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Summer Books

Annie Dillard demands that we look life in the eye


Annie Dillard was walking one day on the shore of a little island. She was, she says, scaring frogs for fun. They would jump into the water just ahead of her feet. One small frog didn’t jump, so she moved closer. “And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. ... He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football.” Eventually the frog skin started to sink in the water. The villain of this little drama was a brown beetle called simply the giant water bug. He bit the frog from below, injected enzymes into the frog that paralyzed it and turned it to juice, then sucked the frog out of its skin.

Things like that seem to happen to Dillard all the time. The island was in Tinker Creek, Va., focus of her 1974 Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper’s Magazine Press) in which she set out, like Thoreau, to write “a meteorological journal of the mind.”

Her latest book, For the Time Being (Knopf, 1999, 205 pages, $22) begins on a similarly sour note: an exposition of a manual of human birth defects, Smith’s Recognizable Patterns of Human Abnormalities. She dwells at length on bird-headed dwarfs, who are what their name suggests. This is soon followed by the story of Rabbi Akiva who in 135 A.D. was flayed by the Romans, his flesh stripped from his bones by currycombs. He was 85.

Few writers depict what’s wrong with the world as vividly as Dillard. At the end of the most brutal century in human history, we, weary, search desperately for the happy ending, the escape, while Dillard urges us not to turn away, coaxes us instead to look life in the eye. Here, let me show you, she says. Relentlessly. Her books are one tour de force after another.

About good and evil

It’s old news now that the world is harsh and in need of improvement. Nearly all humans try, according to their capacity, to adjust life for the better. This is true of the refugee holding out a tin cup, of the politician manipulating the bigger picture, of the butcher, baker and even the writer, who, self-important as the next one, strives for a single if a home run is out of reach.

In a hurry and in need of simplicity, we tend to reduce all our striving to good and bad, the ubiquitous polarity, encompassing everything from breakfast for the kids to God on the cross. Because we rely so much on writers to interpret the world for us, to be critics or cheerleaders, we finally judge their writing on how it has fared in the trenches with good and evil.

And scribblers respond to the challenge. From tabloids to New Testament, the main event is good and evil. Their writing is judged by whether it nuances the gray or merely serves up black and white in the raw. Since it takes a lifetime to learn that success will be limited in any case, writers keep trying to scribble in new ways, from epic to haiku, from fiction to nonfiction. They contort and distort, giving reality a black eye here, a leg up there. In a way it’s arrogant of them. Yet here and there they make a lasting impression, leave echoes.

In Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair, an adulteress dies unrepentant. But strange things, such as cures, happen and seem to point back to her. The narrator begins to be aware of, then to believe in God -- as someone to be hated. But, as the priest of the story says, he is a “good hater.” Something is stirring. Similarly, in William Golding’s equally celebrated Lord of the Flies, a bunch of supposedly civilized schoolboys, planewrecked and thus free of the usual restraints, grow savage rather than orderly and nice, the good intentions of the few overwhelmed by the innate evil of the many.

Novels, accounts of fabricated worlds plucked out of thin air, have had immense popularity. So they must be saying something to our psyche. And they say it more painlessly than writers who run at reality foursquare. Novelists touch us at a tangent. In their desperation to grab our attention and goodwill they up the tragedy or the comedy. In all this they sidestep intellect to get at emotions. Wrote W.B. Yeats: “Art bids us touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrinks from what Blake calls mathematical form, from every abstract thing, from all that is of the brain only, from all that is not a fountain jetting from the entire hopes, memories and sensations of the body.”

We know better than to think this is easy. “I have asked a lot of my emotions,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. “The price was high ... because there was one little drop of something, not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story. It was the extra I had.” Art, in short, is a tall order.

At the other end of the spectrum from the fabricated world of novels is the more solid ground of nonfiction. Dillard does both, as well as essays, poetry and perhaps more. She breaks down the barriers between these, climbing over literary distinctions to get at insights that will knock our socks off, that is the feeling a reader gets: Nothing less than knocking our socks off will do.

She sets out on the winding road of ambiguity: “Cruelty is a mystery and the waste of pain,” she writes in Tinker Creek. “But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings on the skull. Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist (who?), there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous.”

In For the Time Being Dillard says the Torah says that the fetus in the womb, as yet innocent and holy, moments before birth sees “all the mingled vastness of the universe, and its volumes of time, and its multitudes of peoples trampling the generations under.” At the last moment an angel comes along and taps the infant lips so that the infant forgets and joins the human race bewildered as the rest of us.

Impressions of life

For the Time Being is, among other things, an impressionist picture of that tempest-tossed world. It is divided into enigmatic categories that circle and rotate: Birth, China, Clouds, Israel, Numbers, Thinker, Evil and so on. There is no predicting how Dillard will deal with any of these. An early section called “Sand,” for example, is mostly about Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, though later we meet him in the “China” section. Dillard introduces Teilhard gradually. The book is a gradual unveiling of the world as Dillard is obsessed by it, which also, of course, is a gradual unveiling of the author.

She leaps from one obiter dictum to another, from insight to aside. Searching for a tangent to connect with us, she returns to the womb: “An infant is a pucker of the earth’s thin skin; so are we. We arise like budding yeasts and break off; we forget our beginnings ... but we can still leave footprints in a trail whose end we do not know.”

Yet Dillard is not such a romantic softy as this might imply. “The world is as glorious as ever, and exalting,” she writes, “but for credibility’s sake let’s start with the bad news.”

She’s an expert on bad news, can pick it out of the air like a magician. She visited the Chinese city of Xi’an and saw the ongoing excavation of perhaps 10,000 clay soldiers, some still protruding every which way from the earth. The soldiers were buried to honor the dead Emperor Qin. Extravagant gesture, posterity may say, but no option for the poor. No, it was an enlightened stunt, history says. The emperor ordered the clay mannequins as stand-ins for real soldiers who by custom were buried alive to escort Qin to the afterlife. Ah, posterity sighs in relief. Until we realize -- something Dillard does not mention -- that a comparable number of concubines were in fact buried alive with his deceased nibs. This either reflects the emperor’s priorities or hints that soldiers had a stronger union than concubines.

Dillard’s strength is specificity in lieu of abstractions. We are born alone and die alone, one at a time. Ten thousand buried concubines is a statistic. But each, once upon a time, for minutes or hours, struggled with the unfairness of life, with separation from children, parents or husband, with claustrophobia and then the frantic effort to breathe, each struggle unique.

We rightly mourn the victims of the Littleton, Colo., high school massacre. We feel their pain a bit more than that of the Kosovars whose numbers are more daunting, about whom we have less specific knowledge. Until perhaps a TV face of one of them arrests us, maybe haunts us. “Can our prizing of each human life weaken with the square of the distance, as gravity does?” Dillard asks. “Do we believe the individual is precious or do we not?”

From history to now, from babies with grotesque deformities to Emperor Qin gathering up his mother’s enemies and ordering them buried alive, the cruel pendulum swings. Dillard is by no means the first since Job to be baffled by evil. Nor does she even pretend to have answers to it. But she writes as one born with an extraordinary gift for wondering about things. In this and other books -- best known are An American Childhood, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Holy the Firm, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel -- she reaches into the most unexpected corners of reality for perspective and clarity.

After visiting the emperor’s clay soldiers she is struck by the real-life actuality of Chinese farmers, nearly 5 billion people on the planet that 1982 morning. “We who were awake were a multitude trampling the continents of our day in the light -- feeling our lives and stirring about, building a better world a jot, or not -- and soon the continents would roll us under, and new sets of people would trample us.”

Goodness trapped in evil

“Whatever the all-merciful does, he does for the good,” old Rabbi Akiva used to teach. Presumably including getting people currycombed to death. Dillard doesn’t hide her skepticism. And in the 5th century an aristocratic woman called Hypatia got similar treatment, only with oyster shells. “Her problem was Neoplatonism.”

Evil “can exist because entrapped deep inside the force of evil there is a spark of goodness,” she quotes another rabbi -- she has read a lot of rabbis. Gradually she ventures to say that a good and all-powerful God allowing, not to mention causing, evil is a distortion of everyday language. That is not what we mean by good, God or omnipotent.

So she takes another tack. “God is -- for the most part -- out of the physical loop of the fallen world he created, let us say. Or God is the loop, or pervades the loop, or the loop runs in God like a hole in his side he never fingers. Certainly God is not a member of the loop like the rest of us.”

Theologian Martin Buber had a caveat for trawlers in the waters of good and evil, especially for packagers of neat dogmas: This is “the world of contradiction,” so just as soon as it appears fathomable to us we should know we’re in trouble.

Thus we become repositories of creative scripture stories from every culture that tried to explain itself. We often think others’ efforts goofy, having grown accustomed to the tics in our own. Dillard gives us Rabbi Luria’s version: In the beginning the divine essence withdrew into itself to make room for a finite world. This left room for evil, from physical to moral. The creator thought his light and grace would trickle down through this muddled arrangement and eventually save it. But so many calamities have happened, the sparks of holiness are scattered so wide and thin that most of the time we search in vain for the dregs of divinity that have trickled down. Hence “it is literally sensible to deny that God exists.”

Matter to spirit

There is a rough progression in the book from material and temporal to spiritual and eternal. She has sections on sand because “a few years ago, I grew interested in sand.” And why not sand? She explains its place in the scheme of things. Part of earth, where she lives, as we do, of course sand matters. The more spherical a grain of sand, the older it likely is, she writes. She quotes an expert to the effect that an average river requires a million years to move a grain of sand a hundred miles. Dillard doesn’t ask if anyone cares. She writes out of the conviction that it matters, that it’s an integral part of our roller-coaster ride. Sooner or later each grain of sand spends time in a desert, just as every American sooner or later visits Disneyland. “Most of the round sand grains in the world, wherever you find them, have spent some part of their histories blowing around a desert.”

Dust, sand’s close kin, is equally integral. Repeatedly Dillard reminds us of civilizations buried by dust, some faster than we might think. “The Mexico City in which Cortés walked is now 30 feet underground. It would be farther underground except that Mexico City itself has started sinking.” It’s amazing how involved this author can get in ordinary dust, which isn’t ordinary at all: “A surprising portion of it is spider legs, and bits thereof. ... Another unexpected source of aerial detritus is tires.”

She is equally -- at least -- fascinated by clouds, knows what nearly everyone said and wrote about them. Gerard Manley Hopkins, for example, on Oct. 25, 1870: “One great stack in particular over Pendle was knoppled all over in fine snowy tufts and penciled with bloom-shadow.” Why bother? Why bother about anything? Or as Hopkins wrote June 13 of the same year: “What you look at hard seems to look at you.” And isn’t that enough?

And on June 12, 1824, gray clouds swirled over the water in the failing light at Brighton Beach, England. We know this because John Constable painted them and dated the canvas. Unless, of course, he got creative and improvised. He had taken along his beloved wife, who was dying of tuberculosis, and he could not be faulted for trying to foil nature by improvising at a time like that.

Factoids and anecdotes are scattered seemingly at random, just as randomly as they come down roads and round corners to meet us in life. They are what we live with, the human condition:

  • A Dutch person named R. Honwink figured out that the whole population of earth, if snugly arranged, would fit into England’s Lake Windermere, which is no big deal of a lake.
  • A man from Peru’s Amazon region asked: “Isn’t it true that the whole population of the United States can be fitted into their cars?”
  • The dead outnumber the living, probably about 85 billion to 5.9 billion, though it’s hard to keep track of either living or dead.
  • There are approximately nine galaxies out there for everyone alive, though here, too, Dillard is obviously winging it.
  • About 164,300 people a day die. She mentions this in the context of hospitals, to which she frequently returns. “A hole in the universe,” she calls the hospital, through which some depart, others arrive. The young come, she notes elsewhere, with their little hands clenched, ready to fight for it; the old leave hands open, aware at last that they can take little with them.
  • Humans speak 10,000 languages. Give or take. Twenty-three million of us are refugees. More than 3 percent of us are mentally retarded. Two thousand of us a day commit suicide.

It’s a great time to be looking at ourselves, as we round the millennium bend. Teilhard, she says, called us “the whole vast anonymous army of living humanity ... this restless multitude, confused or orderly, the immensity of which terrifies us, this ocean of humanity whose slow monotonous wave-flows trouble the hearts even of those whose flame is most firm.”

She tells more and more of Teilhard in the course of the book. Probably because he had a big vision about beginnings and endings that could, if we finessed the details, encompass us all. She tells how Rome put its fat hand over Teilhard’s mouth to silence him. She admires the Jesuit for staying and staying human, loved by a woman, even. Otherwise Dillard doesn’t say a lot about the churches, as if they were no longer part of the discussion.

Buber once said some angels are born with twisted limbs. Like nearly everyone else, he was imagining heaven with only earth to go on. Everyone from Karl Rahner to Simone Weil is invoked. Aquinas and Leibniz and Paul Tillich, too, all saying -- what we all knew all along -- that God is not omnipotent. Can’t put the square peg in the round hole.

But this is saying nothing about God, just something about us, how little we know. “We dance around in a ring and suppose,” some poet said, “but God sits in the middle and knows.” And another poet: “The angels keep their ancient places; turn but a stone and start a wing.” And most of the time we miss the many-splendored thing.

“I can and I must throw myself into the thick of human endeavor, and with no stopping for breath,” Dillard quotes Teilhard.

Look at yourselves, this risk-taking writer is saying to us. And it’s not just a rhetorical flourish. Don’t settle for every old formula, she’s saying. Let wonder have its way.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999