Dillard opened the floodgates for the now-popular genre of creative nonfiction with her 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Buccaneer Books, 1998), and her memoir, An American Childhood (HarperCollins, 1998). She has also published books of criticism, poetry, essays, and fiction, including her novel, The Living (HarperCollins, 1993), and her most recent book, For the Time Being (Knopf, 1999). When Dillard isn't writing, she hangs out at monasteries, works in a soup kitchen, and teaches at Wesleyan College in Connecticut.
An interview with Annie Dillard
Your writing demands something from the reader--to be woken up, challenged, and asked to look closely at something that might be repulsive. Do you hope your readers will take a magnifying glass to the world in the same way you do, so they will explore the world and see it anew?
I certainly hope, as any artist hopes, that the art will help the reader see the world anew. But it's by no means all negative. There's a bunch of positive ways to see the world anew in my books. I bring up the bad news first, because then when you give the good news it's a lot more convincing. If the writer knows how grim it can get, and then the writer is nevertheless a believer, the belief is a lot more convincing.
If the believer goes around saying whatever is, is right, any thoughtful person will discount the sunshine, because that person is an adult who lives and knows that the problems of living, are enormous. Why does God permit such suffering? Does God cause it? If so, why? Does God have nothing to do with it? If not, is he not omnipotent?
In examining these existential questions so relentlessly, do you find that your own spiritual beliefs are clarified or do they get murkier?
They get much clearer--especially in this last book, For the Time Being. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I didn't provide any theological answers. I raised a bunch of questions and then provided the kind of answers that Job provides: That God is unfathomable but definitely there--and there's nothing we can do about it but see, and by our seeing, partake of creation.
In Holy the Firm (HarperCollins, 1999), the same question is raised in three parts: paganism, rationalism, and revelation. These correspond to creation, fall, and redemption. In that book, redemption comes in terms of the mystical experience. It concludes that the purpose of the mystical experience is to let the person who prays know precisely the kind of power he's addressing.
Do you think that there is power in the prayer itself?
No. Well, I really don't know. My books are literary works. These aren't matters of opinion. You can conclude from For the Time Being that I come down like theologian Paul Tillich on the view that prayer can jiggle the situation a little bit if it's a close situation. Essentially, God works within the laws of nature. Teilhard de Chardin says that. Saint Thomas Aquinas said that God needs man and implies thereby that God is not fully omnipotent.
I say God has one hand tied behind his back. If you deal with the problem of evil in an honest way, it seems to me that eventually you will have to tinker with the doctrine of God's omnipotence, which in no way diminishes the power and the holiness of God. And it saves the doctrine that God is always merciful.
Because it saves you from the elaborate convolution of trying to figure out how the death of innocence could be ordered by God, the puppeteer, who is supposed to be merciful. When your kid dies of sudden infant death syndrome, you try to figure out how that's merciful, and you can't do it. It's just convolution; Teilhard called it nonsense.
You draw on the thinking of the French Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin frequently in For the Time Being. Why is he important to you?
I love him. Every single thing. I think that Americans have been reading the wrong books. They keep reading the Phenomenon of Man, which is just pretty much crackpot, and they don't read the wonderful things, the Mass of the World and the Divine Milieu. He enters the realm, as I try to enter the realm, where nothing can be said but in art, but in metaphor, but in simile--because words fail and reason fails, as everyone knows. Only art can enter those realms, however pathetically.
You take what could be called an ecumenical approach in your writing by drawing from the rich thinking of important figures from many different religious traditions. And yet you remain a Christian, a Catholic.
How has your immersion in different faiths affected your own?
I go, for example, to a Benedictine monastery, and they have a big library. I was very amused to see that in that library they have shelf after shelf of books on Hasidism and on the Buddhist tradition, and yet almost nothing about Protestantism, missing a great vein of Christian thought. It is perfectly common for people who are religious and who pray and who worship God to think, "Hey, this is the God of the whole world. How have other people seen the truth of holiness in the world?" I find the Hasids particularly rich in insight.
There's a lot of joy in their religion: the doctrine of devotion to God, cleaving to God, cleaving to prayer, the notion throughout Orthodox Judaism of God in every moment, reminders of God in every aspect of daily life--a life dedicated wholly to God. It became important in Hasidism, which is a kind of "Protestant" movement in Judaism, that even the simple peasant can have dealings with God without his necessarily spending 12 hours a day studying Torah. There's an emphasis on good works, charity and alms, love of neighbor, and the kind of mystical joy of living constantly in the presence of God. You find the same thing elsewhere. It's just interesting to find it their way.
Do you think it would be appropriate to say that you have, at the very least a fascination with mysticism?
It would be appropriate to say that my writing fits very squarely in the Christian mystical tradition dating from Plotinus. And that's simply a rational category. It's a statement of literary criticism. It's not making any claims that I'm getting revelations right and left and writing them down as fast as I can. It's just saying there is a long mystical tradition in Christianity, and my work is solidly in it.
Do you strive toward inspiring a sense of wonder and mystery, as the mystic does?
I strive toward writing good books, and the aim of those books has always been to address the agnostic intellectual. I want to get him to consider once again that it's not only stupid people who are Christians.
There is something there if he will reexamine religion, which he probably threw out when he was a teenager and never looked back. He doesn't know anything but what they taught him as a little child, including a child's view of God. I want him to see that he may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. If he will loosen up his tolerance and let religion onto the porch or into the vestibule of his life--or let it bring him to the porch or vestibule of the church--then I will have done my job.
Of course, I end up with all these Christian readers. I'm preaching to the converted, but I do also have a huge number of secular readers who happen to think I'm completely insane. Early reviewers suggested that I was on drugs. I certainly wasn't. No, I had just been given a glimpse.
It sounds like you feel like you have a responsibility to your readers.
I have a responsibility to write the best literature I can and the most honest literature I can. But I don't have any responsibility to preach, and if I can't think of a good idea for a book, I don't write anything.
Do you think that as readers we have a responsibility to consider the kinds of questions that you raise?
No. Readers should read for pleasure.
Isn't there a spiritual path in reading?
There can be if that pleases the reader, and if that's what the reader is doing. You just put books out there, and people may or may not find them. It's certainly no duty of theirs.
How would you describe the relationship between your spiritual life as a Catholic and your artistic writing life?
They're intimately linked. I almost always end up writing about religious matters. I wrote a novel, The Living, in which certainly nobody was a Catholic. God was only vividly present to one character, who was by no means a Catholic but just some old pioneer lady, and she raises some interesting questions.
It's about pioneers in the Pacific Northwest and was not a specifically religious novel. But many people enjoyed it, including religious people. Like all my books, it starts out really grim, and you think everybody's going to die, but then it cheers up. This guy realizes that the fact that he lives under death gives him life, and that's a religious insight. I have always thought that the fear of death doesn't lead to love of God, but rather quite the other way.
Do you come to that insight--embracing death--through your Catholic faith?
Ever since I was quite young, religion made me think about death--not life after death, but thinking about life as a whole, as an entirety. Religion gives you a great big view. And then you realize, my God, I'm going to die. How will that affect how I'm going to live? In the same spirit, monasteries always keep a freshly dug grave right next to the chapel to put the next monk in who dies. There are a number of Buddhists who meditate every day on their own death--not out of morbidity, but just to bring clarity to their lives and thoughts.
You're about to visit a monastery for an extended period of time. What draws you to the monastic community?
It's more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Everybody laughs all the time. It's supposed to be silent, but there's just laughter. You do the Daily Office, Gregorian chant, pray a whole bunch, and work. You go through the liturgy and sing the Divine Office seven times a day. It's wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!
Will you be writing there?
By the time you're done with all these prayers, with work in the morning and a nap or a walk in the afternoon until it's time for prayers again, then to bed until it's time for prayers again--there's no time. But you do get to see beautiful sunrises and beautiful sunsets. I always read a lot of books in the library.
You're drawn by the pure joy of it?
It is remote and it is quiet, but the main thing about being at the monastery is the unbelievable round-the-clock readiness of all the monks to laugh. That's true of all the religious I've ever known. They laugh quickly. They laugh at almost everything. They enjoy laughing.
I work in a soup kitchen too in the winter, and it's almost all Catholics running it. We just laugh ourselves silly.
There's a very good book I recommend that's just been published this year about the high Episcopal Church and working in a soup kitchen. It's called Things Seen and Unseen (Knopf, 1998) by Nora Gallagher. I cried twice in the course of reading this short book, and I laughed about 120 times out loud. It's the best book I've read recently about living as a Christian in the real world in the church. She is fun.
Tell me why the natural world is so important to you.
People are just born that way. I don't know anybody who's passionate about nature who didn't discover it as a child--no matter where he was, even downtown Manhattan. You get bit early, and you stay bit your whole life.
What has it taught you about God?
That was the question I posed in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It taught me that God was extravagant, inventive, wasteful, exuberant, and giving.
RELATED ARTICLE: from For the Time Being
by Annie Dillard
NUMBERS * What were you doing on April 30, 1991, when a series of waves drowned 138,000 people? Where were you when you first heard the astounding, heartbreaking news? Who told you? What seriatim, were your sensations? Who did you tell? Did your anguish last days or weeks?
All my life I have loved this sight: a standing wave in the boat's wake, shaped like a thorn. I have seen it rise from many oceans, and now I saw it on the Sea of Galilee. It was a peak about a foot high. The standing wave broke at its peak and foam slid down its glossy hollow. I watched the foaming wave on the port side. At every instant we were bringing this boat's motor, this motion, into new water. The stir, as if of life, impelled each patch of water to pinch and form this same crest Each crest tumbled upon itself and released a slide of white foam. The foam's individual bubbles popped and dropped into the general sea while they were still sliding down the dark wave. They trailed away always, and always new waters peaked, broke, foamed, replenished.
What I saw was the constant intersection of two wave systems. Lord Kelvin first described it. Transverse waves rise astern and move away from the boat parallel to its direction of travel. Diverging waves course out in a V shape behind the boat. Where the waves converge, two lines of standing crests persist at an unchanging angle. We think of these as the boat's wake. I was studying the highest standing wave, the one nearest the boat. It rose from the trough behind the stern and spilled foam. The curled wave crested over clear water and tumbled down. All its bubbles broke, thousands a second, unendingly. I could watch the present; I could see time and how it works.
On shore, eight thousand waves break a day. James Trefil provides these fads. At any one time, the foam from breaking waves covers between 3 and 4 percent of the earth's surface. This acreage of foam--using the figure 4 percent--is equal to that of the entire continent of North America. By another coincidence, the U.S. population bears nearly the same relation to world population: 4.6 percent The U.S. population, in other words, although it is the third-largest population among nations, is about as small a portion of the earth's people as breaking waves' white foam is to the planet earth's surface. And the whole North American continent occupies no more space than waves' foam.
"God rises up out of the sea like a treasure in the waves," wrote Thomas Merton.
(From For the Time Being by Annie Dillard. Reprinted by permission of Knopf.)
MAUREEN ABOOD is literary editor for U.S. CATHOLIC.