Annie Dillard is the author of ten books, including the Pulitzer prizewinning Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek
, a memoir, An American Childhood
, and the lit-major's bedside bible, Living by Fiction
. Her latest, For the Time Being,
is an elegant memoir of a luminescent mind's engagement with the world of matter and spirit. It is both postmodern prayerbook and high modernist meditation, a devotional and elegiac text.
As a postmodern prayerbook, For the Time Being quotes Ted Bundy and refers to Chernobyl; it uses facts, anecdotes, and unanswerable questions as testaments to holiness; and it structures itself like the fractile geometry of returning waves, overlapping cloud formations, and layers of sand dunes.
Dillard braids her recurring subjects together in DNA strands under headings like Birth, Encounters, Evil, Now, Sand, China, Clouds, Numbers, and Israel. But these are false demarcations, for the intermingling of the subjects knows no bounds. Thinkers and numbers proliferate; encounters take place in China and Israel; evil insinuates itself both now and then; sand and clouds drift everywhere. And there is no end-no end to the depth of Dillard's acute observations, nor to the encyclopediac breadth of the topics that inspire her, nor to the heights of grace suggested by her bold wanderings. The book finishes with an anecdote about a Papua New Guinea tribesman strapping himself to the fuselage of the first airplane he's seen and saying that "no matter what happened to him, he had to see where it came from"; this is an anecdote that could easily serve to begin the book again.
In the middle of For the Time Being, Dillard writes: "You can live as a particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials with God, or you can live as a particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials without God. But you cannot live outside the welter of colliding materials." The welter of materials here is astounding in both variety and specificity: human mutancy, like the bird-headed dwarf; Taoist, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian thinkers, and Jewish theologians, like the Baal Shem Tov and the Rabbi Luria; paleontologist and priest Teilhard de Chardin; the 10,000 clay soldiers of the Xi'an archaeological dig; Solutrean chert blades; nurse Pat Eisberg in the obstretrics ward; the reign of Emperor Qin; mating birds; an American Hasid girl missing in the woods; Constable's May 22, 1828 painting of clouds; properties of sand; the flood in Bangladesh that killed 138,000 people. But Dillard is neither crashing nor colliding in this torrent. With linguistic poise, she dives into each detail and then bobs her head up with the big questions: "Why must we suffer losses?" "What will move you to pity?" "Who are we people?" "Why is there something here, instead of nothing?"
While her tone is probing rather than conclusive, she makes a few explicit points. Namely, that our generation is no more corrupt nor our times more dire than those of the layers of civilizations buried under the sand. That the immense numbers of people being born and dying, sometimes in droves due to genocides or catastrophes, does not decrease the importance of each individual, although it may seem to. That evil exists because God is not omnipotent. That God's holiness is everywhere and yet God may be nowhere.
As a high modernist meditation, For the Time Being sidesteps the propulsion of postmodernism towards atheism and nihilism. Whereas a postmodern stance would look at God and meaning as constructs, Dillard operates as though the existence of both is an inarguable fact of life. She does not question the existence of God, but she admits she doesn't know anything about Him. She does not question the existence of meaning, but implies that she doesn't know exactly what it is either. What she does question is everything about God and meaning except their existence.
It is shocking in this day and age to encounter a text that doesn't even see these beliefs as assumptions that need to be justified. It seems a strikingly obvious blind spot in the clear-sighted and penetrating perceptiveness displayed by Dillard in her intricate exploration of life, death, history, religion, science, and philosophy.
What is reassuring is her steady and curiously impersonal self-consciousness in these explorations. Occasionally, she responds to an involved quote by asking if we can make sense of the sentence as she can't. Or she'll simply state that she doesn't understand something-like the apparent absence of mercy. With a concise compassion, she considers various explanations, and often comes to no conclusion, allowing the questions to continue echoing throughout the welter of matter.
For the Time Being is not an argument for or against anything. It's both an expedition and a pilgrimage. And, ultimately, it is the kind of book that can be carried around for months, to be used as digest, oracle, guidebook, and hymnal on the path of grace and clumsiness on which we are all placed.
Jennifer Duncan is a Toronto writer.