This current New York Review of Books features a savage review of All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, a new book by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, by Garry Wills. Entitled "Superficial & Sublime," Wills is impressive as always with his scholarship, and withering in his judgments. This is Wills at his raging, prophetic, best: small wonder that the man has written some 40 books, including, in 2002, Why I Am A Catholic. Yet for all his evident brilliance, Wills does not defeat the argument made in All Things Shining. Rather, he confirms it, and, in the end, lays gasping in a puddle of his own making.
Tour a university sometime and listen to the lectures. It is hard to escape the conclusion that there is something gone dead in the West. Everything is about method, about how to approach and interpret a text; critical engagement is the norm, mastery of form the excellence cultivated. The life of the mind, the struggle to know truths worth knowing, values worth living, has been transformed into little more than a parlor game. Witty intellectuals strive for brilliance in one another’s eyes, but speak increasingly to one another. A world passes the academy by, and, rather than engage the world, scholars seek refuge from it. The rhetoric of scholarship, intellectual leadership of a culture, definition of a way of life, are discordant enterprises. The academy seeks less to prepare students for life as citizens than it does to speak gibberish to one another.
Wills struggles against the trend. He is a classically trained public intellectual, the rarest of birds. When he writes, he writes for a popular audience. But for whom, exactly, does he write? His works range across a broad range of particulars. He has written on Jesus, Paul, the Gospels, Augustine, Jefferson, John Wayne – his is a restless intellect, fully engaged with a universe of particulars. He drains the bottom of every cup, and then cries "More, more." I enjoy reading Wills. Wills is informative, and he is entertaining. He is a curator in the museum of the mind: but that is all he is.
He ridicules the concept of "whoosh" in All Things Shining, the sense we all have from time to time of being transfixed by seemingly ordinary moments. At such times, the boundary between self and other seems erased. We sense there is more to the world than the solitary intellect, the scholar of multi-lingual footnotes and easy translations from ancient languages. There are moments in every life that define; allegiances are cemented by inchoate forces seen, perhaps, from askance, but slipping from view when confronted directly. Things shine without the light itself being seen, or, to use Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: while the world can be illuminated, staring at the Sun can blind you.
In an earlier review, I noted that All Things Shining is really the introduction to a much longer project, a much longer argument about how the western intellectual tradition was born, developed, matured, and then, died. The impotence of the academy, the tourism evident in Wills’s many, many works, suggest that we’ve argued ourselves to the end of our tether. Things more of less seemed to stop with Wittgenstein: once we were counseled to remain silent in the face of the unknowable, meaningful conversation about the future seemed to cease, but the academy, and intellectual tourism, endured. The best scholars among us, Bernard Williams, Quentin Skinner, and, yes, Garry Wills, all charge boldly and sometimes gracefully against the bars of old cages. But those of us without tenure live in a world strangely free from these scholarly restraints. We walk increasingly alone, yet very much alive to a world in which a longing for truth, beauty, a sense of meaning remains for us what it was to men and women in Homer’s time, in Augustine’s time, in Dante’s time, in the Melville’s time: we crave daring, we crave meaning, we crave reasons to go this way rather than that. There are moments in my life that I can describe without knowing their full significance, moments for which whoosh works far better than Wills’s easy and contrived scorn.
What we do not crave is tired scholarship, of no matter how brilliant a vintage, that urges us to rally around nothing and warm ourselves at the fire of a scholar without a vision of what makes the world turn. David Foster Wallace killed himself, a fact Wills notes with the grim fascination and satisfaction of a Jesuit, perhaps out of a failed sense of meaning in the world. Should Wallace have pressed on, manfully, producing guide books for other people’s struggles?
Gary Wills did not defeat the premise of All Things Shining. He confirmed it. The west is dead; long live whoosh.