« Wesley Autrey is a good example, but an example of what? »
In the dramatic sequence of events that precipitated Wesley Autrey into fame and exemplarity, we can discern two phases to his attempt to save a man in the throes of an epileptic seizure from an oncoming train. First he jumped onto the tracks and tried to push the man up onto the platform, then he realized that there was no time for that so he threw the man into the trough between the tracks and jumped on top of him. The train passed over them, with only a few small inches between its undebelly and them.
Dreyfus and Kelly begin the first chapter of ALL THINGS SHINING with an account and analysis of this event, using it to highlight the sense of certainty, the unhesitating responsiveness to the situation, and the feeling that his action results a force that flows through the « agent » and does not originate in him, and the heightened awareness that accompanies such acts. It is only later in the book that they develop their notion of a sublimated « polytheism » as a more adequate description of and ethical framework for our experience than either ontotheological dogmatism and moralism or post-modern dispersion and cynicism.
For a polytheist perception and understanding of the world, the Wesley Autrey event is rich in its combination of a multiplicity of gods and demi-gods, each of which lends its gravitas to the powerful impact of this event. If any had been absent the impact would have been lessened, if all of them had been absent the impact would have been negligeable. The scene took place in the subway, the realm of Hades, lord of the underworld. The young man, Cameron Hollopeter, was taken by convulsions to the point of falling on the tracks – epilepsy is a divine seizure most often associated with Pan, the god of panic and nightmare. The train is a mechanical contraption, and so belongs to the domain of Hephaestus, the god of technology and craftsmanship. Autrey himself was a construction worker and so also associated with Haephestus. It was his hephaestean perception that permitted him to find a solution to the lethal situation:
“Since I do construction work with Local 79, we work in confined spaces a lot. So I looked, and my judgment was pretty right. The train did have enough room for me.” (here)
Note: at the beginning of the book, D&K downplay this aspect of the situation, which they will later describe under the rubrique of poiesis. This is the long process of learning and mastering a skill that allows people « to see meaningful distinctions that others without their skill cannot. » (ATS, p207)
Autrey’s action involves a crucial passage from an Achilles type of heroic action of jumping into danger and trying by his strength to save the man in danger, to a Ulysses type of concrete intelligence. It is skillful perception and action combined with the heroic responsiveness to distress that permitted Autrey to save Hollopeter, not some pure heroism allied to adequate strength (this would have been a physis resolution of the situation, but it was not possible here). Hephaestean perception and action (poiesis) saved the day, not Herculean heroism (physis). Or we could call it the passage from an Apollonian schema (I raise you up), to a Dionysian one (I jump in and push myself down with you).
To go back to an earlier discussion over a miraculous scene in PULP FICTION (here and here and also in ATS, p68-72), Jules has the ontotheological notion of a miracle: « God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets », whereas Vincent has the post-modern cynical response: « we were lucky … this shit happens ». Dreyfus and Kelly seem to incline more to Jules’ reaction:
The question is what the appropriate response to this astonishing event should be.
Vincent is nonplussed, explaining it as a mere statistical aberration; Jules, by contrast, sees some meaning in the event, and is overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude …Our claim is that gratitude is the more fitting response. » (ATS, p71-72)
What is interesting here is that Dreyfus and Kelly do not hesitate to employ what can only be described as normative phenomenology. Over this question of ontotheological gratitude for a miracle and apathetic relief over a stroke of luck, D&K not only prefer Jules’ gratitude, but claim that it is phenomenologically preferable:
the real question is phenomenological: it is about what ways of experiencing the world and of understanding ourselves have underwritten those further metaphysical and theologicalclaims. The question that really matters, in other words, is not
whether God was the causal agent but whether gratitude was an appropriate response … Our claim is that gratitude is the more fitting response. »
« God came down from heaven and stopped the bullets » is a false perception and account of what happened, an ontotheological interpretation. The cognitive and the affective are inextricably intertwined here, or all D&K’s talk about the incommensurability of understandings of being is abrogated. Not all gratitudes are the same, despite the same word used to name them. Normative phenomenology that extracts pure experiences of gratitude out of every cognitive and practical context and that considers them interchangeable and good seems rather Pickwickean:
« Whether that gratitude is directed toward Athena, Jesus, Vishnu,
or nobody at all is almost irrelevant. » ATS,p71)