Authors: Annie Dillard
For Phyllis Rose
They will question thee concerning what they should expend.
Say: The Abundance.
THE QUR'AN, SURA OF THE COW
A passage from
An American Childhood
âpresented here as a short essay called “Waking Up”âends with the characteristically brilliant image of a woman diving into water, becoming sealed in her reflection, and wearing it “as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after.” It's Annie Dillard all over, that passage, that image. Waking up (coming into consciousness), remaining wide awake, leading “a life of concentration,” rather than sleep-wading through life, have been her abiding concerns. Her first book,
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
begins with the author waking “in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood.”
A writer who never seems tired, who has never plodded her way through a page or sentence, Dillard can only be enjoyed by a wide-awake reader. By which I really mean that she rejuvenates even the word-weary, whoâit can happen to the best of usâhave succumbed, like Henry in John Berryman's fourteenth
to being bored by literature, “especially great literature.” Maybe that's part of her appeal: the way that her best work often comes in shapes and forms unencumbered by the protocols associated with “great literature.” Some of the pieces here were first collected in
Teaching a Stone to Talk,
which may have looked, when it came out, like the kind of interim report “a writer brings out to supplement his real work.” But no, she explains in the author's note, “this is my real work, such as it is.”
Genre-resistant nonfiction may be a recognized genre these days, but Dillard awoke to its possibilitiesâand attendant difficultiesâback in the early 1970s, when she was writing what became
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
“After all,” she noted in a journal, “we've had the nonfiction novelâit's time for the novelized book of nonfiction.” Easier said than done, of course. As she puts it in
The Writing Life,
“Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? And, Can
do it?” But it's the nature of this beast that the answer to the second question becomes known only after the book has been writtenâor has failed to get writtenâwhen there's no longer any point asking it. This is different from geographical exploration and discovery, where, once you get to the place to be discoveredâthere it is, waiting to be claimed and named!âthe uncertainty is over. The discovery in art is often gradual, a process of minor dis
coveries riddled with uncertainties and the potential for making that which is discovered vanish before your eyes, like a mirage.
“What kind of book is this?” Dillard asked herself of
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
a question that will continue to be asked for as long as the book is read. We read it, in part, to find the answer and, after we have read itâthis is the great thingâare still not sure.
So, one question giving rise to another: What kind of writer is Annie Dillard? One of those writers, she decided early on, who chose to define herself in extraliterary terms: “an explorer of the neighborhood,” “a fugitive and a vagabond, a sojourner seeking signs,” and “a stalker, or the instrument of the hunt itself.” This last idea is especially telling. The Stalker in Tarkovsky's eponymous film says of a teacher (called Porcupine, as it happens) that “he opened my eyes.” Dillard opens our eyes to the world and to new ways of articulating what we see. More exactly, she alerts us to the possibility of being free of formal conventions that constrain in the guise of enabling. She does this when you first read her and does so again when you reread her. She did it in
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
and she is doing it again here, in what might be regarded as a reframing or rehang of much-loved work. The pleasure and excitement are intense, whether you know the original material well or
are encountering itâwaking to its astonishmentsâfor the first time.
After that fanfare, let's deflate things a bit by introducing a writer who must surely be considered as an antithetical rather than kindred spirit. E. M. Cioran, author of
The Trouble with Being Born,
claimed to owe everything, torments and insights alike, to his insomnia. If Dillard celebrates the day (“Every day is a god, each day is a god”), Cioran was condemned to wakefulness, to spending his nights wandering in a blaze of unrelieved consciousness. Yet a strange negative affinity exists between the two. They are, for exampleâthough it is not necessarily the first thing that strikes you about eitherâwonderfully comic writers. In Cioran the comedy is funereal to the point of absurdity (which
the point); in Dillard it's the comedy of rapture. Or at least it's a comedy that permits prose and thought to soar while inoculating the rapturous against the three ills of which nature writers should live in permanent dread: preciousness, reverence, and earnestness (the sure sign, Nietzsche reminds us, of a slow brain). “The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, even God,” she writes in the classic essay “Total Eclipse.” And then continues: “The mind's sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy.”
On the humor front it helps, also, that Dillard's pretty
much a fruitcake. In an insightful review of
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
Eudora Welty confessed that at certain points “I honestly do not know what she is talking about.” And
is far from being Dillard's most difficult or nuttiest offering; that honor would have to go to
Holy the Firm
(really bonkers, and all the more enjoyable for it). Incomprehension is usually the result of obfuscation, the words refusing to slip into focus; Dillard, however, remains a writer of exceptional clarity, even when we are struggling to grasp the meaning of what is being said so clearly, so
Perhaps it's this very lucidity that compels her to peer into the darkness of ethical and metaphysical questions. She has returned frequently to the old chestnut of suffering in the world (“Cruelty,” she writes in an insight worthy of Simone Weil, “is a mystery, and the waste of pain”), and it is hereâto go back a paragraphâthat we find more common ground with Cioran. In his despair as a young man, Cioran decided that “philosophy is no help at all, and offers absolutely no answers. So I turned to poetry and literature, where I found no answers either, but states of mind analogous to my own.” Dillard's position on these matters is set out by a character in her novel
Having limited philosophy's objects to certainties, Wittgenstein later realized he broke, in however true a cause,
his favorite toy, metaphysics, by forbidding it to enter anywhere interesting. For the balance of Wittgenstein's life he studied, of all things, religions. Philosophy . . . had trivialized itself right out of the ball park. Nothing rose to plug the gap, to address what some called “ultimate concerns,” unless you count the arts, the arts that lacked both epistemological methods and accountability, and that drew nutty people, or drove them nuts.
These “ultimate concerns” are boiled down, on several occasions in Dillard's work, to a single nutty question: “to wit, What in the Sam Hill is going on here?” Though she has written two fine novels, her answers tend not to come in novel form. The novel, after all, is generally programmed to describe and map the social landscape. This is neither her main area of thematic interest nor where her talents are uniquely displayed. Early on in
An American Childhood,
young Annie discovers “that I myself was both observer and observable, and so a possible object of my own humming awareness.” Welty, in her review of
was less than wholehearted in her admiration for this canary-in-the-me-mine method: “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.” If this, for Welty, was almost the opposite of what it meant to be a writer,
it was exactly what attracted Cioran to mystics and saints. Hostile to religion, he nevertheless developed an interest in the mystics because they “lived a more intense life than others. And, too, because of their extraordinary pride, me and God, God and me.” It is here, amidst what she calls “the literature of illumination,” that Dillard declares her genius most openly. Actually, let's put that differently: It's here that she has made her home.
Bear in mind alsoâthe antecedents of Emerson and Thoreau are importantâthat while the light may be universal, it always falls in a particular way on a particular patch of ground. “I never saw a tree,” Dillard declares, in a valuable piece of advice to writers of any and every stripe, “that was no tree in particular.” At one point she insists, with the unflappable resolve of a lawyer's dream witness, on having seen an angel in a field. I'm of the Courbet persuasion but am inclined to believe her, less because she conceived of
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
as “what Thoreau called âa meteorological journal of the mind'” than because, after careful deliberation, she confided to her journal that
was “really a book about a pond.” In everything she writes she subscribes to the ideaâattributed variously to Ãluard or Yeatsâthat “there is another world, but it's in this world.” Wherever you are in this world, she reminds us, “life is always and necessarily lived in detail.”
Inevitably, then, she has been scrupulous in detailing her whereabouts: where she was from (
An American Childhood
), where she was living (
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
), and where she was going (
Teaching a Stone to Talk
). That kind of attentiveness means that she also needs to factor in whichever books she has in her duffel bag to sustain and nourish her in these places and phases. And so, at the risk of uprooting her from the native soil of Emerson and Thoreau, I feel similarly at liberty to open up my own bag of books and mention the three writers who, as the saying goes, beat a path to her door for me.
Emerson: The Mind on Fire,
Robert D. Richardson (Dillard's husband) enables us to seeâalmost to shareâhow Emerson became the writer he did by reading the writers he read. These are the writers who formed him. But what of the path that draws readers to a writer they come to love? That, too, is formed by writers who not only prepare us for such encounters, but also subtly prepare the writer
In turn, this writer will prepare the way for other encounters further along the road. For the time being, though, Dillard is where I'm at: a temporary terminus.
The three writers who got me to this point have much in common with Dillard, not least a tendencyâoften regarded as fatal flaw in imaginative writersâto offer
advice: one reason, perhaps, why none of them could confine their talents to the novel. First there is D. H. Lawrence, one of the most insistent and vehement offerers of advice in the English literary canon. But Lawrence's hieratic tendency, the unwavering belief that he had some kind of cure for the sickness of his times, is always predicated on “his relationship, his bond with everything in creation.” The words are those of his widow, Frieda, who continued to be amazed by thisâ“no preconceived ideas, just a meeting between him and a creature, a tree, a cloud, anything”âlong after his Salvator Mundi sermonizing had become wearisome. We are in the jurisdiction of the detail, so let's take a tiny example. When Lawrence writes of cypress trees in
Twilight in Italy,
“For as we have candles to light the darkness of night, so the cypresses are candles to keep the darkness aflame in the full sunshine,” he not only makes us see these particular trees in a very particular light; he also prepares our eyes for seeing (reading) pages by Dillard, which, in turn, bring Lawrence flaring back into life as herâand ourâpermanent contemporary.
Then there is Rebecca West. The fact that her tone and register are so differentâgrand where Dillard is scattyâshould not distract us from the similarities both incidental and overarching (and therefore, ultimately, tonal). By baking a cake for friends, West realizes in
and Grey Falcon,
“one is striking a low note on a scale that is struck higher up by Beethoven and Mozart.” In
The Writing Life,
Dillard expresses her admiration for a stunt pilot. “It was as if Mozart could move his body through his notes, and you could walk out on the porch, look up, and see him in periwig and breeches, flying around in the sky. You could hear the music as he dove through it; it streamed after him like a contrail.”
More generally, there is the shared tendency, the strength of the urge, towards ultimate concerns. Asked to write a book about empire, West declined because she had nothing to say “except for the fancy bits on religion and metaphysics that I would throw in in my demented way.” In
demented way, Dillard is content to throw a lot overboard to make room for the metaphysics. But there is nothing desperate, anorexic, or body-denying about her preoccupation with questions of the spirit. In the concluding essay here the quest for the absolute is represented both by a religious ceremony and by an expedition to the North Pole.
Her idea of meta is unashamedly physical. “What's wrong with golf?” she asks in “This Is the Life.” “Nothing at all.” Well, there's quite a lot wrong with it, in my view; mainly that it's not tennis or volleyball. And it is tennis, rather than golf, to which she turns when urging writers to “hit the edges.” I once heard tennis
coach Brad Gilbert give similar instructions to one of his protÃ©gÃ©s. The phrase he shouted out was “Stretch the court!” but that's another story. Or maybe it is precisely the story. See, you can stretch the court by stripping it of a lot of the clutter required by the novelâall the furniture of characterâbut the physicality of storytelling must remain strong; must be doubly strong, in fact.
And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos,
John Bergerâthe third point in the British triangle that enabled me, in a most un-Bermuda-like way, to find Dillardâwrites that “the traffic between story-telling and metaphysics is continuous.” Here's a little example of that (foot) traffic from
Teaching a Stone to Talk: