Nihilism or Idolatry

by James Matthew Wilson on October 10, 2011 · 4 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

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.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar D.W. Sabin October 10, 2011 at 1:56 pm

….” 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”. Nice one.

Our sense of agape is reduced to a nervous fascination with the rotating pantheon of Gods produced by our popular culture.

It is so very interesting that the voyeurism of secular life…the individual as glorious spectator tweeting away has resulted in a veneration of the self , a self that has no inner light to illuminate the personal pathways of knowledge.

Tribalism stays with us though and its deleterious effects are made that much more potent by the devaluation of this thing called the “individual”.

avatar Kevin October 11, 2011 at 11:16 am

James,

A chief aim of Dreyfuss and Kelly is to return the world to some kind of paganism where things still “shine.” Given Dreyfuss’s academic background, it’s not unfair to view that hope as (for Dreyfuss) basically Heideggerian (sorry): the way to overcome technology’s dulling and “flattening” effect is to fight back and see the world as wonderful, independent of any use that it has.

The Christian argument often just extends this line of reasoning: yes, paganism gives us wonder of the world, but that wonder can lead to Christianity, through a more general search for meaning, or through gratitude for what we see shining. That seems to me to be Chesterton’s main point in *Orthodoxy*, though others have made similar points (bear with me).

Your argument seems to be that things are shining well-enough *because* of a fetishization of commodities (one variant of technological thinking), and thus Dreyfuss and Kelly shouldn’t reject the Chestertonian line of argument. Fair enough? So your argument turns, in effect, on whether or not things we see the world “shining.”

What evidence do you have for this claim? What almost everything looks dull to our fellow countrymen? How would we break that spell (to use Chesterton’s way of thinking)? Ff it turns out that paganism isn’t compelling to Americans today, should we preach paganism before Christianity?

avatar dave walsh October 11, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Well there you go – two of your sentences: “the authors really just ask us to acknowledge that we are not the engineers of the meaning we find in the world.” plus this at the end: “The world shines brightly enough. What our age lacks, and what Dante’s did not, was the willingness to search for the original light—and to rise and be on our way toward it.” – my thinking, influenced, convinced to it by others, is that human creation is essentially empty. But what is open to discovery is seemingly boundless. Implicit in creation is commodity, patent, royalties. My intellectual property. The smart money is in the creative classes. Discovery, either you look or you are – what was that – as big as an ox and twice as smart. The word holds less currency.

avatar Albert October 19, 2011 at 11:11 am

Do our fellow citizens see the world as “shining”? I think the answer is: most of the time, at least in the USA. Kevin, unless I am mistaken, JMW writes that commodity fetishization is *evidence* of our seeing things as “shining,” not a *cause* of it as you think he thinks.

But I wonder if Kevin is otherwise right, that the shining has become dull or somehow plasticized.

Thanks for the article.

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