Pilgrim Thinking: Dillard’s Emerson

September 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

A vision from Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life”

In Holy the Firm, Dillard signals her relation to Emerson with an explicit reference toward the end. The relation concerns the writer’s visionary experience in the world, despite all the evidence that seems to push us away from its mystery by its very mysteriousness–or worse, seemingly cruel indifference. Dillard declares: “you learn it from Emerson, who noticed that the meanness of our days is itself worth our thought; and your learn it, fitful, in your pew, at church” (57).

This Emersonian lesson on the days circles back to her opening lines, “Every day is a god, each day is a god,” where she invokes Emerson without quoting him. In her later book, she gives us the source for this Emersonian scripture learned fitfully in the pew. The Writing Life is prefaced by an epigraph of the following line from an Emerson letter to Margaret Fuller: “No one suspects the days to be gods.” Dillard concludes her first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek–where she proposes to be a pilgrim and an anchoress (like Julian of Norwhich) rooting down to pay attention to nature, her world, where she finds herself–with this reference to an Emersonian vision: “Emerson saw it. ‘I dreamed that I floated at will in the great Ether, and I saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished tot he size of an apple. Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and said, ‘This must thou eat.’ And I ate the world.’ All of it. All of it intricate, speckled, gnawed, fringed, and free” (276). In Holy the Firm, we see this sort of visionary moment, among other places–one could argue that the entire essay is about any moment, any day, as visionary–when she describes various particles, cells, and “parcels” of the world as “transparent.” Her version of Emerson’s moment of transcendence, however, reverses his famous line: I am everything: I can hardly see. There is something of this interest in the filmmaker Terence Malick’s vision of the world, its correlation of the spiritual and the material. It strikes me as particularly Emersonian in “Tree of Life.” Perhaps Dillard’s vision in Holy the Firm can help us make sense of the ways Emerson relates to Malick’s cinematic version and vision of ecstatic experience, of the “transcendentalism of everyday life,” as Emerson phrases it in “Circles.”

The Emersonian relations between Dillard and Emerson become more complexly creative when we understand that Dillard is not merely any reader of Emerson, but a reader (and writer) married to one of the great readers of Emerson, Robert Richardson, the author of the gorgeous, intellectual biography Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Richardson posted to Dillard’s website an unpublished, brief biography of Dillard. It includes the following discussion of Holy the Firm that might be useful to our purposes:

HolytheFirm began when Dillard took a line from a letter of Emerson’s to Margaret Fuller, “No one suspects the days to be gods,” and decided to make the next three days a test case. On the second day, an islander’s plane crashed nearby. In the book, facial burns disfigure  a young girl, Julie Norwich, whom Dillard had met making cider. What can we say of  the gods of these three days? the book asks. The first god is a pagan divinity, inhabiting all creation, inspiriting the mountains, a small naked manlike god tangled in the writer’s hair. The second day, “God’s Tooth,” is indifferent to the cruelty of physical accident—is absent. The third day’s god, revealed through a knapsack as light shines through skeletal ribs, is the holy God of mystery. The book ends with a return to the burned girl, rededication to vocation and a revealed vision of the baptism of Christ.

The structure of the book is a complex as a late Beethoven Quartet. HolytheFirm has three parts: creation, fall, redemption. The first part is anchored in the senses, presents the new-born island world as vivid with spirit, and presents pantheism. Part two depends on mind. It proceeds –outraged—to examine the fall, the crash of the second day,  by means of  reason, which can make no sense of needless suffering. Part three is anchored in spirit, moving through ecstasy to enlightment.  The writing teeters on the limit of what can be felt and said. All of this, it cannot be too much emphasized, is accomplished through narrative, the things of this world, the island, farm, girl, books, boy. It is narrative heightened, freighted, wrought into symbol, and narrative first and last.

The opening event illuminates the whole story, and sets out themes: a monk or artist’s life of sacrificial dedication to ego-less emptiness, fire, terror, beauty. Dillard was camped alone and reading a novel about the young French Poet, drunken Arthur Rimbaud, “that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen. I was hoping it would do it again.” One night a moth flies into her candle. “A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing….When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs….All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax—a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.

And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into flame, a safron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating monk….

She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning—only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud burned out his brains in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet.

If Dillard learns from Emerson, what can we learn from Dillard about learning from Emerson?

By the way, back to that image from the film: it’s a nautilus, a natural, ecological, nonlinear, analogical image growth that was a favorite of Emerson’s. And the fractal dimensions of that image is a topic of interest for Dillard (read here for more on Dillard and fractals).


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