Saturday, August 2, 2014

save or savor? (JON: DO NOT READ THIS POST!!!)

My friend Jon E. sent me, in the mail, a long article about Annie Dillard titled "The Ecotheology of Annie Dillard: A Study in Ambivalence," by Pamela A. Smith. You can find the article here. If you're an Annie Dillard devotee, I really recommend the article. Smith's main point is that although Annie Dillard observes and deftly describes the world, even a world of great suffering, she rarely (really, never) devotes energy on the page to suggesting that we should do something about the suffering. The world is being destroyed, the animals killed, the humans burned or slaughtered, but Annie Dillard does not suggest, or even really imply, that we should try to change this state of affairs. It's because Dillard is deeply ambivalent about God, the human world, and the natural world, that she does not take steps towards reformation, says Smith.

Smith's summation, at the end of the article, is this:

Her central contribution to ecotheology is that she displays, in minutiae, what has been and what still exists in a number of significant bioregions. She also exhibits for the ecological thinker that familiar twentieth-century phenomenon: an inability to move from observation to ethic, a sense of personal insignificance and alienation, a tendency to let things alone. There is a God, and he is up to something or other. There is wonder in this world, and that prompts a God-ward "Hooray!" There are gods all over the place, and we honor them with our attentions, appreciations, or fixations. Like God, nature has its darknesses and its lights. It moves us and frightens us away. Or it leaves us dumbfounded, watching, and doing nothing. Humans watch and see and become entangled in mystery. We make things, we ceaselessly eat, and we die. The earth turns, galaxies swirl, and new things ever arise. God may or may not have in mind the way things turn about and will turn out. Such seems to be a summation of Dillard's theology and metaphysic.

I found Smith's article more or less convincing, from what I've read of Dillard (and I've read the bulk of her nonfiction). I do think Smith misses Dillard's sense of things....that is to say, I don't think Smith shares Dillard's take on the world. Smith seems to be coming from a Judeo-Christian/highly ethic-oriented perspective.

I wrote Jon (who sent me the article) a letter in response, and I thought I'd share a part of the letter with you, because in it I write about what has been one of the central puzzles of my life. Here's that part of the letter.

The author of the article seems pretty critical of Dillard because Dillard doesn’t take a stand, doesn’t seem interested in resisting oppression, doesn’t have an ethic, isn’t remotely an activist. And I feel like reading this tension between Dillard’s stance and the author’s obvious stance on the side of ethics/activism—it’s like reading about my own lifelong struggle (or at least a struggle of the last 18 years or so) between the priest part of me (that’s an ethicist, reformer, activist) and the artist side of me (that observes and tells the truth—the truth seeming to be that our sojourn on Earth is unfathomable, insanely confusing, and not even remotely accounted for by the reformers/ethicists). I remember saying to myself, when I was a chaplain, that I hated being a chaplain because it meant I couldn’t tell the truth. 

The reformer part of me thinks she knows how things should be: patriarchy is bad, capitalism is bad, living in unsustainable ways is bad. These things should be struggled against. The artist part of me (which usually feels to me like a deeper and realer part) thinks—who the fuck knows what is going on here. Certainly not me. And not most anyone else, as far as I can tell. Sometimes ethics seems like a way—a sophisticated way—of avoiding really feeling the truth that we will all die. But—then sometimes ethics doesn’t seem like that at all.

In my class, all the readings I assigned were from the ethical, reformer stance. And my students understood the readings and conversed easily about them. We talked about how things should be different—white privilege should be eradicated, people should become more empathetic and engaged and alive—and sometimes the conversations were a stretch for them but mostly they understood what I was saying. But then, for the very last reading of the class, I assigned them an essay by Dillard called “This is the Life,” the basic point of which is—what the fuck is the meaning of it all, the meaning of life? My students wrote responses to the essay and it was very clear that they had no idea what the hell she was talking about. They were so confused. Only one student—and totally not the one I would have predicted—even comprehended what she was saying. Which—I feel like that experience is a microcosm of my life! When I am engaged in Making A Difference, I get lots of positive response from otheres. Making A Difference has so much social capital! Whereas, when I’m being an artist, I and everyone else are just wondering how I’m going to pay the electricity bill! 


I thought I’d finished my thoughts about the reformer’s life versus the artist’s life but then today I was out on a walkabout and I Had More Thoughts. What I want to say about feeling pulled between wanting to savor the world and wanting to mend it—or really, pulled between wanting to know and experience it on the one hand and change it on the other hand—what I want to say about that is that it’s actually a very good place to be. I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who spoke of wisdom as being able to simultaneously hold in mind two opposing ideas. And perhaps there’s a real goodness, or sanity, in simultaneously embodying the seemingly contradictory desires to know (“know” in the deep sense) the world as it is, and to change the world pronto. There’ the Galway Kinnel poem that I fucking love:

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

And I absolutely feel that way—so wholly. And then I read this novel I’m reading, All The Light We Cannot See, set during WWII, and I want to devote myself utterly to ensuring in every move I make that I am reducing harm and suffering in the world—and that I’m always actively working toward becoming the kind of person who would rather be harmed than harm an innocent person (i.e., to stand up for the oppressed, even if it risks my life). That seems like a good tension to live within—a good tension to not try to resolve—to even resist trying to resolve. And when the artist part of me tries to silence the reformer part, or the reformer part ignores the artist—it’s then I should be concerned.

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