The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus and his former student Sean Dorrance Kelly have a story to tell, and it is not a pretty tale for us moderns. Ours is an age of nihilism, they say, meaning not so much that we have nothing in which to believe, but that we don’t know how to choose among the various things to which we might commit ourselves. Looking down from their perches at Berkeley and Harvard, they see the “human indecision that plagues us all.” In All Things Shining they offer readings of classic texts to show both how we got into this mess and how we can overcome it.
Though brief, this is an ambitious book, offering insightful readings of authors including Homer, Dante, Descartes and Kant, as well as the novelists Herman Melville and David Foster Wallace. Dreyfus and Kelly believe that great books are the “gathering places” where the major forces of a culture are focused, and so they are able to chart our descent from Homer’s gratitude before many gods to Wallace’s paralysis before a plethora of choices.
All Things Shining is not a book that asks, though, which Greeks would have been filled with gratitude, or which Americans have so many options that they are overcome by indecision. The philosophers stay very general, so everyday religious practices, poverty and gender dynamics play no role. This is especially unfortunate because it undermines their call to pay attention to, and be grateful for, the ordinary things around us.
Like Allan Bloom and Harold Bloom, and more recently David Denby and Alain de Botton, Dreyfus and Kelly think that classic texts point the way out of our contemporary malaise. They focus on philosophical issues, relying heavily on a version of Martin Heidegger’s narrative of cultivated despair with our technological age. Once upon a time in the West, way before Socrates and Plato kicked off what we now think of as philosophy, people were open to the wonderful variety of things. When we began to look for the Truth, however, we got locked into a cycle of certainty and skepticism.
Our desire for an Essence or a God to anchor the world made us increasingly oblivious to our experience of it. As our monotheistic quest for the foundation of meaning fell short, we slid down the slippery slope toward nihilism, toward the sense that nothing had any sense at all. As we strove to get out of this morass, we only slipped further, since striving was a big part of the problem.
For Heidegger, particularly after his awful alliance with the Nazis, finding a way to listen to great works of art and philosophy, to hear the lessons of the poets and craftsmen, was our only hope for turning away from contemporary emptiness and oblivion. Dreyfus and Kelly provide an Americanized version of Heidegger’s narrative: Wallace and Melville play crucial roles, and the book ends by extolling the openness to communal feelings Americans display at sports events.
Dreyfus and Kelly see in the Homeric past a world in which “the highest form of human excellence” is “to recognize, be amazed by, and be grateful for whatever it is that draws you to act at your best.”
They say that Homer’s heroes were able to open themselves to a variety of gods, to “whatever stands beyond us that requires our gratitude.” In the authors’ reading of Homer and other texts, they rely heavily on Heidegger’s concept of “attunement,” which conveys how receptive moods allow us to acknowledge meaning in the world. We get out of tune when we pursue monotheism, the notion that there is a unifying principle at work in the world, because we then try too hard to make the universe reveal its secrets or serve our interests. When we try too hard, we lose touch with the world.
Great books are there to reconnect us. Dreyfus and Kelly admire Dante’s focus on the saving power of various forms of desire, but find that his ultimate emphasis on the overwhelming bliss of contemplating God “makes all other earthly joys irrelevant.” Dante’s achievement turns out to be “not the answer to nihilism but another step in its direction.” Similarly, the philosophical focus after Descartes and Kant is on the autonomous self as the basis for knowledge, but the authors explore how the idea of a human subject able to bestow meaning on inert objects winds up undermining our openness to the world.
The reading of Moby-Dick is the most exciting and provocative part of All Things Shining. The authors see Ahab’s determination as “the wicked core of his monomaniacal monotheism,” and they understand the novel as a stirring critique of the modern search for an existential foundation.
“At the center of Melville’s understanding of the whale is the idea that there is no meaning to the universe hidden behind its surface events, that the surface events themselves” are all there is. This is vital and important, but Dreyfus and Kelly undercut their own message by claiming that “a whole pantheon of gods is really there.” Why invoke these gods when the surface events are supposed to be enough?
Dreyfus and Kelly invoke these gods because they want us to receive something really deep and powerful, and they give the example of being overwhelmed by emotions in crowds. But then they awkwardly depart from their poems, novels and plays to cite feelings of oneness in a crowd watching Roger Federer play tennis! Can privileged, happy spectators really stand as an antidote for the general affliction of modernity? Is “whooshing” along with a crowd the philosophers’ cure for nihilism or just its expression?
In what seems like an afterthought, they try to distinguish between sharing joy at a game and at a Nazi rally. The authors say more than once that they want their readers to be able to recognize “when to rise up as one with the ecstatic crowd and when to turn heel and walk rapidly away.” But they fail to show how what they call the “higher-order skill” of reverence will help in this regard, and they don’t even consider that fighting the Nazis might be an alternative to either joining or walking away.
Despite its shortcomings, All Things Shining repays attention and reflection. It is a fascinating read and deserves an audience far beyond the borders of academia. Even if you don’t agree that we are caught in an age of nihilistic indecision, if you attune yourself to the authors’ energetic intelligence and deep engagement with key texts in the West, you will have much to be grateful for.
Michael Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of ‘The Ironist’s Cage.’
When Auntie Su (蘇) was evicted from her apartment last Monday, locals were so overjoyed that they sent thank you wreaths to the Tainan Police Department. “Justice has been served.” “Punish villains and eradicate evil,” read some of the notes. “Thank you, hardworking police for bringing peace and quiet back to Tainan!” a neighbor posted on Facebook. Auntie Su is a notorious “informer demon” (檢舉魔人), someone who is known to excessively report violations either for reward money or — depending which side you’re on — to serve as a justice warrior or a nosy annoyance. Usually they are called “professional”
In Taiwan’s foothills, suspension bridges — or the remnants of them — are almost as commonplace as temples. “Suspension bridge” is a direct translation of the Chinese-language term (吊橋, diaoqiao), but it’s a little misleading. These spans aren’t huge pieces of infrastructure. The larger ones are just wide enough for the little trucks used by farmers. Others are suitable for two-wheelers and wheelbarrows. If one end is higher than the other, they may incorporate steps, like the recently-inaugurated, pedestrians-only Shuanglong Rainbow Suspension Bridge (雙龍七彩吊橋) in Nantou County. Because torrential rains hammer Taiwan during the hot season, the landscape is scarred by
With his sugarcane juice stall at Monga Nightmarket (艋舺夜市) floundering due to COVID-19, things took a turn for the worse for Lin Chih-hang (林志航) when he was furloughed from a part-time job. The crowds are trickling back to this nightmarket in Taipei’s Wanhua District (萬華), but Lin is now so busy that he has hired a friend to run his stall. As the sole driver of the night market’s delivery service, established on April 12, Lin takes on an average of 20 orders on weeknights and over 60 on weekends, with his father helping out when he is too busy.
Eslite Gallery will hold an open house at their new gallery tomorrow in Taipei’s Songshan Cultural and Creative Park. The doors to the new space will open at 4pm and will feature works by local and international artists. As a nod to the ongoing pandemic and Taiwan’s handling of it, the gallery also announced a project called Artivate, calling on 12 of its artists to emblazon details from their artwork on cloth masks. Participating local artists include Jimmy Liao (幾米), whose illustrated books with simple stories about people coping in the modern urban world have become hot sellers across Asia, and