📙 All Things Shining
Author: Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly
Full Title: All Things Shining
A NOTE TO THE READER
THE WORLD DOESN’T MATTER to us the way it used to. 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. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away.
1 Our Contemporary Nihilism
If you look at the history of most people who are designated heroes in the military and in other places, most of the time they say the reaction they had was without any mental preparation. It was spontaneous, it was without much consideration for the practicalities, the realities of the moment. I think they’re honest when they say they don’t think of themselves as heroes, they just reacted to something they saw as an emergency.
Time for you and time for me, And time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, Before the taking of a toast and tea.
The genuinely confident agent does not manufacture confidence, but receives it from the circumstances.
One cycles through the list of websites or friends waiting for the latest update, only to find that when it is completed one is cycling through the sequence once again, precisely as expectant and desiring as before. The craving for something new is constant and unceasing, and the latest post only serves to make you Desire more.
The burden of Choice is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. It proliferates in a world that no longer has any God or gods, nor even any sense of what is sacred and inviolable, to focus our understanding of what we are.
Habitual actions of these sorts can occur “offline,” as one might say, without the agent even noticing that she is performing them. And yet it is part of the habitual action that the person performing it can break in at any moment and resist. In some sense the habitual actor, like the heroic one, is neither willful agent nor unwilling slave.
Although the burden of Choice can seem inevitable, in fact it is unique to contemporary life. It is not just that in earlier epochs one knew on what basis one’s most fundamental existential Choices were made: it is that the existential questions didn’t even make sense.
The way of life of a culture is not an explicit set of beliefs held by the people living in it. It is much deeper than that. A person brought up in a culture learns its way of life the way he learns to speak in the language and with the accent of his family and peers. But a way of life is much broader than this.
his suicide is much more than the loss of a single, talented individual. It is a warning that requires our most serious attention. It is, indeed, the proverbial canary in the coal mine of modern existence.
The freedom to gaze at the eternal chaos of the universe and impose an arbitrary meaning upon it, to live eternally upon this open sea, that is the freedom of a god, a freedom no mortal life can sustain.
The idea that we must “become gods ourselves” as Nietzsche says,48 that we must become the source of all “divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery,” this dramatically self-aggrandizing view was indeed prefigured by the Renaissance notion of genius—and of rational humanism more generally.
The Homeric Greeks were open to the world in a way that we, who are skilled at introspection and who think of moods as private experiences, can barely comprehend. Instead of understanding themselves in terms of their Inner experiences and beliefs, they saw themselves as beings swept up into public and shareable moods.
The best kind of life in Homer’s world is to be in sync with the gods. As Martin Heidegger puts it: [W]e are thinking the essence of the [Homeric] Greek gods … if we call them the attuning ones.
At the center of Homer’s world, then, is the sense that what matters is already given to us, and that the best life is the one that manages to get in sync with it.
To lure back these Homeric gods is a saving possibility after the death of God: it would allow us to survive the breakdown of Monotheism while resisting the descent into a nihilistic existence.
Nietzsche was one of the first to understand that Homeric excellence bears little resemblance to modern moral agency.
Nietzsche was certainly right that the Homeric tradition valorizes the strong, noble hero; and he was right, too, that in some important sense the Homeric account of excellence is foreign to our basic moralizing assumptions. But there is something that the Nietzschean account leaves out. As Bernard Knox emphasizes, the Greek word arete is etymologically related to the Greek verb “to pray” (araomai). It follows that Homer’s basic account of human excellence involves the necessity of being in an appropriate relationship to whatever is understood to be sacred in the culture.
What makes Helen great in Homer’s world is her ability to live a life that is constantly responsive to golden Aphrodite, the shining example of the sacred erotic dimension of existence.
To say that all men need the gods therefore is to say, in part at least, that we are the kinds of beings who are at our best when we find ourselves acting in ways that we cannot—and ought not—entirely take credit for.
Even when the gods are not explicitly responsible for someone’s going to sleep, however, Homer’s way of describing the event is deeply informed by his understanding of human beings as not fully in control of central aspects of their existence. We have seen already the extraordinary range of ways Homer has to describe the phenomena of being drawn into and awakened from sleep. In Homer people do not just go to sleep, as if that was something one could do; sleep itself is a sacred gift.
Sleep is a canonical human event in Homer because it is the paradigm of an activity at which one cannot succeed by trying harder.
The modern view that we are entirely responsible for our existence stands in radical contrast with the Homeric idea that we act at our best when we open ourselves to the world, allowing ourselves to be drawn from without. Indeed, once we see the force of this contrast it becomes obvious why the central Homeric phenomena are hard to find in our modern world. What Homer considers to be the paradigm of excellence seems to us hardly to count as human action at all.
Perhaps this is a lesson about the sacred that we are now in a position to appreciate: when things are going at their best, when we are the most excellent version of ourselves that we can be, when we are, for instance, working together with others as one, then our activity seems to be drawn out of us by an External force. These are shining moments in life, wondrous moments that require our gratitude. In those episodes of excellence, no matter the domain, Odysseus’s voice should ring through our heads: “Be silent; curb your thoughts; do not ask questions. This is the work of the Olympians.”
A god, in Homer’s terminology, is a mood that attunes us to what matters most in a situation, allowing us to respond appropriately without thinking.
Aeschylus’s conception of the sacred moves away from Homer’s Polytheism toward a more unified, monotheistic conception of the universe.
Zeus, in other words, is the hidden and unrepresentable background that sustains all the meaningful practices of the culture.
THE ORESTEIA MANIFESTED and focused for all Athenians what they were up to as Athenians. Heidegger calls anything that performs this focusing function a work of art.
The paradigmatic works of art for an age let certain ways of life shine forth. But in doing so they cover up what is worthy in other—radically different—ways of life.
Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to. Works of art in this sense do not represent something else—the way a photograph of one’s children represents them. Indeed, Heidegger says explicitly that the temple “portrays nothing.”19 Rather, works of art work; they gather practices together to focus and manifest a way of life. When works of art shine, they illuminate and glamorize a way of life, and all other things shine in their light. A work of art embodies the truth of its world.
Articulators focus and so renew what is meaningful in a culture; they bring out a shared-background understanding of what matters, and therefore of what it makes sense to do.
Since articulators focus a shared background, their audience understands them immediately.
A god at its best doesn’t just renew a world by glamorizing and focusing it; the most potent gods actually transform the world, turning an old world into a new one.
If a sufficient number of people had recognized in Woodstock what they most cared about and had recognized that many others shared this recognition, then a new world might have come into being. But Woodstock failed to be a new god.
A reconfiguring work that opens a new world would have to have a threefold structure.
In the history of the West we have only two figures who do such a threefold reconfiguring job. They are an odd pair: Jesus and Descartes. Jesus as presented in the Gospels is a successful reconfigurer who sets up the Christian World in which there can be a savior as well as saints and sinners; Descartes sets up our Modern World in which people and things become subjects and objects.
To put the phenomenon in Christian terms we could say: God the father, with his mood of righteousness, is the Hebrew background practices on the basis of which anything makes sense; God the Son is the paradigm who shows a life that gathers the practices in a new way and manifests the new mood of agape Love; and the Holy Spirit is the shining new style of life that draws John and Paul, among others, to articulate the Christian way of life.
Jesus changes the prohibition of all the outward actions mentioned in the Hebrew Law into the prohibition of the Inner thoughts of those actions.
As described in the Gospels, Jesus is a successful reconfigurer. Like a god, he let a new world be. In that new world people are defined by their Inner desires and intentions, not their External actions.
TO MAKE SENSE OF the new Christian world, Christian thinkers had to conceptualize the Christian revelation. For more than a thousand years they tried valiantly to grasp the Judeo-Christian religious experience using a variety of Greek philosophical concepts. This turns out to have been a bad idea.
No culture but ours has two traditions so inclusive and at the same time so opposed. The Greek discovery of detached, disembodied access to timeless, universal truth contradicts the Hebrew commitment to an involved, historical God.
It was Jesus as interpreted by St. Paul who first put the emphasis on one’s Desires as the truth about one’s inner self.
This valorization of the human being as an essentially Inner domain lay dormant through much of the next twelve hundred years. But Descartes picks up the Augustinian thread when he emphasizes the self-sufficient “cogito”31 whose Inner experiences are cut off from “the external world.” And one hundred fifty years after that Kant finally brings the idea to fruition when he articulates his conception of human beings as fully autonomous selves.
5 From Dante to Kant: The Attractions and Dangers of Autonomy
AESCHYLUS, WHO LIVED in Athens in the fifth century BC, is recognized as the father of tragedy.
In Aeschylus’s writings the gods govern what matters and determine what it makes sense to do in every situation. They demand a kind of unity to all one’s actions, and cannot rest content with the happy diversity that Homer allowed.
Despite the demand for unity, there is a competing group of gods in Aeschylus’s age.
Homer and his worshipers of the Olympian gods achieved their happy state only by repressing an older group of gods—the ancient gods of Family loyalty, who stood for fertility, blood relations, and revenge.
But according to Aeschylus, there was a price to repressing these ancient moods.
But the City of Dis is not a prison to keep the most sinful souls in; it is a fortress built to keep God out. Dante, the Christian, understands this immediately.
The City of Dis is a fortress instead of a prison because the souls who live within it have not just turned their Love toward something less fulfilling than God; they have actively rejected Him.
Milton’s Protestant Hell is hot all the way down. We are used to an active, interventionist Satan at the head of armies of fallen angels. But Dante’s Satan is so self-sufficient that he is not drawn to do anything. He is almost completely immobilized in the ice.
In a creation that draws us toward what is fulfilling, the attempt to set up one’s own values and assign one’s own meaning to things rather than cultivate their latent meaning can lead to a sad sort of nihilism in which there is no meaning and nothing moves us at all.
PERHAPS THE SADDEST PART of Wallace’s story is that the human qualities he aspired to, the capacities of spirit that he revered and coveted, are a mirage. Indeed the entire mode of existence that he castigated himself for not being strong enough to achieve, far from being the saving possibility for our culture, is in fact a human impossibility. Wallace’s inability to achieve it was not a weakness, but the deep and abiding humanness in his spirit.
As we have seen, there is no sense whatsoever in Wallace that the “sacred” moments of existence are gifts, so there is no place for gratitude.
This divorces Wallace’s notion of the sacred completely from its traditional support in some external notion of the divine.
“But mine were not the wings for such a flight,”
Here my powers rest from their high fantasy But already I could feel my being turned … By the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.
Only inhuman, divine strength would have been sufficient for the task.
There are literally no constraints whatsoever to the meaning we can construct for our experiences.
What if our very humanness sets limitations to the way we can experience ourselves and our world?
What if it isn’t possible to create meaning or find a sense of the sacred ex nihilo without some kind of constraints?
In part this association between sport and religion derives from the importance of community in each.
Whether it is in the church or in the baseball stadium, the awesomeness of the moment is reinforced when it is felt as shared by others. When it is also shared that it is shared—when you all recognize together that you are sharing in the celebration of this great thing—then the awesomeness of the moment itself bursts forth and shines.
DAVID FOSTER WALLACE, more than most, had a strong sense for sacred moments like this.
In particular, one finds a strong counterstrain to Wallace’s nihilism in his writings on the sacred moments of sport.
The most important things, the most real things in Homer’s world, well up and take us over, hold us for a while, and then, finally, let us go. If we had to translate Homer’s word physis, then whooshing is about as close as we can get.
These were the shining moments of reality in Homer’s world. And whooshing up is what happens in the context of the great moment in contemporary sport as well. When something whooshes up it focuses and organizes everything around it.
In Homer’s world what whooshes up is what really shines and matters most.
That nurturing practice was called poiesis.
Until about a hundred years ago, the cultivating and nurturing practices of poiesis organized a central way things mattered. The poietic style manifested itself, among other places, in the craftsman’s skills for bringing things out at their best.
This cultivating, craftsman-like, poietic understanding of how to bring out meanings at their best was alive and well into the late nineteenth century, but it is under attack in our technological age.
It is worth noting that although there is nothing mysterious about this vision of the master wheelwright—it is in no way magical or Supernatural—nevertheless this phenomenon is already a revelation. For considered properly it is the clue to a whole new understanding of who we are.
The skilled craftsman does not decide to treat the ash as if it were “frow as a carrot,” the way David Foster Wallace decides to treat the lady in the checkout line as if she were on her way to the hospital.
Rather, the fact of the matter is out in the world.
The task of the craftsman is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the uniqueness of each situation gives a sacred dimension to the craftsmanship.
But it is not just the wood alone, as if it sprang fully cut and dried into his workshop. The wood has a place of origin, too, so the master becomes familiar with the local soil, the terrain, and the sources of water that nourish the trees.
Ultimately this diverse practical knowledge instills in the woodworker a connection to his countryside and his land that goes beyond a mere sense of responsibility to it. Indeed, Sturt speaks of the craftsman’s reverence for the land and countryside in which he lives.
This sense of reverence for a place goes far beyond our notion of skill as automatic technical proficiency and begins to tie it to a sense of the sacred—and ultimately to bringing ourselves out at our best.
IF WILD, ECSTATIC PHYSIS is the sacred realm of meaning still evident today, gentle, nurturing poiesis is a dying art.
In part this is the result of our own success: advances in technology have diminished the importance of specialized skills in contemporary life.
There are two aspects to this flattening.
Because the band saw never met a knot it couldn’t tackle, for example, there is no need anymore for one to see the distinction between the knot that is an obstacle to be deftly avoided and the knot that can be turned to advantage, to strengthen the piece.
Even worse than losing quality, however, is losing the skill for telling the difference. As we lose our knowledge of craft, the world looks increasingly devoid of distinctions of worth.
march of technology presents a grave danger.
The appropriate response to this danger is not to reject technology per se, but to accept individual technological advances while preserving the poietic practices that resist a technological way of life.
If it is the warmth of the coffee on a winter’s day that you like, then drinking it in a cozy corner of the house, perhaps by a fire with a blanket, in a cup that transmits the warmth to your hands might well help to bring out the best in this Ritual.
This experimentation with and observation of the coffee ultimately develops in you the skill for seeing the relevant features of the Ritual and ultimately develops the skills for bringing them out at their best.
When one has learned these skills and cultivated one’s environment so that it is precisely suited to them, then one has a Ritual rather than a routine, a meaningful celebration of oneself and one’s environment rather than a generic and meaningless performance of a function.
Having taken the risk required in learning, the special, meta-poietic skill called for at this stage of our history, then, is the skill to give each of these sacred modes of gathering its due.
The master of living in our poly-sacred world will understand immediately and without reflection that one moment calls for the microwave, while another moment calls for a grateful feast.
He will live a life attuned to the shining things and so will have opened a place to which all the gods may return.
THE INTENSE AND MEANINGFUL world of Homer’s Greeks evidently shone with sacred force.
Our technological world, by contrast, seems impoverished and dull.
We cannot return to Homer’s world, and we should not hope to do so.
But we can become receptive to a modern pantheon of gods—to the ways in which Gehrig and Federer shine, the ways in which Marilyn Monroe or Albert Einstein changed how we see the world in which we live.
It requires developing the skills for responding to the manifold senses of the sacred that still linger unappreciated at the margins of our disenchanted world.
THE HOMERIC GREEKS were open to the world in a way that we can barely understand.
With all our modern skill for introspecting our inner states, we tend to think of the best human activities as those that are thought through internally, completely, and well.
The Greeks, by contrast, experienced themselves as empty heads turned toward the world.
The very idea of an Inner experience was surprising and bizarre to them.
Homer’s Greeks were brought to a state of reverential awe when they were in the presence of anything that was beautiful in the highest degree.
Standing in the presence even of beautiful, well-crafted things inspired in them sacred wonder.
“Wonder holds me as I look upon this.”
Our word beautiful, therefore, does not properly convey the kind of sacred feeling that the Greeks felt before the finest things.
Homer finds things to wonder at and be grateful for that our modern theories almost necessarily cover up. Take one of the simplest examples: sleep.
And yet, one is not completely powerless in the face of it either. One can prepare oneself for sleep, be grateful that it comes, wonder at the transformation it brings about. And all these, for Homer, are characteristic of us at our best.
There is another kind of poietic skill that no one has noticed yet, although it is already at work in people’s lives: the higher-order skill for responding to meaningful distinctions between dangerous and benign ways of being swept away.
To recognize when it’s appropriate to let oneself be swept up and when it’s appropriate to walk away is a higher-order skill that is crucial for us in the contemporary world. To acquire this skill, like any skill, requires taking risks as we shall see later.
An unrelenting flow of Choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and most of us could admit to finding ourselves at least occasionally wavering. Far from being certain and unhesitating, our lives can at the extreme seem shot through with hesitation and indecision, culminating in Choices finally made on the basis of nothing at all.
As a spectator of heroic activity one has the sense of watching something nearly inevitable, as though it is ordained by some force beyond the mere whim of human self-assertion.
Perhaps the most notable fact about Homer’s world is that it comprises an entire pantheon of gods. Each of these gods focuses a mood and a set of practices that sustains it, and each is a shining exemplar of the most excellent way of life in his or her domain. Human beings at their best are open to being swept up and held for a while by one or another of these world-defining moods. But the fact that there is a pantheon of gods, rather than a single one, indicates that there is no underlying principle that unifies their different ways of life.
This Homeric conception of the gods puts other demands on the well-lived life. For if the best kind of human life requires the presence of the gods, then the best kinds of human beings must invite the gods by expressing wonder and gratitude in their presence. To develop an appreciation, therefore, for those situations in life when favorable things occur out of our control, and to develop a sense of wonder and gratitude in the face of such situations—this too is required for a life well-lived. When we develop in ourselves the ability for this kind of wonder and gratitude then we become a standing invitation to the gods.
The central feature of Dante’s world is his sense that the universe is created by God, and therefore that its moral and spiritual meaning is written on its face.
Far from there being no intrinsic meanings, the Medieval World is absolutely replete with them. We need to ask: Are there experiences at the margins of our own world that reflect the anti-nihilistic aspect of this medieval understanding?
Dante thinks that you should intensify your Love and be committed to whatever attracts you with total devotion, and then if it fails to satisfy you, which it surely will, you can learn from your mistakes until you finally find someone or something worthy of total passion and commitment. The last thing you should do is trim your Desire. Free will allows you to train your Desires in the right direction.
According to St. Thomas the beatitude caused by the contemplation of God’s radiance is the ultimate goal of human life. The bliss of contemplating God is so overwhelming, however, that it makes all other earthly joys irrelevant.
It is here that Dante inadvertently shows us that the Greek metaphysics Aquinas is working with undermines the agape love we saw in the early Christianity of John and Paul.
Indeed, it turns out that what has been called the Medieval Synthesis—Aquinas’s and Dante’s achievement of conceptualizing the Christian revelation in Aristotelian terms—is not the answer to nihilism but another step in its direction.
In general, Luther had no use for mystics and monks. Both types were cut off from the world in which, according to Luther, communal joy—rather than blissed-out contemplation of God—is the contagious Christian mood.
Luther’s reformation, and the Protestant Reformation more generally, thus provided a corrective to the medieval passive nihilism of Dante. But its emphasis on individual freedom also prepared the way for the active nihilism associated with the death of God.
Reform Christianity had the effect of emphasizing the individual as defined by his inner thoughts and desires at the expense of a God-given hierarchy of ordered, worldly meanings outside the individual.
Just as Jesus established our Christian World with its saints and sinners, Descartes established our Modern World in which we understand ourselves as self-sufficient subjects standing over against self-sufficient objects.
A crucial feature of the Enlightenment is that moods—insofar as they are discussed at all—are stripped of the central features that have characterized them in earlier epochs.
After Descartes, we have come to see ourselves as almost infinitely free assigners of meaning who can give whatever meaning we choose to the meaningless objects around us.
Descartes apparently found no way to base an ethics on the austere world of subjects and objects, so, while his contributions to science and mathematics are important breakthroughs, he never returned to developing his ethics.
The modern view that we are entirely responsible for our existence stands in radical contrast with the Homeric idea that we act at our best when we open ourselves to being drawn from without.
“If hereafter any highly cultured, poetical nation,” he writes, shall lure back to their birthright, the merry May-day gods of old; and livingly enthrone them again in the now egotistical sky; on the now unhaunted hill; then be sure, exalted to Jove’s high seat, the great Sperm Whale shall lord it.
It is this tantalizing but ungraspable quality of the great Sperm Whale, we are later told—his facelessness, his imposing “pyramidical silence,” but also the immensely amplified sense of the “Deity and the dread powers” that lurk within his brow—it is this unrelenting but also unyielding mystery that stands at the center of the universe.
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
This old seacraft of an inn, therefore, this ancient vessel, is the place from which Ishmael’s whaling voyage begins; and at its very entry stands a beguiling mystery of a pictorial representation, an ancient, besmoked, and beleaguered mystery that calls out for resolution and resists it in nearly equal measure.
If our interpretations—if the meanings we find in the events of our lives or in paintings or artworks or literature or whales; in anything, in fact, that is deep and important and true—if these interpretations are filtered through our moods, then doesn’t that show we haven’t gotten to the bottom of things after all?
The divine magnanimities that Melville claims to have are divine precisely because they are spontaneous and changeable; they are godlike and true, in other words, because they are incomplete, unfinished; because they are revealed only by the current mood.
To take seriously our moods—both our highest soaring joys and our deepest, darkest descents—to live in each of them as moody Ishmael can, to do this is to be open to the manifold truths our moods reveal.
The medieval picture of a secure and final and certain foundation—of God as the deep and final source of all that is—has been left behind. As Ishmael says, “I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity.”
In an important passage Ahab lays out the metaphysical picture of the universe that animates his hatred: that every act, every object, and every event in the world has a deep truth standing behind its surface affairs, and that man’s purpose is to uncover these final, eternal truths. “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks,” Ahab says.
But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.
“Oh, sir, it will break bones—beware, beware!” shouts the astonished carpenter. “No fear,” says Ahab, “I like a good grip; I like to feel something in this slippery world that can hold, man.”
Melville’s genuine wickedness, in other words, consists in his portrayal of Ahab’s monomaniacal Monotheism as itself the incarnation of what the universe most abhors.
But in the great Sperm Whale, this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified, that gazing on it, in that full front view, you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature. For you see no one point precisely; not one distinct feature is revealed; no nose, eyes, ears, or mouth; no face; he has none, proper; nothing but that one broad firmament of a forehead, pleated with riddles
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—contradictory and mysterious and multiple as they may be—are nevertheless all the meaning there is.
Ishmael’s amazing strength is that he is able to live in these surface meanings and find a genuine range of joys and comforts there, without wishing they stood for something more.
I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country.
This ability to live at the surface, to take the events of daily life with the meanings they present rather than to seek their hidden purpose, to find happiness and joy in what there already is, finds its easiest expression in a pre-Christian age. Indeed, not just a pre-Christian age, but a pre-Buddhist, pre-Platonic, pre-Hinduist, and pre-Confucian one as well.
When Christianity accounts itself the one true faith, when it claims a total, unique, and transcendent truth, then it leads to isolation and lack of community. For in its search for some transcendent Divine it forsakes the multiple, communal goods that are already to be found here on earth.
Ishmael’s polytheistic view finds in the communal Rituals of daily life, contradictory and polysemic and plural as they are, the meanings that can drive away the drizzly November of the soul.
Ahab is a combination of Kant’s theory of human beings as autonomous selves and Dante’s religious hope for eternal bliss. But these accounts, each unlivable on its own, are the worst kind of wickedness when brought together. They account for the “now egotistical sky” under which we live, and its inability to admit meaning beyond what our self-sufficient will can achieve.
What is terrifying about whiteness is not any particular meaning or connotation that it can have. Rather, it is the fact that it seems so meaningful and yet, precisely in virtue of its ability to take on such a radical range of meanings, is nothing like a meaning at all. It is instead, he says, a “dumb blankness full of meaning.”
In the terminology of this book, white light, or whiteness itself, acts like the background practices for a culture.
If you try to look at whiteness per se, if you try to focus on the white light “operating without medium upon matter,” then it is like trying to see the background practices as they are in themselves. But there is nothing one can say about the background as it is in itself; one can only say what it looks like when it touches a tulip or a rose. It only shows itself insofar as it allows you to fix upon something else.
If you tried to listen to all the sounds of the universe at once it would be deafening. All the various meanings would cancel each other out. You would hear the chaos of white noise instead of the single, hidden truth of a rational universe.
The multiple meanings of the universe simply don’t add up to a single, universal truth. Our only hope is to engage in each of them fully, live contentedly in the truths they reveal, but feel no urge to reconcile them to one another. The image for this kind of plural Polytheism is neither the deafening chaos of white noise nor the dumb blankness of the color white. Rather, it is the rainbow that separates out the colors of the spectrum, and reveals each in its own wonderful hue.
For Aeschylus, Zeus is no longer a personified god presiding over the pantheon. But he isn’t a cultural force like the Furies and the Olympian gods in the Oresteia either. Instead, Zeus has become the taken-for-granted way of acting that sustains all these forces. As the pervasive background, he cannot be described, but he underlies all significant events. The chorus, for example, refers to “Zeus: whatever he may be”14 and adds: “For what thing without Zeus is done among mortals.”15
Zeus, in other words, is the hidden and unrepresentable background that sustains all the meaningful practices of the culture. This is such a deep and powerful conception of the sacred that it will figure centrally in the Judeo-Christian account of God the father, but it will not be evoked as the possible poetical achievement of Western culture until Melville’s Moby Dick.
That is why the great Sperm Whale shall take the place of Zeus in the coming pantheon of gods. For the overpowering mystery of his blank, unrepresentable brow is what makes every Ritual, if properly lived, a site of contentedness, joy, and meaning to wipe away the drizzly November of the soul.