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Good Letters

Illustration by Alissa Berkhan

Illustration by Alissa Berkhan

The following appears as the editorial statement in Image issue 88.

There is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination. What can any artist set on fire but his world?… What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burnt out, any muck ready to hand? His face is flame like a seraph’s, lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see; his life goes up in the works; his feet are waxen and salt. He is holy and he is firm, spanning all the long gap with the length of his love, in flawed imitation of Christ on the cross stretched both ways unbroken and thorned. So must the work be also, in touch with, in touch with, in touch with; spanning the gap from here to eternity, home.

—Annie Dillard

Few books to come across my desk lately have stirred so many emotions as The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New by Annie Dillard. In the Atlantic, the critic William Deresiewicz says that the book “might just as easily be called The Absence,” because the author has published nothing new for years. It’s a clever lead-in, but devoid of substance. Our online culture, with its constant demand for hitting the feeds at peak times every day, may dictate constant publication unto death as a requirement for any self-respecting author, but thank God Annie Dillard grew up before the advent of the internet. I prefer to look on her body of work and celebrate the abundance.

There is no doubt, however, that The Abundance has the feel of a valedictory, which is certainly one reason it kicks up emotions. Her impact on me would be hard to overstate. For me, reading Annie Dillard has often conjured up the sort of epiphany that she famously described in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when she encounters “the tree with the lights in it.” “It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The lights of the fire abated, but I’m still spending the power.” 

Much has been said about Dillard’s writing: her fabulous verbs, the muscular Anglo-Saxon diction, which does wonders with a concrete, monosyllabic word, the lyricism of her prose. Much less has been noted or understood about the density and depth of her thought.

For example, while it has been observed that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is modeled on Walden, few have understood it as a rebuttal to the transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson from a traditional theological, incarnational perspective. Flannery O’Connor once said: “When Emerson decided in 1832 that he could no longer celebrate the Lord’s Supper unless the bread and wine were removed…an important step in the vaporization of religion in America [took] place.” Pilgrim, along with For the Time Being and others of Dillard’s books, constitutes a profound reversal of that step.

In Holy the Firm she writes about carrying a bottle of wine to a small communion service: “Here is a bottle of wine with a label; Christ with a cork. I bear holiness splintered into a vessel, very God of very God, the sempiternal silence personal and brooding, bright on the back of my ribs.”

It may be that the richness of Dillard’s thought has been overlooked because she wears her learning so lightly, or perhaps because it is out of touch with the tenor of the times. We live, after all, in the culture that Thoreau and Emerson shaped, with its belief in the solitary individual who constructs the world in the sovereignty of her own mind. But the pilgrim at Tinker Creek is always struck, to use Marilynne Robinson’s phrase, by “the givenness of things.” The pilgrim makes her way to holy ground, to a cosmos that exists before and beyond us, and which we as creatures may share, transcending the limitations of individual consciousness and thus inhabiting a common world.

Since there is no way in the short space here to do justice to the abundance that is Annie Dillard’s achievement, I will content myself with recounting the one great literary anecdote that I have been vouchsafed. Some are graced with many hilarious or dramatic encounters with authors, but I am content that I have this one.

To be continued tomorrow.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Gregory Wolfe

Gregory Wolfe is the founder of Image and serves as Writer in Residence and Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Seattle Pacific University. His books include The Operation of Grace: Further Essays on Art, Faith, and Mystery, Beauty Will Save the World and Intruding Upon the Timeless. Follow him on Twitter: @Gregory_Wolfe.

1 Comment

  1. Sara Rice on May 3, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    A.D. is a treasure! One of my many favorite moments: “The chloroplasts do stream in the leaf as if propelled by a mighty, invisible breath…This is the truth of the pervading intricacy of the world’s detail: the creation is not a study, a roughed-in sketch; it is supremely, meticulously created, created abundantly, extravagantly, and in fine…see that not only did the creator create everything, but that he is apt to create anything. He’ll stop at nothing…Welcome aboard. A generous spirit signs on this motley crew.” -Pilgrim

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