Annie Dillard: witness in the wide world

Dillard’s “Total Eclipse,” the opening essay of Teaching a Stone to Talk, explores her encounter at an actual total eclipse that was evident in the northwestern U.S. in February of 1979. Here is video from it, as recounted on the news by Walter Cronkite. Dillard’s metaphorical references  to photography and film suggest, perhaps, that as essayist she is something like a journalist, something like Cronkite, recounting her expedition and encounter with this natural phenomenon. That certainly seems to fit with what seems to be the purpose of these essays: a writer’s exploration, somewhat scientific, of the natural world. Dillard is known as an essayist and, first and foremost, as an environmental writer

Perhaps. However, the wild details of that clown painting with which she begins the essay, the clown with features made of vegetables, tells us that she is interested in other aspects of seeing in addition to the sort of factual description we would associate with documentary reporting. Something about vision, beyond vision, is being reported here. We find a good indication of that with her description of the platinum effect of the eclipse; her vision is represented as photographic, but it’s a photography that’s uncanny and disorienting, rather than the accuracy or precision we normally associate with photographic evidence.

The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. their every detail of step, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print….The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. [16]

Dillard provides incredible visual details of this encounter. Her poetics and rhetoric of vision certainly offer a good lesson for us in thinking about how her essays work–and what we might do if we are interested in following her. Specificity matter; extended figures, particularly metaphors, for seeing, matter in this writer’s exposition. To explore the natural world we need to see as clearly as a photograph sees. But the rhetoric of vision, detailed as it is, also focuses on something paradoxical: what seeing isn’t seeing. The very metaphor of photography she uses thus invokes conventions of seeing clearly, accurately, but also suggests its opposite. The hillside is like a photograph; but it is also in the process of being turned into its negative.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard’s first book, she identifies this paradox of vision in this way:

But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

Pilgrim presents Dillard’s environmental vision; the photographic description, by way of this more complicated use of the photographic metaphor, complicates what natural description and observation means for a writer. To see the world, we need to open our eyes; but there are limits to what we can see, or say.

And so, as we think about the “vision” this opening essay establishes or frames for the whole of the collection, we will need to reckon with these two types of seeing. We can look for ways Dillard focuses our attention on what we are and aren’t seeing; we can listen for ways her language marks this paradox of seeing. And we can ask of the book overall, or each essay, what’s the argument? What does she want us to see, or see differently, about this “wide world” (20)?

By the way, Emerson titled his first journals “Wide World.” Dillard elsewhere expresses her lineage in what we might call Emerson’s school of thinking and writing. Do you see or hear anything of Emerson in Dillard’s essaying?

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