), they opt for ancient Greece. Their book is subtitled Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, but they make it evident that Homer is their preferred classic. The Homeric gods provide a model of the influences that ought to guide our lives. They want us to forsake our Abrahamic inclinations and yield to the Greek pantheon. Dreyfus and Kelly assert that monotheism aims to “close off existential questioning,” whereas their polytheism opens everything up. “To lure back these Homeric gods is a saving possibility,” they insist: the only way to rescue us from a nihilistic, technology-obsessed contemporary world. But their recourse to the Homeric gods does not in the end answer the questions they name as the most pressing: What is the good life? What are the grounds for preferring one life to another?

Monotheism (along with Plato) is actually better at addressing such questions than pre-Socratic Greece, with its unruly archaic deities. But the authors turn to Heidegger, because Heidegger despised new technology, and saw in it the reign of thoughtless modernity; and he cherished the archaic and pre-Socratic Greece that Plato (or so Heidegger thought) ruined. Dreyfus and Kelly remind us that Heidegger called the Homeric gods “the attuning ones”, whatever that means. There is a tinge of New Age complacency to their adaptation of the Heideggerian vision: “At the center of Homer’s world, then, is the sense that what matters is already given to us, and that the best life is the one that manages to get in sync with it.” This is the “sense of the sacred” that Dreyfus and Kelly want: the relaxing into harmonious acceptance, and gratitude for the wonder of existence.

But they have to distort Homer’s meaning in order to turn him into such a prophet of feel-good spirituality. The Homeric character they dwell on most is Helen. They see her “holding [her]self open” to Aphrodite, supremely attuned to the goddess of Eros. But Helen in the Iliad rebels against both Aphrodite and herself. She curses her faithlessness to her husband, and blames Aphrodite’s heartless, manipulative ways. (In book three she calls herself kunopis, or “dog-eyed”: a shameless, treacherous bitch.) Homer’s world is radiant and inspiring, but it is also fantastically cruel. Dreyfus and Kelly tendentiously soften Homer’s hard outlines. They leave out the strife that animates his epics.

Dreyfus and Kelly see Homer’s gods as “a diverse but tolerant family. They cooperated in guiding and protecting human beings at home, at war, in lovers’ beds.” But surely these same gods also deceived, exploited, raped, and abandoned human beings. They were not apostles of care. They exemplified a colder glory, one beyond the human. The “involved, historical” God of the Bible, whom Dreyfus and Kelly describe only in passing, may in fact have some advantages over the pagan competition. He was also a violent deity, but alongside His ferocity He taught a love of justice and an ethic of compassion. A serious evaluation of the contest between Athens and Jerusalem is not the business of this book, but perhaps it should be. Otherwise, the choice of Homer over Job begins to look merely provocative.

The middle section of All Things Shining consists of a quick run through Western intellectual history, from the ancients to Kant. Like most such summaries, this account leans on a predictable plot. At times Dreyfus and Kelly present a version of intellectual history that seems canned from lecture notes, some of them long past their expiration date. We are told that in the Middle Ages, ruled by the Great Chain of Being and “God’s divine plan,” everything was in its proper place, and people did not wonder about their choice of life, or the meaning of the universe, because their significance was assigned to them. This is the hoariest of clichés. What about Chaucer’s Pardoner, or his Wife of Bath; or many other anguished figures of medieval literature (and history) for whom the dilemmas of belief and action were wrenchingly real? Dreyfus and Kelly pick only the classics most convenient for their theme.

They are better on Augustine and Dante, and on the confluence of Greek and Hebrew strains in Christianity. Still, their strokes are often too broad to be convincing, and they are sometimes downright silly. At one point they claim, rather astonishingly, that “before Descartes people had little sense of an inner self.” If Hamlet and Montaigne did not have an inner self, it is hard to know what the term means. This is just another depressing example of the philosopher’s vanity: it must have been Descartes who invented us. Without the professional thinkers, we would all be unreflective (and, I suppose, reassured by God about our place in the universe).

Dreyfus and Kelly wish to stir things up, and the stirring usually comes in the form of dubious comparisons. All Things Shining begins with a parallel between the heroic act of Wesley Autrey, who threw himself onto a New York City subway track in order to save a passerby from an oncoming train, and … the basketball skills of the young Bill Bradley. Bradley’s powers on the court are said to resemble Autrey’s ethical impulse, because both exhibit spontaneous yielding to “the flow and demands of the game”—a flow which they identify with the guidance of the gods. But what if the gods guide you to push someone in front of the train, instead of saving him from it? And were the gods really behind Bradley’s drives to the basket?

The intense excitement that sports deliver is Dreyfus and Kelly’s version of the sublime, a term they (oddly) never use. They prefer “sacred.” And they are not embarrassed to hallow sports in a manner usually reserved for religion. After some hesitation, they drop their bombshell: “There is no essential difference, really, 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 … ” Both church and football arena are full of “like-minded folks” who have a good time when “the awesomeness of the moment itself bursts forth and shines.” The passage is calculated to offend, of course. But it is merely silly. How does the gratitude for creation that religious believers express, the way they remind themselves of the primal facts of birth and life and death, resemble exultation at the triumph of the home team? Does the content not matter? Religion encounters the ultimate questions—but sports? As a safely diverting form of play, sports may in fact be designed to avoid those questions.

What do Dreyfus and Kelly want us to do with the idea that sports games can be, for their audience, quasi-religious events? Collective outbursts of enthusiasm for all sorts of feats—athletic, political, murderous—are always with us. Dreyfus and Kelly intend that we should congratulate ourselves for being swept up, with the crowd and in the moment. But why we are supposed to treasure this experience? Anyway, we already seem to treasure it, and the harmless release it offers, without needing philosophy to recommend it. What then is the point of philosophy’s recommendation? The admiring roars of the fans witnessing the feats of Tom Brady will not teach them anything, much less make them better people.

Why, then, should we admire their response? This is a question Dreyfus and Kelly never answer. They sense that there is a difference between the joy of cheering the winning team and joining in (it is their example) Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march on Washington. But they cannot describe the difference, because finally they are not very interested in it. Both events become examples of what they persistently term, in a phrase an editor should have saved them from, “whooshing up”. It is their folksy name for the Dionysian feeling.

Are we really supposed to admire the Dionysian feeling at this late date in our awareness of its consequences? The embarrassing problem with Dreyfus’s and Kelly’s book is its complacent neglect of the potentially dangerous and proudly unreflective nature of collective enthusiasm. They know, of course, that a Nuremberg rally should not be treated like the Superbowl. They want us to be able to tell when we should join with the crowd and when we should walk away, frightened by a group that has turned into a mob. But their deference to this ethical complication reads like a tactic rather than a real interest: they are just not very worried about the culture and the politics of mobs, with their abandonment of reason and their record of evil. Here we have two philosophers writing in praise of sheer thrill. And this is supposed to be news? American life is already consecrated to various forms of “whooshing up.”

Toward the end of All Things Shining, Dreyfus and Kelly announce an interest in tekhne, the craftsman’s calmly directed skill, as a counterweight to being rapturously swept away by the gods. They provide a detailed portrait of the knowledge of a master woodworker, a knowledge now lost except to a few. This sounds like a fine antidote to the cult of rapture—except that craft in itself is morally neutral. There is nothing sacred in workman-like satisfaction, any more than in the screaming of football fans. Using the one to balance the other does not bring Dreyfus and Kelly any closer to a moral ideal. Their opposition to technology in the interest of old-fashioned craftsmanship is another familiar Heideggerian theme; but here they seem merely behind the times. Is everything software-based thoughtless by definition? Is there no labor of invention, no imaginative concern, where computers are involved? There is a real argument to be had about the effects of computer screens on our habits of mind; but to condemn, with Heidegger, all up-to-the-minute technology as mechanical and dehumanizing is itself a thoughtless overreaching, and prevents us from having the much-needed debate about whether computers have changed us, and how.

The suspense of All Things Shining lies in whether Dreyfus and Kelly will ever acknowledge the flimsy character of their ideal, its inability to defend itself against those who hijack passion for evil (or for merely boring and irrelevant) purposes. They address this issue in their last pages, but what they say is both too little and too late. They tell us that only after you have succumbed to fanaticism will you know the difference between fascist whooshing up and the harmless enjoyable variety. “Only by having been taken over by the fanatical leader’s totalizing rhetoric, and experienced the dangerous and devastating consequences it has, does one learn to discriminate between leaders worth following and those upon whom one must turn one’s back.” This is downright chilling. Must one become a fanatic so as not to become one? Is surrender to the authoritarian seduction a kind of public education? Their hero Heidegger, in exactly this situation, did not learn to discriminate between good and bad causes. He never repudiated Nazism, even decades after Hitler’s fall.

In this context Dreyfus and Kelly adduce Ishmael, who voyaged with Ahab’s tyrannical imagination and survived. The book’s penultimate chapter presents an intricate but misguided reading of Moby-Dick, in which the authors contend that Ishmael makes an argument against Ahab’s violent mastery. Dreyfus and Kelly claim that Ahab is mistaken: in his malignant focus on the white whale, he quests after a transcendent meaning that simply is not there. At times, their advice to the mad captain seems to be that he should lighten up: he ought to know that the universe deals out infinite jest. (Dreyfus and Kelly pick the resilient tattooed cannibal Queequeg as their favorite character in Moby-Dick: he is a pagan and a good sport.)

They cite with approval Ishmael’s remark that “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.” But Melville’s narrator is not sitting by the fireside. He has decided to follow literature’s grandest obsessive personality halfway across the oceans of the world, and so his praise of the pleasures of home conveys a certain irony. They ignore the Ishmael who says that “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God,” and who avows, unrepentant, that “I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest…. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.” Ishmael, who fears Ahab, who knows that Ahab’s passion will destroy his men, sides with Ahab nonetheless. And so do we. We cannot resist. So enthusiasm, being filled with the god, is perhaps not so easy to domesticate.

Dreyfus and Kelly like the security of athletic contests and coffee drinking (which takes up another section of this shallow book), events that they want us to cherish precisely because they will never mean very much. They recommend a strange life of whooshes and lattes. Yet a deeper philosophy of life would want more meaning, not less. We cannot always have the shining, but the darkness may have something more interesting to say.

David Mikics is author most recently of Who Was Jacques Derrida?: An Intellectual Biography and (with Stephen Burt) The Art of the Sonnet.

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