Holy the Firm

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Holy the Firm is a work whose leading allusion is to a concept drawn from esoteric Christianity. Holy the Firm, according to Dillard’s medieval sources, is a created substance which occurs within planets—below earth, minerals, salts; it serves as a bridge between the material and the spiritual worlds, for it is “in touch with the Absolute at base.” Looking backwards to Christianity’s great medieval flourishing, Dillard finds a concept which is utterly contemporary and even futuristic. For the idea of “Holy the Firm” explains, she believes, the infinity of time and the curve of space.

Allusions to the Middle Ages abound in all of Dillard’s work, and it is as a medieval religious pilgrim that her stance as narrator and artist should be understood. Here we must distinguish between the tourist and the pilgrim. For the tourist, places are ends in themselves, scenes to be consumed by the ravishing eye. For the pilgrim, places are means—of refreshment, of soul-building, of education about the Way. To the pilgrim, allegory dissolves mere scenery, the picture forces its way through the picturesque. Dillard’s writings beautifully depict earthly places, but she is no tourist. Nor, as some would have it, is she a sort of roving regionalist, though this is a plausible notion. Reared in the city, she adopted the Blue Ridge creeks, valleys, and hills around Roanoke, Virginia, during and after her days at Hollins College. She married poet-novelist Richard Henry Wilde Dillard in 1965; she now is scholar-in-residence at Western Washington State College and lives alone on northern Puget Sound. But these settings and situations are ancillary, accidental: for Dillard is a pilgrim, comprehensible only in terms of her telos.

Dillard startled the critical world with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Viewed by many as a naturalist who brilliantly revealed the intricacies, fecundity, and violence of nature, Dillard has been compared to writers as disparate as Thoreau and Melville. Nature is not her real focus, however. She says about her work, “Art is my interest, mysticism my message, Christian mysticism.” That mystical Christianity—and its revelations in the natural world—resonates most strongly in Holy the Firm. In fact, the ultimate meaning of all her work is missed if Dillard is interpreted as a Thoreauvian transcendentalist. The faults many critics find in her—her extreme allusiveness and the density of the imagery, her failure to consider what humans have done in and to nature, her “escapism”—can all be accounted for if the reader understands from the outset that Dillard’s main subject is not Creation (Nature), but Creator. The categories with which to comprehend Dillard’s achievement are those of religion—spiritual autobiography, meditation, mysticism, theology. Thus, the appearance of Holy the Firm forces one to reconsider all of Dillard’s previous efforts.

With this critical perspective in mind, Dillard’s statement that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is “really a book of theology” becomes extremely important. Ostensibly the book records the changing patterns of nature over a year, as Dillard peers closely at a few acres on Tinker Creek, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. But since the year is liturgical as well as natural, this “journal” is a mystic meditation on the terror and glory of God’s creation. The terror is captured in such detailed episodes as the giant water bug sucking out the frog’s life blood, the mindless tracking of the pine caterpillars which leads them to starvation, or the praying mantis consuming her mate as he couples with her. Also revealed is creation’s glory, experienced only in unselfconscious instants, selfless epiphanies of complete understanding. Dillard’s mission is to see fully. She asks for toothpicks for her eyes, as she searches for the vision of the “tree with lights in it” that the newly sighted child glimpsed when its bandages are first removed. Though they can be sought for, such moments are grace, given in fleeting instants, recalled only by the mind and changed when verbalized.

Dillard expresses this idea—so like that of Joyce or Proust—in recounting her vision of the light changing on the mountains. She is waiting on the hot pavement of a gas station, petting a puppy: “The air cools; the puppy’s skin is hot. I am more alive...

(The entire section is 1823 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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