Lenses

Annie Dillard has a way of seeing the world. It’s different, unique. She doesn’t see the world as the rest of us do. For that matter, none of us see the world quite the same as anyone else. We all see a different world. Our unique personal experiences, encounters, interactions, thoughts, and relationships intersect to create who we are. In reference to this week’s essay, our lives lend us all a distinct lens through which we view life. All of my interpretation thus far is based solely on an analysis of the title. That just goes to show how thought provoking a well-crafted title can be.

Moving on to interpret the text, something I appreciate about Lenses is how Annie Dillard juxtaposes macro and microscopic organisms. In her account, Dillard seamlessly entangles the two. At one moment she is looking at two swans flying above the marsh grasses, and the very next she is seeing microscopic algae and whizzing rotifers. To me, this shows how relative size is. Rotifers are small in relation to swans, and swans are small in relation to the universe. In accordance with this argument, we are as infinitesimally tiny as rotifers.

Is it disconcerting to realize how small you truly are? For me, this realization creates a sense of extraordinary disempowerment. How can I, a lone rotifer wallowing in the immensity of the universe, hope to instigate any lasting change in the world? Luckily my sense of disempowerment is coupled with a sense of profound liberation. If I truly embrace my irrelevance then the universe’s burden is lifted from my shoulders. I do not have to do it all. I can settle for small changes. I can relax and enjoy the world.

I readily admit that Annie Dillard may not have intended for her essay to be interpreted this way. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. It all ties back into the title- lenses. I interpreted the essay in a way that is meaningful to me. I saw what I needed to see at this point in my life. And that’s the beauty of writing. It is open to interpretation.

Nous and Total Eclipse

This week’s supplemental reading, “Adventures in New Testament Greek: Nous,” has a two-pronged focus. First, it introduces the concept that all of our thoughts and our feelings, and even our very souls, are the miraculous products of elaborate biological processes.  We all have firing synapses, binding neurotransmitters and excreted hormones to blame for our self-awareness. After blowing our minds with that reality, Nous urges us to step back and enjoy life via our physical senses. It’s not often that we forego reason to enjoy the present moment.

Nous encourages us to savor underappreciated sensations. When was the last time you paused and rejoiced in the exotic feel of oxygen flowing through your lungs? Probably not recently enough. Breathing is incredible when you think about it. Oxygen rushing into the lungs and presently diffusing into the bloodstream. Engorged blood cells pulsating with O2 as they hasten to share their bounty with oxygen-impoverished innards. Absolutely incredible, and even more so when you feel it.  

Annie Dillard’s ‘Total Eclipse’ touched on the same dichotomy: knowing versus experiencing. In her essay, Dillard imparts memories about what it is like to witness a total eclipse. What’s interesting is how startlingly irrational Dillard’s account of the eclipse is. At one point she likens the eclipse-burdened landscape to an old black and white movie. At another she claims that the eclipse transformed the world into a metallic rendering.

Annie Dillard is a scientist. She is fully aware of what scientifically happens during a solar eclipse, and was equally knowledgeable during the time of her account. Even so, Dillard’s account was not scientific. Quite the contrary. Dillard’s tale was noticeably lacking scientific explanation. She chose to indulge her senses, her fantasies, and the beauty of the present moment. I am thankful she did. Imagine if Annie Dillard viewed the solar eclipse with a strictly scientific eye. If that were the case, I may have been stuck reading Annie Dillard’s science textbook rather than Annie Dillard’s poetic speculation.

Teaching a Stone to Talk

In this post I have but one goal – to explore the meaning behind “teaching a stone to talk.” To begin, the occupation of teaching a stone to talk is, in Dillard’s eyes, a noble one. And the way she explains it, it really is. Dillard claims that teaching a stone to talk is a hopeless (although laudable) attempt to extract something audible from nature. As it stands, the natural world does naught but deafen us with its incessant silence. How are we to interact given these circumstances? Well, heaven knows that we try. While we may not all try chatting with rocks, we do, “Spy on whales and on interstellar radio objects; we starve ourselves and pray till we’re blue,” in our own desperate attempts to elicit a response from God, nature, or anything really. We yearn for something to prove that we are not unique in our existence. Although, thinking now, I can’t help but wonder if it’s not that nature isn’t speaking, but that we are not listening. Even the loudest shouts are rendered useless if they fall on deaf ears.

The Deer at Provedencia

I don’t know quite what to make of Annie Dillard’s Deer at Provedencia. The essay begins with a description of a young deer tethered outside Provedencia’s surrounding gate. Dillard quickly notes that, “The deer had scratched its own neck with its hooves [in an attempt to escape]. The raw underside of its neck showed red stripes and some bruises bleeding inside the muscles.” Yet, despite her intense fascination with the deer, Dillard extends no compassion toward its plight. Dillard’s clinical interest with the deer leaves her fellow travelling companions puzzled. They cannot understand how she tolerates such suffering.

“Gentleman of the city, what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know of it?” Dillard inquires. Dillard’s question is formidable. It challenges the hypocrisy of human sympathy. At least, I think so. Dillard’s question exposes a cultural more that most Westerners, especially Western women, share – the more of compulsory outrage. The construct of compulsory outrage is this: whenever an injustice is discovered, regardless of context, it is our duty to protest the transgression. Failure to protest suggests moral deviance. By accepting the deer’s suffering, Dillard leaves her companions baffled. They expect her to protest, to raise hell, until the deer is afforded better living conditions, regardless of the fact that in a day’s time it will be nothing more than a heaping plate of gama.

Okay, that much I understand. It’s the part right at the very end I don’t get. In the paragraphs leading up to the end, Dillard recounts a story she read about a man, Alan McDonald, who was burned not once, but twice, during his life. Dillard then goes on to say that at the end of the article, McDonald’s wife protests, “Man, it just isn’t fair.”

In response, Dillard writes, “Will someone please explain to Alan McDonald in his dignity, to the deer at Provedencia in his dignity, what is going on?” That is why I am confused. Is Dillard’s question sarcastic? An assertion of divine happenstance? Or, is Dillard’s question alluding to a greater cosmic design? Cosmic design that dictates the deer be eaten, the man be burned, and the world’s injustices be perpetrated?