All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age May 9, 2011

When I was 20 I set off hitch-hiking to discover America. 

One shining afternoon I was in eastern Montana, stuck on a freeway ramp with no town in sight and no ride to get me out of there. I sat down in the grass in the cloverleaf to have a little lunch. With almost no traffic and nothing but fields of wheat in all directions, I was overtaken by a very disquieting mood. I was utterly lacking meaning, unmoored from all the relationships and places that had made up my identity.

Looking for America, I found that I didn’t even know myself. 

Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly have written a fine book here exploring this kind of modern predicament with some top-shelf thinking – complex, delicious and meaningful. Reminds me of a really good dark chocolate (although much more meaningful…).

From a Zen view, they explore the perennial “other power vs. self power” and “meditative state vs. wisdom” issues but from the perspective of Western literature: Homer, Augustine, Dante, Kant, and especially Melville.

Dreyfus and Kelly’s modern foil – for his willful and wanton nihilism – is David Foster Wallace (contemporary author of Infinite Jest who killed himself in 2008).

They agree with Wallace, though, that “The central challenge of the contemporary world … is not just that we don’t know how to live meaningful lives; it’s that we don’t even seem to be able to focus for very long on the question (p.30).”

And certainly a quiet, patient focus is necessary for one of Dreyfus and Kelly’s heroes – Moby Dick.

I’ve loved Moby Dick since I first encountered the beast in college (although I’ve been too busy to pick it up for years). Back then I hardly found a Pequod plank to grasp but was compelled by it nonetheless. Dreyfus and Kelly’s “Fanaticism, Polytheism, and Melville’s ‘Evil Art'” is a lucid and inspiring unpacking of the truths that Melville hoarded in a hold. 

Here are couple samples:

“Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick is, in effect, a monomaniacal pursuit of the final, ultimate truth about the way things are. ‘If man will strike, stike through the mask!’ But there are no such truths in Melville’s world; no reasoning stands behind the unreasoning mask (p.161).”

“Pip [a Black cabin boy who gets lost at sea and opens to it all] has seen the total emptiness of the universe – the absence that is all that is left of God. As Ishmael puts it, he saw the ‘heartless immensity….’ He’d seen … not just whiteness – the ultimate absence of any deep, single, unified meaning to the universe – but also the rainbow – the presence of a multiplicity of interpretations (p.178).”

Dreyfus and Kelly write of the importance – and dangers – of getting “whooshed up,” of being carried on the great winds of the life beyond oneself. And like me, they also yearn for the old ways of craft and skill in our GPS, microwave, and instant-everything culture.

Thankfully, Dreyfus and Kelly don’t leave us twittering with just our predicament.

“We in our culture are being called to cultivate ourselves as beings who are sensitive to what we are called to do. The calling is there, and those who are sensitive enough to the culture and to its rich heritage will hear it. But our focus on ourselves as isolated, autonomous agents has had the effect of banishing the gods – that is to say, covering up or blocking our sensitivity to what is sacred in the world (p. 221).” 

I find their framing of the issues more powerful than their resolution. The rich heritage of Zen practice offers a more gripping and embodied resolution practice. Take the koan, for example, 

You make your way through the darkness of abandoned grasses in a single-minded search for your self-nature. Now! honored one, where is your nature? 

Still, I’ve enjoyed finding companions in Dreyfus and Kelly, heartily recommend the book, and thank Steve for the recommendation. I wish I’d had the book in my backpack in those hitch-hikin’ days.


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