Mystical Experience in Annie Dillard's "Total Eclipse" and "Lenses"

By Wilde, Dana | Studies in the Humanities, June-December 2001 | Go to article overview

Mystical Experience in Annie Dillard's "Total Eclipse" and "Lenses"


Wilde, Dana, Studies in the Humanities


I. MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE AND LITERATURE

In her book The Space Between: Literary Epiphany in the Work of Annie Dillard, Sandra Johnson makes an interesting point right up front about the "illuminated moment" which is helpful in its own context. She says the classic illuminated moment, such as the mystical experiences described in St. Augustine and William Blake, in St. Paul's conversion, Joyce's epiphany and Proust's involuntary memory, takes one of its forms as the "literary epiphany." She notes especially Wordsworth's "spots of time" and makes the interesting case that the description of a mystical experience, as we hear in Blake for example, differs from the literary epiphany. The modern poet--Wordsworth is just about the first, the originator of the modern literary epiphany, for Johnson--intends to create the illuminated moment for the reader, whereas the earlier writer attempts only to convey the fact that a vision occurred: "the literary epiphany works upon the reader, forcing him into an experienced moment, while the vision is a literary moment experienced or 'read' by the reader from what could be deemed the 'outside' of the moment. The writer describes his vision; the reader recognizes the description but does not physically experience the vision" (Johnson 8). In other words, the visionary moment, like Blake's, is "an insight shared with rather than created within the reader" (10).

This is a very helpful way to describe the difference between modern and earlier literature: Modern literature attempts to create an actual experience in the reader, rather than merely to sum up or describe or imitate an idea or experience of the author. A poem is not merely an experience clothed in words, but is an experience fired by words themselves. One of Johnson's general points is that Annie Dillard is clearly a romantic writer--working with the seemingly antique literary themes of Wordsworth, Thoreau and Emerson--but firmly a modern in the sense that she does not merely describe but seeks to create the illuminated moment in her readers.

This seems fair and true enough in a postmodern, poststructuralist critical context--that is, it's true if we focus our interpretive attention on words and their arrangements, to the exclusion of interpretations or descriptions of the essences of the original experiences themselves, whether the reader's experience or the author's prior experience. But in the context of mystical literature per se, Johnson's focus on the words and the reader's experience--the literary epiphany--is inadequate because it creates a somewhat misleading sense of the parameters of the actual (as opposed to the literary representation or re-creation of) mystical vision. It's well, therefore, to clarify an area of Johnson's discussion that her purposes and focus force her to juggle; in doing this, we can clarify Annie Dillard's place in mystical literature.

Trouble arises in Johnson when she says the "illuminated moment" can be divided into five types: "the experience of the 'sublime,' the mystical experience, the conversion, the vision, and the epiphany" (6). In this way of analyzing mystical illumination, the "mystical experience," "vision" and "epiphany" obviously occupy the same relative ground, the way Ford, Chevy, GM and Saturn are all types of automobile. But a look at Johnson's definitions reveals a problem. The epiphany, for example, is Wordsworth's literary creation of his sense of "spots of time"; it is an experience evoked for the reader. Johnson gives as an example of "vision," on the other hand, Blake's effort to convey what he saw--"a World in a Grain of Sand," for example. It is helpful to say that Wordsworth creates the moment while Blake simply describes it; but these two subjects as actual experiences are qualitatively much different.

Among Johnson's five kinds of illuminated moment, only one of them, Blake's vision, includes a sense of unity of the cosmos and self; but while Wordsworth re-creates his "spots of time" with some power, W. …

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