Throughout Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard preoccupies herself with the notion of seeing. She consistently exposes us to images that we typically overlook, revealing both natural beauty and horror of which we consequently remain largely ignorant. Considering the psychological reactions of blind patients to cataract operations that restore their vision, Dillard implies that her own response to learning how to truly see was not much different. The comparison leads us to reflect on our own “blindness” in a powerful way, prompting us to consider the larger implications of our impaired vision and understanding of a mystifying world:
The mental effort involved in these reasoning proves overwhelming for many patients. 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 their tongues, and lapsing into apathy and despair. “The child can see, but will not make use of his sight. Only when pressed can he with difficulty be brought to look at objects in his neighborhood; but more than a foot away it is impossible to bestir in him the necessary effort.” Of a twenty-one-year-old girl, the doctor relates, “Her unfortunate father, who had hoped for so much from this operation, wrote that his daughter carefully shuts her eyes whenever she wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and that she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness.” A fifteen-year-old boy, who was also in love with a girl at the asylum for the blind, finally blurted out, “No, really, I can’t stand it anymore; I want to be sent back to the asylum again. If things aren’t altered, I’ll tear my eyes out.” (30)
Reflecting on how the selected passage fits into the structure of the larger text, Anne Simons argues that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, as a whole, addresses the attempt to reconcile the beauty of nature with its cruelty. The text also features a small autobiographical component that focuses on Dillard's effort to observe her world in a different way, to notice what she was previously blind to. In this passage Erica selected, Dillard describes her encounter with a book, Space and Sight by Marius von Senden, that might well have been one of her inspirations to pursue this project in the first place. Von Senden's book chronicled the reactions of people who could see for the first time after cataract surgery. Their reactions are not always happy or pleased. Many are turned off by the lack of familiarity in the world they see or are overwhelmed by all that's out there. One boy would rather tear out his eyes, and some decide simply to shut their eyes to the harshness of the world and return to their safer blind space. Annie Dillard, on a much smaller scale, has had to grapple with just this problem — how to process what you see when you open your eyes wider. As she has found, there is beauty (like the hummingbird drop) and horror (like the giant water bug devouring the frog). Her reaction to the wider world around her, like the reactions of these blind people who regain their sight, shows the reader the difficulty in trying to view the world in a coherent way. It will always be at once beautiful and cruel.
Anne also poses the following questions, which serve as a starting point for our discussion: first, what purpose does this passage about Space and Sight do for the meaning of the book (Pilgrim)? How does this passage operate within the structure of the whole? Second, Dillard frequently uses references to other authors. Does this serve the same purpose as her other references or is it different?
Analise Roland further explores the question of Dillard’s intent, pointing out that similar to Ruskin, Dillard seems to preach in an attempt to sustain humanity's strength. In the passage on page 30, she seems to describe human reaction to the “tremendous size of the world”. She argues that “lasping into apathy and despair” has become a coping mechanism for the individual, a way to feel safe and secure through denial. Her authoritative, yet empathetic tone speaks to embracing this oppression, to witnessing the pain and seemingly demands that the readers immediately put the book down and turn to the unseen world that is truly volatile: nature.
Dillard uses these specific events in nature to exemplify human suffering. She demands that the reader examines what they themselves “see” or “skip” in the world. The fascination she holds with the topic makes me wonder if she feels guilty for overlooking these events for so longÉ I wonder if this is not purely a piece to the reader, but to herself as well. Dillard offers the reader a morbid solace that these events are still occurring, they can still be “seen” and thus acknowledged.
Kathleen Strobel offers additional insight into Dillard’s purpose: Thinking about Anne’s questions, Dillard constantly comments on her insatiable desire to read and read and read. Whether quoting Thoreau or including “I had read about the giant water bug” in passing, Dillard creates a connection between what she reads about, and what she sees at Tinker Creek. Often these inclusions seem insignificant; Dillard recalls a book that makes finding caterpillars as simple as looking up from their droppings. After quoting an essay about how to build a snowman without sacrificing lumps of coal in a fuel-oil burning area, Dillard wonders, “Why, why in the blue-green world write this sort of thing?” (51). As a writer, Dillard seems to be placing a target on her own back with this question: why is she writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek?
I think the answer largely relates to the passage Erica picked. In constantly reminding us that she is well-read, Dillard emphasizes that no text, no written work about the natural world has prepared her for the experiences of actually seeing the harsh reality of Tinker Creek, and understanding why the world works in this brutal manner. Similarly, the blind people who have their sight restored must grapple with having every single one of their mental conceptions of reality completely undone. While Dillard may have read about the giant water bug, it in no way prepares her for the experience of seeing a frog’s life depleted into nothingness. While these blind patients may have held a cube, it in no way helps them apprehend the shape in sight.
Kathleen asks us to consider whether Dillard’s intent in writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was to inspire readers to go out and “see the world,” referencing the chapter “Feceundity,” where Dillard talks about leaving the library and going to the creek for some “calming down” (181). She suggests draws our attention to the following passage from Dillard:
We are freaks, the world is fine, and let us all go have lobotomies to restore us to a natural state. We can leave the library then, go back to the creek lobotomized, and live on the banks as untroubled as any muskrat or reed. You first. (180)
Adam Weinrib responds: A lot of Dillard's focus comes from the sometimes-horrifying beauty of the natural world. While some experiences are breathtaking for all the right reasons (the beautiful sunset over Tinker Mountain, the unsustainable color-patches of the peaches), others read as incomprehensibly terrifying to witness, like the structural collapse of the poor frog. Her fascination with what we see of what's around us is muddled by her concerns over the loss of a concept of purity over time, from both the witnessing of terrifying natural events, and the inherent dampening of beauty that comes with growing accustomed to looking at it. The quote that Kate used exemplifies Dillard's thought that, while the natural world can appear beautiful, it won't appear that way long after humans have begun to interpret it, and see it for the inherent destruction it truly possesses. There's the world of books, where information without witness is held, and then there is the natural world itself, where even the best and purest things, like the sunset and newfound vision, cannot last.
Additionally, a lot of what she "sees", she ultimately wishes she hadn't. Not only does she long for visions that don't impose form, but she wishes the pictures of nature she witnesses didn't come with inherent darkness (although she insists on including these moments in her writing, ruining them for the audience, as well).
Panpan Song further explores Dillard’s conception of “seeing,” invoking another passage where Dillard reflects on von Senden’s account of the patients of the new cataract operations:
Why didn’t someone hand those newly sighted people paints and brushes from the start, when they still didn’t know what anything was? Then maybe we all could see color-patches too, the world unraveled from reason, Eden before Adam gave names. The scales would drop from my eyes; I’d see trees like men walking; I’d run down the road against all orders, hallooing and leaping. (32)
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek largely concerns itself with the question of seeing. Dillard spends her time at Tinker Creek wholly preoccupied with what we see or do not see, how we do so, what there is to see, how we can may be able to. Which is why Marius von Senden’s “wonderful book” Space and Sight fascinates her so, and why, here, Dillard quotes extensively from it. The newly-sighted subjects of von Senden’s research see in the way that Dillard longs to see: a tabula rasa, “letting go” kind of seeing that does not impose form or meaning on the color patches of raw sight. “I saw color-patches for weeks after I read this wonderful book,” Dillard writes. She envies them for the things they can see and the way they are able to do so. Their sight is one of “pure sensation unencumbered by meaning.” While Dillard’s world is one in which “space makes a kind of terrible sense”; she is continually frustrated that she cannot stop the forms and shapes she sees from “meaning,” from their names and associations. “Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning,” she laments. “I couldn’t unpeach the peaches.”
An interesting contrast develops between the observations and additional quotations provided by Kathleen and Panpan. The first (and most prominent) persona of Dillard we encounter is that of the Thinker. Whether caught in a book or lost in thought, Dillard, on more than one occasion, has been exposed to information before experiencing its real-life counterpart. The second, as introduced by Panpan, is a vessel of pure experience. She need not classify or even be able to specify what she sees and feels. Here, Dillard is the Explorer, reaching for experience that knowledge makes nearly impossible to grasp.
The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment's light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer. (33)
How can these two opposite activities be reconciled toward the same goal? Dillard the Explorer exists as a subsidiary of the Thinker - she works there to gain knowledge about perception outside the realm of knowledge. Together, we'll call them the Curator. A curator is capable of a great level of appreciation derived from a passion for the very existence of the objects he seeks, but he must strive for a greater level of understanding to achieve this appreciation. It follows that a curator of life, as Dillard appears to be, would need not only the greatest knowledge possible of that what she collects, but also a love for its existence outside of the realm of classification and knowledge.
Analise closs the discussion (thus far) by asking some questions regarding the nature of seeing and witnessing: Throughout the entire text I kept thinking back the philosophical riddle by George Berkeley. Although he refers to reality and not to death, he asks a simple question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This not only directly parallels that of Dillard’s interaction with death, but it raises another question. If these things are constantly occurring around us, yet we do not see them, do they truly occur? Or in order to be realized must they be acknowledged? Kathleen stated, “While these blind patients may have held a cube, it in no way helps them apprehend the shape in sight.” Why do you think Dillard places such an emphasis on not only knowing about these events, but witnessing them? Does it give the event itself some kind of validity that is lacking if they are not seen?
Dillard, Annie. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Last modified 14 April 2011