This book was very important to me about 17 years ago. Between the late nineties and 2002 I read it 2-4 times. I only started keeping a log in 2002, so I’m not sure how many, other than it was more than once. The stance of ecstatic prose about the wonder at the natural world as fodder for worship was catnip to me at the time. As I said in my brief notes on Holy the Firm last week, I tried to bend that worship into a christian shape. While Dillard clearly comes from a high(ish) christian church background, she did not share my younger self’s scruples toward other religions. She more often used biblical allusions or quotations than those from other religions. But she also quoted the Koran and Buhddist texts as well as all manner of completely secular sources. This troubled me, but I couldn’t help but love the book with some reservations.
Seventeen years on from my last pass through it, I find it no less moving than I did then. I’m no longer concerned with making it fit into an ideology. I look askance at some of the more purple sentences than I did then. But, according to the 25th anniversary afterward so did she. If the book has a flaw, it’s that tendency towards occasionally overwriting. The prose, for the most part, though, is outstanding. In that afterward, she also addresses something that always bothered me; Pilgrim is obviously a longform work, yet it is marketed as an essay collection. The same misapprehension persisted to Holy the Firm, her next, much shorter, book and most subsequent work. I prefer Holy the Firm, perhaps because of its brevity, but both are masterful work.
For two years, Dillard lived next to Tinker Creek near Roanoke Virginia. She read heavily and stared at nature. She used a phenomenology* of nature as a spiritual practice. She recorded these experiences in psalm-like prose. Without hewing to any particular religion (though more often than not using Christian language) she argues for the discipline of seeing. Or at least training oneself to see. Nature becomes a means of focus for meditation on the spiritual, though the deity she describes is often profligate and cruel. Dillard’s world is as tough as those of Cormac McCarthy or Werner Herzog. The universe is as indifferent to humans in her work as in theirs. Hers allows for beauty more explicitly than theirs though. In her phrase (I’m pretty sure it was from Holy the Firm, but since I read them so closely together I’m not sure) there is often a canary perched on the skull. In this she succeeds where many religious writers fail. She doesn’t gloss over the harsher aspects of nature. She grapples with the pain and cruelty of the world with an honesty uncommon among religious writers. This makes the spiritual musings much easier to take.
Lately I’ve been thinking and reading about the weird and uncanny as a category. I’ve become more of a reader of horror fiction of that vein than I’ve been in the past. This book, especially the chapter on Fecundity is as strange and unsettling as anything in those books. The natural world is seething and strange. As she says, half of the life in the world is trying to escape from the other half all the time. The living are rarely unscathed.
I’m more willing to admit that she occasionally overwrites in this than I would have in 2002. Still, it really holds up.
*Sarah Bakewell, in her excellent history/biography/philosophical summary At the Existentialist Cafe, summed up phenomenology as “describing phenomena.” That is, the practice of philosophizing about things themselves and the experience of them rather than from more abstract reasoning.
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