Seeing is Unbelieving

Eric Sedgwick, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Although Annie Dillard is fascinated in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by the intricacy of the most minute ecosystems that dwell in her immediate surroundings, she also emphasizes that scientific complexity is not limited to organisms that can be placed under a microscope or within a glass jar. Even the most simply described actions, such as seeing, for example, involve a vast number of scientific and even perhaps spiritual phenomena. In her section on seeing she explains how much of sight is taken for granted, how the very concepts of space and distance are inaccessible to the blind, and how sight is largely prefigured by verbalization and preformed expectations. In her opening to the chapter entitled "Intricacy," Dillard exposes some of the intricate scientific events that are implicit in the simple phrase "I saw:"

A rosy, complex light fills my kitchen at the end of these lengthening June days. From an explosion on a nearby star eight minutes ago, the light zips through space, particle-wave, strikes the planet, angles on the continent, and filters through a mesh of land dust: clay bits, sod bits, tiny wind-borne insects, bacteria, shreds of wing and leg, gravel dust, grits of carbon, and dried cells of grass, bark and leaves. Reddened, the light inclines into this valley over the green western mountains; it sifts between pine needles or northern slopes, and through all the mountain blackjack oak and haw, whose leaves are unclenching, one by one, and making an intricate, toothed and lobed haze. The light crosses the valley, threads through the screen on my open kitchen window, and gilds the painted wall. A plank of brightness bends from the wall and extends over the goldfish bowl on the table where I sit. The goldfish's side catches the light and bats it in my way; I've an eyeful of fish-scale and star. [123-24]

The method of description in this passage transforms what might ordinarily be a static exposition of setting -- the author looking at a goldfish -- into an active narrative in which we follow the path of the light, sentence by sentence, from the sun to her eye. Although the passage alludes to several scientific phenomena, such as refraction, reflection and wave travel, it describes them through figurative and colloquial verbs like "zips," "sifts," "threads," "gilds," and "bats." Why does Dillard employ this disjunction of style and subject?

One basic assumption of sage-writing and travel-writing is that the writer's vision is equal, if not superior to our own. We are willing to believe that the writer can see what we cannot, due either to his geographical position, his immense knowledge, or both. What happens when vision itself is challenged or made problematic, as is often the case in this book? How does this description of seeing as the result of the natural path of light, rather than the effect of the author's directed gaze, complicate the author's privileged position as the eyes through which the reader may view Tinker Creek?

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Last modified 24 November 2003