MICHAEL: One key passage in Anne Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in which she pats a puppy while self-consciously absorbing the various sensory aspects of the present moment, distills in a single vignette many of the book’s major concepts. In relating a single moment, Dillard illustrates both the value inherent in pure, unselfconscious experience and the difficulty — even impossibility — of reaching and maintaining a mental state that facilitates this type of experience.

CHRISTINA: Dillard’s “meteorlogical journey of the mind” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is necessarily a self-conscious one — she writes early on in the book “unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it” [30]. Indeed, her writing includes many manifestations of this conscious examination: the relation of an anecdote, a scientific explanation of some natural wonder, religious or philosophical musings, references to literature. However, she seems to ache for a pure experience, to see the world she writes of without the imposition of her learned sense-making; to, as she puts it, “unpeach the peaches” and instead be able to see “color-patches” like a person who, having lived life blinded by cataracts, has just become able to see [29]. In writing of her transient experience at the gas station off of the interstate in Virginia, Dillard regrets the difficulty of escaping her consciousness.

This is it, I think, this is it, right now, the present, this empty gas station, here, this western wind, this tang of coffee on the tongue, and I am patting the puppy, I am watching the mountain. And the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy. I am opaque, so much black asphalt. But at the same second, the second I know I've lost it, I also realize that the puppy is still squirming on his back under my hand. Nothing has changed for him. He draws his legs down to stretch the skin taut so he feels every fingertip's stroke along his furred and arching side, his flank, his flung-back throat.

I sip my coffee. I look at the mountain, which is still doing its tricks, as you look at a still-beautiful face belonging to a person who was once your lover in another country years ago: with fond nostalgia, and recognition, but no real feeling save a secret astonishment that you are now strangers. Thanks. For the memories. 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. I get in the car and drive home.

Of course Dillard’s book itself would be impossible if she did somehow avoid the imposition of herself and her knowledge onto her experience. However, in this passage, as in much of the book, she manages at least to communicate the nature of this tension between our inner lives and our outer experiences by weaving her introspection with both vivid descriptions of her environment and sparse, orienting sentences, like “I sip my coffee” or “I get in the car and drive home.”

So, how what do you make of the contrast between puppy’s experience and Dillard’s in light of what she says on page 82 about innocence, how “one needn’t be, shouldn’t be, reduced to a puppy.”

SUSIE: Tinker Creek scatters Annie Dillard’s world and throughout Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she stalks and retreats along its banks, gathering back not her mountains, but her innocence. Initially, Dillard skids upon the surface, unable to reconcile creation’s illogical yet cohesive tension. At once beautiful and cruel, maniacal yet adapted, creation seems to play with “our excessive emotions,” leading us towards our own extremities – either “this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak” (180; 179). Dillard’s life along the creek and her gradual way of sacrificing dignity for phenomena trickle down, however, into an entire perception of the neighborhood.

All at once I saw what looked like a Martian spaceship whirling towards me in the air. It flashed borrowed light like a propeller. Its forward motion greatly outran its fall. As I watched, transfixed, it rose, just before it would have touched a thistle, and hovered pirouetting in one spot, then twirled on and finally came to rest. I found it in the grass; it was a maple key, a single winged seed from a pair. Hullo. I threw it into the wind and it flew off again, bristling with animate purpose, not like a thing dropped or windblown, pushed by the witless winds of convection currents hauling round the world’s rondure where they must, but like a creature muscled and vigorous, or a creature spread thin to that other wind, the wind of the spirit which bloweth where it listeth, lighting, and raising up, and easing down. O maple key, I thought, I must confess I thought, o welcome, cheers.

And the bell under my ribs rang a true note, a flourish as of blended horns, clarion, sweet, and making a long dim sense I will try at length to explain. Flung is too harsh a word for the rush of the world. Blown is more like it, but blown by a generous, unending breath. That breath never ceases to kindle, exuberant, abandoned; frayed splinters spatter in every direction and burgeon into flame. And now when I sway to a fitful wind, alone and listing, I will think, maple key. When I see a photograph of earth from space, the planet so startlingly painterly and hung, I will think, maple key. When I shake your hand or meet your eyes I will think, two maple keys. If I am a maple key falling, at least I can twirl. [273]

Not by reducing intricacies to mere “assortments of itches scratched” – the thoughtless exuberance of a gas station beagle puppy – but by confronting the world, “all of it intricate, speckled, gnawed, fringed, and free,” Dillard separates consciousness from self and catches beauty and mystery and innocence (82; 276). A single maple key, separated, falling, and thus twirling upon the rush of the world, Dillard reconciles the Glory and the Amen and the puppy. “O maple key,” she welcomes, cheers, “I am petal, feather, stone,” mountain, puppy (273; 203). This is it.

CHRISTINA: Additionally, this typifies the mythology she builds throughout the book &mdashlucette; “patting the puppy” becomes a phrase to signify an entire experience, just like “seeing the tree with the lights on it.”

MARGUERITE: I think Christina raises an important point about Dillard’s writing, that her approach to the world requires both an acute awareness of her surroundings, but also an awareness of herself within these surroundings. She faces a paradox: on the one hand she wishes to experience the world fully and with immediacy — like patting the puppy — but on the other hand, she wants to be describe this experience to us. So the book consists, as Christina points out, of these oscillating descriptions. I can’t help but think that Dillard’s final observation in this passage, that “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,” is a key part of understanding the book as a whole. Dillard places herself in a sort of suspended position, neither entirely connected to the natural world or to the spiritual one. She remains isolated (remember that she essentially never mentions her family members or any of the people who presumably surrounded her during that year at Tinker Creek) while reaching out in both directions at once, towards heightened physical experience and heightened consciousness.

This position Dillard places herself in also reminds me of another recurring image in the book: the blind person learning to see. Dillard clearly relates her own experience to that of the blind people she describes, and I think one could read her description of those blind people as a metaphor for the position she finds herself in, torn between outer awareness and inner self-consciousness. As she describes, when the world is suddenly revealed to a blind person, they find it completely astonishing, novel, and beautiful. “For the newly sighted,” she writes, “vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning,” [28]. The newly sighted experience the world in pure patches of color — exactly what Dillard would like — and yet have trouble making more sense of it than that. They often shut their eyes and retreat back to their familiar blindness when “it oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world,” [30]. One might argue that Dillard’s moments of self-consciousness and meditation are also ways of shutting her eyes, so as to balance the pure experience of the real world and grapple with the “tremendous size” of it.

So, how do Dillard’s recurring images and themes compare to the recurring themes that [hyptertext link] Wolfe uses (such as “the right stuff,” or “Flying and Drinking, Drinking and Driving,”)?

CLAIRE: Wolfe depicts recurring characters and ideas (mysterioso, bitchen, “the Life”) in "The Pump House Gang" with a satiric voice as to portray the indulgent lifestyle of the Gang. He wryly observes the individuals' lazed existence by poking fun at their perspectives and interactions. This differs with the tone of The Right Stuff, in which Wolfe examines the pilots' lifestyles and human nature, but in so doing observes them as idols and respectable heroes.

Dillard, however, uses recurring themes and images to string together different fragments of her life. She observes the world around her, seeking to participate more thoroughly in her environment. Her recurring ideas adhere these observations together.

Dillard expertly strings together observations about her world with reflections on her life. Her work simultaneously logs her perspective alongside her evaluation of her experiences. This contrasts with Wolfe's voice, which sardonically remarks and refrains from much personal reflection. What are the pros and cons of both approaches to narration? How does Dillard obtain authority as a narrator - through citing, through observing, through reflecting? How does Wolfe still obtain authority without using those techniques?

MICHAEL: Additionally, both Wolfe’s and Dillard’s text crucially depend on narrative voice to communicate their respective points. Although those voices are very different, in both books, style and substance are intertwined: Dillard, like Wolfe, would not be able to make her arguments without her distinctive prose stylings.

VINCENT: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek reveals the author’s captivating voice, at once lighthearted and austere. Throughout her work, Dillard’s poetic reflections on the “beauty and grace” of the natural world precede simple, declarative statements that then lead into profound and provoking commentary on life. In the following passage, Dillard reflects on the irony of perception and sense, of meaning and action:

This is it, I think, this is it, right now, the present, this empty gas station, here, this western wind, this tang of coffee on the tongue, and I am patting the puppy, I am watching the mountain. And the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy. I am opaque, so much black asphalt. But at the same second, the second I know I've lost it, I also realize that the puppy is still squirming on his back under my hand. Nothing has changed for him. He draws his legs down to stretch the skin taut so he feels every fingertip's stroke along his furred and arching side, his flank, his flung-back throat.

I sip my coffee. I look at the mountain, which is still doing its tricks, as you look at a still-beautiful face belonging to a person who was once your lover in another country years ago: with fond nostalgia, and recognition, but no real feeling save a secret astonishment that you are now strangers. Thanks. For the memories. 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. I get in the car and drive home. [80]

Oscillating between lengthy, poetic sentences and abrupt, frank statements, Dillard masterfully controls her prose, consequently subjecting the reader to the explosive introspections of her mind. Furthermore, what begins in the first paragraph as a rhythmic rendering of her senses and actions (“this tang of coffee on the tongue… I am watching the mountain.”) soon transforms into conscious commentary in the next (“I look at the mountain… as you look at a still-beautiful face belonging to a person who was once your lover…”). When Dillard ends the passage with no more than “I get in the car and drive home,” she highlights the resounding and arresting nature of her authorial voice. Moreover, by holding in tension her poetic prose with sobering sententia, Dillard’s work becomes a grander metaphor for the complex paradox of a world “wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright.”

SUSIE: Claire describes that Dillard "uses recurring themes and images to string together different fragments of her life," which reminds me of the way, on St. Lawrence, "women and children are in charge of netting little birds. They have devised a cruel and ingenious method: after they net a few birds with great effort and after much stalking, they thread them alive and squawking through their beaks' nostrils, and fly them like living kites to escape, but they cannot, and their flapping efforts attract others of their kind, curious — and the Eskimos easily net the others" (185).

Like birds on a string, Dillard uses recurring experiences to write recurring themes. Yet, instead of turning stagnant, her themes and images, themselves, intermesh, that's the catch, if you can catch it, and the gaps are the thing, the waters of separation, ask and seek and knock, a maple key twirling upon the wind, falling, a maniacal God:

There is not a guarantee in the world. Oh your needs are guaranteed, your needs are absolutely guaranteed by the most stringent of warranties, in the plainest, truest words: knock;seek; ask. But you must read the fine print. "Not as the world giveth, give I unto you." That's the catch. If you can catch it will catch you up, aloft, up to any gap at all, and you'll come back, for you will come back, transformed in a way you may not have bargained for - dribbling and crazed. The waters of separation, however lightly sprinkled, leave indelible stains. Did you think, before you were caught, that you needed, say, life? Do you think you will keep your life, or anything you love? But no. Your needs are all met. But not as the world giveth. you see the needs of your own spirit met whenever you have asked, and you have learned that the outrageous guarantee holds. You see the creatures dies, and you know you will die. And one day it occurs to you that you must not need life. Obviously. And then you're gone. You have finally understood that you're dealing with a maniac. [275]

And I think Marguerite's writing is great yet comforting and also wonder how Dillard manages to collect pure experiences, when self-consciously knowing she must then transcribe them onto five-by-sevens for Pilgrim At Tinker Creek. Yet, Dillard's writing convinces, at least me.

BORA: Susie addresses Marguerite, and here, I will try to address Susie. At the end of Susie's piece she ponders "how Dillard manages to collect pure experiences, when self-consciously knowing she must then transcribe them onto five-by-sevens for Pilgrim At Tinker Creek." While we cannot be sure that Dillard was "self-consciously knowing," but clearly Dillard works diligently to express what she experienced onto the page for the reader, to share her thoughts and feelings. Marguerite refers to the result as a "paradox" and Christina calls it "oscillating descriptions." At some moments, Dillard's work appears seamless and delicate, like her relation of the tree with lights. At other, Dillard expresses events more starkly and sharp, such as with the deflating frog. In fact Dillard begins her entire text with a very visible attempt to best convey her experiences as she uses analogies as explanatory offerings.

Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I'd wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints on blood; I looked as though I'd been painted with roses." (3)

Here, Dillard likens the cat's pawing at her chest as similar to a baby searching for milk and the bloody footprints the cat leaves to flowers. These connections are made between polar opposites and not many would probably explain the cat's actions as such. What does the reader then infer from these likenings of extremes? Does it prime the reader from the very start to understand Dillard's interpretations of experiences a certain way? Does this affect our trust of her descriptions?

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Annie Dillard

Last modified 14 April 2011