All Things Shining

Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly wrote a shining book titled All Things Shining. One way to summarize their book (ATS) is to say it seeks to explain its epigraph, which is taken from Moby Dick:

If hereafter any highly cultured, poetical nation shall lure back to their birthright the merry May-day gods of old; and livingly enthrone them again in the now egotistical sky; on the now unhaunted hill; then be sure, exalted to Jove’s high seat, the great Sperm Whale shall lord it.

I found ATS magnificently thought-provoking, illuminating, liberating, but it begins by recounting the epic tragedy of humanity thus far beginning in medias res with the recent case of David Foster Wallace.

Well, no, actually, before that it talks about the magic of moods, especially public, shared moods, such as when we witness something heroic or astonishingly excellent. These can be seen and appreciated (with gratitude) as gifts from the gods, from outside ourselves. I gather much of this talk of moods comes from Heidegger, but I have never read him. In any case, I’ll come back to moods.

To illustrate our current predicament the authors devote a chapter to the case of David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest and other celebrated works, who struggled with depression and committed suicide in 2008. ATS characterizes Wallace’s worldview as nihilism, where there is no intrinsic meaning or purpose to our lives and it is up to each individual to choose and give to himself meaning and purpose. This is quite a responsibility and closes us off to the source of many if not all of life’s joys.

How did we get here? Especially when our western tradition, our way of living life and relating to the world started off pretty good with the Greeks. At least in our capacity to enjoy life, we have been going down hill since the Archaic (Homeric) Greeks. For them their moods and experiences and thus reality itself was an ongoing joint production with the many gods. Theirs may have been a tragic view of life, but counterintuitively it allowed them to experience more joy and more gratitude.

In chapters covering Aeschylus to Augustine and Dante (who had imbibed Aquinas) and Kant they chart our long march away from this more wholesome posture toward life and its meanings. We have taken on too much responsibility. We have taken on airs. We are too full of ourselves. The truth (sacrilege to me personally for most of my life) is that we are not fully responsible for our lives. How could we be? Yet we are such creatures that we have some responsibility for our lives. So the point of division of responsibility is somewhere in that vast middle. And therein lies the rub. How do we find that point? And that presumes that it is stable point that doesn’t shift over time. But surely responsibility, in general, shifts as one ages. The level of responsibility of a child is less than that of a teenager, which is less than an adult’s. And for seniors responsibility may decline from Peak Responsibility in middle age.

In any case, the formula for fulfillment and happiness of: choose your values, choose your goals, choose your bliss; it’s all up to you (rejoice!); you must generate it from hardly more than nothing. That whole line of thought has taken us to misery.

We come to Herman Melville and his inscrutable Moby Dick. Ah, the tale of the white whale—with no face!

Ishmael takes his moodiness seriously. The authors quote a letter from Melville to Hawthorne where he asks, “Lord, when shall we be done changing?”

ATS continues: “Never, is the answer to that question. We shall never be done changing. And that is true for Ishmael and Melville alike. For Ishmael, like his ever-changing creator, is moody and constantly redefined by his moods; he is a Catskill mountain eagle, as Melville suggests, a noble bird who can soar to the highest heights and descend into the blackest mountain gorges. And in all of these moody flights some godlike truth and meaning is revealed. In Ishmael, as in Melville himself, ‘divine magnanimities are spontaneous and instantaneous–catch them while you can.'”

Heed Melville too in his view that we need to scale down our expectations about happiness. We are only likely to manage so much. Life is not about elusive and illusive happiness. It is about savoring the joys that present themselves, enjoying them fully and with gratitude, and then letting them go as they subside.

ATS quotes chapter 94 of Moby Dick:

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.

Isn’t there more to this? No.

There HAS to be some deeper meaning! There isn’t. It’s quite enough.

We moderns (especially, perhaps, those who are overeducated) are looking for one unified, overarching, transcendental meaning to things–and it may not be there.

ATS says “Ishmael’s amazing strength is that he is able to live in these surface meanings and find a genuine range of joys and comforts there, without wishing they stood for something more.”

So ATS brings us back to the outlook of the polytheistic Homeric Greeks.

Nietzsche is quoted:

Oh, those [Homeric] Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial—out of profundity.

What is offered? For humans? Fellowship, connection, belonging, the art of purpose, flow. The pleasures of heart and bed and wife and table and nature. ATS calls physis, nature, the way reality presents itself or is experienced in these excellent moments, “whooshing”. And to me that’s tao, arete, Quality, reality itself, as it is dynamically (co-)created/experienced. We can only control our part, principally through our cultivated (skillful) receptivity.

Now, we can approach the question scientifically, as Jonathan Haidt and others have done, and understand that we are creatures that evolved with a specific evolutionary path/history. That shapes the answer for us. We live in an environment, social, physical, cultural, psychological. And we are constructed to interact with that environment in a certain way, in fact to depend upon our environment, including salutary amounts of challenge and stress, in order for us to grow and thrive and be truly alive.

So the thing to do is to let go a bit and think polytheistically, if that helps. The world is haunted by many gods, and they influence us, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. We have to be open in general. But we need practical wisdom, judgement, phronesis, what they call meta-poiesis. This is the art and skill of drawing out appropriate, excellent meanings from things by means of skillful, judicious discrimination (discernment). Sometimes we are wise to reject the whooshing.

Wonderful book. This synopsis does not do it justice. Highly, highly recommended. Some final thoughts, which I hope to develop in the future:

  • Receptivity, being attuned, to faith, joy, inspiration, erotic moods, this is the best posture toward life. We cannot directly give these things to ourselves. We can only be open to them, as Martin Luther believed.
  • Our joys are embodied, in these human bodies, even our intellectual joys. We should not be looking for some transcendent, abstract bliss that exists on some exalted, fleshless, spiritual plane.
  • There are two kinds of sacred experiences. Small rituals and activities that require skill and yield flow. And then the big, wild, ecstatic, communal sacred. In both these enchanting realms we need to be careful to not be seduced and led astray. The meta-poiesis they refer to is this highest wisdom and skill to handle this.
  • The only way to develop skill, with anything, is to do it. There is no other way. There is KNOWLEDGE. But that is not skill. And experience, doing things, living, entails risks. There is of course a skill at taking various kinds of risk.
  • All this mates with the division of our minds into Adaptive Unconscious and Intellect (or what Kahneman refers to sexily as system 1 and system 2).
  • I look forward to McGilchrist’s forthcoming follow-on to The Master and His Emissary. I am persuaded that we would be wise, as individuals, and as a civilization, to restore balance in our worldview. I used to think the Intellect was the end-all-be-all and the Master. But I think Hume was onto something, and McGilchrist is really making the case, that it is precisely the reverse–and for good reason if you think about it! With luck, these times are Peak Bleakness for humanity, and things are going to get better now. Hmm.