Dillard’s Emerson

September 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

Annie Dillard is best known as a nature writer. Her first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) looks a lot like Thoreau in the 20th century: her pilgrimage is to live by a creek in western Virginia for two years and describe what she sees, how she lives. In spirit, however (and I use that word deliberately), there is much in Dillard that is from Emerson. That shouldn’t surprise.

In her book The Writing Life, she uses Emerson for an epigraph:

No one suspects the days to be gods.

In Holy the Firm, her second book,  that is where the book begins: a meditation on the spirituality in a day:

Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time.

This connection to Emerson deepens–and more to our point, Dillard deepens our reading of Emerson, perhaps–when we recognize the difficulty this understanding of every day a god brings to living. Holiness holds forth in time, but it is not always, maybe not ever, a pretty picture.

Dillard in Holy the Firm seems to me to be Emersonian, to have learned from Emerson, in at least two ways of note. The first is in her thinking: she is interested in Emerson’s ecstasy, the kind of transcendentalism made famous in his “transparent eyeball” vision from Nature. She has a version of that, it seems to me, late in the book when she meditates on the idea of holy the firm and how one touches the absolute through it. She describes a mystical moment, you will recall, with a bottle of wine in her backpack.¬† Dillard’s vision of nature reminds me that Emerson’s own vision is complicated: is spiritual and transcendant, but also focused on the materiality of our relations, and its limitations. Dillard’s book, it seems to me, combines the Emerson of Nature with the Emerson of “Experience” and “Fate”: nature is no sentimentalist; she is trying to be honest about our condition, to be inspired by the circumstances of spirit (here called God or god or creator or the created) but also to take courage in the face of those circumstances. The power play of holy fire, as she calls it, as we know from the example of her Julie Norwich, can burn through skin.By the way, her Julie Norwich is a metonym (change of name) for an English mystic from the 14th century, Julian of Norwich. Julian comes up in Pilgrim when Dillard tries to fathom the cruelty of creation and suffering.

In my own terms, learned from Emerson, I could argue that for Dillard (as for Emerson), the spiritual is never wholly made spirit, never made only metaphor, but closer (in linguistic terms) to an ongoing metonymy: this is what allows humans to relate to it, but also to live through it. Dillard’s moth to the flame, on this view, is not metaphor, not the great organizing symbol of this book; it is its more basic, underlying metonymy–like “holy the firm.”

There is also the matter of Dillard’s style: I would suggest it as Emersonian–or as also taking courage from Emerson in the ways that he seeks to have the ‘honesty’ of his vision play out in the conditions and circumstances of his lines. In the way Dillard moves and circulates in her lines, it seems to me, she learns from Emerson’s experience as a writer.


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