The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New

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“Purity does not live in a separation from the universe, but in a deeper penetration of it,” wrote the Jesuit priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The remark could well serve as a motto for Annie Dillard; indeed, she quotes it in her 1999 book, For the Time Being, and in the section of that book that turns up again in her new gathering of nonfiction, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. That Dillard feels an affinity for Teilhard is clear; a good deal of the wide-ranging and ambitious For the Time Being is devoted to his career and adventures. He emerges as a fascinating and singular character, a voyager of the spirit, as difficult to categorize or pin down as Annie Dillard herself.

Teilhard also said — Dillard quotes this, too — that World War I had made him “very mystical and very realistic.” Here again I want to borrow Teilhard’s words and apply them to Dillard; they fit perfectly. Her obsession with and attentive eye for the physical details of the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it — first made known to readers through her Pulitzer Prize−winning 1975 book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — in no way excludes mysticism but rather invites it; in Dillard’s universe, the more closely one looks, the more deeply one allows one’s scrutinizing gaze to penetrate, the more mystical one’s vision of the world tends to become.

It is, in Dillard’s case, a vision that has found expression in a dozen books of assorted genres: memoir, essays and journalism, meditative nature writing, poetry, novels. The books are not always easy to classify, and most contain obscurities, passages of metaphysical speculation and often of downright weirdness. But there is nothing artificial, or willed, about it. Some writers employ weirdness as an attention-getting technique, but Dillard is no strategist. Her desire is simply to tell it like it is. If her books tend to stretch the limits of their genres, to find their own particular idiosyncratic forms, it is because the world that she describes, and to which her writings aim to be faithful, is too diverse, too changeable, and too recalcitrant to assign itself to any particular category or be constrained by any particular form. If her writings, from time to time, resist interpretation, it is because sometimes the only way to say what really must be said — or to find out what can be said — is to go past the point where language stops behaving according to clear, well-defined rules. Reading her, one thinks often of Emerson: “All great men have written proudly, nor cared to explain. They knew that the intelligent reader would come at last, and would thank them.”

Like the God of Genesis’s sixth day, who looks on creation and sees that it is good, Dillard looks on creation and sees that it is weird. And also good. And, at times, terrifying and awful. Her central aspiration is to somehow achieve direct, unmediated contact with the world as it really is. Her great and unavoidable question, the one that guides all of her work, is: would such an unconditioned experience of the world be enlightening, or devastating? Or would it be both? (Or else it is: how do we live in this world as the wild things that we know, but sometimes forget, we are?) The result is writing that never ceases going for broke, that is constantly surprising, spiritually alive, and as exciting and dangerous as a rattlesnake or a downed power line. Which, according to Dillard, is what writing should aim to be. “What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” she asks in a section from her 1989 book of advice for writers, The Writing Life. And a few pages later: “Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed? . . . What do we ever know that is higher than the power which, from time to time, seizes our lives and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered?”

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Annie Dillard (photo credit: Phyllis Rose.)

That image of a bewildered creature set down in an inscrutable landscape appears more than once in Dillard’s work, as does the plaintive request such a creature would surely make: Explain all this to me! Contemplating a newspaper item about a man, Alan McDonald, who had the astonishing bad luck to be almost fatally burned in two separate accidents thirteen years apart, she writes, “Will someone please explain to Alan McDonald in his dignity . . . what is going on? And copy me in on it.” Meditating on the tsunami of April 30, 1991, in which 138,000 people died, she writes, “It’s been a stunning time for us adults. It always is . . . What is eternally fresh is our question: What the Sam Hill is going on here?” The question is always present in Dillard’s writings; she won’t leave it be, or it won’t leave her be. Her thought is driven by the tension between wonder and wonder’s dark twin, incomprehension. Every discovery of something joyful or miraculous is accompanied or balanced by the awareness of something bleak, something barely if at all tolerable. The fact that the innocent suffer is a source of constant perplexity. It is, for Dillard, a lived perplexity, no mere intellectual puzzle. But to simply condemn the world as inherently bad is simplistic and dishonest. “Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to encompass 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. For 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.”

There certainly does seem to be such a thing as beauty. But it is difficult to read Annie Dillard for any length of time without being reminded of Rilke’s suggestion that “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure.” The startling opening essay, “Total Eclipse,” invites the reader to the limit of that endurance, the place where beauty tilts and spills over into sheer terror, as the moon’s passage across the face of the sun reveals an awesome and crushing darkness, a life-negating void that, in reality, is always invisibly there. This connects with another essential theme in Dillard: the fragility of everyday life, how easily its thin screen is penetrated by the disturbing and sometimes hostile realities that lie beneath. And — as always, there is a flip side — what disturbs can also liberate: for Dillard, daily life can become so routine and comfortable that it blinds us to the very life we are living, and the interruption or disruption of that life can present an opportunity to reawaken ourselves. In the fascinating “This Is the Life,” she likens our ordinary state of life to that of being hypnotized. (“However hypnotized you and your people are, you will be just as dead in their war, our war. However dead you are, more people will come.”) In “Total Eclipse,” metaphors of sleeping and waking connect with another of her visions of what art, and in particular writing, can do:

We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up. We teach our children to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of human culture on the planet’s crust. As adults we are almost all adept at waking up. We have so mastered the transition we forgot we ever learned it. Yet it is a transition we make a hundred times a day, as, like so many will-less dolphins, we plunge and surface, lapse and emerge. We live half our waking lives and all of our sleeping lives in some private, useless, and insensible waters we never mention or recall. Useless, I say. Valueless, I might add — until someone hauls their wealth up to the surface and into the wide-awake city, in a form that people can use.

Elsewhere she flips this, too: in “Waking Up,” a section from her luminous memoir, An American Childhood (1987), waking becomes a metaphor for transitioning from child to adult, from the natural spontaneity of our early years to the perpetual self-consciousness that maturity brings. “I noticed this process of waking,” she writes, “and guessed with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.” A longing for this sort of freedom is also expressed in a passage from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (in a section not included in The Abundance) in which Dillard writes, “What I call innocence is the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration.” And it surfaces, too, in “The Weasel,” in which Dillard speaks admiringly and enviously of the natural, unreflective state inhabited by weasels and their ilk:

I would like to learn, or remember, how to live. I came to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. That is, I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular — shall I suck warm blood, hold my tail high, walk with my footprints precisely over the prints of my hands? — but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive. The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons. I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.

All of this delving into deep themes might make it sound as if Dillard is no fun. I would certainly have failed in my task as a reviewer if I left the reader with that impression. Dillard is, to use that significant distinction, serious but not solemn. At times she is extremely funny, often acerbically so. Writing of her preferences regarding various forms of church service, she tells us, “I have overcome a fiercely anti-Catholic upbringing precisely in order to escape from Protestant guitars.” Describing a conversation with her father in An American Childhood, she captures perfectly the tone of the frustrated adolescent who just wants to be left alone: “Actually, it drove me nuts when people came in my room. Mother had come in just last week. My room was getting to be quite the public arena. Pretty soon they’d put it on the streetcar routes. Why not hold the US Open here?” There is also a delightful section from that memoir in which she describes her parents’ love of jokes and joke telling, alluding to a legendary joke named “Archibald а̀ Soulbroke,” which was so involved (she describes it as an “ordeal”) that her father almost never told it: “He had to go off alone and rouse himself to an exalted, superhuman pitch in order to pace the hot coals of its dazzling verbal surface. Often enough he returned to a crowd whose moment had passed.”

The book’s title is, perhaps, a bit misleading: there is really only one new essay here, “This Is the Life.” (“Tsunami,” which is presented as a new piece, is essentially reworked material from For the Time Being.) This is disappointing; Dillard has not published much in the past couple of decades, and I got my hopes up, as I expect many of Dillard’s readers did, when I heard of a forthcoming volume of “essays old and new.” That caveat aside, The Abundance is nonetheless a wonderful collection, Dillard at her best — but then, Dillard is a remarkably consistent writer: nearly everything she has published is Dillard at her best. It is in no way comprehensive; it does not touch her poetry or fiction — her 2007 novel, The Maytrees, is a particular favorite of mine — and as always with such collections each individual reader will have her own complaints about some magical piece or other that has been inexplicably omitted. (In my case the glaring omission would be the title essay of Teaching a Stone to Talk, a piece that I have not forgotten since first reading it, and will never forget.)

Of course, no one should regard The Abundance as a stopping point; rather, it ought to prompt people to return to Dillard’s other work or to discover it if (lucky bastards!) they have not already done so. The richness of what they will find there is well indicated by the new collection’s title: it is a rewarding, frequently profound, occasionally astonishing body of work. “The writer knows his field — what has been done, what could be done, the limits — the way a tennis player knows the court,” Dillard wrote in The Writing Life. “And he, too, plays the edges. That’s where the exhilaration is: He hits up the line.” It is a perfect metaphor for her own ambition and accomplishment. Dillard not only plays at the limit but finds lines and edges we did not even know were there, and puts the ball in spots no one else would have seen, much less thought to aim for. She hits it out of bounds and still, somehow, wins. She transforms the game.