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[Reviews]

Metaphysics In a Teacup

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Annie Dillard gets pickled

Discussed in this essay:

The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, by Annie Dillard. Ecco. 304 pages. $25.99.

When Annie Dillard was sixteen years old, she wrote to her minister to say that she was leaving the Presbyterian Church. The decision caused great anxiety at home, Dillard writes in her memoir, An American Childhood (1987). Though her parents weren’t churchgoers themselves, they sent Annie and her younger sister to services each Sunday, and to Bible camp each summer, because that’s what was done in upper-crust Pittsburgh in the early Sixties. “If our parents had known how pious and low church this camp was,” Dillard contends, “they would have yanked us.” Similarly, they objected to her letter mostly for propriety’s sake: “But didn’t I see? That people did these things — quietly? Just — quietly? No fuss? No flamboyant gestures. No uncalled-for letters.” Her father “was forced to conclude that I was deliberately setting out to humiliate Mother and him.”

“Untitled #20B,” from the series Heterotopia, by Karine Laval, whose work is on view at Benrubi Gallery, in New York City © The artist

“Untitled #20B,” from the series Heterotopia, by Karine Laval, whose work is on view at Benrubi Gallery, in New York City © The artist

But something more pressing than adolescent rebelliousness had driven Dillard to her decision. “I had a head for religious ideas,” she writes. “They were the first ideas I ever encountered. They made other ideas seem mean.” As a young girl, she had already stumbled over perhaps the most difficult religious idea, the so-called problem of evil, which she put to her minister in more or less its classic form: “If the all-powerful creator directs the world, then why all this suffering?”

Squaring the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent God with the existence of suffering is such a vexing challenge that it has sustained a literary tradition dating back several millennia, though it was only given its name — theodicy — in the early years of the Enlightenment, by Gottfried Leibniz. After receiving Dillard’s letter, her minister gave her a recent contribution to the genre, C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, which she read and mentally filed beside one of the earliest efforts at theodicy, the Book of Job:

I found thirty pages written thousands of years ago, and forty pages written in 1955. They offered a choice of fancy language saying, “Forget it,” or serenely worded, logical-sounding answers that so strained credibility (pain is God’s megaphone) that “Forget it” seemed in comparison a fine answer.

Dillard could not forget it, so she left. “This is rather early of you, to be quitting the church,” the minister told her on her way out of his office. “I suppose you’ll be back soon.”

He was right, up to a point. Barely a decade passed before Dillard made her own first foray into theodicy, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a book-length effort to reckon with the variety of suffering in the world and to reconcile it all with the beauty and wonder that so often stand alongside it. Because this reckoning comes by way of an account of a year spent wandering and observing Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, Pilgrim — which won the Pulitzer Prize and made its young author famous — is often remembered as a paean to simple outdoor living, and Dillard herself classified as a nature writer. In his sympathetic but somewhat befuddled foreword to The Abundance, a new, career-spanning collection of Dillard’s writing, Geoff Dyer identifies “remaining wide awake, leading ‘a life of concentration,’ rather than sleepwading through life” as the “abiding concerns” of Dillard’s work. This makes her sound a bit like a New Age proponent of mindfulness, although she is closer to the opposite, a writer who, in her essay “Living Like Weasels,” expresses the desire to “learn something of mindlessness” from that animal. Though she does write a good deal about waking up, Dillard treats wakefulness as at best a mixed blessing. In An American Childhood, she writes of her early worry that “one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.”

Dillard’s real subject is the strange and troubling world we are forced to wake into, and how we might make some kind of peace with it. She puts one in mind of George Eliot’s contention that to possess “a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life . . . would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” Dillard hears the grass grow, and she seems often to wish that she could walk about, as Eliot thought most of us do, “well wadded with stupidity.” One of the indelible episodes in Pilgrim occurs when Dillard, on her usual walk around Tinker Creek, comes across what appears to be a small green frog, half in and half out of the water. She is surprised to see that the creature doesn’t jump at her approach. When she gets closer, the frog collapses into itself. It requires some reflection for Dillard to understand what has happened:

I had read about the giant water bug, but never seen one. “Giant water bug” is really the name of the creature, which is an enormous, heavy-bodied brown bug. It eats insects, tadpoles, fish, and frogs. Its grasping forelegs are mighty and hooked inward. It seizes a victim with these legs, hugs it tight, and paralyzes it with enzymes injected during a vicious bite. That one bite is the only bite it ever takes. Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim’s muscles and bones and organs — all but the skin — and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim’s body, reduced to a juice. This event is quite common in warm fresh water. The frog I saw was being sucked by a giant water bug. I had been kneeling on the island grass; when the unrecognizable flap of frog skin settled on the creek bottom, swaying, I stood up and brushed the knees of my pants. I couldn’t catch my breath.

This moment occurs early in Pilgrim’s first chapter — titled “Heaven and Earth in Jest,” after Allah’s question in the Koran: “The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?” — where Dillard also writes, “We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence.” In Holy the Firm (1977), her follow-up to Pilgrim, she puts it more directly: “We wake, if we ever wake, to the silence of God.”

God’s silence does not present much of a puzzle for most of Dillard’s contemporaries, because its meaning is so obvious: God isn’t there. And yet Dillard in her waking sees more than just suffering. “Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain,” she notes not long after describing that frog.

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.

It is this sheer gratuity — this abundance — that makes her suspect that there must be some reason behind existence. In so many ways, the world appears to be created for us, and we for it. “All day long I feel created,” Dillard writes in Holy the Firm. But concerning our creator’s intentions, the evidence is contradictory. Every bit of the world’s beauty must be set against the profusion of creatures that use other creatures’ skins as a kind of stomach to digest their insides before sucking them out for consumption. This is not to mention, of course, the limitless human capacity for cruelty and pain.

Perhaps, then, it makes sense to follow Dillard’s contemporaries and treat beauty as a cosmic accident, rather than struggling to fit the pain into some sensible plan. Yet while the idea of suffering is frequently counted as dispositive evidence in the case against God’s existence, the experience of suffering sends as many people toward faith as away from it. This may be because removing God from the picture doesn’t solve the problem of evil: it only reformulates it. It’s not just that suffering persists but that it persists in being a problem. Without God, we are still left with the profound sense that things ought to be some other way. What’s more, it’s not just our own suffering, or even the suffering of those in whose genetic survival we have a rooting evolutionary interest, that we would wish away. That beings human and nonhuman, distant from us in time and space, should feel pain moves us instinctively, and we want it not to be so. As Dillard puts it, “We are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world.”

This sounds almost tautological — if we didn’t wish it otherwise, would it still be suffering? But it’s far from obvious that pain and longing need be such steadfast companions. Other animals give every sign of suffering, but they don’t seem to pine for another world in which their suffering might be redeemed and every broken thing made whole. That is an exclusively human hope: “The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons.” Animals, in other words, live in the physical world, the world of things, while humans live both there and in the metaphysical world, the world of ideas. In his Religio Medici, Thomas Browne puts it this way: “Thus is man that great and true Amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live not onely like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds.”

Annie Dillard may be the most insistently amphibious American writer alive. In the four decades since Pilgrim launched her career, she has published two other works of theodicy, Holy the Firm and For the Time Being (1999); the memoir An American Childhood; a study of the contemporary novel, Living by Fiction (1982); a collection of meditative essays, Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982); a comic picaresque about her experiences during a government-sponsored cultural exchange, Encounters with Chinese Writers (1984); a short treatise on the demands and pleasures of a literary vocation, The Writing Life (1989); and two works of fiction that make a study in formal contrast — one a long, panoramic historical novel about the settling of the Pacific Northwest, The Living (1992), and the other a short study of one couple’s life on Cape Cod in the middle of the twentieth century, The Maytrees (2007). Despite this formal variety, there is a strong unity to Dillard’s work. “This is, ultimately, a book about the world,” she writes of Living by Fiction. “It inquires about the world’s meaning. It attempts to do unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup.” This phrase, at once grandiose and humorously self-deflating, is typical of Dillard. All her work is marked by an effort to do metaphysics in a teacup, to ground the most abstract philosophical questions in the closely observed facts of the world. In Living by Fiction, her teacup is the contemporary novel; in her other books, it might be the Roanoke Valley or a solar eclipse or the loops and rolls of a stunt-plane pilot.

Dillard calls her metaphysics “unlicensed” perhaps because in her view those to whom the work properly belongs — philosophers — have given it up, leaving amateurs like herself with the job. One of the main characters in The Maytrees makes a similar observation:

In her last years Lou puzzled over beauty, over the tide slacked holding its breath at the flood. She never knew what to make of it. Certainly nothing in Darwin, in chemical evolution, in optics or psychology or even cognitive anthropology gave it a shot. 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 ballpark. 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.

The term “ultimate concern” comes from Paul Tillich, the twentieth-century liberal theologian, who used it to describe the true object of religious faith. Theologians, of course, are the other professional class licensed to do metaphysics, and they haven’t given it up; they’ve just stopped being listened to. But literary writers still occasionally demand our attention. Walker Percy — like Dillard, an adult convert to Catholicism — used Tillich’s term when describing those writers, whether the atheist Albert Camus or the orthodox believer Flannery O’Connor, who have “an explicit and ultimate concern with the nature of man and the nature of reality where man finds himself.”

Dillard is a writer of ultimate concern. “Why are we reading,” she asks in The Writing Life, “if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed?” Percy was quick to point out that this was not the only thing literature was good for, merely the thing he happened to be interested in doing with it. Dillard is a bit more begrudging on the matter:

Well, in fact, the novel as a form has only rarely been metaphysical; usually it presents society as it is. The novel often aims to fasten down the spirit of its time, to make a heightened simulacrum of our recognizable world in order to present it shaped and analyzed. This has never seemed to me worth doing, but it is certainly one thing literature has always done.

An awful lot of the stuff literature has always done doesn’t seem worth doing to Dillard. “There are seven or eight categories of phenomena in the world that are worth talking about,” she writes in Pilgrim. (One of them is the weather.) All of which is to say that Dillard has held on her whole life to that sense that beside religious ideas other ideas look a bit mean.

It is almost charming to watch Geoff Dyer — who describes himself as “of the Courbet persuasion” on metaphysical matters — use the introduction to The Abundance to talk around the fact that Dillard is essentially a religious writer. In Dyer’s view Dillard is “pretty much a fruitcake.” Her most explicitly God-haunted book, Holy the Firm, is “really bonkers.” She is working not in the age-old tradition of theodicy but, like Dyer himself, in the newfangled line of “genre-resistant nonfiction.” (Most bizarrely, he notes her “strange negative affinity” with the nihilistic atheist E. M. Cioran.)

This assessment would be harmless, except that it comes as part of a package that seems constructed to make Dillard palatable to other readers of the Courbet persuasion by sanding away all that is most difficult and interesting and necessary in her work. The Abundance gathers writing from the entire length of Dillard’s long and varied career into a collection subtitled Narrative Essays Old and New, which is doubly misleading since the newest work — a previously uncollected essay that appeared in this magazine in 2002 — isn’t really new, and most of the old work isn’t really essays, a point about which Dillard herself has been quite insistent in the past. (In an afterword written for an anniversary edition of Pilgrim, she expresses regret for having named her chapters, “because somebody called the book a collection of essays — which it is not. The misnomer stuck, and adhered to later books. . . . Consequently I have the undeserved title of essayist.”)

The Abundance wisely begins and ends with actual essays, from Teaching a Stone to Talk. The first, “Total Eclipse,” finds in the sublimity of a solar eclipse all the terrors and beauties of existence stuffed into an image no bigger, to the human eye, than a dime. The last, “An Expedition to the Pole,” interweaves a history of nineteenth-century gentlemen polar explorers, who set out with ships full of books and fine silver but eventually came to ruin, with an account of Dillard’s experience attending Catholic mass. The essay bears interest as Dillard’s most explicit expression of her adult religious practice, but the metaphor — the danger of seeking transcendence while trying to bring the world’s comforts with you — is a bit too neat. Both essays give some sense of Dillard’s strengths as a writer while also suggesting why these strengths don’t lend themselves to compression. (The two other essays included from Teaching a Stone, “The Deer at Providencia” and “Living Like Weasels,” are standouts.)

Of the various excerpts that fill out The Abundance, none are improved by being taken from their proper context. The best one can say is that in most cases the damage is minimal. The astonishing first chapter of Pilgrim is here, but with a new title — “On Foot in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley” — that might have been market-tested to confirm Dillard’s reputation as a Thoreauvian saunterer. The episode of her letter to the minister is included from An American Childhood, but the punch line — “I suppose you’ll be back soon” — has been cut, perhaps because it relies too heavily on knowledge of the author’s future religious turn. Dillard’s best and most challenging book of non-fiction, For the Time Being, is least well-served here, because the work is so intricately designed, a quality that can hardly be suggested by selection.

In The Writing Life, one of her book-length narratives, Dillard has this to say about her choice of form:

It makes more sense to write one big book — a novel or nonfiction narrative — than to write many stories or essays. Into a long, ambitious project you can fit or pour all you possess and learn. . . . It is more prudent to struggle with the outcomes of only one form — that of a long work — than to struggle with the many forms comprising a collection.

Included in the new collection as part of a rather slack ten-page “essay” carved from the earlier book, this passage reads almost like a sly editorial joke.

While reading The Abundance, I thought often of another line from The Maytrees. Lou’s husband, Toby Maytree, is the author of long poems that use studies of the natural world to do unlicensed metaphysics. A typical example, called “Wood End Light and Race Point,” is conceived in grand terms: “Wood End Light and Race Point Light were Provincetown lighthouses. Race Point would embody sharp Aristotelean thought. Wood End would stand for Platonic thought.” (The scheme is reminiscent of Dillard’s own decision, described years later in that anniversary afterword, to make the first and second halves of Pilgrim stand respectively for the theologian’s via positiva and via negativa, a framework that few readers would be likely to work out on their own.) Toby is aware that he has not chosen the most practical way to make a literary living:

But poetry seemed to be his task, and the long poem his form as it had been Edwin Arlington Robinson’s. Quarterlies and reviews, like some anthologies, printed his short lyrics. He endorsed Edwin Arlington Robinson’s view that anthologies preserve poems by pickling their corpses.

For all this, The Abundance has much to recommend it, pickling for preservation as it does some of the finest sentences, paragraphs, and pages of one of our great writers. Dillard’s intelligence, her aphoristic sharpness, and her oddball humor are all on fine display. She is among other things a remarkable stylist, and nearly every sentence in the book is polished to a shine. There is her description of that weasel as a “muscled ribbon.” Or the sun returning after that eclipse “as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the earth’s face.” About her move to an island off the coast of Washington State, Dillard reaches an Emersonian pitch: “I came here to study hard things — rock mountain and salt sea — and to temper my spirit on their edges.” But like all great styles, hers emerges from a particular way of seeing the world, and Dillard’s distinctive vision is best grappled with by way of her book-length narratives. One hopes that The Abundance will succeed in its goal of bringing Dillard new readers, and that it will inspire those readers to seek out the difficult but necessary — and still living — works from which these sparkling sentences, paragraphs, and pages have been borrowed.

Better still, the occasional ruminations on fiction collected here might send some readers to Dillard’s two novels, which stand beside her theodicy trilogy as the core of her achievement and are more welcoming than her non-fiction. Despite Dillard’s own dismissals of the novel’s mundane pleasures, these books abound in them. Like her non-fiction, they are works of teacup metaphysics, but they are also full of the joy and beauty and warmth that are so vexing when weighed against all the world’s suffering. Near the end of The Maytrees, Toby plays with his grandson Manny while planning out one last book-length work in his head:

Soon, but not soon enough, a Modern Library anthology of modern American poetry would appear containing slivers — as he poked a few pine needles between pages — from two of his book-length poems. . . . With the book-length poem, the long-range cannon full-bore, Maytree had had a blast. Whether his work lasted was less crucial now than whether Manny would straddle his shins a little while longer.

is the executive editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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May 2016