The Scarcity of Annie Dillard

Review: Annie Dillard, ‘The Abundance: Narrative Essays New and Old’

'Magdalena Bay' by François-Auguste Biard
July 17, 2016

One comes to Annie Dillard’s The Abundance: Narrative Essays New and Old as to a trove of prehistoric flint knives: "Each of these delicate, absurd objects takes hundreds of separate blows to make. At each stroke and at each pressure flake, the brittle chert might—and, by the record, very often did—snap. … To any human on earth, the sight of one of them means: Someone thought of making, and made, this difficult, impossible, beautiful thing." Dillard’s essays are uncanny objects, incisive as the flint knife a modern surgeon found "smoother … than his best steel scalpels," yet unsuitable for the day-to-day work of living due to their perfection.

Dillard has long been revered among American nature writers for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which received the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1975 and announced Dillard as a latter-day Thoreau (she wrote her master’s thesis on Walden). Like Thoreau, she is a wondrous documenter of the natural world, rendering its beauty and horror often in the same passage, whether describing a 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"—or the wave of shadow that immediately precedes a total eclipse—"It rolled across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness behind it like plague. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. … You can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood."

Like Thoreau, Dillard carves sentences that pierce one’s memory: "You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars themselves neither require nor demand it." Like Thoreau, too, Dillard is a religious ecumenical, engaging the Desert Fathers, the Qur’an, the Hasidic masters, Meister Eckhart, and Pascal. And though neither writer could be called a humorist, she shares Thoreau’s wry wit and Yankee bluster: "It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick. So you might as well write Moby-Dick."

Unlike Thoreau, however, Dillard is never really writing about nature, but about a spiritual reality beneath, behind, or beyond it. She isn’t so much the descendant of Thoreau as of Emerson, who wrote, "Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact." For Dillard, the natural world is an illuminated manuscript and she an anchorite, reading it safely away from the dull parishioners and their historically contingent lives. Such otherworldliness runs through almost all the essays in The Abundance, and it explains Dillard’s obsession with reading and writing as an ethos—"The writer studies literature, not the world; he lives in the world; he cannot miss it"—as well as her obsession with extreme individuals, especially explorers: "Polar explorers—one gathers from their accounts—sought at the Poles something of the sublime. Simplicity and purity attracted them. They set out to perform clear tasks in uncontaminated lands. The land’s austerity held them. They praised the land’s spare beauty as if it were a moral or spiritual quality."

From whence does this longing for purity arise? Dillard’s work, at its core, is concerned with theodicy, with the nature of god and the question of evil in the world. She tells us in her memoir An American Childhood that, as a child, "I had already written a paper on the Book of Job. The subject scarcely seemed to be closed. If the all-powerful creator directs the world, then why all this suffering? Why did the innocents die in the camps, and why do they starve in the cities and farms?" In order to pursue such profound and terrible mysteries, Dillard at times delivers her insights in prose that would do a mystic proud: "Divinity is not playful. 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."

At times, Dillard recognizes that longing for purity can be comically rigid and inhuman, the spiritual equivalent of a goose-step, and that sometimes one must turn from solitary communion with the divine and depend on one’s fellow man, with all his imperfections. "There is no such thing as a solitary polar explorer," she admits, "fine as that conception may be." In Encounters With Chinese Writers, for instance, Dillard offers a series of funny, humane, and endearing portraits of a group of Chinese writers visiting Disneyland with her and Allen Ginsberg. When a playwright who speaks no English gets lost in the park, Dillard remarks that "Chen Baichen, having been through two world wars, occupation, liberation, famine, the anti-rightist campaign, and the Cultural Revolution, can probably handle Disneyland." When he is found, Dillard is surprised to see him crying, but she later learns that "[He] was not in the least ruffled by being lost in Disneyland. But the warmth of our relief and our embraces when we joined him—that had moved him to tears."

Such moments of human fallibility and strength are on display in "An Expedition to the Pole," the essay that concludes The Abundance. Writing about the history of polar exploration and her own experiences with a particularly inept, post-Vatican II Catholic church, Dillard almost laughs away her spiritual pretensions. Having noted the absurd idealism motivating early polar expeditions, including Sir John Franklin’s fatal bid in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage (the crew was outfitted with a 1,200-volume library and engraved sterling silver flatware, but with nothing warmer than their naval uniforms), she then reflects on her church’s own spiritual expedition. "A high school stage play," she writes, "is more polished than this service we have been rehearsing since the year one. In 2,000 years, we have not worked out the kinks. We positively glorify them. Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter."

The essay concludes with an absurd image of Dillard banging a tambourine while she and her fellow churchgoers ride an ice floe. For a moment, one thinks she has accepted the vicissitudes of this world, particularly the messiness of human life. But the final word of the essay, "Pole," reveals that she has not given up her spiritual absolutism, her need to enter a solitary union with God. "[O]ne day you enter the spread heart of silence," she imagines, "where lands dissolve and seas become vapor and ices sublime under unknown stars. This is the end of the Via Negativa, the lightless edge where the slopes of knowledge dwindle, and love for its own sake, lacking an object, begins." It is here that Dillard’s rejection of the human shows through. Love can lack a motive, but never an object. Love without an object is mere self-regard. That is why God’s first act was creation.

It is ironic that Annie Dillard titled this collection The Abundance, as its most recent work was written over a decade ago. The Scarcity might have been more fitting, given the profound beauty of these essays and their failure to provide enduring sustenance for the reader or, finally, for Dillard herself.

Published under: Book reviews