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.

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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?       

An Expedition to the Poles

“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.