Newborn and Salted

December 22, 2006 at 8:32 am | Posted in materiality, the sacred, writing | 3 Comments

There is no such thing as an artist; there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows.
–Annie Dillard,
Holy the Firm

Anyone who loves to read will tell you that certain books are cathedrals. You enter them and are immediately humbled. You are the only one inside. You spend hours in there, examining the stained glass and the grain of the wood on the pew in front of you. Some of these books are ornate, some are spare, but all of them are shot through with a fierce light that seems to be breaking out between the words.

Every reader’s holy books are different. Mine include One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Trilogy by H.D., Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. Dillard was the first essayist I fell in love with, the first person to make me realize that an essay could be a work of art, and so it seemed appropriate to begin this project with a discussion of her book. Bloggers are essentially essayists, after all, if somewhat slapdash ones.

I first got into Dillard because of a boy. Kenan was a sophomore in high school when I was a freshman; he was somebody with whom I loved to climb trees, but he was also somebody who knew The Ways Of The World. He recommended Dillard to me, and I dutifully went out and purchased Teaching a Stone to Talk, selected from among her works probably because of its title. The first sentence arrested me: “It had been like dying, sliding down that mountain pass.” I knew I had discovered an art form that would be a necessary part of life from that moment on. Essays, creative nonfiction, where had you been all those years?

It’s a stern art, grounded mercilessly in reality. It’s like photography: you take a real thing, out there in the world, and you mess around with your aperture, focus, and F-stop until you achieve the composition that communicates, through some miracle, your subjective experience of the thing. To read Dillard is to encounter the world, bright and immanent and baffling, and to realize you are not other than the world. You die, you slide down the mountain pass.

Holy the Firm is almost certainly the book I have read more times than any other. It weighs in at only 76 pages and takes only an hour to read, so every six months or so when I find myself with a particularly lovely chunk of time to kill I will pick it up again. Its opening is ten times more stunning than that of Teaching a Stone to Talk; so much so that I will refrain from quoting it here, because I want you to have the experience of opening the book and seeing for yourself. Dillard intimates in The Writing Life that in its early stages, Holy the Firm was poetry, and only later in the process did she decide to “print it as prose.”

It’s a book about suffering and beauty. Dillard wrote it while living, Thoreau-like, in a one-room cabin on the Puget Sound, one wall of which was glass and faced the ocean. This situation itself is the chief subject of the first chapter. The second chapter is about a little girl whose face gets burned off, and the third chapter is about communion wine. Dillard describes herself in some book, I forget which, as a “Christian mystic.” She is a troubled one– the beauty of the world impels her to worship, but its cruelty impels her to mutiny. Her books urgently ask “one of the few questions worth asking, to wit, What in the Sam Hill is going on here?”. If you take seriously the idea that there is a God, the existence of suffering poses an enormous problem. Theologians have been arguing about it for years, and the solutions they offer are, let’s face it, pretty thin. Suffering exists so we can appreciate the good? Suffering exists so that morality can exist? Suffering is an inevitable consequence of free will? Some of those sound good on paper, particularly the last one, but come now– God bound by the laws of logic, unable to lift the rocks he creates? That has never been a persuasive image. Job’s comforters offer answers like these, but they are futile. God’s answer to Job’s plea is the only real answer: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

The problem is always that God is inaccessible, and we are hopelessly material. Dillard takes her materiality seriously, and sees in it the grounds for a serious challenge against the Allmighty. But she also sees something else:

What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns or over the desolate plains? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burnt out, any muck ready to hand?

The idea that art arises from suffering is a cliche as old as the standard theodicies above, but to my knowledge no theologian has posited that suffering exists so that we can create art. Art is a means and not an end in most religions. Reading Christian theology, one is sometimes struck by how monstrous man seems– made of clay, and yet he speaks. In the middle ages, theologians were so baffled by the idea of how something with no material existence (the soul) could cohabit spatially with something of only material existence (the body), that they invented a third concept, the spirit, to bind the two together. God told them that man consisted only of body and soul, but Plato told them that “it isn’t possible to combine two things well all by themselves, without a third; there has to be some bond between the two that unites them” (Timaeus). To avoid heresy, St. Augustine and Aelred of Rievaulx had to declare this third thing entirely material– they identified it with the “subtler” elements of fire and air. Through manipulating these elements, they claimed, the soul was able to control the body’s grosser elements of water and earth.

For Dillard, materiality is material, the stuff of art. For Dillard, man is not a monster who needs to be explained away, but a miracle who needs to be explored and exulted. Here is her description of the mind-body problem:

It is the best joke there is, that we are here, and fools– that we are sown into time like so much corn, that we are souls sprinkled at random like salt into time and dissolved here, spread into matter, connected by cells right down to our feet, and those feet likely to fell us over a tree root or jam us on a stone. The joke part is that we forget it. Give the mind two seconds alone and it thinks it’s Pythagoras. We wake up a hundred times a day and laugh.

I resolve, then, never to be Pythagoras. This blog will be a record of wakings up.


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  1. Wow… That was well worth the wait!

    Now I have to read Dillard.

    “Que seriez-vous, si vous n’étiez mystère?
    Un peu de songe sur la terre,
    Un peu d’amour, de faim, de soif, qui font des pas
    Dont aucun ne fuit le trépas,
    Et vous partageriez le pur destin des bêtes
    Si les dieux n’eussent mis, comme un puissant ressort,
    Au plus intime de vos têtes,
    Le grand don de ne rien comprendre à votre sort.”
    (Paul Valéry)

    I’m sorry, I did not dare translate it myself… it would have been a crime against poetry. But I assure you, it is a perfect complement to your last quote of Dillard!

  2. Thanks for the kind words, and the poetry! Unfortunately, I don’t really read French. The good news is, I’ll be starting a French class next quarter. Perhaps I’ll use your blog as translation practice– I’m sure it will be much more interesting than my homework!

  3. No theologian has posited that suffering exists so that we can create art, for sure.

    Nietzsche comes close; he posits that artists work at making the world beautiful until it becomes endurable. In other words, art is a re-making of the world in the face of the possibility of being overwhelmed with suffering, and its secret is that it looks just like the world.

    This perhaps explains why Dillard is still a “mystic” in the midst of her turbulent and earthy version of transcendence.

    I loved this post.

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