Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being is a dizzying exploration of ontology and phenomenology, which repeatedly asks what it means to be—that is, to have being—and to have being within the confines of time. To answer the fundamental questions she raises, Dillard subdivides each of her seven chapters into ten sections that meditate on specific subjects of their own: birth, sand, china, clouds, numbers, Israel, encounters, “thinker,” evil, and “now.” As the book progresses, Dillard slowly weaves these ten disparate topics together—revealing to her readers that what is seemingly a meditation on sand is also a meditation on the human condition: From dust you are created, and to dust you shall return.
At first glance, the birth sections seem the most pertinent to Dillard’s general topic, the possession of being. In birth, being is concrete and palpable, because it is physical. Dillard demonstrates this by exploiting her readers’ preconceptions of physical being by exposing them to a prodigious spectacle of the human body—the malformed infant. Chapter 1 begins with Dillard describing a multitude of birth defects cataloged in Smith’s Recognizable Patterns of Human Malformation by David W. Smith (1988). Here, she focuses on children such as brother and sister bird-headed dwarfs, a girl born with no nose, and a Hurler syndrome baby, and asks: “Do you suffer what a French paleontologist called ’the distress that makes human wills founder daily under the crushing number of living things and stars’?” The birth section in chapter 2 shifts Dillard’s focus to nurse Pat Eisberg, whom she follows through an unnamed city hospital’s obstetrical ward as newborns are bathed, diapered, and clothed for the first time. This alternation of focus between birth sections (malformation and Eisberg) is interrupted in the fifth chapter when Dillard learns from Eisberg that human malformation is not a textual phenomenon, but a part of everyday reality. “Last week on this hospital maternity ward,” she writes, “an obstetrician caught a newborn’s pretty head, and then the rest of him: He had gill slits in his neck, like a shark’s gill slits, and a long tail.”
(The entire section is 905 words.)