Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Response

Annie Dillard's 1974 memoir Pilgrim at Tinker Creek follows her time at Tinker Creek, going deep into nature to try and get closer to God. As Dillard is an incredibly well read woman, the memoir is littered with various allusions to biblical stories, theologians, mystics, and esoterica alongside quotes and blurbs from books detailing biology and or anthropology. The memoir has bilateral symmetry, and each chapter focuses on a specific theme, introducing the concept through an anecdote she saw in nature or during her time at Pilgrim Creek, and then relating that to some kind of theological discussion. During the first half, these chapters follow via positiva, an interpretation of God as omniscient and all powerful, while the latter half follows via negativa, the belief that God is unknowable and beyond human understanding. The memoir ends up being (to the dismay of Dillard) something like a collection of essays, linked by general theme rather than narrative cohesion or plot.

Dillard's narration is characterized by gratuitous, even redundant, descriptions of the natural world around her in conjunction with some almost obtusely poetic and philosophical musings in the latter portions of each chapter. While each chapter generally focuses on one image to extrapolate into a musing on God, like the empty frog or goldfish, the chapters occasionally give similar examples ad nauseum. This, of course, is not necessarily a criticism of the text; the gratuity of the description reflects the horrifying gratuity of nature that the via negativa chapters focus on.

These via negativa chapters compose the latter half of the novel, leaving this via negativa theology as Dillard's last word on the subject. However, even with this in mind, to consider this belief as the text's thesis is ignorant of the intentional bifurcation and symmetry of the novel. Dillard pits positiva and negativa chapters against each other, creating a sense of crisis that gets to what is very likely the thesis of the novel: a dialectical synthesis of via positiva and via negativa.

The text pits specific ideas against each other, which would, in many other instances, suggest a correction or change in belief. However, the organization and style of the chapters seems more indicative of the doublethink, contractions, and doubt that exist in the mind of a religious person. For instance, the first half works very hard to establish a sense of wonder and hope at the beauty of nature, while the second half works directly against that: "You wait in all naturalness without expectation or hope, emptied, translucent, and that which comes rocks and topples you; it will shear, loose, launch, winnow, grind" (Dillard 298). This doesn't necessarily discredit or undermine the first half's beliefs, it just shows that at any time, Dillard or any person of faith can oscillate between subscribing to via positiva, via negativa, or some kind of synthesis of the two.

Additionally, the text uses the form of a novel to convey this. Dillard writes that "Divinity is not playful", but a text and the language that composes it is all about play (Dillard 312). Unlike a film or a normal novel, this memoir can be read in any order and make some kind of sense. This means that reading the book backwards, starting with negativa and approaching positiva, is just as valid as reading it forwards to backwards, as the bilateral symmetry is preserved and the thematic organization is intact. The ability of a text is even hinted at directly when describing time: "Time itself was a scroll unraveled, curved and still quivering on a table or altar stone" (Dillard 295). While a small detail, texts are one of the only things the text describes aside from nature, so an interest in the form of texts and how their organization is shaped by this form is likely. The bilateral symmetry is even reflective of nature, such as the symmetry of butterflies or leaves, which show up throughout the novel.

Unlike most other texts, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek's conclusion seems to take place more towards the center of the book rather than the end. To box God into either via positiva or via negativa is a gross simplification, and the reality of one's beliefs is much more complex, much more intricate than that. In nature, simplicity is almost always eschewed for intricacy, and the text posits that God is similar. In that way, God made nature in God's image, and then Dillard made Pilgrim in God's image as well.

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