For the Time Being

by Annie Dillard

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There is something enchanting about a book entitled For the Time Being. Such a cliché for a title suggests a novel for summer reading, or, given the photograph of the Mongolian desert that graces the book’s cover, one might even expect an old-fashioned travelogue—perhaps something for the wayward tourist to flip through during a tedious layover. However, that which looks to be simple on the surface—indeed, what appears at first to be little more than surface—often reveals considerable depth upon closer inspection. Such is the case with Annie Dillard’s book. Both the title and the brevity of this work might very well deceive those who are unfamiliar with the author. Longtime fans will recall that Dillard dazzled the literary world with her second and most popular book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a work that won her the Pulitzer Prize and secured her place in the literary canon. Any proper discussion of this latest work must begin with the former, where both the similarities and the differences demonstrate her growth as an artist.

In the useful “Author’s Note,” Dillard describes the very specialized literary niche she has carved for herself in the “nonfiction first-person narrative.” It is a description that could easily be applied to both books. In the earlier work, Dillard ponders such matters as salvation and evil as they appear, respectively, in the images of the cedar ablaze with light and the dying frog. In the ensuing pages, Dillard bombards the reader with facts from science on the lives of insects, her observations of the natural world, and her very personal need to regain that initial vision of light despite her realization of her own mortality. What makes that early work so much fun for the reader, of course, is the obvious joy that Dillard takes in the play of language. Considering how the book bursts with statistics about the natural world, it is surprising to discover countless similes, metaphors, and puns. They reflect Dillard’s experience as a poet and help to unify the book’s peculiar mixture of science and her eclectic take on religion. The intervening decades since the publication of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek have produced a writer who relies far more on intellect than on poetic devices to illustrate her ideas. Indeed, Dillard takes pains to emphasize this point in the “Author’s Note” of For the Time Being, where she states that the narrative “form is unusual, its scenes are remote, its focus wide, and its tone austere. Its pleasures are almost purely mental.” Clearly, Dillard is not writing for the masses.

One major drawback to the book from the reader’s perspective is the fact that, as Dillard herself admits, “its narratives keep breaking.” This is reflected in the structure of the book’s seven chapters, and while the chapters themselves lack titles, each is divided into ten sections: “Birth,” “Sand,” “China,” “Clouds,” “Numbers,” “Israel,” “Encounters,” “Thinker,” “Evil,” and “Now.” What is interesting about this approach is the tension it produces between the choppy narrative that results from the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated subjects and the cohesion created by the repetition of this pattern in every chapter. Given Dillard’s considerable skills as writer, one cannot simply dismiss this narrative structure as sloppy or inept. Again, there is the considerable evidence offered by Pilgrim at Tinker Creek , where each chapter is devoted to a specific topic. Still, why resort to this fragmentation, where portions of a topic—such as “Evil”—are divvied up among seven chapters instead of being contained in one? There is no simple answer here, but it is clear that Dillard needed a...

(This entire section contains 2067 words.)

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new means of structuring her material, one whereby the medium—in this case, the fragmented narrative—becomes part of the message. Like it or not, these brief flashes of insight into apparently disparate subjects provide an accurate reflection of the fragmented reality confronted by the reader: Multiple sources of information—television, radio, Internet, cell phone—bombard the recipient with fragments of the past and present on a continuous basis. Indeed, the chapter subsections have something of the air of sound bites, but sound bites that become the stuff of art.

What makes this fragmentation acceptable is the fact that Dillard’s text interweaves these narrative threads into a convincing whole, something that is evident even in the first chapter. It begins, as already stated, with “Birth”—a clever play on words that alludes not only to the subject at hand and the beginning of her own text but also to the biblical Genesis, which also means birth. It is a disarming approach, one that is designed both to kindle the reader’s interest and to play upon the usual associations with birth: joy, hope, and renewal. However, Dillard thwarts these expectations by meditating upon the horrors of birth defects, elaborating on the many ways in which nature leads the human form astray. What is implied here is a question that has plagued true believers in religion for thousands of years: How can one reconcile such horrible deformities with a compassionate God? This is one of the book’s crucial and recurring concerns. Moreover, this concept of birth forms a basis for unifying the text. In the ensuing section, “Sand,” the words of paleontologist and cleric Pierre Teilhard de Chardin provide an answer: “The immense hazard and the immense blindness of the world . . . are only an illusion.” What is just as important here are the means by which the narrative strands are united. Dillard moves from a discussion of defective births to a paleontologist who specialized in pre-Neanderthal remains: the birth of humanity. This birth imagery is even more remarkable in the following section, “China,” in which the focus is on countless clay effigies that are being unearthed after thousands of years. Qin, China’s first emperor, had the life-size figures buried so they could accompany him in the afterlife—substitutes that were modeled after actual individuals. Dillard makes much of this excavation, and the birth imagery is obvious when she perceives “what looked like human bodies coming out of the earth.” Again, this kind of birth recalls Genesis, where God creates living beings out of the earth. Thus, on one level at least, the reader can find a linking between such diverse subjects as birth and archaeology through associated imagery. An additional link with “Birth” can be found in the following section, “Israel.” It is true that there is no birth imagery here; however, this section does discuss talmudic blessings—a topic that also appears in that first section. In point of fact, “Israel”—with its depiction of the decapitated snake in the garden—amplifies the idea of death, the dominant topic for the rest of the first chapter. The “Israel” section leads to a discussion of the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph, who was executed through slow torture by the Romans for teaching the Torah. This in turn brings the reader to the segment entitled “Evil,” where one learns that it was the Roman emperor Hadrian who ordered this terrible deed. Dillard rounds out this idea of the notion of death in the final section, “Now,” where she observes that people tend to pay more attention to the news as they approach their own inevitable demise. This brief overview of the first chapter in no way does justice to the consistently high quality of Dillard’s writing, but it does give some insight into an art that initially appears to be merely fragmentary.

What is the point of all this clever writing across a multitude of disciplines? This is a difficult question to answer, in part because the book does not lend itself to the kind of thumbnail sketch one usually finds in a review. Again, one can clarify For the Time Being by recalling the religious theme that runs throughout Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. While the earlier work is concerned with the problem of evil, Dillard expands upon this notion in the later book and links it with the terrible deformities in the birth chapters. Institutionalized religion has grappled with these issues over the centuries, and Dillard clearly finds their answers woefully inadequate. A practicing Christian, she nevertheless rejects most rituals as empty of meaning; even a visit to the reputed birthplace of Jesus Christ fails to move her. From her perspective, most religions fail when they ascribe all the known physical manifestations of the universe to God. She unequivocally claims that “Mostly, God is out of the physical loop.” Far from moving nature, she states, “God suffers the world’s necessities along with us, and suffers our turning away, and joins us in exile.” This is how Dillard comes to terms with evil—particularly the many instances of genocide in the twentieth century—and the physical deformities that sometimes appear in human beings.

It is the concept of time, though, that manages to thread itself throughout Dillard’s book. Time is the one thing that separates the various historical figures in her work—from Emperor Qin to the Jesuit paleontologist—but it also presents the reader with a persistent paradox. On the one hand, Dillard provides an impressive survey of change in the world, both in its physical features and in the history of humanity. Regarding the latter, as already noted, Dillard’s text ranges from the most primitive of human ancestors revealed by Teilhard de Chardin right up to the present time. Moreover, she bolsters this catalog of change with a truly mind-numbing array of statistics; most disturbing of all are the instances of genocide that have occurred throughout history and the fact that human beings have a surprisingly short memory for such cruel deeds. On the other hand, Dillard maintains that in a very fundamental sense human beings never really change: “There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been.” Though human beings increase in number and continue to create an increasingly complex technology, the human condition never changes.

This double-edged aspect of change is also reflected in Dillard’s discussion of the physical aspects of the earth, especially sand. She goes into immense detail about the nature of sand: how sand is formed, where it is found, and how it affects human beings. Such is the nature of this fine grit—the fact that it is everywhere and in constant motion—that one would conclude that this, too, is a marker of change. It will eventually cover any stationary object if that object remains in one place long enough. However, even this emblem of change has a quality of stasis about it, for the sand that becomes sandstone is eventually drawn back into the earth and broken down into its constituent parts—to begin the process all over again. Dillard achieves a similar effect in her discussion of clouds, where she lists numerous instances in which individuals describe what they perceive to be remarkable formations in the sky. The cumulative effect of these descriptions is something that is impossible in the physical world—trying to fix that which is transient by its very nature. Dillard seems to be demonstrating here that this very notion of mutability—the surest marker of the passage of time—is as illusory as time itself. When time is no longer a factor, a cloud proves to be just as substantial as a mountain. What Dillard seems to be elucidating is a notion of God first set forth by Boethius in the year 523 in De consolatione philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy, late ninth century). To the claim that human beings lack free will (because of God’s foreknowledge), he responded by asserting that God sees everything in an eternal present. Dillard exquisitely realizes this notion in the final “Now” section of the book, where all of the major narrative threads and historical figures suddenly come together at the same moment in time. It is a lovely, poetic conclusion that is the product of a rigorous intellect. As enchanting as it is disturbing, For the Time Being is well worth reading.

Sources for Further Study

America 181 (August 14, 1999): 25.

Booklist 95 (February 1, 1999): 939.

The Christian Century 116 (May 19, 1999): 572.

Library Journal 124 (April 1, 1999): 103.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (March 28, 1999): 9.

Sojourners 28 (September, 1999): 58.