Make connections; let rip; and dance where you can. (97)

Manya-Jean: In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard explores issues of existence in a modern world: how does one slow themselves down to register the quiet, subtle magnificence of small wonders in the midst of the fast-paced, unreflective time of modernity? Further, how does one, once in acknowledgment of these quiet wonders, reconcile that they exist in the “brute game” of modernity, and how does one find his own place in this paradoxical modern world? To explore these questions, Dillard commits herself to a solitary journey in observation across the expanse of land that is her backyard: Tinker Creek. She studies, touches, internalizes, and questions those activities so subtle they have become camoflouge of the land: the death of a frog, the birth of a praying mantiss. She describes them like a camera zoomed into its subject: chronological and meticulously detailed. She frames these observations in a continuously shifting weave of her own personal memories, the dictums of historians and philosophers, and greater existential query.

I am sitting under a bankside sycamore; my mind is a slope. Arthur Koestler wrote, “In his review of the literature on the psychological present, Woodrow found that its maximum span is estimated to lie between 2.3 and 12 seconds.” How did anyone measure that slide? As soon as you are conscious of it, it is gone. I repeat a phrase: the thin tops of mountains. Soon the thin tops of mountains erupt, as if volcanically, from my brain's core. I can see them; they are, surprisingly, serrate — scalloped like the blade of a kitchen knife — and brown as leaves. The serrated edges are so thin they are translucent; through the top of one side of the brown ridge I can see, in silhouette, a circling sharp-shinned hawk; through another, deep tenuous veins of metallic ore. This isn't Tinker Creek. Where do I live, anyway? I lose myself, I float . . . . I am in Persia, trying to order a watermelon in German. It's insane. The engineer has abandoned the control room, and an idiot is splicing the reels. What could I contribute to the “literature on the psychological present”? If I could remember to press the knob on the stop-watch, I wouldn't be in Persia. Before they invented the unit of the second, people used to time the lapse of short events on their pulses. Oh, but what about that heave in the wrist when I saw the tree with the lights in it, and my heart ceased, but I am still there?

Here, Dillard intermingles a collection of astute observation, intellectual documentation, existential rambling, extended metaphor, and memory to disciplinarily assume the task of recognizing beauty in a dark, modern world.

Hans: Manya is right in pointing out Dillard's method of exposing the beauty in our everyday surroundings. She studies the world around her with all the wonder of a child and all the precision of a botanist. She paints the natural landscape with an astonishing amount of detail, as if she intends for her words to be a tribute to the earth itself. But Dillard aims as much to describe beauty in nature as she does to explore the nature of consciousness. Why exactly does her mind find a toad or praying mantis beautiful? What defines those dangling, perfect moments where she is completely and utterly in the present? The more she tries to analyze her own consciousness, the more she finds herself at a loss. In the passage above, what begins as natural imagery of mountains quickly breaks down into non-sequiturs. The mind resists efforts at dissection — Dillard may as well be trying to pin down a cloud, for all her attempts to quantify the psychological present. Even if she could, she realizes that it doesn't matter, because they can't capture or explain the emotions at which “the heart ceased.” Dillard pursues the ephemeral nature of the mind throughout her book, recognizing that beauty is as much an interplay between the consciousness and the sublime as it is an artifact of the world itself.

Chase: Much like Thoreau's Walden, Dillard seeks to find in nature that gentle or organic something which she feels deprived of in her everyday life; unlike Thoreau, what she finds in nature does not allow her to transcend her daily tumult, but is instead and in its own way just as complex and unforgiving. Her frenetic, contemplative style serves as a product of her findings: since she cannot sing the praises of nature, she must understand how it applies to and is interpellated within the functioning of modernity — for instance, how does the plurality of beings of species who speak and understand each other so differently compare to the plurality of coexisting, commingling languages? Dillard recalls her own early dismissal of learning new languages because of their total unfamiliarity — the idea of having to start from the ground up and understanding still that this remains one of many languages, and one cannot learn all — in a way that harkens back to her confusion and frustration with plurality/psychology in the earlier cited passage:

When I was quite young I fondly imagined that all foreign languages were codes for English. I thought that "hat," say, was the real and actual name of the thing, but the people in other countries, who obstinately persisted in speaking the code of their forefathers, might use the word "ibu," say, to designate not merely the concept hat, but the English word "hat." I knew only one foreign word, "oui," and since it had three letters as did the word for which it was a code, it seemed, touchingly enough, to confirm my theory. Each foreign language was a different code, I figured, and at school I would eventually be given the keys to unlock some of the most important codes' systems. Of course I knew that it might take years before I became so fluent in another language that I could code and decode easily in my head, and make of gibberish a nimble sense. On the first day of my first French course, how ever, things rapidly took on an entirely unexpected shape. I realized that I was going to have to learn speech all over again, word by word, one word at a time — and my dismay knew no bounds. (105-106; Chapter 7)

Dillard approaches the language of nature similar to the way she approached French, although we have evidence that she tries a little harder to understand it — just as well, we know that in the face of nature and its true unfamiliarity Dillard's dismay often "knows no bounds." Once she finds that nature is just as frenetic as and shares many principles, some Darwinian, with the modern world, she can turn nature into a metaphysical (or at least not entirely ontological) thing, as she did in the first passage. What is to say that one deciduous forest differs from another in anything but name itself? These issues of plurality (which Dillard often thinks are problematic or unnecessary) dominate her text in a way that actualizes her disappointment at finding something more hierarchical and complex in nature, which proves to be much unlike Thoreau's peaceful or reverential conception.

Anna: Dillard establishes her credibility as a modern sage by offering the reader a glimpse into her consciousness, "insane" as it might be. By bringing her audience along on this pilgrimage of sight, Dillard allows the reader to share her narrator's most intimate thoughts. This proximity to the narrator leaves no doubt in the reader's mind as to the relative reality of what is being observed. By incorporating and building upon ideas external to her consciousness, Dillard cements the validity of her narrator's observations. Her invocation of an earlier sage's reference to another's discovery echoes the intricacy of this "psychological present" and the natural world she observes. In thus providing a theoretical basis through which to explore her memories and perceptions, Dillard ties her dreamlike sentences into a unified whole. Dillard's stylistic arrangement of fifteen disoriented chapters also provides the work with a paradoxical cohesiveness: the integration is achieved in each chapter's steady tone and equally scattered observations.

Chase: I think that the question of Dillard's placement on the sage/wisdom speaker/satirist grid is an interesting one. Essentially, we learned that the wisdom speaker writes about existing values and virtues (thus he views the world positively or is at least pleased with his observances of it), whereas the sage takes on a more prescriptive moral authority when he claims that society has drifted ever so slightly and needs to be reoriented. I would argue that Dillard incorporates aspects of both: she observes that society has drifted ever so slightly, but, like the wisdom speaker, she describes things as is, in the sense that her text hinges on observances rather than moral prescriptions. I don't mean that Dillard is a cynic — I'm just suggesting that maybe her moral suggestions are more implicit, if they're there at all?

Allison: In response to Anna's brief mention of sight and Chase's comments on Dillard as a sage-writer or wisdom speaker: in the second chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - appropriately entitled "Seeing" — Dillard addresses the importance of one's ability to absorb and, ultimately, appreciate nature and Her many subtle nuances. The author paints several pictures for her readers, inspired by her own experiences walking in the woods of Tinker Creek, which exemplify the subtle wonders and magnificence of nature that typically go unnoticed by passers-by; most notable among these exists the narrative of the frog accosted and tragically killed by the giant water bug. Although these narratives occur at a seemingly microscopic level, relatively inconsequential in relation to the fast pace of the modern world, Dillard establishes them as microcosms of society — instances reflective of larger truths. One must learn, as Dillard insinuates and Manya-Jean points out, to slow down and observe the brilliance of the physical world or risk losing what it has to offer: "Nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't affair... it's all a matter of keeping my eyes open." Sight, however, does not entirely comprise one's ability to commune with nature. Several detailed narratives of once-blind patients who have regained their vision establish that some individuals who lacked sight felt more in-tune with their surroundings than they did post-operatively. "For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning" - a blank slate. These "newly sighted" can respond to their surroundings in one of two ways: either awe-inspired by the vastness of their environment or oppressed by the earth's "tremendous size":

It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. It oppresses them to realize that they have been visible to people all along, perhaps unattractively so, without their knowledge or consent. A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision, continuing to go over objects with they tongues, and lapsing into apathy and despair.

In the quoted passage, Dillard alludes to sight as the mechanism of man's tendency toward superficiality and materialism - an obsession with appearance, which represents an intrinsic shortcoming, or fault, of man. Unfortunately, this is the path down which man more commonly treads. The moral implications of Dillard's text, while implicit, exist: man has become too preoccupied with the material world to revel in the beauty and intricacy of the physical, natural world. Dillard, as wisdom speaker, presents the virtues of the world as viewed through her eyes; as sage writer, however, the author implies that men, on the whole, must adopt her worldly perspective in order to digest those virtues.

Jane: Dillard describes her naturalist observations in vivid, poetic detail, and yet they so often evoke images of the grotesque, with morbidly philosophical undertones. Even the above passage (p. 93) stresses the ephemerality of the present: the images Dillard presents are "thin," "translucent," sliding down the slope of her "psychological present" as they leave her sense of consciousness. Dillard has a fascination with not only death, it seems, but dying, finding a strange beauty in the recognition of her own mortality (the ceasing of her heart) as well as the world around her. In one image, Dillard presents a curious incident of a mockingbird's descent:

The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass.

Dillard mentions this scenario to illustrate the "tree falls in a forest" effect, that beauty exists whether or not we are present as witnesses. Yet the image poses the question: would Dillard, who admires the mockingbird's calm, almost mathematical fall and the beautiful unfurling of his wings, remain so enthralled were the bird not hurtling towards his death? Or perhaps, given her engrossment in the shriveled skin of a frog sucked of its juices, she would have been equally pleased to watch the bird die: a mystical, unexplained suicide. Though Dillard portrays nature's crueler moments as minute horrors, she clearly cannot look away, and the reader wonders whether she is unafraid to stare or simply voyeuristic. After watching the frog's death, Dilllard "couldn't catch her breath": perhaps nature's cruelty, the evidence of harsh mortality, excites rather than disturbs Dillard.

Kimberly: I'm writing this in response to Chase's suggestion that Dillard's text “hinges on observances rather than moral prescriptions. I don't mean that Dillard is a cynic — I'm just suggesting that maybe her moral suggestions are more implicit, if they're there at all?” and I'm also elaborating on Anna's “By bringing her audience along on this pilgrimage of sight, Dillard allows the reader to share her narrator's most intimate thoughts.”

In parts, Dillard's moral views are “implicit” as Chase suggests, because stream-of-consciousness narration intrinsically includes the author's opinions. We know that Dillard intends for us to search for meaning in her ramblings because she sees value in relating them. She associates herself with “the world's spiritual geniuses” who “seem to discover universally that the mind's muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance.” (35) Although she refers to her thoughts as “trivia and trash,” Dillard glorifies introspection, inviting the reader to examine her musings as closely as she examines nature.

But even as she writes this, Dillard cannot avoid slipping into the voice of a sage. She addresses the reader and uses the imperative “must.” When Dillard describes her observations, she does so to make herself an example. She concludes an observation with advice to the reader, explicitly stating the moral of the story:

Make connections; let rip; and dance where you can. (97)

Slow it down more, come closer still. A dot appears, a flesh-flake. It swells like a balloon; it moves, circles, slows, and vanishes. This is your life. (145)

Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you.” (274)

As a sage, Dillard consciously (and seemingly unconsciously) conveys her moral opinions to the reader. She encourages the reader to pause and consider her observations, and she forces the reader to slow down by pacing her writing and offering frank counsel.

Manya: A response to Michael and Kimberly: As we have said, Dillard commits herself in this book to remove the goggles of modernity, and to expose her naked eyes to nature around her, without the goal of assumption or conclusion in mind. In the first few pages, she lays out the effects of modernity on the way one thinks about the world around them, so as to explain why she chooses to dismiss modern clout and view Tinker Creek with fresh, unassuming eyes:

An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn't the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he'll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can't learn why.

And so she seeks out simply, as she aptly deems her second chapter title, to see. She describes the structural deflation of the frog, the pulsing abdomen of a praying mantiss in labor. But, contradictory to her goal, she does not simply see where she has "been so startlingly set down". Somehow, because as Chase writes, "what she finds in nature does not allow her to transcend her daily tumult, but is instead and in its own way just as complex and unforgiving," she cannot simply describe a "where" she is (seeing, observing), but must press on to hypothesize reasons, morals, lessons, conclusions, answers to "why" she is there:

The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can try to do is be there. [10]

It is ironic that the one thing that all religions recognize as separating us from our creator-- our very self-consciousness-- is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures. It was a bitter birthday present from evolution, cutting us off at both ends. [80]

As Kimberly points out, she does not simply hypothesize answers to questions of how why and how nature things exist the way that they do, but even sells her views as conclusions for her reader. Kimberly writes, she "cannot avoid slipping into the voice of a sage. She addresses the reader and uses the imperative “must.” When Dillard describes her observations, she does so to make herself an example. She concludes an observation with advice to the reader, explicitly stating the moral of the story:

Make connections; let rip; and dance where you can. [97]

Slow it down more, come closer still. A dot appears, a flesh-flake. It swells like a balloon; it moves, circles, slows, and vanishes. This is your life. [145]

Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you. [274]

No, Dillard does not "have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place," but does she encroach on the property of modernity when she tries to answer questions of why things exist, instead of simply describing that or how they do? In other words, can we argue that even in an attempt to peal the clout of modernity away from her thought-process, she has returned to the problemetizing, assumptions, and conclusions that it encourages? If so, does she do so subconsciously or to make a point about the natural ways of the human mind? If not, what do we make of her constant hypothesizing and sage wisdom?

References

Dillard, Annie. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.


Victorian Web Overview Annie Dillard

Last modified 14 April 2011