Sunday, October 30, 2011

Annie Dillard and Innocence

Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.

On Sunday mornings I usually like to read scripture and sections from a book of practical theology, such as Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure by the man for whom I was named. Today I decided instead to pick up Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

"Ecstatic" might be the most apt word for Pilgrim, a series of deeply meditative and wide-ranging reflections that the author composed while spending a year in solitude near the eponymous creek. Like no other writer I know, Dillard has a remarkable talent for transfiguration. What is familiar to us—assumed, casually passed over, thought to be unremarkable—takes on an unsettling and foreign dimension as she recasts the familiar in her own terms. Insects become horrific voids of meaning, a tree caught in the light at dusk throws open a door to eternity, and the whole world of nature reassumes a majesty and transcendence that the disenchanting movement of modern culture has all but shut out.

In light of themes running through the David Foster Wallace quotations I put up recently, I can't help but share an extended section from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; here Dillard reflects on self-consciousness and its opposed state which, interestingly, she calls innocence.

Consciousness itself does not hinder living in the present. In fact, it is only to a heightened awareness that the great door to the present opens at all. Even a certain amount of interior verbalization is helpful to enforce the memory of whatever it is that is taking place. [. . .]
Self-consciousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present. It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest. So long as I lose myself in a tree, say, I can scent its leafy breath or estimate its board feet of lumber, I can draw its fruits or boil tea on its branches, and the tree stays tree. But the second I become aware of myself at any of these activities—looking over my own shoulder, as it were—the tree vanishes, uprooted from the spot and flung out of sight as if it had never grown. And time, which had flowed down into the tree bearing new revelations like floating leaves at every moment, ceases. It dams, stills, stagnates.
Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies. It is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people—the novelist's world, not the poet's. I've lived there. I remember what the city has to offer: human companionship, major-league baseball, and a clatter of quickening stimulus like a rush from strong drugs that leaves you drained. I remember how you bide your time in the city, and think, if you stop to think, "next year . . . I'll start living; next year . . . I'll start my life." Innocence is a better world. 
Innocence sees that this is it, and finds it world enough, and time. Innocence is not the prerogative of infants and puppies, and far less of mountains and fixed stars, which have no prerogatives at all. It is not lost to us; the world is a better place than that. Like any other of the spirit's good gifts, it is there if you want it, free for the asking, as has been stressed by stronger words than mine. It is possible to pursue innocence as hounds pursue hares: singlemindedly, driven by a kind of love, crashing over creeks, keening and lost in fields and forests, circling, vaulting over hedges and hills wide-eyed, giving loud tongue all unawares to the deepest, most incomprehensible longing, a root-flame in the heart, and that warbling chorus resounding back from the mountains, hurling itself from ridge to ridge over the valley, now faint, now clear, ringing the air through which the hounds tear, open-mouthed, the echoes of their own wails dimly knocking in their lungs. 
What I call innocence is the spirit's unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration. One needn't be, shouldn't be, reduced to a puppy. If you wish to tell me that the city offers galleries, I'll pour you a drink and enjoy your company while it lasts; but I'll bear with me to my grave those pure moments at the Tate (was it the Tate?) where I stood planted, open-mouthed, born, before that one particular canvas, that river, up to my neck, gasping, lost, receding into watercolor depth and depth to the vanishing point, buoyant, awed, and had to be literally hauled away. These are our few live seasons. Let us live them as purely as we can, in the present. 

 A good lady. 


  1. Dang, Marty! Thanks for sharing. I think I'll have to reread that several times, but I'll enjoy doing it.

  2. I love Annie Dillard's work very much. I do wish you had included the annotations, though. I know you inherited your copy of Pilgrim from a scholarly fellow.

  3. Karin: Thanks for commenting! It's definitely worth rereading if you have the time. In fact, getting a copy of the whole book is worthwhile, if you're able. I could loan you mine next time I see you, perhaps.

    Alyssa: Bwahahahah, yeah. I actually didn't bring that copy; the one I brought is the anthology that includes Pilgrim, An American Childhood, and The Writing Life. I hope to send the copy that you are referring to to Ms. Dillard herself someday, so she can see what one American high school student made of her masterwork. "This is a simile" "wait what is she talking about" "this narrator is weird" "that is a bird" etc. etc. etc. Reading the book becomes a different experience on account of those marginalia, to such an extent that I had to get a new, clean copy in order to read it at all.

  4. Those very five paragraphs were absolutely foundational for me during college.

  5. I know, I saw you sitting on that book everywhere you went

    ba-dum chshh