By keeping her private life under wraps, personal essayist Annie Dillard has created a writing life of uncommon integrity
by Michael Joseph Gross
FOR THE TIME BEING, by Annie Dillard. Knopf, 204 pages, $22.
The opening pages of Annie Dillard's For the Time Being describe a
photograph of two bird-headed dwarfs that appears in Smith's Recognizable
Patterns of Human Malformation, a standard medical reference work about
birth defects. These children have large noses and eyes, small jaws, truncated
rib cages, and displaced hips. They cannot straighten their legs, and their
cerebral structure resembles that of a chimpanzee. The children's backs,
Dillard observes, are "slightly wider than a deck of cards. The children's
faces are the length of [a human] thumb.
"If your child were a bird-headed dwarf, mentally deficient, you could carry
him everywhere," Dillard writes. "The bird-headed dwarfs and all the babies in
Smith's manual have souls, and they all can -- and do -- receive and give love.
If you gave birth to two bird-headed dwarfs, as these children's mother did --
a boy and a girl -- you could carry them both everywhere, all their lives, in
your arms or in a basket, and they would never leave you, not even to go to
Much of Annie Dillard's work maintains the precarious balance of love and
horror conveyed by this passage. Since her first book, the Pulitzer
Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published when she was just 27
years old, Dillard has frequently and fearlessly explored the most flagrant
brutalities of the natural world, and she has never given up her project of
questioning what place such brutality might have in the grand scheme of things.
In For the Time Being, Dillard, "hollering at God the compassionate, the
all-merciful," asks, "What's with the bird-headed dwarfs?"
Such attention to phenomena that flicker between meaning and meaninglessness
makes For the Time Being the closest thing in contemporary literature to
Biblical books of wisdom such as Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. Indeed, the reader
is barraged with terse insights about a wide range of topics that upend all
inherited explanations of God's relationship to the world. Like Ecclesiastes in
particular, For the Time Being denies that God is responsible for the
cruel caprice of nature, provides no alternative explanation, and, yet, by
steadfastly privileging witness above theory, leaves its reader full of hope.
Dillard is a stronger witness than she is an analyst, so this book's great
accomplishment is its power of observation, not explanation. Through a
seemingly aimless, but addictive and interesting, litany of horrors and wonders
such as the bird-headed dwarfs, Chinese imperial burial practices, and the
natural history of sand, Dillard conveys one fundamental, paradoxical, and
ecstatic insight: the world is unbearably humbling ("What were you doing on
April 30, 1991, when a series of waves drowned 138,000 people? Where were
you when you first heard the astounding, heart-breaking news? Who told
you? . . . Who did you tell? Did your anguish last days or
weeks?") and at the same time immensely dignifying. She quotes Dr.
C. Lamont MacMillan's description of the delivery of a
transverse-presenting baby in his Memoirs of a Cape Breton Doctor:
" `I didn't time how long I was using mouth-to-mouth breathing, but I
remember thinking during the last several minutes that it was hopeless. But I
persisted, and I was finally rewarded when Anna MacRae of Middle River,
Victoria County, came to life.' She came to life. There was a blue baby-shaped
bunch of cells between the two hands of Dr. C. Lamont MacMillan, and then
there was a person who had a name and a birthday, like the rest of
us. . . . How many centuries would you have to live before
this, and thousands of incidents like it every day, ceased to astound you?"
If both parts of Dillard's observation are true -- if people really are
statistically inconsequential and yet of ultimate consequence -- then why does
Dillard start with the bird-headed dwarfs? Or why begin Pilgrim at Tinker
Creek, as she famously did, with the terrifying image of a frog having its
guts sucked out by a giant water bug?
Dillard's answer, recently told to a reporter from the Notre Dame Alumni
Magazine: "[For the Time Being] starts with the most appalling
suffering that people have. There's a reason for that. I'm trying to get rid of
the idle reader who thinks of me as this little mystic nature writer. That's
why I make the beginnings of my books tougher and tougher: if you can't stand
this, would you please put this book down? Don't buy it, don't write me a
letter, don't complain."
And a more roundabout answer, recently given to me during an interview in New
York: Annie Dillard, the doyenne of the personal essay, wants the details of
her personal life to remain private.
Annie Dillard's platinum-blond hair, piercing blue eyes, wind-rouged cheeks,
and perfectly proportioned, wide wide smile are strikingly beautiful even from
a block away. She stands on the sidewalk at Madison Avenue and 92nd Street at
8:30 a.m. on a gorgeous morning in May; she's taking long, pleasurable
drags on a cigarette (American Spirit Lights -- the yellow pack) and stretching
her legs on the front steps of the Hotel Wales.
In gray plaid pants, a cardinal-red polo shirt with a gravity-defying collar,
a cream-colored pullover, and faux-tortoiseshell glasses, Dillard could pass
for native on the impeccably civilized Upper East Side. She flew in the night
before from her home in Key West, where she spends the winters, and she's
looking forward to a day of visits with New York friends before her evening
reading at the 92nd Street YMCA (one of only two public readings she gives each
year) and a small party afterward at the venerable literary haunt Elaine's,
where she'll mingle with buddies including Robert Stone, Roy Blount Jr., and
Knopf editor Gary Fisketjohn.
She's surprisingly brash and brassy, far more "gal" than "girl." Her voice is
deep and smoky, and she caroms from sentence to sentence inflecting several
words a minute in emphatic, Bette Davis-style italics. She speaks eagerly about
her favorite churches, her favorite comic strips (Doonesbury, For
Better or For Worse), and her favorite questions from readers. Once, when
asked "What's your sign?", she says she answered, "Slippery when wet." After
breakfast, we take a long walk in Central Park. She stops to watch two blue
jays courting, buries her nose in a bunch of wisteria that has nearly lost its
fragrance, enjoys a brief conversation with a robin who appears to hold a worm
in its beak.
On stage at her YMCA reading that night, before a crowd of more than 700, she
jokes easily and takes questions from the audience for almost 20 minutes. "Ask
me anything," she says, "I'm an open book."
That's true to a point -- as evidenced by her social magnanimity and the
intimate nature of her work (many critics believe that Pilgrim at Tinker
Creek single-handedly resuscitated the most popular genre in contemporary
publishing, the extended personal essay).
If the generosity of Dillard's disclosures exceeds that of most writers,
however, so does her standard of privacy. When I ask about her journals, she
says they are "not about me. It's reading notes, jokes, and recipes. Anything I
want to remember. . . . And then every once in a while I indulge
in some sort of outpouring." These days, she says, she's going through her
journals and "cutting those [personal] parts out because there are biographers
on my tail, and I don't want them knowing anything that would hurt anybody
living -- or dead, for that matter." Dillard also says that someone very close
to her, someone with whom her life is deeply involved, is suffering in terrible
ways, and she does not know how to explain that. During her late-evening party
at Elaine's, she quietly tells one friend about the situation and confesses
that she doesn't know if intercessory prayer works, but asks for it anyway.
In a tell-all age, Dillard's public decorum is refreshing, and worth honoring.
It is, in part, the legacy of her 1950s upbringing in an affluent Pittsburgh
family, as described in An American Childhood. Perhaps more significant,
her decorum is also an ethical expression of the metaphysic described by For
the Time Being -- the balance of humility and dignity that affirms both the
momentary momentousness and the historical inconsequence of the details of an
individual life. Often, Dillard's work suggests that individual identity is
most fully realized in moments when the self is emptied out and filled with the
presence of the spirit of whatever it observes. "Experiencing the present
purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup
under a waterfall," she wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Elsewhere in
the same book: "Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail,
whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff."
The same theme arises when I ask Dillard why she became a Catholic: "One of
the main points of Catholicism is anonymity. Nobody looks at you when you go to
a Catholic church. You just stand up there and worship and hang out, sort of
representing the body of people on earth."
It's this Romish emphasis on mere presence -- of worshipers, of Christ, of the
world -- that, she says, makes her feel more at home with Catholicism than with
other Christian traditions. "I could care less [about doctrine]," she says.
"Americans think that so-called faith -- which is a word I never use -- you
know, just have faith that this is true, just have faith that
Christ is born of a virgin -- that's a completely wrong use of the term. That
just means, you know, please take a deep breath and swallow the impossible.
That's not what religion is about. It's about living the life in a relationship
with God. And you don't have to believe any of that stuff. It's not a matter of
checking a list of beliefs, to say, `Yes, without crossing any fingers, I can
say yes to all these things.' " (Regarding politics, she's similarly more
interested in action than opinion: "I gave money to the refugees in Kosovo. But
as far as I'm concerned you don't need to sit around and analyze it. You're not
doing anything. Either go there and help the people or send money for someone
else to go and help the people. There's no use wringing your hands.")
When I ask what she does believe, citing another interview in which she said
she doesn't think of Jesus as her "buddy and pal," however, she cuts the
discussion short. "I'm not gonna answer that," she says. "I'm a writer of books
and I don't want to be branded a religious writer. Graham Greene said to be
branded as a Catholic writer was living hell. He said that's the end of you."
Though frustrating to the reporters of the world, Dillard's reticence
regarding her personal life and beliefs may be a valuable gift to them and to
the rest of her readers as well. By refusing to build a public image that adds
to or explains the voice of her essays, Dillard has crafted a writing life of
uncommon integrity. The achievement of her career has been to reinvent the
personal essay in a way that minimizes egoism as thoroughly as an American can.
Dillard has by no means slipped the surly bonds of subjectivism. Her early
writings, especially, often lapse into humid self-indulgence. However, like the
mystics of many traditions, she's more interested in pointing readers toward
the world's belly button than she is in fingering her own.
Her "I" is, in the final analysis, almost indistinguishable from her eye. The
outward-looking perspective of For the Time Being allows readers a few
hours behind Dillard's eye, seeing what she sees. There are no discursive
lessons here: the reward is simpler, and tougher. For the Time Being is
an exalted basic-training exercise. The only thing it teaches is
self-transcendence, the fundamental skill of love.
Michael Joseph Gross is a freelance writer living in Boston.