Holy the Firm

This week’s entry analyzes two different works: the last of Annie Dillard’s essays, Holy the Firm, and the first half of the 2011 documentary, Project Nim.

Project Nim is a documentary about a Columbia University research project focused on raising an ape as if it were a human and teaching it to communicate with humans through sign language. The ape in question, Nim, begins life in a carefree home environment. He lives a lawless, exploratory, and care-free lifestyle. Nim seems to be having fun, but it is not long before he is moved into a more structured environment.

Once Nim is settled down into a routine he begins to make rapid gains in communication and language acquisition. The head researcher is happy, but is Nim? Personally I think that Nim is happy. Nim’s life is by no means perfect, yet he still takes to appreciate life’s small pleasures: snuggling with cats, venturing outdoors with his human friends, and manipulating experimenters to escape from his boring language tests. True, Nim is susceptible to monstrously violent outbursts, but does that necessarily mean that he is miserable?

I’m not sure if Nim’s ingratiation into humanity is so much a matter of happiness as it is a matter of proper placement. Does Nim truly belong with humans? Can he, an ape, be brought up as a human child? I’ll wait to see the rest of the movie before I attempt to answer that one.

Of Annie Dillard’s piece, my analysis is short. The most interesting part of her text this week, at least to me, is her exploration of the holy- or, as it turns out, the deceptively unholy. Dillard’s reflection into holiness begins with her expedition to purchase wine for communion. As she is going to the supermarket, Dillard critically examines what exactly what it is that she’s buying at the store. In typical Annie Dillard fashion, she radically concludes that she is, in essence, purchasing nothing less than a bottle of Jesus from a mundane supermarket.

Given her conclusion, Dillard can’t help but wonder, “What is sacred? Where is sacred? Is there even such a thing as sacred on this earth?” Annie Dillard’s questions are captivating. Is there such thing as sacred? If there is, what makes it sacred? Is everything sacred?

Again, I don’t have answers to mine, or Dillard’s, questions, but I do intend to discover what ‘sacred’ means to me.

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God’s Tooth


       “God despises everything, apparently. If he abandoned us, slashing creation loose at its base from any roots in the real; and if we in turn abandon everything—all these illusions of time and space and lives—in order to love only the real: then where are we?”
       In layman’s terms, Dillard seems to be claiming that the physical world is not real. This has profound implications. If the physical world is not real, what is real? What is it that we perceive day to day? Illusions? And as Annie Dillard so astutely asks, where are we? Are we lost in a façade of reality, a complex illusion? This is almost reminiscent of a Matrix moment- could we one day wake up to find that our world is not as we know it? What if that’s what death is- an awakening?
       In some ways, the physical world is an illusion. We perceive that which we are capable of perceiving. Our world is uniquely composed of our personal interpretations, thoughts, and experiences. It’s no wonder that Annie Dillard claims that the physical world is an illusion.
       Even more jarringly than her assertion that the physical world is not real, Annie Dillard begins the passage with, “God despises everything, apparently.” Since when does Annie Dillard believe that God despises everything? Her entire view towards God has negatively shifted in the collection of essays Holy the Firm. Before, Annie Dillard may have perceived God as distant at most, but now she is comfortable claiming that he despises everything. What changed, Annie Dillard? Is it that Julie was burned, that the world makes no sense, that atrocities are committed?


 

Aces and Eights

Here it is, the final installment of Annie Dillard’s essay collection, Teaching a Stone Talk- ‘Aces and Eights’. The most prevalent theme in Aces and Eights, at least for me, is time. As we all know, time is traditionally broken down into three categories: past, present, and future. Annie Dillard offers interesting insights into each of these, but I will discuss only two of her insights.

1) Future projection- At the beginning of ‘Aces and Eights’, Annie Dillard considers whether or not to attend an upcoming trip to the mountains. After reflecting for a while she decides not to go. Why? Annie Dillard believes that she can’t experience enough enjoyment during her vacation to ever justify her romanticized nostalgia of the trip afterwards. It’s almost as if she views memories as lies. Lies that grossly exaggerate our pain, pleasure, and excitement.

2) Transitional existence- Annie Dillard, speaking from the perspective of a young girl, speculates about the nature of the present day. Is the present day anything more than a transition in time?

“She [a young girl] seemed real enough to herself, willful and conscious, but she had to consider the possibility- the likelihood, even- that she was a short-lived phenomenon, a fierce, vanishing thing like a hard shower, or a transitional form like a tadpole or winter bud… and that she was being borne helplessly and against all her wishes to suicide, to the certain loss of self and all she held dear.” –Annie Dillard

If you haven’t already, take a second and reread that. Doesn’t it perfectly capture the horror that every child feels when they realize that they must ‘grow up’? However, doesn’t it also call into question the legitimacy of ‘now’? Possibly. I think I’ll write another blog post to expound on this at a later date, but the excerpt does suggest that ‘now’ is nothing more than a roughly chiseled, someday sculpture.

As a quick alternative to Annie Dillard’s imperfect now, I’d like to propose Slaughterhouse Five’s concept of the eternal now. Slaughterhouse Five views time as a continuum of simultaneous events. Linear time is an illusion. By this reasoning, there is never a transitional now- all moments are equal part past, present, and future. Thoughts?

A Field of Silence

Has anyone else noticed Annie Dillard’s preoccupation with silence? Several of her essays examine the role of silence, but this one explicitly so.

Even in the context of my own life, I feel the silence that consumes Annie Dillard. The silence she feels is universal. After all, we humans are born into a silent world.

Annie Dillard is right to be concerned with silence. Silence can be interpreted as a lack of connection, or a lack of presence. Silence is fine in movie theaters, but it is overwhelmingly unacceptable in relationships. In relationships, communication and interaction are crucial. We depend on interaction to affirm that our loved ones are present and attentive, and we require communication to feel loved and understood. Then what do we make of our relationship with God? How do we reconcile God’s silence with certainty of His existence?  If there were a God, wouldn’t He want to communicate? Wouldn’t He want to speak with us, interact with us? How can He be content to sit in the clouds as an omnipresent observer?  

When the fields around Annie suddenly embodied silence, I am sure she was plagued by these very questions. Yet, later in the essay she spoke of angels in the fields. She found angels in the very fields of silence that once terrified her. What allowed Annie Dillard to embrace silence? Did she come to understand silence as a medium for the divine?

      What do you think, is God really silent? Or is it simply a matter of miscommunication? After all, who says that God communicates through English

 

“… There is n…

“… There is no sense to the massed stridulations of cicadas; their skipped beats, enjambments, and failed alterations jangle your spirits, as though each of those thousand insects, each with identical feelings, were stubbornly deaf to the others, and loudly alone.”

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.