Monthly Archives: January 2009

Review: ‘For the Time Being’

For the Time Being by Annie Dillard. Vintage Books. 204 pages.

In this audacious little book Annie Dillard ponders God, the holiness of newborns, and any individual’s insignificance in geologic time. Her prose is astringent, with wry appreciation for the brilliant and for the genuine among us; with a barely controlled horror at our dillard-for-the-timeanimal fates and our capacity for indifference and evil. She unfolds this meditation in discrete chunks; each of the book’s seven chapters is divided into segments, more or less these and in this order:

• Birth (especially horrific birth defects and the brief otherworldly calm of newborns);

• Sand (its formation and ubiquity);

• China (the ancient, buried humans and civilizations, and the 1920s work there of the French theologian-paleontologist Tielhard de Chardin);

• Clouds (randomly documented ones);

• Numbers (people, especially—so many and yet so compactible);

• Israel;

• Encounters (hers, with random people, in airports, deserts, the Sea of Galilee);

• Thinkers (wise men considered in turn, mostly rabbis);

• Evil (including the torture of thinkers and genocide);

• Now (the humdrum pathology of our time).

What’s impressive is to see these subjects come together. Sand, for instance: The earth’s rivers make it by breaking up rocks; the rivers spew it into the sea, which throws it back and makes beaches. The ocean creates no sand, just refines it. Neat—but? Well, who hasn’t wondered why ancient civilizations are so far down? Because of sand and loess: We are being patiently buried. The Earth steadily takes us back. The finest grit and carbon swirl everywhere and come to rest. Sand is further broken by windblast and water, moves, and settles. Every thirty years there’s a new inch of topsoil. 3,000 years is nothing.

“Why is there sand in deserts? Because windblown sand collects in every low place, and deserts are low, like beaches,” Dillard writes.

She wants us to ponder such accretion.

We are as ephemeral as clouds, individually, of course, but so are our generations in the reach of time and so too our civilizations pass away. How old is America, again? Apparently we can know some things intellectually but not emotionally. Dillard finds herself reading the news more faithfully as she ages, getting her daily fix of the delusion that we and our time are unique in human history.

She answers this notion:

No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other. Who can bear to hear this, or will consider it? Though perhaps we are the last generation—now there’s a comfort. Take the bomb threat away and what are we? Ordinary beads on a never-ending string. Our time is a routine twist of an improbable yarn.

We the living, meanwhile, continue to encounter each other: “Possibly when our brains fire their dying charges we will remember and see, to our dismay, not any best-loved face but instead some solitary figure, a stranger, whose image the mind retains.” Maybe, in her case, the punch-drunk ex-boxer who, working as a skycap, impersonated Elvis for her at an American airport’s curb. Or one of her other smoking buddies she shows huddled around the world’s museums, shops, and cultural hubs.

Her prose is distilled, the reside of rigor.  In the holy land she spies birds mate in the air and snails, for hours, in wet litter. A Palestinian boy pees his name in the sand behind a camel. She writes, “Under the camel a runnel moved over the dust like an adder.” In China she watches in the distance a man pulling a plow he’s harnessed to his body: “His feet trod his figure’s blue shadow, and the plow cut a long blue shadow in the field. He turned back as if to check the furrow, or as if he heard a call.”

Grounding her juxtapositions in the jaw-droppers we’re normally immune to—over eight million gene combinations occur in the creation of each of us; it takes a river one million years to move a grain of sand one hundred miles; there are nine galaxies for each person alive on earth, and each galaxy contains one hundred billion suns—in stories and in our own cast-off insights from age twelve onward, Dillard earns her flights and even her despair. Reared a Pittsburgh Scotch-Irish Presbyterian girl, she converted to Catholicism, taking refuge in the yeasty anonymity of the corporeal mass, then absorbed the Jewish mysticism explored here and finally called herself a “Hasidic Christian.”

In this book she wonders: just what kind of God are we dealing with, anyway? The notion of an all-knowing deity that presides over our suffering causes good people “to quit God altogether at this point,” she says but adds, in an oblique rebuke, that evidently “they last looked into God in their childhoods.” It is each adult’s task, obviously, to define for himself the God he believes in (or doesn’t).  Dillard’s doesn’t have his eye on every sparrow:

Many times in Christian churches I have heard the pastor say to God, “All your actions show your wisdom and love.” Each time, I reach in vain for the courage to rise and shout, “That’s a lie!”—just to put things on a solid footing.

On her website, Dillard says of For the Time Being, in part: “It tells many short journalistic stories, and a few long ones: Hasidism, Teilhard de Chardin and fossil Homo erectus, the formation of sand, the critical importance of the individual in a world of almost 7 billion individuals, and the absurdity of the doctrines of divine omniscience, divine mercy, and divine omnipotence. I quit the Catholic Church and Christianity; I stay near Christianity and Hasidism.”

Onward we go, with a few seekers like Dillard thrown in. She notes the paradoxical view of people of every age that heroism and holiness are far in the past while their time alone is—nevertheless—uniquely historic and significant. Both are erroneous prideful notions, as spiritual thinkers have pointed out, and they’re elegantly dunked by Dillard:

In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.

But who is wise? Dillard: “Confucius wept. Confucius, when he understood that he would soon die, wept.” Maybe he just loved the world and hated to leave it. But her sentence implies something less. Common surprise, perhaps.

We’re just here, for the time being.  We’ve forgotten, Dillard notes, our ancient ancestors’ stone knives that can skin a bear or open an abdomen with more ease than any of today’s shiny instruments. But we’re playing with new gizmos. Our thin lightweight laptop computers are only getting better. And we don’t mourn people we can’t imagine, whether they died yesterday in India or 10,000 years ago beneath our feet.

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Truth and beauty

I’ve touched before on the issue of truth in nonfiction, but the latest scandal, involving a fictionalized Holocaust memoir, impels me to return. (Oprah keeps falling for these stories that are too good to be true. Truth often is stranger than fiction but it’s seldom as shapely.)

I tell students these are three reasons for honesty:hill

Practical: A nonfiction writer will destroy his credibility and career by lying. This is an embarrassing reason, as it’s so utilitarian, but perhaps compelling to sociopaths.

Moral: You made an implicit promise that details, scenes, characters, and dialogue wouldn’t be invented or embellished. Recreated, yes, and clearly selected and filtered through a particular consciousness, but not conveniently made up.

Aesthetic: Nonfiction’s art often flows out of the rough places where writers don’t have what they need. They must explore that on the page or conduct more research. Immerse. Writer and writing theorist Robert Root made an interesting point about this in his essay “This is What the Spaces Say”:

“The issue of truth, which seldom surfaces in other literary genres, perplexes nonfictionists. We begin in reality, in the hope of achieving some better understanding of the actual through writing. The inventions and manipulations of character and plot that are the hallmark of the novelist’s creativity are the barriers of the nonfictionist’s psychology; the willingness to settle for the fictionist’s ‘higher truth through fabrication’ negates the nonfictionist’s chances of even visiting the vicinity of the kind of earthbound and actual truth that is nonfiction’s special province. The truth is hard to know, and it’s hard, ultimately, to explain, perhaps especially about our own lives, what we experience as participants, what we observe as spectators.”

My three rules are simple statements about this slippery issue. Do such rules—any rules—diminish nonfiction’s claim to art?

I know a painter, a man who’s spent his long life blessedly staring at southern Ohio’s hills, who told me he doesn’t invent details. No flowers by the gate if there weren’t. And that picturesque old wooden gate was truly that, not a shiny modern metal one. I should have asked him why, though I thought I knew: a representational painter who invents might insert iris blooming when the rest of the painting says High Summer. Sure, a crafty dauber could add daylilies. But soon there’d be no end to it and he’d lose the essence of what he was trying to capture. Inauthenticity would creep in.

My friend’s aesthetic, based in honoring objective details subjectively seen, gropes toward and honors a larger truth or feeling—something he’s sensed and which he’d violate at some unknown peril to his art. We understand more than we know. His creative acts include choosing the scene and deciding where he stands—the point of view. And the painting itself is literally and metaphorically impressionistic, what he sees.

Nonfiction’s (few) rules similarly do not interfere with artistry—there’s more to art than that; consider the edicts that result in sonnets. Although my visual friend has made himself a strict rule akin to nonfiction’s imperatives, his landscapes are glowing art.

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