Nihilism or IdolatryBy James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Devon, PA. The latest issue of the Intercollegiate Review is out, including my review of All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. This book has been justly trounced by such varied authors as David B. Hart and Garry Wills (to which the authors have provided a response), but I wanted my review to serve the book, in the sense of trying to offer the most compelling case for its interpretation of the western past and present as possible. Despite my consciousness of the book’s faults, this did not prove an onerous task; I often read with admiration and pleasure the writings of Matthew Arnold, George Santayana, and other secularized appropriators of the Christian Platonic tradition, and so I simply directed the patient if critical eye I give to their work to this latest tome. The review begins thus:
The authors of this latest attempt to give life “meaning” and to “uncover the wonder” of the world—concealed, as it has been, by modern technological culture—begin their argument with an episode. In 2007, a young man waiting on a Brooklyn subway platform suffered a seizure and fell onto the subway tracks. Wesley Autry, a fifty-year-old construction worker, jumped onto the tracks and covered the young man with his own body, holding him flat between the rails, as a train bore down upon them. Autry saved the man’s life; he was a hero, and the authors detail the elements of his heroism: Autry knew what to do and he did it immediately.
We moderns envy such decisiveness, the authors claim; we find our natures are unhappily underdetermined, without direction. We suffer a peculiar “burden of choice,” in that “we often seem not to have any sense for what the standards of living a good life are in the first place . . . we seem to have no ground for choosing one course of action over any other.”
It was not always thus, they observe by contrasting Dante’s Divine Comedy with the sprawling scripts of Shakespeare. The Tuscan’s world comprises a spiritual, moral, and literal topography “laid out by God.” To live well, one must conform one’s reason and will to the path assigned to human nature that leads from birth to the beatific vision. The world of Shakespeare is a comparative mess. Hamlet, for example, is not merely undecided about his mother’s “o’er hasty” remarriage: he cannot even decide whether to be or not to be. Whereas Autry moved as if compelled by a system of law and meaning beyond his reason, we moderns are more like Hamlet. What little meaning or purpose we can muster in our lives must be self-generated. But this has the effect of cutting us off still further from the world in which we live. Eventually, the burden of having to spin all the intelligible content of our lives out of the guts of our imagination leads to moral collapse.
The authors accordingly examine the figure of the novelist David Foster Wallace. For just over a decade, Wallace was recognized as one of the great minds of his generation, a “genius” whose thick, square book, Infinite Jest, summed up the total commercialization of our age. Wallace was not content with mere postmodern posturing, however. If modern life is, in Wallace’s words, a “stomach-level sadness,” a “kind of lostness,” he saw that his generation had to “find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values.” He wanted to do that in his work, but the only way out of the desert of consumption he could discern was to “choose how you construct meaning from experience.” Out of the ugliness of things, one must use the strength of one’s genius to make meaning. Wallace, the recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant, was presumably in a privileged position to make a great deal of meaning out of the “fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up” ladies of the world. Instead, on September 12, 2008, he hanged himself.