Teaching a Stone to Talk

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

To call Annie Dillard a nature writer is as misleading as to call Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) a children’s book. Although often compared to Henry David Thoreau (she wrote her master’s thesis on Thoreau and often alludes to him in her writing), she is not a transcendentalist but a Christian mystic. A flippant Dillard sentence tells the reader much about the difference between Dillard and Thoreau: “I came to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it.” Loss of self, not heightened self, is one of her goals. Dillard uses place and nature not as things in themselves but as embodiments of the divine. Every carefully recorded detail—a weasel, a pair of whistling swans, Galápagos turtles, a crowing rooster, a mangrove island, or the horizon at the Arctic Circle—is a part of some allegorical parallel that Dillard wants to make. Her main subject is not creation (nature) but the Creator.

Thus, Dillard can best be understood when placed in a tradition of female mystics—from the medieval Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, and Teresa of Avila to the eighteenth-century Shaker visionaries Mother Ann Lee, Jemima Wilkinson (the Universal Friend), and others of the Quaker sects which gave place and status to female prophetesses and seers. She has said about her work, “Art is my interest, mysticism my message, Christian mysticism.” Her visions—which illumine all of her work, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) to the present series of essays—have often been criticized as being too surrealistic or simply incomprehensible. These visions can be understood only if they are taken at face value as transcendent mystical religious experience. There is nothing “surrealistic” about them. The present age is simply too literal-minded to accept mystic visions.

In an author’s note which prefaces Teaching a Stone to Talk, Dillard asserts that the present work “is not a collection of occasional pieces, such as a writer brings out to supplement his real work.” Instead, she says, “this is my real work, such as it is.” Dillard’s real work is the transcribing of epiphanies in which the nature of the divine is embodied or shown forth. Joyce and Proust have secularized the use of the term “epiphany” in literary criticism; Dillard’s epiphanies call for the original theological meaning. These epiphanies are usually called forth by something in the natural world, but now, in her latest writing, they may also be brought about by an encounter with a child, by a Mass or baptism, or by a series of readings Dillard does on Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Teaching a Stone to Talk is about grace, about encountering the divine and the silence of the divine, about understanding vocation, about miracles and visions. It is not “about” nature, or human beings, or Surrealism.

Dillard’s voice in these pieces—meditations they should be called—is that of a visionary poet, prophet, theologian, preacher. Her style has all the graceful turn, calculated pause, periodic sentence, repeated phrase, and rhetorical flourish of the orator. Like good poetry or good sermons, the meditations demand to be read aloud. Visionaries always have difficulty putting into rational discursive language that which is in a realm beyond rationality. It is Dillard’s genius that she can often explain her vision to the uninitiated, and she does it, like any visionary, in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone. Thus, in her masterful “An Expedition to the Pole,” the concluding vision combines historical figures from polar expeditions, neighbors from her local church during a folk Mass and baptism, and her own personal understanding of the Via Negativa (“the lightless edge where the slopes of knowledge dwindle, and love for its own sake, lacking an object, begins”). All desire and personal vanity must be let go (the explorers’ silver forks and knives, her own distaste for “Protestant guitars” in the Mass) if the pole—the absolute—is to be reached. Compromise is necessary: “Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand—that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.” This long essay imparts an immense amount of detail from the history of polar exploration—diaries of the men who died, descriptions of what was accomplished, the land and the ice—woven back and forth in sections alternating with descriptions of a dreadful folk Mass at the local Catholic church. A visionary can synthesize, make connections, help the reader see in a new way. This Dillard does.

Dillard’s sense of time, her complete identification with thinkers far removed in space and time, her ability to envision both the far-future and the evolutionary past, her leaps into the mind of a weasel or a captured deer or Galápagos sea lions—these link her with other, less theological visionaries such as Loren Eiseley....

(The entire section is 2060 words.)