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Annie Dillard’s Fictions to Live By

by Bruce A. Ronda

Dr. Ronda is associate professor of American studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. This article appeared in the Christian Century November 14, 1984, p. 1062. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Buckminster Fuller once suggested that the purpose of people is to counteract the slide toward entropy described in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Human beings put things together, and this keeps the universe from falling apart. This notion, says Annie Dillard, appealed to her, and she elaborated on it, taking Fuller “to mean something even he probably did not intend: that imaginative acts actually weigh in the balance of physical processes. Thoughts count. A completed novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order. It remakes its share of undoing” (Living by Fiction [Harper & Row, 1982], p. 124).

This passage illustrates Dillard’s distinctive voice. In 1982 she published two books, Living by Fiction and Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper & Row). The humor, the light touch with serious intent, the provocative linking of opposites are all marks of her style. Fuller’s is the kind of notion that attracts Dillard in all her work, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to Teaching: a metaphor to describe the human encounter with nature. In this article I look at her two most recent works, hoping to put them in context with the earlier ones, locating some unifying threads, and identifying some new departures as well.

Living by Fiction is apparently a discussion of modern and postmodern fiction. But it is actually less a contribution to critical theory than a continuation of several themes from earlier books, including the search for a metaphor or bridge from the self to the physical world. Living by Fiction is also an extreme book, one that troubled me and seems to have troubled Dillard greatly. Its ambiguities, evasions and general lack of enthusiasm suggest that she was working out questions beyond or behind the ostensible subject of her book.

Reimagining the human place in creation and seeking to overcome the alienation of the modern self were major 19th-century romantic projects. Together with Christian faith, romanticism is the heritage Dillard claims; knowing that is essential in order to understand Living. In “The Uses of Natural History” (1883), Ralph Waldo Emerson recounted the experience of going through a collection of preserved animals in the laboratory of a French scientist. Emerson was stirred by a feeling of common creatureliness, and felt that he was simply the latest link in a chain that included these specimens. His sense of that link was largely intuitive: “We feel that there is an occult [hidden, mysterious] relation between the very worm, the crawling scorpions and man” (Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson [Harvard University Press, 1961], I, 10).

In her first two books Annie Dillard approached this question of the relation of self to nature experientially and rhythmically, entering and then withdrawing from the natural environment. She frequently responded to nature’s brutality, mindlessness, struggle and appalling death with her own suffering. Her pain took her deeper into nature’s grandeur and agony, and her deeper reflection led to more dis-ease, but to intense creativity as well, if these books are any indication. Dillard re-enacts the journey of many 19th-century English and American romantics who sought to construct a poetry of nature that was actually a record of their own interior lives stimulated or prompted by encounters with nature. The intensity of her first two books, and especially of Pilgrim, arises from the way in which Dillard sticks close to her own experience, rarely needing a theory to handle the tough questions she poses. The bridging from self to nature in her early works is a bridge made of the self’s suffering, vulnerability and intense feeling.

Constructing a bridge to nature is the theme of Living by Fiction as well, although that might not be immediately apparent. On first reading, we see that Dillard wants to account for the fascination with surfaces, with play, with the mixing of genres in postmodern fiction, and she wants to know why those traits fascinate her so much. She tells us, in a historical review, that by the end of the past century, increasing awareness among intellectuals that rationality was only a tiny sliver of the whole of human consciousness prompted artists in several fields to break up and reshuffle the continuities of time, place, plot and character. Contemporary modernists like Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon and Gass offer works that are, in Dillard’s estimate, nearly completely artifactual, objects of wonder, amusement or contemplation, but not to be taken in any sense as mirroring reality “out there.”

The world of writers, texts and audiences has been kept from succumbing entirely to this new emphasis on technique by two factors, says Dillard. Many authors, including some of our most popular, prolific and respected, still insist on writing novels of ideas. And the presence of a mass market inclines fiction toward the mixing of genres. We eagerly read stories that pretend to make sense of the wider world. So “the fact that fiction is not the prerogative of specialists militates in favor of its traditional virtues simply because nonspecialists prefer depth to abstract surface. Specialists are interested in form; nonspecialists like lots of realized content’’ (p. 77).

Whether a work features the kaleidoscope of broken and rearranged images or reminds us of 19th-century novels, Dillard wishes to judge fiction on its own internal integrity: Do the parts cohere? Is there an order? Does it make sense, according to its own inner logic?

While the apparent subject of Living by Fiction is thus modern fiction, Dillard seems more interested in the notion of fiction as a metaphor for culture and creativity. She delights in the idea of Octavio Paz that criticism is the contemporary version of religion, springing from the faith that the object of inquiry is intelligible. She extends this insight to all products of human consciousness: politics, oil tankers, superhighways, codes on the groceries. They are subject to interpretation since they are human products, and only in humanity and its creations may we search for meaning. In fact, says Dillard, we may divide up the world of inquiry into interpreters and scientists. In their operation on the natural world and on humanity as biological creatures, scientists are interested not in discovering meaning but in discovering truth. On the other hand, questions of value, intent and consequence apply to humanity and its cultures in ways we do not and cannot apply to nature. This gives rise to Dillard’s fundamental distinction in Living by Fiction: “The boundaries of sense are actually quite clear. We commonly (if tacitly) agree that the human world has human meaning, which we can discover, and the given natural world does not.” Thus, we live not by nature but by fiction. If we confuse this distinction and look to “raw nature” for meaning, “[We] will have regressed historically” to the period before Protestantism, modern science and the Enlightenment, before the time when

Christianity and science, which on big issues go hand in hand intellectually as well as historically, everywhere raised the standard of living and cut down on the fun. Everywhere Christianity and science hushed the bushes and gagged the rocks. They razed the sacred groves, killed the priests, and drained the flow of meaning right off the planet. They built schools; they taught people to measure and add, to write, and to pray to an absent God. The direction of recent history is toward desacralization, the unhinging of materials from meaning [p. 136].

Is there anyone left to speak for nature, given this way of thinking? For Dillard, scientists properly refuse to make value judgments on the objects of their inquiry. Many religiously minded people speak uncritically of nature as a revelation of God, but, Dillard suggests, quickly abandon nature to the prerogatives of science if challenged. In her scheme, writers of fiction are the last remaining commentators on the physical world. Out of materials drawn directly and intuitively from the world around them, they construct models of it. These miniatures are interpretable as human products, and so we can “examine the small world to gain insight into the great one” (p. 175).

So, for Dillard, art does not so much represent as present “an ordered alternative built of materials of this world” (p. 175). But, she asks, do artists invent the order, the context, or do they discover it? It may be, she suggests, that this question is irrelevant; the purpose of humanity from a biological point of view, our successful adaptation, has been to make meaning.

Even this answer, however, does not satisfy her. She circles back again and again, looking for a clue to the relation. She ends Living this way: “Which shall it be? Do art’s complex and balanced relationships among all parts, its purpose, significance, and harmony, exist in nature? Is nature whole, like a completed thought? Is history purposeful? Is the universe of matter significant? I am sorry; I do not know” (p. 185).

It has seemed clear all along that Dillard is interested in something besides an account of trends in modern fiction. A book about fiction that is really about culture is really about metaphysics. This is her confession in the introduction: “This is, ultimately, a book about the world. It inquires about the world’s meaning. It attempts to do unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup. The teacup at hand, in this case, is contemporary fiction” (p. 11). We should not expect that the historical and critical aspects of the book will abide by the rules, either: “Although my critical training and competence, such as it is, is as a careful textual critic, I have here flung this sensible approach aside in favor of enthusiasm, free speculation, blind assertion, dumb joking, and diatribe” (pp. 14-15).

Living is, in fact, a kind of experiment in extremism. Dillard wants to know how far she can go in stripping the physical world of any inherent meaning, and where the resources might lie to build it up again. Unlike Pilgrim, with its several moments of intense oneness with nature, or Holy the Firm, with its more complex treatment of nature as a site of worship, Dillard here is bound by the project of the book, which has to do with human design and artifice, to see how far she can go in resisting all humanizing of nature.

This is not to say that Dillard is very happy with her experiment. Living cannot decide what kind of book it wants to be. Is it a history, even personal and informal, of contemporary criticism? The reader is barely introduced to structuralism, deconstruction, reader-response theory and the intricacies of the various Marxist schools. Is its purpose to share Dillard’s appreciation of contemporary fiction? Her description of it as geometric sounds faint and unenthusiastic: “It dissects the living, articulated joints and arranges the bright bones in the ground” (Living, p. 62). Is it a celebration of the human ability to make meaning, to impose order? Our doing this as a function of our evolutionary status -- “Our brains secrete bright ideas and forms of order; armored insects secrete wax from their backs” (p. 182) -- hardly seems cause for rejoicing. It is no wonder that the book ends on such a note of doubt and ambiguity: “I am sorry; I do not know.”

For me, one of the most troubling features of Living by Fiction is the way Dillard has taken her search for the bridge between self and nature down a long dead-end path, attempting to make the bridge out of the materials of one’s own life. Dillard edges toward the trap of subjectivity, a trap largel of her own making. Does the art object necessarily resemble the larger world? We cannot know. And if “fiction” and “art” are shorthand for all works of human culture, then the connections between all human cultural life and the physical life of nature are also unknowable. Dillard recognizes this unhappy position: “By those lights, there is not order anywhere but in our brains, which are uniquely adapted for inventing and for handling complex abstractions. . . . The only significance and value which obtain anywhere are in the mind’s discernment of these fictive qualities in its own manufactured models. . . . This is the most dismal view -- of art and everything -- I can imagine” (pp. 181-82).

Fortunately for her growing audience, Dillard’s imagination outstrips her theory. Her most recent book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, is very much connected in theme and style to her earlier ones, but there are some important new directions as well.

The human desire to put off death, to slow the pace of time, links this most recent book to the others. Awareness of mortality sets humanity off from the rest of creation. In an essay called “Aces and Eights,” Dillard recounts taking a nine-year-old girl for a weekend in the Appalachians. In the mountains, they visit a local eccentric, Noah Very, descendant of the Transcendentalist poet Jones Very. Very tells them that once when his own children were small and playing outside the house where they now sit, he said to himself: “‘Noah, now you remember this sight, the children being so young together and playing by the river this particular morning. You remember it.’ And I remember it as if it happened this morning. It must have been summer. There are another twenty years in there I don’t remember at all” (p. 173).

At the close of the essay, Dillard returns to the sense of loss that accompanies the passing of time. As they leave the cabin,

a ripple of wind comes down from the woods and across the clearing toward us. We see a wave of shadow and gloss, where the short grass bends and the cottage eaves tremble. It hits us in the back. It is a single gust, a sport, a rogue breeze out of the north . . . Fall! Who authorized this intrusion? Stop or I’ll shoot. It is an entirely misplaced air -- fail, that I have utterly forgotten, that could be here again, another fall, and here it is only July. I thought I was younger and would have more time. The breeze just crosses the river then blackens the water where it passes, like a finger closing slats [p. 177].

Such an awareness of the implications of time seems to be solely a human trait. In all her work, we can see the way Dillard deliberately sets humanity apart from the rest of nature. In Pilgrim, it was ethical issues that seemed intrusive yet unavoidable; in Holy the Firm, it was human suffering that led to mystic insight; in Living, the construction of fictions; and in Teaching, it is the awful silence of nature, or at best, its “hum,” which is all we hear from the rest of creation these days.

But Teaching goes beyond her earlier works as well. The sometimes intense individualism of the earlier books is complemented here by the presence of other people, so that a kind of tension is created between personal vision and collective insight. Two essays in particular convey this new dialogue.

In “An Expedition to the Pole,” Dillard sets polar exploration next to the worship of a small Catholic parish to see what this juxtaposition might produce. Polar explorers, she found, were almost uniformly high-spirited, heroic and incredibly ignorant of the silent and wasted landscape they would encounter. The Franklin expedition of 1845, for instance, took no special equipment for Arctic conditions. Instead, they took the trappings of Victorian civilization: an organ, china, silver service, glassware, and dress uniforms. Years later skeletons clutching these objects could be found scattered across the Arctic Sea.

Her fellow worshipers at mass likewise struck her as singularly unprepared for encountering the unknown. The miracle of the incarnation was being reenacted on one occasion while the pianist pounded out tunes from “The Sound of Music.” Plunging into the abyss of the polar regions, explorers were stripped of their pretensions, reduced to essentials. They sought the sublime, she writes; ‘‘perfection” and ‘‘eternity’’ were recurrent words in their journals. Similarly at mass, the inept folk group who demanded that the congregation sing with them prompted in Dillard the feeling that this too was a descent into mystery, the well of the absurd, where one sacrificed education, dignity, distance and propriety for the sake of a glimpse of the sacred.

The linked descriptions of diseased and snow-blinded explorers and her fellow worshipers are brilliant. Toward the end of the essay, she imagines leaping onto an immense shiplike floe, the church as frozen ark. At the bow, several clowns are lashed down. At the stern are families around cooking fires; among them wander polar explorers from the past, including Sir John Franklin and his crew, resplendent in their impractical uniforms. As the ship/floe nears the Pole, the author sings loudly, with the rest, banging a tambourine she finds in her hand.

Strongly reminiscent of the metaphysical poets’ discordia concors, the linking of opposites, “Expedition to the Pole” suggests a new direction for Dillard. Dialogues among self and others, self and God, self and nature generate rich possibilities that go beyond the individualism and subjectivity seen in Living.

In another essay, Dillard pursues the theme of self and others in a natural setting. “Total Eclipse’’ tells of Dillard’s witness of that awesome event. Gathered on a mountain in Washington State, she and a group of observers wait for the moment. As the sun disappears, the people, the mountain, all appear in an unearthly platinum hue. Dillard feels as if time were unraveling back toward prehistory, to the darkness before consciousness. “There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around. . . . Our minds were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything. Only an extraordinary act of will could recall to us our former, living selves and our contexts in matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. . . . It was all over” (p. 93).

Just before the shadow of the moon snapped into place over the sun, the witnesses on the hillside, including the author, screamed. The reason, she explained, was “the wall of dark shadow . . . speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. . . . This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like a car out of control on a turn?” (pp. 100-101).

While the terror at the power and indifference of nature can be found in her other books, and is the foundation insight in Living by Fiction, the difference here is that she has claimed a place with others. And it is, surely, not a very comfortable place. This eclipse reminds us of nothing so much as a prophecy of nuclear devastation, the gathered observers reminiscent of those awaiting the end of the world. In such a moment, she suggests, she wishes to be with others.

Dillard need not have fought her way through Hegel and hermeneutics in Living to reach such a point in Teaching. From her very first book, she has identified herself as one who seeks, however ambivalently, the Christian community. But Dillard is not just a Christian meditative writer; she is also a romantic. A working out of these two tendencies requires long struggle.

In Pilgrim, she detaches herself from the ordinary, conventional human world, plunging into nature to wrestle with the question of nature’s ethics. In Holy the Firm, she wades into the issue of human suffering. Here we see her as a woman on the edge of despair, cursing God for dishing up so much pain so arbitrarily. In Living, she uses the language of criticism to make the paths we choose to walk matters of individual aesthetic choice. But in Teaching, she seems to halt this movement. Neither unreflective loyalty to community or institution nor narcissistic self-absorption will do. A dialogue with the Other and others completes the incomplete self, writes the unfinished text, rounds out the group, gives voice to silent nature, humanizes an absent God. Annie Dillard takes us on a remarkable journey, out from na´ve unreflection into nature, suffering and despair, into an adventure with subjectivity and out the other end into commitment to others and the Other. In such a commitment, trust and engagement may be glimpsed, touched and embraced.


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