29 June 2011

When all is clear and bright

Soon after I opened ALL THINGS SHINING I was scribbling notes to myself, and not all of those notes were complimentary. To the authors' contention that the absence of a rigid theological framework similar to the one medieval Europeans lived with was leading people today to feel that there was nothing of meaning left and nothing special, I countered with "Or maybe they're just depressed?" To their use of the term "the gods," as in, "the gods have departed us," I wanted to know: Whose gods? Which one or ones? And how would that discussion of "the gods" square with monotheists of today, who are probably already put off by the use of the plural?

But that's what I liked about this book: It kept losing me in thickets of philosophical inquiry and then reeling me back in, and part of my enjoyment derived from getting lost in those thickets.

The authors theorize that the meaning we no longer find by forming part of The Great Chain Of Being or participating actively in religion, we can find either directly in works of art (like books), through our interactions with them, or modeled in those works a potential way to live. Or as they themselves put it:
"The job of a work of art is to disclose a world, give meaning, and reveal truth. In this sense, works of art working can be thought of as sacred. They give meaning to people's lives and people guide their lives by them, so people treat them as divine. They venerate them like gods and make shrines devoted to them. That is what happened to the ODYSSEY, the ORESTEIA, and the DIVINE COMEDY." 
In each chapter they treat a few works and what they might say about various civilizations' approaches to "the sacred": how to find it and how they interacted with it. In ancient Greece, for example, they argue that the notion of a private emotional experience was outside most people's expectations for their lives and their religious practices (in contrast to the Protestant ideal of someone reading the Bible for himself and praying alone). So in a sense, the decisions made by characters in "Iphigenia in Aulis" or by Helen of Troy in the lead-up to the Trojan War have to be couched in an understanding of what those decisions set in larger motion, not the ethics of the individual in doing so.

(Also, this book really made me want to read THE DIVINE COMEDY, and I didn't know that that would happen.)

To Dreyfus and Kelly's point about modeling ways to live, the authors write about MOBY DICK in a way I wish someone had made me read the first time I encountered it because I completely bought into their explanation of what happens at the end and how it synthesizes with Melville's opinion of his work. Essentially, their reading of the novel casts Ishmael in a sort of metaphysical battle between the transcendent religious experience he believes he's looking for, and the smaller, everyday joys of fellowship and work with his shipmates over which that casts a long shadow. (Paraphrased completely.) Rereading MOBY DICK a few years ago I was looking for an interpretation that made this much sense, but never found it. Until now!

Similarly to the beginning, ALL THINGS SHINING's conclusion lost me at the beginning in its notion of the true communal experience of our age, but it eventually found me again. I have more to say about the David Foster Wallace chapter but I'll save that for tomorrow's post. I racked up over a week in library late fees wrestling with this book, but it was worth it.

No comments: