Annie Dillard's "For The Time Being" is astonishing, a many-voiced fugue whose intricate, sometimes stark counterpoint ranges wide in search of God and his Mercy in this vast, bent creation. A nurse washes newborns in an American hospital; a French paleontologist and mystic wanders deserts in search of early man; Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn search the Connecticut woods for a lost schoolgirl; Chinese peasants work the soil that covers statues of thousands upon thousands of warriors, buried since the time of Emperor Quin. Annie Dillard shares a cigarette with a Palestinian tour driver.
Dillard ranges across millenia, right round the globe and down to the earth's core, in search of mysteries. The mysteries of God, and of His Creation, and of how He is revealed in what He has created. The mysteries of human evil and human good, of God's grace and complicity.
It's not an easy journey. Dillard warns us right up front, barring the entrance of any unwary reader with a stern Author's Note: "Its form is unusual, its scenes are remote, its focus wide, and its tone austere." Sort of a "come along if you want to, but don't expect me to look after you" warning before we set out on a demanding journey. "Its pleasures are almost purely mental," she warns us.
But pleasures there are. Most immediately accessible are her constant humour and wit: the text is dotted with smart, discordant, bracingly honest comments, impertinent questions and laugh-out-loud quips that are pure Annie. Reading Dillard, one always has the sense that she must be great fun to be with, a wildly creative, winsome human being intrigued by everything and everyone she meets. So much of the fully-alive girl we met in the autobiographical "An American Childhood" (her most accessible work) is very much intact in the widely-experienced woman whose voice is so identifiable in "For The Time Being." Dillard has the same enthusiasm, attention to detail, fascination and joy in life that I see in my wide©awake daughter: delightful in a ten-year-old, miraculous in a forty-something-year-old. And both of them, in their childlike faith and guileless honest willingness to question, lead me very much closer to Christ. "Except ye become as little children..."
Nonetheless, a very sophisticated child of God is Annie Dillard. Another of the great pleasures here is the impeccable artistry of her writing: the well-turned elegance of every phrase, the careful balance evident in the shaping of each sentence. As in all her other works (her first prose work, "Pilgrim At Tinder Creek," was awarded the Pulitzer Prize – no mean accomplishment), Dillard brings the scrutiny and artfulness of the poet to every word of her exquisite prose.
Too, there is the simple pleasure of curiosity indulged. Reading this book is like spending an afternoon at a great and vast library, following wherever one's curiosity might lead, jotting down interesting tidbits. In "An American Childhood," Dillard writes of her discovery of libraries as a young girl, her voracious reading on the most commonplace or obscure subjects, a spelunker exploring the caves of learning and language and literature, in search of rare and precious things. Her most recent book prior to "For The Time Being" was "Mornings Like This," a collection of pieces created by editing "found" bits of writing into beautiful, quirky, evocative poems. There's something of that collector's mentality in the present volume, with snippets of C.S. Lewis and quotes from famine relief workers and desert fathers and seven-year-old daughters and sixteenth-century rabbis dropped in here and there, apparently at random. Apparently.
Notwithstanding all these other pleasures, the author is right: the greatest delights here are mental, rigoroudly so. They derive from the work's idiosyncratic structure, which ultimately discloses its subtle and complex meaning. Austere pleasures of the mind culminate in rich food for the spirit.
Dillard introduces each of the many distinct themes of her fugue clearly and separately, without reference to any of the others. A character is introduced, a question raised, an observation made, a theme simply stated then set aside for a time. As we return to each of these melodic bits a second, a third, a fourth time, our curiosity about each grows until we are utterly gripped by the story of a Brooklyn schoolgirl lost in the woods, the life and thought of Tielhard de Chardin, the natural history of sand or clouds or waves, the significance of a cigarette lighter in the desert.
Our fascination with each of these elements begins to compound as we begin to recognize in glimpses their inter-relatedness. Suddenly for a moment we notice that two melodies have crossed, or locked in a brief harmony – what do you know, the pathology of birth defects in our century and the centuries-old musings of an Hasidic rabbi on prayer DO have something in common! – and we experience the pure pleasure of connectedness and inter-relation that comes to us when we drink in a Bach fugue or saturate ourselves with the study of Scripture.
Dillard's treatment of this thematic interplay is deft and understated, her touch light: for the most part, it is left to the reader to make the connections between Dillard's various subjects as our curiosity and involvement continue to grow.
Ultimately, Dillard's book "gathers to a greatness" far beyond what one might expect in 200 small pages. Like the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, this writing rewards close attention and heartful reading, finally "exploding with meaning" in a way that enriches mind, heart and spirit.
Best of all, there are a handful of moments when Dillard gathers all her threads into a brightly coloured bundle and lets us see the interplay of all their colours, to feel by their texture how each is somehow part of a great weaving yet to be revealed. Perhaps three or four times in this work, it all comes together, and these moments become extraordinary epiphanies. But quickly she moves on, never dwelling too long in these dense places, never over-indulging in the pleasures of making connections. That delight she leaves mostly to the reader.
Structurally, "For The Time Being" is akin to her astonishing piece from "Teaching A Stone To Talk," a 1982 essay entitled "An Expedition To The Pole" – to my mind, perhaps the finest thing she has written. In that work she alternates meditations on an inept singing group who visits a Sunday morning church service ("Who gave these nice Catholics guitars?") with quirky bits of historical information about various expeditions to the south and north poles. Increasingly the two disparate subjects come together until the astonishing climax, a surreal vision of priests and penguins and Dillard herself on an ice floe, drifting toward The Pole Of Relative Inaccessibility. A vision which makes some sort of sense of it all, and lifts the heart and spirit toward God.
I cannot help being reminded, in both these works, of the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach, another Divinely gifted artist, another skilled crafts©person, another believer and soul©exalting visionary. There is the story of Bach's visit to the German court where the composer was asked to improvise (!) a multi-voice fugue based on a pedestrian theme invented by the king. Bach did so, whereupon the king asked him to improvise a six-voice fugue on the same theme. The mind recoils! Most of us can't even hear six voices in counterpoint, let alone play or compose or – inconceivable! – improvise such a thing! Bach deferred, wishing to "do the King justice" by taking the time to compose a proper invention on the royal theme. He did so, and produced from the ruler's clay melody one of the great works ever composed for the piano: some consider it his greatest composition.
In "For The Time Being," Annie Dillard takes the common clay of her day to day experience, her reading of arcane philosophy and books of statistics and the daily newspaper (she hasn't changed since she was a bookish, curious little girl raiding the Pittsburgh library), and builds from these unlikely scraps a monumental work of art. An art which, like that of Bach, is dedicated to the sole glory of God.
At one point, writing about the mysteries of prayer, Annie Dillard says "I don't know beans about God." Well, perhaps not. But her book certainly brings Him close.
I'm not a person who is willing to give away endings, or spoil movies by revealing key plot developments. So I'm not goint to tell you what this book, ultimately, is about: getting there is all the fun! That is the great delight of the work, and the author's great accomplishment: she engages the reader in her archaeological dig into the human condition, uncertain what may be buried there, and in the end the act of discovery is perhaps as important as what is discovered.
Suffice it to say, I finished Dillard's book with tears in my eyes, and have passed my subsequent days quickened, curious, and glorifying my God. And desperately eager to go back to this slender volume, to explore again its profound intricacies.
It's that kind of book.
first published in Christian Info, 1991