books Archive

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The Insufficient Impracticality of David Foster Wallace, Pt. 3

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, Free Press, 256 pp., $26.00 (C$29.99)

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Part 1 (Monday, 21 February 2011).

Part 2 (Wednesday, 24 February 2011).

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I left you last Wednesday with a sketch-summary of Dreyfus and Kelly’s narration of the West’s odyssey from the divinely-fingerprinted world of Helen of Troy, to a world that we see as essentially banal and inert, organized around the often unconscious, self-eviscerating pursuit of an abstract, unattainable, and depressingly content-less ideal of the perfect distraction.

The next question seems fairly obvious: Recognizing that the Greeks had a receptiveness to the immediate world that we’ve largely, but not entirely (remember Wesley Autrey), lost, can we get this receptiveness back? What, aside from almost three thousands years of intellectual history, stands in our way?

***

As the authors see it, one of the main forces driving us away from the world is our technology. In the following passage, they describe the consequences of adopting a GPS system as a navigational tool:

For those of us who are directionally challenged (and both authors count ourselves among this group) the GPS seems to offer a great technological advance.

But notice the hidden cost to this advance. When the GPS is navigating for you, your understanding of the environment is about as minimal as it can possibly be. It consists of knowing things like “I should turn right now.” In the best case — and we want to take the best case here — this method of navigating gets you to your destination quickly and easily. But it completely trivializes the noble art of navigation, which was the province of great cultures from the sea-faring Phoenicians to the navigators of the Age of Discovery. To navigate by GPS requires no sense of where you are, no sense of where you’re going , and no sense whatsoever for how to get there. Indeed, the whole point of the GPS is to spare you the trouble of navigating.

But to lose the sense of struggle is to lose the sensitivities — to landmarks, street signs, wind direction, the height of the sun, the stars — all meaningful distinctions that navigational skill reveals. To navigate by GPS is to endure a series of meaningless pauses at the end of which you do precisely what you’re told. There is something deeply dehumanizing about this: it’s like being the central figure in a Beckett play without the jokes. Indeed, in an important sense this experience turns you into an automated device the GPS can use to arrive at its destination..

This gives you some sense of why DFW’s “perfect distraction” is of such interest to them. Imagine the utility of the GPS universalized such that one’s responsibilities for navigating through life were completely alleviated by technology. Do we not catch a glimmer of what it would be like to be perfectly distracted? Think of Wall-E, the 2008 Pixar masterpiece in which humanity is so blissfully distracted that the only place where life and romance can exist is among the robots built to service it.

The beauty, though, is that the world is still there — as the humans in Wall-E’s world are delighted to recognize when they’re jarred from their absorption in the distraction machine. Technology may turn our eyes from the inspirations the world offers, but as long as the world still exists, the potential for it to inspire us does too.

As proof, the authors point to a number of instances in which powerful flashes of such inspiration do break through the haze and register with us. Autrey’s experience is one example: The extreme situation he was confronted with gave him the opportunity to realize his courage, and his receptiveness to this extreme situation meant that he allowed himself to be pulled into action. But although we were able to see the flash of his heroism, it’s hard for us to decipher its actual shape — hence our incredulity at the inspired (and not deliberative) character of his action.

And then there’s sports. The authors describe a number of athletes expressing heroism both in their sport (Bill Bradley; Roger Federer via DFW), and because of what their sport allowed them to do — the story of Lou Gehrig’s riveting farewell to baseball in Yankee Stadium opens the book’s final chapter. These athletes’ performances create the opportunity for an entire community 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”; for all of them (hero included) to know, if only for a moment, “exactly what they [are] about.”

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The Insufficient Impracticality of David Foster Wallace, Pt. 2

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, Free Press, 256 pp., $26.00 (C$29.99)

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I ended the last installment of this review on a cliff-hanger: Are Dreyfus and Kelly just taking us one step closer to terminal nihilism? If so, do we have to take the step with them? In other words, are we fucked?

Don’t worry. I will get to these questions. These questions will have answers by the end of this review. But why keep you in the dark? Life’s about the journey, right? What good is it to distract you from enjoying the ride with unnecessary suspense about the destination?

So what is our destination? The destination I’m going to try to steer us to is this: To a point, I think Wallace, Dreyfus and Kelly are right, and that we’re in pretty deep shit. But, I think that DFW did make a critical mistake, the recognition of which might have stopped him short of the cliff’s edge. This mistake isn’t quite the one that Dreyfus and Kelly propose (though they take us part way there in proposing it). In fact, in their haste to get out of his head, I think they miss a pivotal DFW insight, an error on their part that places understanding his real mistake (and how to avoid it) beyond the horizon of their discussion.

Ambitious, right? I know. And it’s stressing me out. You’re probably thinking, man, I hope this fool has some ace up his sleeve; one hell of a fucking ace. Well that’s neither here nor there. But before I talk myself out of even trying, let’s buckle our seat belts and get out of the driveway. Driving is believing. Zoom zoom zoom.

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The Insufficient Impracticality of David Foster Wallace, Pt. 1

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, Free Press, 256 pp., $26.00 (C$29.99)

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It was going to be the big test of what kind of adult I would be—well… a test of what kind of adult I would be. Would I be the kind with the self-discipline and curiosity to read brain-straining, skull prying, headache-inducing, ten-page-at-most-per-hour “important” books without a professor holding a letter grade to my head? Or would I instead be the kind who’d never read Being and Time (which is most people, and would be totally socially acceptable).

Seven months after learning that Hubert Dreyfus’ course lectures on the book were available free for download, I’ve listened to a bit more than half of them and knocked off a solid hundred and fifty of my edition’s 592 pages. Not great, but not horrible. I’d been planning to get back to it, not only because it really is the most exhilarating kind of brain fucking, but because I missed Dreyfus as well. He has this way of getting excited when the text trips him up or otherwise flummoxes him when he’s in the middle of making a point that’s endearing something awful. An egotist would be flustered. I would be flustered. Not him. He’s delighted, and invites you by his tone to join him in his scholarship in action. It testifies to a rare humility, but we’ll get back to humility later. It also testifies to his genuine enthusiasm for material he still recognizes as alive and untamed.

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