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"All Things Shining" is a book written by two philosophers, for a general audience. While there is textual analysis and criticism, it is in service of a goal that the authors feel should have very broad appeal in our secular and nihilistic age:
"The world used to be in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away. This book is intended to bring them close once more. [. . .] Anyone who wants to lure back the shining things, to uncover the wonder we were once capable of experiencing, and to reveal a world that sometimes calls forth such a mood; anyone who is done with indecision and waiting, with expressionlessness and lostness and sadnes and angst, and who is ready for whatever it is that comes next; anyone with hope instead of despair, or anyone with despair that they would like to leave behind, can find something worthwhile in the pages ahead. Or at least that is what we intend.
The authors goal, in short, is to clear a path by which people can lure back the "merry May-day gods of old"--the sacred shining things--in order that they may thereby lead intense and meaningful lives, as the ancient Greeks once did. However, they are not interested in trying to recover anything supernatural; they are not, for example, interested in bringing back belief in a literally existing, supernatural Greek Goddess named "Aphrodite". They are instead interested in something that might be called a mood, or an attunement, that opens one to the world, and to a sacred dimension that once may have been understood as, and represented by a god or goddess: the erotic dimension and that which attunes one to it, being that which was once called "Aphrodite"; the aggressive, war-like dimension "Ares"; and so on.
The authors look back to Homer's polytheism (among other worlds) and the inner attitudes that it engendered because they believe that people now have a "gut-level sadness" and lead flattened down and meaningless lives. Our age is one that is threatened by nihilism. Indeed, our very lives are threatened:
"The stakes are even higher. The Enlightenment's metaphysical embrace of the autonomous individual leads not just to a boring life. It leads almost inevitably to a nearly unlivable one."
And the more sensitive ones among us--like canaries in a coal mine--have already born witness to the great danger of nihilism. Chapter 1 and 2 of the book are called, respectively, "Our Contemporary Nihilism" and "David Foster Wallace's Nihilism." David Foster Wallace (who battled with depression all his life and who finally took his own life) was very interested in finding out what was still alive and viable in our age so that he could "apply CPR" to it. He viewed this as the mission of an author--or at least as his mission. His tried to overcome the problem of despair and the wasteland of a "consumer hell" by offering the possibility that we can attribute meanings to things by force of intellectual will. You can chose how you will take things, he says. The lady in front of you yelling at her kid in the checkout line might have been up all night holding the hand of her husband who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer, for example. She might have. You can't say for sure she wasn't. The mind is its own place, and can make a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell, in other words. Wallace, however, failed to achieve this, and felt that he wouldn't ever achieve it. The authors point out that that is because such a thing is impossible. You can't just attribute any arbitrary meanings to things ex nihilo, like God, because you are a human, not a god.
So, what to do? How to proceed? How to find a way to make sense of the world and our place in it and to find meaningful differences between the overwhelming number of choices we all face every day? In what the authors feel may seem a surprising turnabout to readers, they ask the question how we declined from the wonder and glory of Greece to our sorry state in the modern world. The next four chapters of the book offer snapshots of various stages of that decline. We start with "Homer's Polytheism" and a discussion of The Odyssey in chapter 3, and move to Aeschylus and Augustine in chapter 4, Dante and Kant in chapter 5, and to Melville in Chapter 6.
In the world described by Homer--in the world originated by Homer--we find men and women who are open to being "swept up" by one or more of the divinities. When one of these attuning ones acted upon (and with) a Greek man or woman, they embraced the wave and rose up with the great swell, being carried forward into action. But, this phenomenon was neither active, autonomous, self-directed action, nor something totally passive and receptive about which one had no choice. In a wonderful endnote the authors mention the existence of the "middle voice" in Attic Greek which is something in between the passive and active voice. In our modern grammar we have the active--"John threw the ball"--and we have the passive--"John was thrown by the bull"--but we don't have that middle voice whereby your action is called out of you by the situation and the surroundings--by an attunement, or by something that attunes you to important realities inherent in your surroundings. Homer uses the middle voice, we are told, when Athena prompted Odysseus's hands to reach out and grab a passing rock and thus save himself from being smashed into the rocky shore. Odysseus was neither totally active, nor totally passive.
According to the authors, this is in fact how most modern day "heroes" describe their heroic acts. It wasn't that they intellectually decided to do such and such a heroic act, they tell us, it was that they just saw the situation and acted: "I just saw someone who needed help. Anyone would have done the same thing." Indeed, many people may have also seen someone who needed help, and yet they didn't do anything, caught up in their own thoughts and in the possibilities, still caught up in the Enlightenment mode of being an autonomous individual. "Heroes", however, can often be said not to experience themselves as the source of their actions. In Homer's world, a hero would have said, like Odysseus, that it was "Athena's work." (or the work of some other divinity). Today, we do not have this option. Dreyfus and Kelly would like to lay the theoretical and philosophical ground-work that will give us all this option back. Like the Buddha, they offer a "middle way" between two evils.
The final chapter, "Conclusion: Lives Worth Living in a Secular Age" deals directly with this topic, having had the way prepared for it by the previous chapters. Dreyfus and Kelly would like us to feel gratitude towards the world. They feel that this is the best response even to situations that most of us would just view as lucky--the roll of the impartial dice. They discuss both a scene in The Odyssey where six spears thrown at point black range all fail to find their mark in Odysseus, and a similar scene in Pulp Fiction where six bullets shot from a handgun all miss Jules and Vincent. Jules insists that it is a miracle from God, whereas Vincent just says that sometimes stuff just happens. While the authors don't believe--and don't want us to believe--that a supernatural being caused the bullets to miss somehow or other, they still insist that one should feel grateful and cared for in such an event. The trick to leading an intense and meaningful life, they tell us, is to be open to being swept up by such moods. Helen of Troy, despite causing the Trojan War and leaving her husband to run of with Paris, was acting with "arete", with excellence, by being responsive to Aphrodite's call. Later, the wave passed and the mood subsided and she returned to her husband, and was responsive to Hera's call, to the domestic dimension in life, without feeling the need to rank, reconcile, or compare the two dimensions or moralize her actions. THIS is what POLYTHEISM truly means. It means that there is no overarching mono-logic consideration that can rank and adjudicate the gods and goddess and the realities, the domains, over which they preside. To decline from this to monotheism is to narrow the range and wonder of human life from its multi-dimensional richness in Homor, to the nothingness of a line, a single dimension, in the modern world.
The authors immediately raise the problem of Hitler, of course. The people at Hitler's rallies were definitely open and responsive to being swept-up by the wave, so to speak! How can one embrace a meaningful life if the danger of the Holocaust or war or lynchings or similar things is the consequence? The authors' solution to this problem is something they call "meta-poiesis" and they develop it from considering a craftperson, such as a wheelwright. Meta-poiesis allows one to learn the craft of living and to know when to give in and become responsive, and when to walk away. In addition, people must discover what they like and turn these things into rituals. Perhaps the morning cup of coffee becomes a ritual, because one discovers that it is more than just a caffeine delivery system, or perhaps it is something else. Not everything will shine, but all the shining things will shine.
OK. That's the recap. Now to my commentary. First of all, the notion that the modern age is suffering from loss of meaning and nihilism is pretty much inaccurate, in my opinion. Most people are OK. Plenty of people do lead intense and meaningful lives. Further, there were plenty of people in Ancient Greece who probably were not leading the intense and meaningful lives Dreyfus and Kelly so admire in Homer's characters--like, for example, say, maybe the SLAVES.
Second, one cannot, ex nihilo, cause oneself to feel grateful just by deciding intellectually that it's the best emotion to feel! If you did know that "God" had caused the bullets fired at you to miss, then, yes, you would naturally feel gratitude. But if, on the contrary, all that you know points to this being an impossibility, then trying to conjure up a feeling of gratitude is a fools errand.
Third, HADES IS ALSO A GOD! Depression and sadness and despair and angst are ALSO sacred dimensions of human life in a true polytheistic world. People chase after happiness and run from sadness, but ALL of our emotions are vital and important. They all are trying to tell us something. They all carry energy and information from one part of the psyche to another. What Dreyfus and Kelly are really trying to revivify and lure back here are THE EMOTIONS. If you really want to lead an intense and meaningful life, welcome all of your emotions, even the negative ones, the bad ones. (Which doesn't mean you explode them onto others, or act out, by the way). Do not enthrone your intellect as the only reality of your psyche. Instead of this spotty book here under review, I would instead HIGHLY recommend Karla McLaren's The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You . Despite the fact that Dreyfus and Kelly recognize the paucity of the Enlightenment conception of the mono-theistic autonomous individual who is only ego and thoughts and self-consciousness, and despite the fact that they correctly point out that some actions originate in a source deeper than the ego, they do not even mention Carl Jung once! It's mind-blowing! They're great when they are examining a single text, such as Moby Dick, but when they try to tackle the big picture they fall down. The question is not whether a polytheistic attitude towards life is more convenient and convivial for us moderns, but rather whether or not it is a more accurate model of the psyche. A great deal of psychiatric (and other) research suggests that it is.
And--if I may address the authors personally--I mean, seriously--"meta-poiesis"? Guys, really, this is pathetic. Did you really have to coin an awkward new term for what most of us would simply call WISDOM? And, for that matter, what happened to APOLLO? You think that you have to abandon ethics and reason in a polytheistic system? That there is no power--no dimension--of the psyche that would be able to tell you that you'd best walk away from a Hitler rally but that you'd best walk toward a Martin Luther King rally? Seriously? Ethics and reason don't need to be absolute and universally, mathematically applicable in order to be able to tell you that the one is good and the other bad. As for turning things in life into rituals, don't you think that someone in Wallace's situation does that? Don't you think that most people do that to one degree or another? If you have a gut-level sadness and are suffering from depression, this WILL NOT help you. Perhaps part of Wallace's burden was that he felt he personally had to find the "answers" (like Ahab after Moby Dick) and give them to people--that he had to be a savior.
And perhaps this is part of Dreyfus and Kelly's problem as well, or at least the problem with this book. Personally, I think it's a bit presumptuous. Well-meaning, to be sure. But still . . .
In any case, while I very much appreciated this books excellent discussion of Homer and Melville and Dante, and I think these chapters alone are worth the cost of admission here, I have to say that, overall, this book is shockingly inadequate to its (admittedly very high) intention, and I can't recommend it to people who don't much enjoy literary criticism and the classics. The book is meant for a general readership, and it's meant to help people lead more intense and meaningful lives, and it fails dramatically on these counts. If you're looking to this book to help you find meaning in life, and to construct a basis for making choices, you will likely be disappointed: it's not much more profound than "be open to the world and its various sacred dimensions and to being swept up by them" and "discover what you really like and make rituals of these things" and "develop meta-poeisis. i.e. learn the art of living." Not really profound and like-changing stuff, to say the least!
However, if you're looking to this book to take you on an enlightening, instructive, and at times brilliant tour of philosophy and a few great works of culturally significant literature and how world-views have changed over the history of the West, you will likely be very pleased with it.