Annie Dillard Dillard, Annie (Vol. 9) - Essay

Dillard, Annie (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dillard, Annie 1945–

An American columnist and poet, Dillard is best known for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for which she won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

"I am no scientist," says Annie Dillard, "but a poet and a walker with a background in theology and a penchant for quirky facts." In "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" she offers "what Thoreau called 'a meteorological journal of the mind.'"

The book is a form of meditation, written with headlong urgency, about seeing. A blind child the author happened to read about saw for the first time after cataracts had been removed from her eyes. "When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw 'the tree with lights in it.'" Annie Dillard had found the central metaphor for her book; it is the vision, the spiritual conception, that she will spend her days in solitude tramping the Roanoke creek banks and the Blue Ridge mountainside in search of for herself.

A reader's heart must go out to a young writer with a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled. It is this intensity of experience that she seems to live in order to declare.

There is an ambition about her book that I like, one that is deeper than the ambition to declare wonder aloud. It is the ambition to feel. This is a guess. But if this is what she has at heart, I am not quite sure that in writing this book she wholly accomplished it. I don't say this, though, to detract from her declared intention in laying herself open to the experience of seeing. It is a state she equates with innocence: "What I call innocence is the spirit's unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration."

But apparently it is an unself-consciousness that can be consciously achieved and consciously declared. And part of her conception of seeing is that in the act of doing it she is herself, in turn, being seen.

"I walk out; I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell. I am an explorer, then, and I am also a stalker, or the instrument of the hunt itself…. I am the arrow shaft, carved along my length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky, and this book is the straying trail of blood."

What happens to that paragraph is what happens to her book. As the episodes begin, we can imagine an appealing young woman standing alert in a meadow, dressed in shirt and pants, holding her field glasses and provided with a sandwich: she is waiting to see, being very patient and still. By the chapter's end, we realize or suspect we are watching a dervish dancing. Receptivity so high-strung and high-minded has phases of its own. The author shows us that it has its dark side too.

"The world has signed a pact with the devil; it had to…. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die; you cannot have mountains and creeks without space, and space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death. The world came into being with the signing of the contract…. This is what we know. The rest is gravy."

I honestly do not know what she is talking about at such times. The only thing I could swear to is that the writing here leaves something to be desired. "What's going on here?" is one of the author's refrains. "The creator loves pizzazz," she answers herself.

She is better at stalking a muskrat: "Stalking is a pure form of skill, like pitching or playing chess. Rarely is luck involved. I do it right or I do it wrong; the muskrat will tell me, and that right early. Even more than baseball, stalking is a game played in the actual present. At every second, the muskrat comes, or stays, or goes, depending on my skill." This is admirable writing.

So is her account of the polyphemus moth—first in its cocoon, then emerging, then crawling away in the presence of a roomful of schoolchildren. It has been directly experienced at what I should say is eye-level. Her account of the migration of the monarch butterflies, which makes the reader see what they looked like coming, how they went over, what they left behind them, what the author learned from the whole event, is precise and memorable.

She can also write straight narrative, showing what the book would have gained in point, direction, and shape from being given a little more of it. (pp. 4-5)

Annie Dillard is the only person in her book, substantially the only one in her world; I recall no outside human speech coming to break the long soliloquy of the author. Speaking of the universe very often, she is yet self-surrounded, and, beyond that, book-surrounded. Her own book might have taken in more of human life without losing a bit of the wonder she was after. Might it not have gained more? Thoreau's wisdom had everything to do with the relationship he saw between nature and the community of man. She read Thoreau, including of course his own meteorological journal of the mind….

[The] author is given to changing style or shifting moods with disconcerting frequency and abruptness. "Thanks. For the Memories." "This oft was thought, but ne'er so well expresed as by Pliny." "The cottage was Paradise enow." You might be reading letters home from camp, where the moment before you might have thought you were deep in the Book of Leviticus.

The relationship between the writer and the reader is fully as peculiar and astonishing as the emergence of the polyphemus moth. It too has got to leave the cocoon, has got to draw breath and assume every risk of being alive before the next step, real understanding, can take place.

But a writer writes as a writer sees, and while the eyes are rolled up, what appears on paper may be exactly what it sounds like, invocation. "Mystery itself is as fringed and intricate as the shape of the air in time." This is a voice that is trying to speak to me out of a cloud instead of from a sociable, even answerable, distance on our same earth….

She concludes her book by saying, "And then you walk fearlessly … like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part…. The giant water bug ate the world. And like Billy Bray I go my way, and my left foot says 'Glory,' and my right foot says 'Amen': in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise."

And that's the way Annie Dillard goes. Is the Pilgrim on her right road? That depends on what the Pilgrim's destination is.

But how much better, in any case, to wonder than not to wonder, to dance with astonishment and go spinning in praise, than not to know enough to dance or praise at all; to be blessed with more imagination than you might know at the given moment what to do with than to be cursed with too little to give you—and other people—any trouble. (p. 5)

Eudora Welty, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 24, 1974.

In many respects Annie Dillard's book, "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," is so ingratiating that even readers who find themselves in fundamental disagreement with it may take pleasure from it, a good deal of pleasure. (p. 637)

Annie Dillard has done what many would like but few are able to do. She has organized her life, there in her primarily natural habitat, so that she has plenty of time to spend not only in the field but in the library and laboratory as well. She is the person who has read the books you have always promised yourself to read, from Pliny to Henri Fabre; she knows, though she is not a specialist, more about recent work in biological and physical science than you can hope to learn. And she uses her knowledge well. She describes what she has seen and what she has read; and as long as her eye is clearly on its object, her mind focused on that identity, her descriptions are informative, poetic in the good sense, and often moving.

Inevitably, however, she does more than this: she asks what it all means. The hard, incredible beauty of a monarch migration, the cruelty of a female mantis eating her mate while they couple, the insanity of the pine processionary caterpillar that follows unswervingly a track laid down by its leader and does so even if the procession is in a circle, round and round until it dies of starvation,—what force lies behind such beauties, cruelties, insanities? Is it mindless or intelligent, evil or good? How can one explain, in any moral terms whatever, the frightening wasteful fecundity of evolution? She writes: "A lone aphid, without a partner, breeding 'unmolested' for one year, would produce so many living aphids that, although they are only a tenth of an inch long, together they would extend into space twenty-five hundred light-years"—in order that a few hundred may survive. Annie Dillard is appalled. So am I. And not for the aphids' sake either, but because we know the same principle governs and tyrannizes all life, including, as we need not look far to see, our own.

Yet out of these quandaries Annie Dillard always contrives to emerge with a statement of spiritual affirmation, a statement which is, moreover, though expressive of her own sensibility, conventional in substance. Her book has been compared to Thoreau's. For a number of reasons the comparison seems unapt, but it contains at least this much justice, namely, that in essence her view is plain old-fashioned optimistic American transcendentalism, ornamented though it may be with examples from quantum physics and biochemistry. She sees ultimate goodness in everything. Or rather, in almost everything; there is one exception, human self-consciousness, the curse of mankind, she says, which prevents us from attaining to the purity of animal existence, absorbed in greater reality. Only in isolated moments do we jettison self-consciousness and break through, by concentrating our attention sufficiently on exterior phenomena, to a recognition of ultimate goodness. These are our epiphanic moments, pinnacles of life, for which we endure the rest. And because she believes this so firmly. Annie Dillard devotes many pages to what can only be called rhapsody, evocation in words of her own epiphanies. Unfortunately, much of this writing is confused, exaggerated, sentimental, and unconvincing. (pp. 638-39)

Any artist, any artisan, knows that his moments of insight—or outsight—are a marvel; but they occur in, not out of, life. They are gifts, true; but they are given to those who work for them. They are not holiness but the products of holiness. This is the creative struggle, the craftsmanly and prolonged and utterly self-conscious engagement of mentality with experience, from which we derive our humanity, art, knowledge, and—in any meaningful sense—life itself, the essence, the actual goodness (or badness). Annie Dillard's book is a work done in "the deep affection of nostalgia" (her words) for an abstract past, with little reference to life on this planet at this moment, its hazards and misdirections, and to this extent it is a dangerous book, literally a subversive book, in spite of its attractions. To my mind the view of man and nature held by any honest farmer … is historically more relevant and humanly far more responsible than the atavistic and essentially passive, not to say evasive, view held by Annie Dillard. (p. 640)

Hayden Carruth, "Attractions and Dangers of Nostalgia," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1974, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 50, No. 4 (Autumn, 1974), pp. 637-40.

While readers and reviewers of [Pilgrim at Tinker Creek], even those in "fundamental disagreement," appreciate Dillard's poetic descriptions of her natural world, they generally question how she is able to celebrate an existence which is often senseless and chaotic to her. As readers of Pilgrim know, Dillard uses two major metaphors to reflect her concept that beauty and violence are equal parts of the mystery of creation….

The pilgrim finds what she seeks; no more and no less. Dillard watches the world of nature seriously because ultimately it reflects the rich complexity of human experience. As her narrative develops, Dillard grows comfortable with ambiguity, accepting the senseless ways of nature while scrupulously describing it. Fidelity to horrible detail makes her celebration of life startling, for her style is so careful of the minute that her theme, in comparison, borders on the irrational. How can one be a believer while portraying honestly the chaotic ways of nature….

Dillard is exploring, in truth, not merely the woodland of Tinker Creek, but, more profoundly, what it means to be a believer in God. Her courage is revealed in her daring openness toward nature, the dramatic terms by which she recognizes the Divine. (p. 495)

For Dillard, the world is an epiphany, and the woodlands and waterfalls of Tinker Creek are to be neither ignored nor escaped. The confusion for many readers lies in their misconception that Annie Dillard's terms of existence are mutually exclusive: while believing that one has the choice to accept the world willingly for both its beauty and savagery, she simultaneously claims that there is much about the world that allows no choice. This apparent contradiction is actually paradox. Freedom, for Annie Dillard, lies in choosing the world, not out of pious or pietistic sentimentality, but out of acceptance of one's task to make the world more human by becoming more fully human oneself. The goal of Dillard's work is to make the reader see, to hold his eyes open "with toothpicks, with trees." She insists that each person has his own creative capacity to awaken from blindness to a state of perception that discovers the world with new meaning. The problem of celebrating existence lies not in the world, but in man's failure to see with eyes that transfigure….

By surrendering to mystery, Dillard accepts the actual world, even though it remains rationally incomprehensible to her. Her mysticism does not bring her to a vision of another world—de contemptu mundi—but rather to a new dimension of life where Tinker Creek becomes a holy land of miracles and demons. By insisting that human beings have the visionary capacity to see both the beauty and the violence of the world with new eyes, Dillard is different from the traditional Transcendentalist. Although the "anchor-hold" at Tinker Creek reminds one inevitably of Walden Pond, Dillard is closer to Melville than to Thoreau. Her awareness of both light and darkness is profound. It is impossible, moreover, to abstract a statement from Dillard that involves the pursuit of utopian or reformist goals; her message, simply and totally, is to honor creation and the mystical revelation of God in creation. The paradise of Emerson as Transcendentalist, on the other hand, is a transfigured world, redesigned by the soul in touch with nature who creates an order analogous to that of nature…. Dillard's focus is not so narrow; restructuring the universe is not for her. Although she does not grow to love the Furies more, she accepts their presence.

Living with nature, then, provides Dillard neither escape from life, nor therapy to return to life, nor programs designed to improve the status quo. Rather, Dillard's experience draws her more deeply into the mystery of the human condition, and she reveres it. She desires to nourish and protect the holy land, not simply as an ecologist, but as a wonder-struck pilgrim-poet who honors life as a place where "mystery bumps against mystery," where one must search and strive continually to understand existence….

Dillard witnesses to the existential condition as nature reveals it, begging us to see it with her, for freedom to Annie Dillard lies in acute awareness of the terms of life. She does not intend her hermitage at Tinker Creek to stand as a political statement nor to inspire ethical behavior or social reform. If she has a mission, it is purely that of the Christian artist: to offer new insight into human existence. For Annie Dillard, it is significant to feel nature profoundly, for then she is close to asking the ultimate question about being, and, for her, to do this is everything.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Annie Dillard reconciles the creative imagination and Christian faith in the Incarnation. She troubles those readers, however, who prefer to interpret her acceptance of the vital tension of existence as the triumph of oversimplification, nostalgia and phony piety. The dialogue will long continue, for Annie Dillard did not begin it. But in an age of disbelief, it is refreshing that the quarrel can even be rekindled. (p. 496)

Eleanor B. Wymard, "A New Existential Voice: For Annie Dillard the World Is an Epiphany," in Commonweal (copyright © 1975 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), October 24, 1975, pp. 495-96.

"Holy the Firm" is a book of great richness, beauty and power and thus very difficult to do justice to in a brief review. On one level it is a 76-page journal of several November days spent on Northern Puget Sound by the author of "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek." "Nothing is going to happen in this book," Annie Dillard writes. "There is only a little violence here and there in the language, at the corner where eternity clips time." She sells herself short.

A moth is immolated in the flame of a candle. A 7-year-old child named Julie Norwich is agonizingly burned in a plane crash. The author buys a bottle of communion wine and carries it home in a knapsack. "Through all my clothing, through the pack on my back and through the bottle glass, I feel the wine. It sheds lights in slats through my rib cage, and fills the buttressed vault of my ribs with light pooled and buoyant."

A great deal happens in this book …, and the violence is sometimes unbearable, the language rarely less than superb…. One thinks of Gerard Manley Hopkins, among others—nature seen so clear and hard that the eyes tear. One thinks of the conceits of Donne, as in the description of Christ's baptism, where the beads of water become planets and worlds. Even the form is poetic, and the book can be read as a kind of sestina with changes rung on words like salt, flame, holy, moth and nun, with a great reprise in the final image of the artist as one whose face is aflame like a moth's, his feet wax and salt, a being both holy and firm "in flawed imitation of Christ on the cross stretched both ways unbroken and thorned."

Part of what stretches this artist almost to the breaking point is the problem of how to reconcile a world where children must endure ordeal by fire, and all turns finally to ashes, with faith in a god of justice and love. It is Job's problem and Ivan Karamazov's: the problem, finally, of all who echo the cry "Lord I believe. Help Thou mine unbelief." "No gods have power to save," Dillard writes at her bleakest. "The one great god abandoned us to days, to time's tumult of occasions, abandoned us to the gods of days each brute and amok in his hugeness and idiocy." If God exists the question is what is His relation to the world? If He is infinitely other than the world, He is too far. If He is immanent within the world, then He is virtually the god of pantheism and too near, too small. Anne Dillard finds a possible resolution of the problem in something called Holy the Firm, which esoteric Christianity posits as a spiritual substance that is both the ultimate stuff of the world and also in touch with God. If this can be believed, she says, then "matter and spirit are of a piece but distinguishable; God has a stake guaranteed in all the world."

If the explanation seems metaphysical and remote, the reality it tries to explain rings with life in these pages—a world where God is present but invisible, unknowable, but as much part of experience as breath. "A hundred times through the fields and along the deep roads I've cried Holy," she writes. "The air is buoyant and wholly transparent, scoured by grasses. The earth struck through it is noisome, blighted, and salt." She knows only enough of God to worship Him, she says, and maybe that is all that counts.

As for the artist, "his face is flame like a seraph's, lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see."… If there are faults to find here, let others find them. This is a rare and precious book. (pp. 12, 40)

Frederick Buechner, "Island Journal," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 25, 1977, pp. 12, 40.

Julie Norwich was only seven when her father's single-engine airplane unaccountably stalled after takeoff, plunged into a stand of fir trees, and exploded into flames. Julie's father escaped the crash unharmed, but a rush of burning fuel enveloped the young girl's face, virtually obliterating it…. [Holy the Firm] is a contemplative view of divine intent, a wrestling with the age-old paradox of a merciful God who allows such cruelty to be visited upon his children.

Dillard's own answer seems close to a broadly shared traditionalist view that (as she describes it) "the world is immanation, that God is in the thing, and eternally present here…." In short, human suffering is neither punitive nor capricious, but a link in the order of things.

In search of a metaphor for this theory, Dillard makes use of the language of an early Christian movement, Esoteric Christianity…. General readers will find the theology heavy going (and so will a great many seminarians). But Dillard writes about the ferocity and beauty of natural order with enough grace to survive that objection. (pp. 106-07)

C. Michael Curtis, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1977 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), December, 1977.