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"Grace Tangled in a Rapture with Violence"
To my mind, Annie Dillard is one of America's most insightful and psychologically astute writers of the twentieth century. Her novel Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, has the most beautiful, and most moving, beginnings of any work of American literature that I'm aware of. Dillard begins the novel with an interplay between evil and grace that continues throughout, illustrating the book's central theme:
I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I'd half-awaken. He'd stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. 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 and find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I'd been painted with roses....
What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth. The sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain. I never knew. I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I'd purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the passover. We wake, if we wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence.... "Seem like we're just set down here," a woman said to me recently, "and don't nobody know why." [Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in Three by Annie Dillard (New York: Perennial, 1990), 9f. Subsequent references to this work will be made parenthetically.]
Since we are not all accustomed to waking up painted in the life-blood of a mysterious other, Dillard also raises similar reflections through the most mundane of life experiences--finding a penny on the sidewalk, looking at sand or gazing at clouds, watching a frog in a pond. Dillard has a way of noticing such things, these little details that "obsess" her, even though they "neither bother nor impress other people even slightly" (131). For Dillard, these details are not mere chatter, not trivial detail--rather they are life-changing. But they can't change us if we don't first notice them. The beauty of life, for Dillard, is found in the "unwrapped gifts and free surprises" (22) we receive "regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe" (21). If only we can teach ourselves to see, we'll soon discover that "the world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand" (22). And the beauty of Dillard is that she helps us see those unwrapped gifts and free surprises by getting us to see what is around us.
Seeing, however, is often an unpleasant think to do, for when we open ourselves to the world, what we often find is the suffering and death found there. This evil can overpower us, for tragedy is all around us. "The remarkable thing about the world," Dillard writes, "is precisely that there is no veil cast over these horrors. These are mysteries performed in broad daylight before our eyes; we can see every detail, and yet they are still mysteries" (66).
Interestingly enough, it is not primarily to the moral world that Dillard turns when considering the multitude of evil around us, as is most often done. No need to focus on the Holocaust or Darfur. Such evil is too obvious and too glaring for the point she wants to make. She turns, rather, to the world of nature--where death, decay and predation gratuitously surround us in ways we often fail to see. Dillard's name for this gratuity is fecundity, and is the name for one of the central chapters of Tinker Creek. Dillard, however, foreshadows her fixation on fecundity in an early chapter on nature. "Nature," she says, "is, above all, profligate. Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn't it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital" (67). The limitless capital of nature buys all kinds of things, perhaps too many. Dillard spends pages delineating a parasite that spends its entire life in the lips of other parasites. What kind of world is this we live in when there are second-order parasites? Surely, she suggest, this is misspent capital. Dillard points out that she's learned that a full ten percent of the world's species are parasitic insects. "What if you were an inventor, and you made ten percent of your inventions in such a way that they could only work by harassing, disfiguring, or totally destroying the other ninety percent" (221). What would we say of such an inventor? How are we to understand this "devil's tithe"? (224)
For Dillard, this over-abundance is just one example of the "fecundity that so appalls" (157). This fecundity is especially evident in reproduction--Dillard cites that there may be more than a million, million barnacle larvae in just a half mile's length of shore water. And while we may be awed by their magnitude if we stop to think about it, we can equally see it as a problem: "What kind of world is this anyway?" Dillard wants to know. "Why not make fewer barnacle larvae and give them a decent chance? Are we dealing in life, or in death?" (170) If we aren't bothered in the least by the multitudes of creatures that die on our shores on a daily basis, we tend to change our tune when we consider the death of humans. "My point about rock barnacles is those million million larvae in 'milky clouds' and those shed flecks of skin. Sea water seems suddenly to be but a broth of barnacle bits. Can I fancy that a million million human infants are more real?" (163) Dillard picks up this theme in another work, For the Time Being. When asked to account for those he had killed, Ted Bundy replied, in an exasperated voice, that he didn't see what the big deal was: "I mean, there are so many people." [For the Time Being (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1999), 21.] Despite revealing a horrific view about the value of human life, Bundy certainly had it right to be astonished at the hordes of humans. There are over 6 billion people currently living; over 80 billion have already died--most by natural causes. [Ibid,, 59.] Dillard recounts telling her daughter, only seven years old at the time, of the drowning of 128,000 people on a single day in Bangladesh. Dillard found the loss of so many people to be unimaginable. "No," corrected her daughter, "it's easy.... Lot and lots of dots, in blue water."[Ibid., 48.] What reason do we have to be appalled at the death of a few thousand people, but ignore the billions of barnacles? Both serve to replenish the nutrients that serve as the food for future generations of living things.
Returning to Tinker Creek, Dillard compares nature to a railroad to reinforce her point:
Say you are the manager of the Southern Railroad. You figure that you need three engines for a stretch of track between Lynchburg and Danville. It's a mighty steep grade. So at fantastic effort and expense you have your shops make nine thousand engines. Each engine must be fashioned just so, every rivet and bolt secure, every wire twisted and wrapped, every needle on every indicator sensitive and accurate. You send all nine thousand of them out on the runs. Although there are engineers at the throttles, no one is manning the switches. The engines crash, collide, derail, hump, jam, burn.... At the end of the massacre you have three engines, which is what the run could support in the first place. There are few enough of them that they can [now] stay out of each others' paths. You go to your board of directors and show them what you've done. And what are they going to say? You know what they are going to say. They're going to say: it's a hell of a way to run a railroad. Is it a better way to run a universe? (171)
Why, Dillard wants to know, should we expect less of God than we would of a railroad manager? "Any three-year-old can see how unsatisfactory and clumsy is this whole business of reproducing and dying by the billions" (172). The waste goes to show that it's all a "wretched system" (171).
It doesn't take a very astute reader to see that Dillard's focus on fecundity is related to the traditional philosophical problem of evil--why isn't the universe a less horrific and vile place if there is a God who is manning the helm? And it only gets worse when we consider humans from the theist's point of view, created in the very image of God. What of the millions killed by dictators in the twentieth century, the hundreds of thousands that have starved in Africa in the past half-century, the thousands killed in acts of genocide around the world during the moments it's taken you to read this review? "My rage and shock at the pain and death of individuals of my kind is the old, old mystery, as old as man, but forever fresh, and completely unanswerable" (174). At times, Dillard shakes her fist and bellows toward the heavens: "Deus otiosus: do-nothing God!" [For the Time Being, 86.] Questioning, anger--even fury--"are not inappropriate. We are people," she reminds us; "we are permitted to have dealings with the creator and we must speak up for the creation. God look at what you've done to this creature, look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the long damned waste!" (254).
But for Dillard, the fact that there is so much to be wasted suggests that there is something more than just surplus. There is also grace lurking in the neighborhood--a grace that she sees located in the very multiplicity mentioned above. "If we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light" (28) writes Dillard, drawing our attention to a different way of looking at fecundity. "There is an almost manic exuberance about a creator who turns them out, creature after creature after creature, and sets them buzzing and lurking and flying and swimming about" (225). Dillard challenges us to "look, in short, at practically anything--the coot's feet, the mantis's face, a banana, the human ear--and see that not only did the creator create everything, but that he is apt to create anything. He'll stop at nothing" (133). If the same task of creation had been left up her, "I'm sure I wouldn't have had the imagination or the courage to do more than shape a single, reasonably sized atom, smooth as a snowball, and let it go at that" (143). The exuberance and diversity of our world is indicative of the nature of its creator. "Why so many forms? ... The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font.... The creator," she concludes, "loves pizzazz" (135).
Why so much? Why all the intricacy? "If the lyric is simply 'mine mine mine,' then why the extravagance of the score?" she asks (106). The answer is found in "a grace wholly gratuitous" (144). Consider a leaf: the leaves of the elm tree have ridges that ring their leaves. And the ridges have ridges, and so on. It's ridges all the way down. Why so much detail in a single leaf, in a single tree, in a single forest? "If the world is gratuitous, then the fringe of a goldfish's fin is a million times more so" (128). Who among us has the time to contemplate the fins of a goldfish? So why bother with the details? "The creator," Dillard writes, "churns out the intricate texture of least works that is the world with a spendthrift genius and an extravagance of care. This is the point" (126). For Dillard, "creation carries on with an intricacy unfathomable and apparently uncalled for.... You open the door and all heaven and hell break loose" (130).
It is no accident for Dillard that the same eye-opening exposes both heaven and hell, to repulsive horrors and the beauty of grace--for both are evidenced by the same over-extravagance. "Beauty itself is the fruit of the creator's exuberance that grew such a tangle, and the grotesques and horrors bloom from that same free growth" (144). For Dillard, the extravagance and the waste come as a pair. We have both, or we have neither: "the beauties and horrors [grow] from the same live branch.... The two phenomena are two branches of the same creek, the creek that waters the world" (175).
Despite seeing evil and grace interrelated in this way, Dillard is not willing to make light of the magnitude and reality of evil--to somehow gloss over evil as goodness disguised. "Can I say then that corruption is one of beauty's deep-blue speckles, that the frayed and nibbled fringe of the world is a tallith, a prayer shawl, the intricate garment of beauty? It is very tempting, but I honestly cannot" (232). Instead, Dillard calls us to continue to struggle with the world around us, and to not loose sight of the pennies hidden for us by that generous hand as we do so. "The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see" (259).
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek calls us to see that grace is as overabundant as evil--perhaps even more so--without discounting or diminishing the latter. "So many things have been shown me on these banks, so much light has illuminated me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever-renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free" (70). Dillard repeatedly uses Tinker Creek and other water metaphors to illustrate the nature of grace: flowing, pure, life-sustaining. In the present, "you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall" (82).
Dillard's novel is a treasure of American literature and has aged as well as an Islay malt. For those who are not familiar with Dillard's classic, it is well worth a read. And to make the experience even easier, Blackstone Audio has recently released an audio version read by Tavia Gilbert. Gilbert poetically captures much of Dillard's phrasing and her voice often captures the playful reflection of light on waters about which Dillard writes. At other times, however, Gilbert's if her voice doesn't naturally have the weightiness that Dillard's prose sometimes calls for. To be fair, perhaps I'm spoiled after having heard Dillard herself give a reading from her most recent book, The Maytrees; can one expect somebody else to be able to give an equally good reading? For those who have not yet taken advantage of the joy which comes from reading Dillard, enjoy this good--even if less good--opportunity.
© 2009 Kevin Timpe
Kevin Timpe, PhD, Department of Philosophy, Northwest Nazarene University