A review of ‘Abundance’, the new collection of writing by Annie Dillard.
There is to be a total eclipse of the sun. A man and a woman drive across country for five hours, from the coast to the mountains, to witness the event; they have never seen a total eclipse before. They drive around until they find an appropriate hill to watch it from, then they park the car, climb the hill and sit on the top among knee-high grasses. As they wait, other people begin to climb the hill, and to climb other hills nearby, to join them in their witnessing. It is a Monday morning in February 1979.
The moon begins to bite into the sun’s face and the world begins to change. ‘The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were now platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This colour has never been seen on earth.’ Surprisingly swiftly, the human eye’s perception is altered to such a degree that the whole comprehensible world seems to disappear and be replaced by another. The shock is widely felt:
‘From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching, a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That’s when the screams began. All at once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed.’
A pleasant journey to watch an interesting natural event has become something wrenching. An abyss has opened, if only for a moment, and in the abyss the people on the hills can see themselves reflected back:
‘The white ring and the saturated darkness made the earth and sky look as they must look in the memories of the careless dead. What I saw, what I seem to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world. We had all died in our boots on the hilltops of Yakima, and were alone in eternity. Empty space stoppered our eyes and mouths; we cared for nothing. We remembered our living days wrong. With great effort we recalled some sort of circular light in the sky, but only the outline. And then the orchard trees withered, the ground froze, the glaciers slid down the valleys and overcame the towns. If there had ever been people on earth, nobody knew it. The dead had forgotten those they loved. Parted one from the other, they could no longer remember the faces and lands they had loved in light. They just stood on the darkened hilltops, looking down.’
There are not many writers who would even conceive of describing an eclipse of the sun like this; as a cascade of visions and revelations, disconnected from each other and yet forming an inevitable whole. ‘Total Eclipse’, the first piece of writing in Annie Dillard’s new book The Abundance, is typical of her method and its impact. It starts small, busying itself with the detail of the thing (‘all the distant hill’s grasses were fine-spun metal which the wind laid down’), its language baroque with new seeing. Then, suddenly, it slides down into the pit, or ascends into the heavens, before the reader knows what is happening. You have to slow down, as that reader, to take it in, but the payoff is a kind of gasping thud in the chest and a rise in the pit of the stomach as the words soar and carry the vision with them.
Perhaps this sounds silly and grandiose, but it isn’t: at her best, that’s how Annie Dillard can make you feel. Writers get called ‘unique’ all the time, mostly by their publishers, and mostly they aren’t. But more than four decades after she first put pen to paper, there is still nobody out there who writes, or thinks, or sees, like Dillard. The Abundance is a true reflection of its author: strange, unique and rather brilliant.
‘What kind of writer is Annie Dillard?’ wonders Geoff Dyer in the introduction to this selection of some of her past writing. It is a question that has become more pertinent since she stopped writing a decade ago. She remains alive and well, apparently as keen a reader and thinker as ever, but she no longer writes – or at least, no longer publishes, which to some critics appears to amount to the same thing. Her reasons for stopping seem simple and admirable: she didn’t have anything more to say, and she didn’t believe she could better anything she had already written. Now she paints instead.
The Abundance, then, is not really a new book at all: rather it is a selection of the best bits of some of her canon, consisting of twelve books which began with the Pulitzer prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1974. Those books include nature journals, meditations on God, a memoir of childhood, advice manuals for writers, two novels and two collections of poetry. What kind of writer emerges from them? Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her flaming debut, published when she was 28, is usually referred to as ‘nature writing.’ Its author, taking Thoreau explicitly as her guide, sets out to explore and describe the landscape around her Virginia home. But, like Thoreau before her, Annie Dillard is not a ‘nature writer’ at all. The non-human world is the subject she often paints, but her real interest lies beyond it, though within it too.
The title of that first book, still her most famous – a long extract from it is reproduced in The Abundance – offers a clear pointer. The person who has come to Tinker Creek is not a naturalist or a scientist or a polemicist or a poet; she is a pilgrim. She is looking for something: in fact, she is looking for everything, here as in all her other books. What kind of writer is Annie Dillard? A religious one. Perhaps she would resist this categorisation, and probably she should: writers should resist all categorisation. But consider this paragraph, which happens to be from Pilgrim, but which could appear in practically any of her books:
‘It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly at its hem. In making the thick darkness a swaddling band for the sea, God “set bars and doors” and said, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?’
If all Dillard’s books are questions, the big question is always the same. It is the question that Zen masters have their students meditate on for years, until they break through to the other side of it: what is this? As she puts it early on in her debut:
‘We don’t know what’s going on here…. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.’
Dillard has no dogma to push (on her website, she lists her religion as ‘none’, which seems appropriate: no true seeker is ever happy for long within the confines of a church or doctrine, though neither do they seem to be able to stay away from them for long). But all of her writing pivots on the heightened sensibility which, so many traditions tell us, is a prerequisite to perceiving the world beyond the obstruction of the ego, the mind or the false self – that is to say, the world of the ‘spirit’, whatever that turns out to be.
If religion, like science and like philosophy, is at root a search for truth, then all of them depend upon an ability to see clearly, and usually to see differently: to squint at the world from crooked angles, to describe it in ways that others cannot, would not or have not. This is also, of course, the job of a writer. Dillard is a unique writer because she is a unique seer. She seems to look at things differently to the rest of us, which means she is able to describe them in ways which the rest of us wouldn’t. In an extract from The Writing Life, she lays out her view of the writer’s task. ‘Push it’, she demands. ‘Examine all things intensely and relentlessly’:
‘The writer knows his field – what has been done, what could be done, the limits – the way a tennis player knows the court. And like that expert, he, too, plays the edges. That is where the exhilaration is. He hits up the line. In writing, he can push the edges. Beyond this limit, here, the reader must recoil. Reason balks, poetry snaps; some madness enters, or strain. Now, courageously and carefully, can he enlarge it, can he notice the bounds? And enclose what wild power?’
Notice here not just what Dillard is saying, but the way she is saying it. Her proposal – that a writer should try to push boundaries – is not exactly new. But notice the images, the cadences, the unusual ordering of words (‘some madness enters, or strain’), the building rhythm, personalised like birdsong. The sentiment is not original, but the way it is expressed is; the words recast the meaning and make it new again.
Some non-fiction authors write from a position. They take an opinion, a worldview, a thesis, and then they write to explain or justify or propagandise from it. This kind of writing is, in the end, partial and narrow because it is all answer and no question (I know, because I’ve done it myself.) It obscures reality, rather than illuminating it. Annie Dillard starts from the opposite pole: as far as she’s concerned, she knows nothing at all about the world, and her job – the job of all writers – is ‘to give voice to this, your own astonishment’:
‘Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the solid, turn, and unlock – more than a maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.’
It is a risk to write like this, and to write about this. The true nature of reality, the world on the other side of the veil, is the biggest subject of all, and the easiest to write badly about. In the wrong hands, it can be sentimental, long-winded, full of wishful thinking or just plain dishonest. Dillard doesn’t always get it right: sometimes her connections are so tricksy, her sentences so convoluted and bizarre that her world seems inaccessible. The reader senses that she has gone so far into the gaps that he cannot follow. There are whole pages in her most intense and difficult book, Holy The Firm, for example, which I have read, then read again more slowly, then read for a third time in their wider context, and still come away with no idea what she is on about.
But like Perseus, Dillard carries her own shield, one which protects her from any wholesale descent into mawkishness. Her shield is her awareness of the all-pervasive reality of suffering. Time and again she circles back around to the random nature and distribution of misery and pain in the world. She seems to puzzle at it, to poke it and nudge it and turn it over, to try and understand why it exists at all. This puzzlement threads itself through The Abundance like a trail of blood in a stream. At one point, for example, she is trying to creep up on a small, beautiful frog in the creek. She gets closer and closer, but the frog doesn’t move. And then:
‘… Just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his skull itself seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and crumble and fall … I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water just behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away.’
The frog had been eaten alive in front of her eyes by a giant water bug, a creature which seizes and paralyses amphibians, injects an enzyme which dissolves their muscles and bones and then sucks out their innards. Any reader who might have mistakenly believed Tinker Creek to be an idyll is here introduced to the reality that there is no such thing. This clear-eyed view of life’s cruelty and pain is present in everything Dillard writes; she cannot keep away from it. A young girl’s face is burnt off in a plane crash. A batch of frog eggs are eaten before they hatch. A stunt pilot never pulls out of a dive. A bowl of gunpowder explodes in a man’s face. A chameleon’s tongue is ripped from its living throat by a rooster and eaten. A deer, roped to a tree by three of its legs, struggles for hours to be free. Always, the question hangs in the air: what is this?
The story of the deer tells us something else important about Dillard. When she watches this happen, she is in the Ecuadorian jungle with three North American men. That night, as they lay in the tent, one of them expresses amazement at her ability to calmly observe the suffering animal. ‘“If it had been my wife”, one man said with special vigour, amazed, “she wouldn’t have cared what was going on; she would have dropped everything right at that moment and gone in the village from here to there to there, she would not have stopped until that animal was out of its suffering one way or another.”’
The accusation is clear enough: Dillard is too detached from what she sees; especially, perhaps, for a woman. From her point of view, though, there is nothing unexpected about what she has just seen. ‘Gentlemen of the city,’ she writes, ‘what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know it?’
But perhaps the man’s surprise is not unreasonable, for Dillard is detached from the world to a degree, as perhaps all the best writers are. She watches, she responds, she puzzles over what she has seen, but in some ways she never seems quite part of the show. She takes no positions. We never hear of her politics, or her views on the ‘social issues’ of the day. There are no narrowing, strident defences of or attacks on this or that in-group or out-group; no red or blue, left or right. Those things are for lesser writers. Dillard is straining to see beyond them. What does she find? In one of the most extraordinary extended images in the book, she finds a vision of the shape of existence itself:
‘… A vision or fact of time and the peoples it bears issuing from the mouth of the cosmos, from the round mouth of eternity, in a wide and parti-coloured utterance. In the complex weave of this utterance like fabric, in its infinite domestic interstices, the centuries and continents and classes dwell. Each people knows only its own squares in the weave, its walls and instruments and arts, and also perhaps the starry sky.’
Each of us caught in our small places, caught in our views, our conflicts, our wars. If only we could see the whole picture! And yet, even if we could, what would it change? Here is the great paradox at the heart of Annie Dillard’s work. Sometimes she seems to see the burning bush, to walk out to where the veil is thinnest, to approach the numinous armed only with pen and notebook. But none of it necessarily offers any answers. ‘Say you have seen an ordinary bit of what is real,’ she writes, ‘the infinite fabric of time that eternity shoots through, and time’s soft-skinned people working and dying under slowly shifting stars. Then what?’
Nothing, perhaps. Or everything. Either way, it may be that our perennial task is to keep our eyes open as we walk; like Annie Dillard, always to pay attention:
‘The universe was not made in jest but in solemn, incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.’