I am in the middle of reading All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. Normally, to say that the reading is going slowly would be a bad thing, but in this case it should be taken as a deep positive. It is one of the few books I have read in a while where I’ve felt compelled to scrawl notes and comments in the margins. Most of the time I jot things down in a handy notebook with page numbers. I feel like I should have a conversation with this book, so marginalia.
For the most part, Dreyfus and Kelly are proselytizing to the converted. Their basic premise, that the books we read can be vehicles of deep meaning and significance in our daily lives, is something I’ve been convinced of for years (if you’re interested, check out An Argument for Moral Art). It seems I’ve always looked to literature for meaning and so never thought there was a reason to do what Dreyfus and Kelly are doing in this book, which is, essentially, to convince general readers of this notion. My arguments have always been focused on how writers should take responsibility for the kind of meaning they imbed in their stories.
However, the people who, I think, most need to be taught how literature, even entertaining literature, can give meaning to their lives aren’t reading David Foster Wallace or even Elizabeth Gilbert on their own, much less the western classics like Homer and Dante. So, these people aren’t likely to pick up and read All Things Shining. That’s a bit disappointing; however, for high school English teachers and college English professors this book will be a great teaching tool, if they are able to apply what they learn from it to the more modern classics, and almost-classics that are taught in English classes.
Unfortunately, I feel like there’s something missing. Where’s Joseph Campbell in all of this?
Now, I know that a big segment of the reading public probably only knows Joseph Campbell from the over-marketed phrase “Follow your bliss,” which, according to my girlfriend, was a big Oprah Winfrey mantra for a while (and we have a magnet on our dishwasher bearing that phrase). Frankly, it’s a shame that the great depth and wisdom of Joseph Campbell’s work has been reduced to such a simplistic, and almost trite phrase. By itself it is almost meaningless, giving people license to do whatever makes them happy regardless of their action’s effects on others. Essentially, “Follow your bliss” has been turned into the Hippy version of America’s self-serving reductionist version of Ayn Rand’s ethical self-interest.
However, “follow your bliss” is just one small segment of Campbell’s work. Like Joseph Campbell, and perhaps Professors Dreyfus and Kelly, I believe that humans are a storytelling and story-listening species. I believe it is evolutionarily encoded into our DNA to tell stories and to find meaning in those stories. Stories are our unique and delicate light against the vast darkness of the universe. There is no one I know of who spent more time, and intellectual energy, trying to understand and explain how we give our lives meaning through stories than Joseph Campbell, and he is completely missing from All Things Shining (his name doesn’t appear in the index and I’ve not come across any reference to him so far in my reading, but remember, I’m not quite finished yet).
I can’t imagine these two very learned men haven’t read or considered Joseph Campbell, so I would be very interested to hear why there seems to be no mention of Campbell in this otherwise fascinating argument for the importance of literature in creating a meaningful life.