At one point in his Kenyon College Commencement Speech (embedded above; transcript here) David Foster Wallace describes in brilliantly vivid detail the frustrations of standing in line in a supermarket. Our default setting, he says is to burn with impotent rage against the dreariness, misery, and stupidity of the situation. But this is not the only option:
If you really learn how to pay attention […] It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
As others have noted Wallace is here evoking the last line of Dante’s Commedia, “The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” Wallace ends up talking about love as well, but in the initial evocation it is not love but “force” which “made” the stars. The difference I think sums up a vital difference in the way we tend to naively envision the universe in our time as opposed to Dante’s.
The world of Dante’s Commedia is a world without force. In Dante agency is always ordered to an end, there is no “blind” agency that simply acts without purpose. There is a kind of inevitability in Dante’s world-view to the idea that the first mover of the universe is personal. The Love that moves all things by loving them is also the good who moves all things by being loved by them. Dante’s heart-rendingly beautiful description of this world is also a sophisticated intellectual account of how it works. It is perfectly possible to persuaded by Dante, but for us moderns this persuasion has to involve a rejection of the way we naively imagine things.
For as Charles Taylor (among others) has shown the history of the genesis of modernity is in part the history of the rise of a mechanistic “cosmic imaginary,” a way of imagining the universe in terms of an impersonal order of meaningless un-intentional agency. Sean Collins has argued that a vital key to understanding this great transformation is the modern concept of force, which begins by mistaking an instrumental cause for a principle cause and ends by denying the necessary correlation between agent and final causality. The culture in which we live is profoundly formed by this view of force, as Collins puts it,
We have now built an entire civilization on the separation of final causes from efficient causes. Many noble souls still hope that the good will still prevail, and they act accordingly. But if one assumes that the good is brought about as an epiphenomenon from agencies which are at bottom blind, tyranny and not freedom will inevitably be the result. We see this in many different ways, in places ranging from the psychological to the ethical to the political.
Wallace’s work gives a frighteningly accurate description of the tyranny of the world of blind forces. But he doesn’t rest there; he is always trying to find a way out. The Kenyon College Speech is his most explicit attempt at laying out a way of escaping the tyranny, but it shows the great difficulties in such an attempt. The view of the world as governed by blind forces is so deeply engraved into our cosmic imaginaries that it is very hard to escape.
Wallace first says that it is within our power to experience the crowded supermarket as meaningful, sacred and “on fire with the same force that lit the stars,” and then specifies that force as being love, fellowship, mystical oneness, but then he immediately draws back:
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.
It is so difficult in our culture to present “that mystical stuff” as true, because our automatic image of the world is of an interplay of blind forces, with no intrinsic meaning. If there is any meaning in the world it has to be consciously imposed by our will. This is the point at which Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly accuse Wallace of Nietzschean nihilism, but as I have argued before, theirs is a simplistic reading which gives up the deep tension in Wallace’s thought between his “mystical” insight and hold of the modern world-view that keeps him back from fully assenting to it.