Readers of any of the more bleak and depressing works of serious fiction today may find themselves wondering why the author bothered to publish anything. The tone, style and underlying worldview of modern literature contrast remarkably with the works we deem classic.
“The world doesn’t matter to us the way it used to,” assert the authors of “All Things Shining.” “The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age.” They add: “The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away. This book is intended to bring them close once more.”
Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly - one a longtime professor of existential philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, the other a professor and chairman of the philosophy department at Harvard, respectively - recognize that in much of the West, men view life as an arena wherein they have found “all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken,” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous words.
The authors do not expect the gods to return. But, they say, if we can view the world described by Homer, St. Paul, Herman Melville and other renowned literary figures in a creative, empathetic manner, perhaps the “sacred, shining things” can be ours again.
How did we get to such a state that such an act of recovery is needful? Early in “All Things Shining,” the authors describe modern Western literature as “a series of responses to the death of God - to the death in the culture, in other words, of a grounded, public and shared sense that there is a single, unquestioned set of virtues - Judeo-Christian virtues - in accordance with which one’s life is properly led. As the background assumption of God’s existence receded and atheism and agnosticism grew more common, it became less obvious that Judeo-Christian principles held true for all. Of course, as Dostoyevsky suggested in ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ if there is no God then everything is permitted.”
In such a world, nihilism abounds, that being the idea that there is no reason to prefer one answer to any other in the way we respond to life’s every question. The natural children of nihilism are despair and suicide, and the authors cite the brilliant, tormented writer David Foster Wallace as a cautionary example. (Failing to find a reason to live, Foster hanged himself at age 46.)
To attempt to rescue the modern imagination from what they term “the sadness and lostness of the present age,” Mr. Dreyfus and Mr. Kelly embark on freewheeling discourses through the great works of sacred and secular literature in the West, examining the worldview that is reflected in each and comparing them one with another.
They seek to draw parallels between the beliefs of days past and familiar modern-day interpretations similar to those beliefs. For example, they point to the phenomenon of a modern athlete being altogether “in the moment,” performing magnificent feats seemingly outside the normal skill levels of a human being, and note the similarity of this to the ancients believing that the gods granted supernatural instincts and agility to avoid danger in a dangerous confrontation. Seen in this light, the ancients become recognizable and identifiable with one’s own world.
The authors are particularly strong in the book’s centerpiece, a lengthy, eye-opening analysis of “Moby Dick,” Melville’s self-styled “wicked book.” The “wickedness” of the novel lies in Melville’s relegation of Christianity’s God to being one deity among many, not superior to any other. For, as the authors note, “There are other gods as well - malicious and vindictive and joyous and divine - and the universe is all of these by turns. Which is to say that ultimately it is no one of them. A whole pantheon of gods is really there.”
To the authors, this is a liberating thought. To this reviewer, this thought leads us back to Dostoevski’s warning that if there is no God, then everything is permitted, for there are gods of light and gods of darkness, and what if the illumination within oneself is darkness?
Therefore, having been “released from the ancient temptation to monotheism” into a world of polytheism - the worship of many gods, many of them here today and gone tomorrow - can we truly say that this state of affairs will somehow make for a world “more varied and more vibrant than anything Homer ever knew”? The reader must decide.
Mr. Dreyfus and Mr. Kelly have undertaken a rear-guard action against the reign of Chaos and old Night within literature. In “All Things Shining,” they seek to present afresh the way people once viewed their world, arousing and strengthening what men and women know in their hearts. In vast stretches of their book, the authors offer remarkably insightful assessments of individual works of great literature. Whether they have laid a successful road map for bringing the world of faraway sacred, shining things close to us once more is unclear.
James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind” (Madison Books) and a longtime book reviewer.