Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1442
First published: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999
Subgenre(s): Essays; meditation and contemplation; theology
Core issue(s): Beauty; death; the divine; expectancy; faith; time
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 reader is not always confronted with such images, however. The disturbing and prodigious spectacles of being frequently give way to more mundane and abstract categorical reflections on how time intersects with being. If the sections on birth possess a certain sort of specificity that readers cannot bear—babies with gills and tails—then time itself provides much-needed relief, because the distance of time softens what seems psychologically torturous in the present. In other words, Dillard imagines that time alleviates the symptomatic pain of being. This is evident in her reflections on paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his discovery of the first remnants of pre-Neanderthal man in southeast China. Here, she announces that it is easy to connect with Teilhard but she wonders if one can connect with the bone fragments of pre-Neanderthal man and if one can truly imagine what it meant to be a person living in the southeast corner of China nearly 450,000 years ago. She wonders what it meant for this person to work, love, and be loved, and what it means for people today to think that an individual roamed a corner of China long before they did—and was working, loving, and being loved.
Here, then, Dillard creates a dialectic. On the one hand, she sees being as eternally enveloped in the present (as in her “Now” sections); on the other hand, she sees time as a distancing force that can alleviate the immediacy of being—one that can offer humans a distinctly different angle from which to approach their condition of being. In true dialectical fashion, Dillard’s meditations on time ultimately lead her back to the immediacy of the here and now. Part of the present’s problem is that it has very little ability to sustain its communion with the past—to hold to the far end of the dialectical spectrum. Every generation becomes wrapped in the fears and anxieties of its own age, believing its problems to be more important than those of its predecessors. Hindus started speaking of “the end of the end,” Dillard tells us, sometime between 300 b.c.e. and 300 c.e., and nearly sixteen centuries ago, Saint Augustine reflected on the millennialism of the apostles, saying, “Those were last days then; how much more so now!” What Dillard infers from reading history, then, is that the scope of things is not determined by what one experiences within time, but how one chooses to stand in relation to time. Would those Hindus who spoke of “the end of the end” call it the same if they knew we would be here now, lamenting the impending downfall of our own degenerate society? The dialectic of being and time thus releases Dillard from the hermeneutics of suspicion that frequently govern human perceptions of the present. The absolute “is available to everyone in every age,” she writes. “There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.”
In attempting to find its way out of this dialectic of time and being, For the Time Being ultimately reveals itself to be a mystical theodicy of sorts. If God can touch being and can touch being across all time, Dillard surmises, then there always will be cause for hope, and life itself, whether malformed or prodigious, will be a blessing.
Dillard is not conventional in any strict sense of the term. Some will find her writing to be off-putting, as it is emblematic of what might be called postmodern or avant-garde literature. There is a seeming structure to For the Time Being, but that structure is fluid and malleable—almost a stream of consciousness—and calls into question the accessibility of a central theme and argument within the text. Dillard’s prose is also thick. The reasons some do not find her prose enjoyable, however, are the very same reasons that so many do. Her prose may be thick, but it is poetic. For her, language itself, because it has being—because it comes from being—is the very thing capable of rectifying the relationship between human beings and the divine. We might say that for Dillard, writing is an act of creation. It thus partakes of the beneficence God expresses when he himself creates. In this regard, creation is ethical, it is good. Noting this salient feature of Dillard’s work, writer Sandra Humble Johnson has called Dillard an “epiphanist,” a writer capable of discovering God and bringing her readers to that discovery through the process of writing. If Christ is the Logos, such an argument suggests, then language itself possesses a certain metaphysical ability to reconnect with its giver and source. Dillard’s words do this.
For the Time Being is also an unconventional theodicy. It raises the question all theodicies raise: If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, why are things so bad? It responds, however, from the artist’s perspective, not that of the philosopher or the theologian. Dillard never develops what one might see as a pointed thesis. Rather, she points her readers to the trajectory of a response, forcing them to rest within the open space of what poet John Keats might call “negative capability.”
Sources for Further Study
- America 181 (August 14, 1999): 25.
- Booklist 95 (February 1, 1999): 939.
- The Christian Century 116 (May 19, 1999): 572.
- Johnson, Sandra Humble. The Space Between: Literary Epiphany in the Work of Annie Dillard. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1992. Dillard is envisioned as an “epiphanist,” a writer who gives testimony to the presence of God through the utterance of language.
- Library Journal 124 (April 1, 1999): 103.
- McClintock, James I. Nature’s Kindred Spirits: Aldo Leopold, Joseph Wood Krutch, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, and Gary Snyder. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994. Places Dillard among the great nature writers of the twentieth century and investigates Dillard’s The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) in terms of the environmental movement.
- The New York Times Book Review 104 (March 28, 1999): 9.
- Parrish, Nancy C. Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, and the Hollins Group: A Genesis of Writers. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998. Investigates the formative writing education Dillard and her noteworthy classmate, Lee Smith, received during her undergraduate years at Hollins College, a women’s college.
- Sojourners 28 (September, 1999): 58.
- Yancey, Philip. Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church. Reprint. New York: Galilee Trade, 2003. Noted inspirational Christian author Yancey catalogues thirteen indispensable figures who helped shape his faith, including Annie Dillard.