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
“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.