Annie Dillard’s books have always had a deeper, more spiritual quality. Many are just like Buddhists’ works—short, pithy, and intense, the kinds of books where one reads a few sentences and then must stop to contemplate and internalize the insights. Her greatest are A Pilgrim At Tinker Creek (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), An American Childhood (Harper & Row, 2013), Teaching A Stone To Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Harper Perennial, 2013), The Writing Life (Harper Perennial, 2013), and the book under consideration here, For The Time Being (Vintage, 2000).
In truth, this is my second trip through this book. The first time, not only did I find the book moving and inspirational, but the author led me to other works that are now an integral part of my library. She opens the book with a quote from Evan S. Connell: “The legend of the Traveler appears in every civilization, perpetually assuming new forms, afflictions, powers, and symbols. Through every age he walks in utter solitude toward penance and redemption.” And, “I have agreed to paint a narrative on the city walls. I have now been at work many years, there is so much to be told.” It is on these two cryptic notes that she begins, and because of this, I was inspired to find Connell’s work, Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel (Counterpoint, 2013). Dillard’s book is a bit more structured and less abstract than Connell’s, but both are equally deserving of attention.
Annie Dillard has an elliptical quality to her poetic prose here. There are patterns and circular narratives and symbols that she utilizes to convey the experience of human existence. She begins with a narrative of birth defects, of all things, to illustrate the various ways we are incarnated into this world, some of us in lesser form than others, yet every life full of meaning, filled with presence. She utilizes both a scientific and a metaphysical approach, integrating religious and secular spirituality that spans a plethora of beliefs. She explores the work of Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest-paleontologist, and describes his work ethic of being open to all things, all possibilities of existence as he uncovers layers of the past in the Mongolian desert. She quotes him: “The immense hazard and the immense blindness of the world…are only an illusion.” It is this illusionary quality and ephemeral nature of life that Dillard spends a considerable portion of this book examining.
The integration of all spiritual persuasions, true believers and non-believers, makes Dillard’s work so powerful. She tells us that Confucius wept when he realized he would die, and she quotes a snippet of dialogue from the Mahabharata: “Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful? That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.” Indeed, it is this question that haunts her work: How do we live in a world where we are destined to die? It is the very question of humanity: how can we know and comprehend our multi-faceted life before we cease to exist. Human life is but a singular moment, an inconsequential second in the hours, days, and years of existence. What does human life mean? What does it mean to be alive?
Dillard describes the torturous turns life can take, the brutality instigated by religion and the higher power, the rabbis flayed by Romans, the bird children born in a perversion of normality. She ponders the span between the infant and the corpse—what does it all mean? Harkening back to her epigraph from Evan S. Connell, we realize we are but travelers here, strangers in a strange land, temporary guardians of this time and space destined to perish ourselves in the ages. All we have, really, is the story, the fantastical moment we inhabit. It is magical and philosophical writing that inspires thought and contemplation, much like the historical figures she describes. How are we not enlightened by the baby and the corpse? she asks us, paraphrasing E.M. Forster. What do we learn from our forays into science and the human soul? Do we learn anything from the journey? Somehow we transcend our own finality. In fact, the concept of God “is the awareness of the infinite in each of us,” she tells us. So, for the time being, how do we live? And, “What use is material science as a philosophy or world view if it cannot explain our intelligence and our consciousness?” she asks.
Along the journey, Dillard includes the metaphysical and inexplicable mysteries of life. The 1976 earthquake in Tangshan that “killed 750,000 people. Before it quaked, many survivors reported, the earth shone with an incandescent light.” And, “If you walk a graveyard in the heat of summer, I have read, you can sometimes hear—right through the coffins—bloated bellies pop.” All of this goes to illustrate our desire to uncover the mystery of why we are here and what happens to us once we are gone. With the pain, the suffering, and yes, the ecstasy, what does this life mean? Does she ever provide answers? In a way, because she forces the reader to think and to consider. The answers may differ from person to person; for this time being, though, we each must consider how our light is spent, to paraphrase Milton, and find our own version of the truth.
The book is simply wonderful, deeply profound and intriguing. It is of particular importance now in these troubled times, where human life is so little valued, and religious extremism haunts our dreams both while we are awake and asleep. Annie Dillard is a descendent of Emerson and the Transcendentalists, and this thin book offers wisdom found only in deep contemplation and the knowledge gained from knowing the finite nature of life and the world around us.