Reviews — From the May 2016 issue

Metaphysics In a Teacup

Annie Dillard gets pickled

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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.”

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