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.
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?
“Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand- that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.” –Annie Dillard
Is it just me, or does anyone else find this quotation compelling? “The absurdity of the fact of us”- Do you ever consider yourself absurd? I do. Like Annie Dillard sitting in church, at times it’s all I can do not to burst into laughter. Especially when things of little importance are treated with the severity of a diseased lung. What is an essay in the grand scheme of life? The universe? It’s nothing. But, for a short time, it means all the world to its creator.
As light-hearted as the word ‘absurd’ may seem it renders Dillard’s entire quote a tragedy. Doesn’t your heart break to think that our lives will never compare to the “sublimity of our ideas?” In “An Expedition to the Pole”, Dillard expertly captures the futility of our perfection in her retelling of the doomed polar expeditions. After all, a throng of silver-laden, library-toting polar explorers is nothing less than human idealism at its finest. And, as Dillard points out, human sentiment at its most absurd. While the notion of an enlightened polar expedition is appealing, it is far removed from reality. Dillard finds a comparable disconnect between her lofty ideals of church-wrought divinity and the mundane reality of her Sunday service. Rather than discovering God perched amidst the church pews, Dillard is disheartened to find only guitar strumming youths and communal prayers for the pregnant.
This was my first experience reading Dillard’s work, so here it goes-
First impressions? The chapter is beautifully written yet, at times, guilty of shamelessly flirting with the grotesque. The following passage perfectly captures this sentiment:
“I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you… Seize it and let it seize you aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter… from any height at all, from as high as eagles.” (Dillard, 70)
Dillard’s lesson is simple enough- discern a ‘necessity’ and pursue it relentlessly down whichever path it leads you- but her language is far from rosy . My question is this, “Does Annie Dillard have to go into such vile detail to get her point across?” Now, it’s important to note that Dillard isn’t being needlessly morbid here; she’s drawing on an earlier anecdote in which she outlines the tenacity of a weasel who mauls the neck of an attacking eagle in a desperate attempt to avoid becoming lunch. The eagle won, but it was left with a little souvenir- a weasel’s head lodged inextricably on its neck. So what is the passage I quoted earlier saying anyway? It’s saying, “Be the Weasel.” The weasel has one necessity, to live, and its entire being rallies to fulfill that need.
Before I get too bogged down in the details, I want to get back to my original question, “Does Annie Dillard need to use such gross language to convey a lesson that is otherwise fortune cookie-appropriate?” To answer that question, “Yes!” You see, the beautiful thing about Dillard’s lesson isn’t the lesson itself; it’s the inspiration behind the lesson. There is profound truth behind even the most commonplace occurrences. The important thing is to take a moment and truly appreciate the surrounding world. That’s what Annie Dillard did. She didn’t go into that passage with an insatiable desire to impress upon her audiences the value of persistence. No, Annie Dillard wanted to write about weasels. All that life lesson nonsense? A gift from the weasels.
“…but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive.”
Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk