On Misreading Homer and Finding the Divine in Coffee

Next month’s issue of the New York Review of Books features Gary Wills’ biting condemnation of the effort of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly to reconcile modern nihilism in their new book All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.  The problem is not that the book is unnecessarily abstruse, but rather seems to be tackling a monumental problem with a kind of rigor akin to building a dog house with a sledge hammer:

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.

It only gets worse when the authors begin referencing western classics:

Homer, we are told, does not judge this adulterous woman, and the proof is a line they quote from the Richmond Lattimore translation of Iliad 4.305, which says she is “shining among women.” This proves that “Homer deeply admires Helen.” The authors do not understand the formulaic nature of oral poetry. The line-ending metrical formula dia gynaikōn is used for outstanding women, as the similar phrase dia theāōn, “shining among goddesses,” is used for outstanding deities. The formula is just another way of saying “Helen,” as “fast on his feet” is a way of saying “Achilles.” It expresses no personal judgment by Homer (whoever or whatever he is). Since the same formula is used for Penelope, the virtuous wife of Odysseus, the authors claim that Homer made no moral distinction between the two. They even say that Helen is a goddess, since dia gynaikōn can mean that. It does not, without the addition of theāōn (to describe, for instance, Hera).

The review concludes referencing the authors’ fascination, it seems, with finding “whoosh” in making coffee:

They take us through five pages on the sacred craft of the wheelwright and then through four pages of the “revered domain” of making the proper cup of coffee—the sacred beans, the sacred cup lovingly tended, the company worthy to share this holy communion… Thank God we have been delivered from the meaningless inwardness of Augustine and Dante, to worship at the shining caffeine altar.

You can read the full review here.  Is modern, secular life only worthwhile in light of seemingly random, disconnected moments of whoosh that go largely unexamined?  Feel free to leave your thoughts below.

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