Superficial & Sublime?

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Hamburger Kunsthalle/Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource
Helen of Troy; painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863

This book, which was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, comes recommended by some famous Big Thinkers. It is written by well-regarded professors (one of them the chairman of the Harvard philosophy department). This made me rub my eyes with astonishment as I read the book itself, so inept and shallow is it. The authors set about to solve the problems of a modern secular culture. The greatest problem, as they see it, is a certain anxiety of choosing. In the Middle Ages, everyone shared the same frame of values. One could offend against that frame by sinning, but the sins were clear, their place in the overall scheme of things ratified by consensus. Now that we do not share such a frame of reference, each person must forge his or her own view of the universe in order to make choices that accord with it. But few people have the will or ability to think the universe through from scratch.

So how can one make intelligent choices? Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly call modern nihilism “the idea that there is no reason to prefer any answer to any other.” They propose what they think is a wise and accepting superficiality. By not trying to get to the bottom of things, one can get glimpses of the sacred from the surface of what they call “whoosh” moments—from the presence of charismatic persons to the shared excitement of a sports event. This last elation is sacred and unifying:

There is no essential difference, really, in how it feels to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Lord, or to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Hail Mary pass, the Immaculate Reception, the Angels, the Saints, the Friars, or the Demon Deacons.

(The Demon Deacons, for those as ill-informed as I was, are the Wake Forest football team.)

One gets swept into an experience of the sacred by these whooshes. Perhaps they impress the Big Thinkers by the elitist choices of the charismatic people who inspire Dreyfus and Kelly—Rudolf Nureyev, for instance: “Nureyev’s charisma was palpable; he stood taller, smelt better, walked prouder, and simply outshone all the others around him.” Would they say the same about the whoosh some people get from Snooki, or Lady Gaga, or Justin Bieber? Do they all smell better?

Another thing that may impress the Big Thinkers is that the authors get their glimpses of the sacred from “reading the Western classics.” The two classics they begin with are by David Foster Wallace, “the greatest writer of his generation; perhaps the greatest mind altogether,” and Elizabeth Gilbert, whose Eat, Pray, Love proved its cultural importance by ruling over best-seller lists forever. I know…


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