Wesley Autrey & the Gods

« 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)

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9 commentaires pour Wesley Autrey & the Gods

  1. dmf dit :

    is there any non-sociological sense of proper/fitting that belongs in phenomenology? they seems to be importing oughts and claiming to discover them.


  2. terenceblake dit :

    Exactly so, the idea that D&K seek to accredit is that they are just doing phenomenology, just describing without metaphysical partisanship our experience. But all this talk of appropriate and fitting, especially when it is used as a demarcation criterion between the good life and the rest, is not phenomenology but disguised ontotheology. Key terms like « human excellence », « superhuman », « bringing things out at their best », « acting at our best » are introduced as somehow phenomenological descriptions of people’s understandings but are pre-appropriated by D&K as figures of their own normative judgements.


    • dmf dit :

      yep, I guess we have been thru this before with Hillman’s critique of the Heroic and of Christian attempts to monopolize psyche/experience, this is why I appreciate Dewey’s focus on early childhood education/socialization, important to become actively attuned to, disciplined in, various phenomena/capacity but also important to take the all-too-human stance that we will decide which attainments to develop and which to discourage and that this will be a fallible and political process, no higher or lower plane to achieve a extra-polis view from, just potentially more aware/richer ways of comportment, which will be known/judged by their styles and results.


      • dmf dit :

        not to be a broken record but here I generally follow Rorty’s private/public distinction from his Contingency book.


      • terenceblake dit :

        D&K’s notion of the divine is too one-dimensional. For Hillman the gods attune but they also pathologise, and this is all part of the same supra-human process. For D&K all the bad comes from the ego, and the gods are all good. « More than human » is not automatically and only better than human.


      • dmf dit :

        yes sorry mean that you and I are following in Hillman’s wake here, sadly Hillman took the more than human to mean more than the extended-human by investing images with a kind of angelic status, not unlike Levi on imaginary-objects or social-system-objects.
        some hauntings are hard to shake i guess, maybe we feel too alone in a world of things.


  3. Ping : Comic-book Gratitude | AGENT SWARM: Terence Blake's Blog

  4. terenceblake dit :

    I think Hillman’s later emphasis on soul in the world partially escapes these criticisms. But I must admit I was turned off by his examples of dialoguing with the soul in the last chapter of HEALING FICTION. Despite all Hillman’s sophistication this is still, as you suggest, a form of reification. I feel a similar discomfort over some of Spinosa’s formulations, where the imaginative and pragmatic status of Gods is tainted by an angelic reification. I feel that the image is ambiguous between a recognizable form and an assemblage of intensities. We may need the image to cognize and relate to the intensities, but the image also pulls us back towards familiar representations and so can stifle the unique quality in a stereotype.


    • dmf dit :

      I just reject all of these kinds of imaginary thirds between us and the world Language/images/social-systems/Archetypes/etc and I reject any kind of pantheist/panexperientialist unification, I think that we as thinking critters are accidental and far from the norm of existence and that we are making it up as we go. We need to learn to appreciate (as well as take response-ability for) our projective/imaginative powers but stop worshiping/reifying them.


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