31 August 2012

My brain had to work so hard, it made my hair hurt.....

Abandon ye hope, all who enter here.

I don’t know what came over me.  Maybe it was the picture of Moby Dick on the front that intrigued me.  But in the last few weeks I’ve worked my way (emphasis on WORK) through All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.  

Hold all hate mail til the end.

If you have to use post-it flags to read a book,
and you're not reading it for class,
you might be crazy....
 I'd like to say, "here's the whole thing in a nutshell," but there's no nutshell here.  It's a big, brain-wrenching book saying that “an unrelenting flow of choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and yet our culture offers us no clear way to choose" (book jacket). That “the central challenge of the contemporary world… is not just that we don’t know how to live meaningful lives, it’s that we don’t even seem to be able to focus for very long on the question” (p. 30). That in our 21st century lives we’re stuck in a depressing existential nihilism (don’t worry, I had to look it up too) where nothing has meaning, no choice is better than any other choice (just look up at the menu at Starbucks and you'll see what I mean).

Whirlwind tour through All Things Shining:

  1. David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) both explore this problem.  For Wallace, the solution is to find joy in literally the dullest activity you can possibly imagine (requiring super-human effort; BTW, Wallace committed suicide in his mid-40s).  For Gilbert, it’s to go on a world tour, eating, praying, and loving your way through self-realization (and for it she's been pretty much panned by serious critics, and beloved by Oprah.  Go figure).
  2. Homer’s Greeks found meaning through the gods; life was so uncertain, every good thing that happens is a gift and deserves gratitude, and living a life that capture the essential “mood” of a particular god is the highest good (the love and sensuality of Aphrodite, the warlike bravery of Ares, etc)
  3. Jesus and Descartes are the two most important figures to reconfigure how we in the Western World conceptualize ourselves, and they were so radical, they needed additional voices to “articulate” this change (St. Paul, in the case of Jesus, Immanuel Kant in the case of Descartes).
  4. Dante’s Divine Comedy, with God as the "orderer of the world," is the quintessential representation of the cosmic order and meaning of life for the High Middle Ages.
  5. Descartes [I think therefore I am], and later Kant started to unravel things by “arguing that if we are self-sufficient subjects then there can be no law about how we should act other than the law we give to ourselves” (p.140). That the self, rather than God, is the orderer of the world.  Oh boy.

This is where things start to go haywire for me. 

The authors cite Melville’s Moby Dick as the preeminent locus for how meaning can be derived in the modern world. Um, HUH?  Is Moby Dick really that important or influential??? 

Hold onto your hats, it turns even more bizarre, claiming SPORTS are the primary "spiritual experience" of our culture, that we, as fans, feel most alive when we are engaged in something that lifts us beyond ourselves (like that moment when I leap from the couch to yell "run, run, RUN" at the wide receiver).  Now I’m REALLY skeptical, because as much as I like the Sox or the Pats, I don’t think they qualify as important as, say, genuine religious faith, or lifelong volunteerism and humanitarianism.

Not sure why I put myself through this, except that I am pretty adamant about finishing a book, even if I don’t like it.  But it was brutal: Descartes, Kant, Nietsche, Heidigger, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and more.  TOO HEAVY, MAN.

I had to take Philosophy 101 in college.  I found it very difficult.  Maybe I was hoping it had gotten easier with age (it hasn’t). 

I like Monty Python’s interpretation of the Philosophers MUCH BETTER.

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