"Choosing the Given with a Fierce and Pointed Will": Annie Dillard and Risk-Taking in Contemporary Literature
Brown-Davidson, Terri, Hollins Critic
Imagine this. You are a lectured-into-submission child, attending another dull Protestant church service with your parents. The ordinariness of your life has driven you into a repressed fury that makes your stomach knot at the meat-and-potatoes dinner you eat every Wednesday night, at the English homework (verbs-adjectives-adverbs-nouns) that always fails to engage you, at a life in which you seem to be peering through one smeared window or the next to glimpse a landscape that loses color as you age. Then you begin to paint. Secretly, at first. The bumbled efforts of any child, the too pastel watercolors you smear onto the tiny stretched canvas with your fist, the windows that open out suddenly, like pulled-apart storm shutters, onto a charged world that was whirling by without you, make you squirm on your hard little pew, but with joy, remembering how it felt to layer Red #2 onto the white as the minister leads you and the congregation in another sorry hymn. You are full, complete, whole for the first time in your miserable six years. You've discovered the essence that the two hundred adults surrounding you haven't, the euphoria in shape, color, patterning that will propel you through your days like an Arctic explorer riding a fast-moving ice floe, conscious of the danger, exhilarated and refreshed by the possibility of threat.
Let's look at that threat. It pumps up our adrenalin faster than a bee. When I was four or five, I molded sinister-looking, branchless trees from red and blue Play-do. I can still remember how it felt to hunch over that card table, slicking the slim and slimmer trees up, up, with my squeezing fingers until the trunks elongated so far they collapsed onto themselves. Those trees terrified me. I pretended that they were part of some night forest that seized the unwitting explorers I also fashioned out of clay, seized and strangled them with their trunks. But my terror was relief. I was confronting darkness in myself I hadn't yet discovered; I was wrestling with the terror of mortality and death though no one I'd ever known had, as some friend's genteel mother phrased it, "passed to the other side." Through plummeting myself up to the eyes in the mire of emotional and spiritual complexity, even at four I was beginning to understand the essence of things.
Annie Dillard, in her essays, poetry, and fiction, wrestles with the essence of things with the strength of a grizzly wrapping us in its arms. She is fierce, undaunted by the rest of the world's desire to let the world drift by in a bliss of passivity. Rather than watching the "eternal splendor" of nature, she participates in its manifold mysteries by bringing the whole of her consciousness to bear on every moment. She never looks for the sake of looking, never creates art for art's sake. Annie Dillard is one of the most fearless writers I have ever read because, like a prism filtering the greens and violets and golds of the spirit, she sees loss, suffering, ecstasy, grief, anger, betrayal, the meaning of life, the questions of life, the huge patternings of our cosmos, in every split and melting ice floe, in every tarantula that seizes a moth with its long and hairy legs. Like Blake, she possesses the ability to see a universe in a grain of sand or in a cracked kernel of corn. Reading a book as spiritually audacious as Holy the Firm, I can well believe that Dillard was the Pittsburgh child who set a stone under a streetcar to see it topple in her memoir, An American Childhood, for Dillard, even now, I think, would like to slide a stone under our passivity and see us all scramble for footing as we fall headfirst onto the slick and dangerous steel tracks of meaning. Certainly the first paragraph of this essay is a fiction, but, for many writers, I believe, it is an emotional truth, and I see Dillard in this paragraph, I see Dillard, above all, as the rebellious child in artists that keeps them furious with and enamored of the world well into their forties or, if they're lucky, until death: Annie Dillard picks a fight with the universe and means to win. …