|Annie Dillard during an interview at her home, January 24, 1983. |
The Annie Dillard Show
In felicitous language, she enables us to see the world afresh. But there is always a distance, a sense of performance.
By Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow
MAY 18, 2016
or an epoch defined by mass attention-deficit disorder, Annie Dillard would seem to be the perfect antidote. Dillard, the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), is devoted to patience and to presence. “It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open,” she has declared. She is thoroughly and ecstatically attuned to her surroundings, willing to wait hours for a glimpse of a muskrat. Her words are painstakingly selected and arranged. The contrasts with our screen-tethered, logorrheic selves hardly need to be belabored.
A chapter in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), called “Living Like Weasels,” is characteristic of her approach. At a pond near her home in Virginia, Dillard finds herself face to face with a wild weasel. “He was ten inches long, thin as a curve, a muscled ribbon, brown as fruitwood, soft-furred, alert. His face was fierce, small and pointed as a lizard’s; he would have made a good arrowhead.” Such descriptive sentences—as sinewy and vigorous as that weasel—are interspersed with whimsical anecdotes (sometimes seemingly apocryphal). Once, she reports, a man shot an eagle and, examining its carcass, “found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to the bird’s throat.” The assumption, she writes, is that “the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won.” Then, every so often, she slips in a more philosophical musing: “The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons.”
Her bravado is at once impressive and off-putting, and it erects a barrier between her and the reader. Put flatly, Dillard is not “relatable” or “likable.” To be sure, likability doesn’t equal literary merit, and she deserves respect for eschewing the tricks that essayists and memoirists use to ingratiate themselves with the reader. But she exudes a whiff of arrogance that can hinder both genuine inquiry and genuine intimacy, as when she casually dismisses the kind of novel that “aims to fasten down the spirit of its time, to make a heightened simulacrum of our recognizable world in order to present it shaped and analyzed.” She goes on, “This has never seemed to me worth doing, but it is certainly one thing literature has always done.”
Dillard is perhaps most interesting, then, when she seems to contradict herself. Her inconsistencies come most often in her meditations on pain, usually intertwined with her reflections on religion. She is not always nonchalant about suffering; at times, she expresses precisely the opposite attitude. In An American Childhood, she recounts that, as an adolescent, she quit the church by sending a letter to the minister, dismaying her parents. The reason for her disillusionment was the utter failure of religious texts to explain suffering: “They offered a choice of fancy language saying, ‘Forget it,’ or serenely worded, logical-sounding answers that so strained credibility (pain is God’s megaphone) that ‘Forget it’ seemed in comparison a fine answer.”
But Dillard’s aloofness may be inseparable from what makes her extraordinary: her capacity for solitude and elation, her borderline arrogant detachment from ordinary life and society. As she writes of Tinker Creek, “There are the waters of beauty and mystery…. And these are also the waters of separation. They purify, acrid and laving, and they cut me off.” Alone in her Eden, she ranges “wild-eyed, flying over fields and plundering the woods, no longer quite fit for company.”
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is the author of Personal Stereo, a cultural history of the Walkman.THE NATION