Sometimes I pick up a book, only half intent to read it. I carry it with me. It is now a moving body, it seems, with a mind of its own, for I leave it in places and don’t know why. I lose sight of it, become half aware of it or forget about it completely. If it travels far enough, it ends up on the bedside table, and there I wait for an artful moment to open it.
Some authors I struggle to read, they’re so good. Pages and paragraphs are long meditations. Lately it’s Annie Dillard. We have this collection of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood, and The Writing Life in one book. A few days ago I was somewhere with it reading An American Life. I relished reading about Dillard’s mom, with her childlike joy for the sounds of certain words, like “portulaca,” “poinciana,” and “Terwilliger bunts one,” as well as her artistic (and I would add adult) sense of duty toward form. Today, I thank Dillard for my meditation. Here’s how The Writing Life begins:
“When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself in new property. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”
Tomorrow or next year. Like you have been digging all that time. And nothing but more cave ahead. The idea works for drawing, too. Whatever makes that possible is very interesting. She is using one medium to talk about something even larger than writing, per se (or drawing). She’s located the foundation under art and life. This, to me, is an amazing accomplishment, worthy of mention. By virtue of this multivalence, or what theologian David Tracy would call an “excess of meaning,” she’s articulated that how art works is how life works.
“The purpose of man’s speech was an address to the unknowable…. [His] hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned how to throw the stick as a javelin.”
In the woods. Walking. A wide, open path. Autumn. Time unknown. Origin story.
His movement was ceaseless, frenzied; its purpose in the scattered leaves. Unfurled at that very ground was the instrument of his breaking through, a master-skein, continuously unraveling. The sudden, frantic energy of a collector was taking hold of him. It put aside his hunger. To follow this trail, niagara! of leaves, to follow it as he would hunting food.
Such paradox: art of awareness in no awareness. Here in not here. Such was God that God was before we were aware of that Presence. A change was happening in our ancestor, and it grabbed his arm with the demand of a scolding, to pull him along.
It perhaps began when he lifted a leaf close to his face. A berry, which was resting on it, fell away. He looked closer at the leaf. Or it began here: when he looked back down, when he saw them—the leaves there together as a gestalt.
See how the problem rises in difficulty. How does one measure beginning, or true cause? It is not singular. How unfeasible to give an account of origin to recount later in a meeting with friends! Because I think I’ve seen so many beginnings, I wonder anew at them: How does the wind blow? How am I getting on? With beginnings? With ends? Am I, with you now, in a constant state of beginningless beginning? What can we with confidence say is meant by this confounded word? I hope it doesn’t seem gloomy, for all its impossible challenges, to try to locate the moment the artist was born. And was it the Other that became Artist, first, or was it our ancestor who was the first?
As he followed the trail of leaves on the ground, which seemed put there by someone on purpose, his vision was dramatically changed. He picked up a second leaf to his face and sensed a great force. He put it in his hide pouch, not really understanding why, and rushed on. What he saw were ever-blooming lines of them, which formed a distinct trail that seemed to grow out of itself (almost as though it was alive). Every step invigorated him, and slowly his Eyes felt like they were awaking from sleep. It gave him a feeling of having somewhere to go, somewhere he almost needed to be. But not like needing to find shelter during a storm. A new movement which he must follow, swift-paced; a stretching to get hold of something he could not see. Everything now seemed charged with the energy of speed and purpose. What posture the world had! It was as though his eyes had become hungry. He did not question his feeling that it was necessary to follow the trail. The fact fit perfectly around him; he was somehow native to it—the pattern and the intensity with which he followed it—and thereby simply fell into its sway, uninterrupted. We do not question them, these native facts, why they are around us, for we are of their world. We do not quite know that with that fall we are in a state of grace.
It reminded him of the river; and this point I propose might also be the crux of the story; the closest we may get to a moment we were born.
His attention did not break the line. It felt embalming, yet it was consuming; it was assuaging, yet felt gruesome. By and by, the path seemed so elegant; as pretty, suddenly, as the running river to look at. It must have been a strange realization for our first human—seeing the river while he was looking at those leaves and feeling captivation for the irretrievable mystery therein. It was implausible, its being, but now he intuited in himself an impression of the river. He took another leaf to his pouch and pursued into a state of agnosia. The unthinking flow of the river was his mounting vivacity. His feet hastened over the moving trail. To where was it leading? How could a trail such as it be? Hundreds of feet long. And at that moment he looked up at the trees and realized that all the leaves on the ground were not pointing him anywhere. The trees were the leaf-bearers; there was no foreseeable endpoint. Only pattern.
The nature of the will is one of the major problematics of life. Philosophers and artists have long labored to clarify the position we are in concerning the will. How much power does one person have? How much responsibility does one have in achieving for oneself the good life, and how can this be extended to others? How exactly are we situated in this world? To better understand the nature of will, artists, philosophers, and children open themselves up to opposition by treating it with a sense of play.
The child at play gives form to conflict, practicing “out in the open” in order to internalize what has been noticed in the external world, to gain understanding of self and situation. The forces driving conflicts between people are usually invisible, ideological, and unconscious, but once they are driving behavior, the child becomes aware yet lacks understanding. To develop a working model, or what Edith Cobb called a “world image,” the behavior is reproduced in experimental play.
Philosophers routinely reflect and do their thinking by surveying both sides of a problem. Socrates is the archetype for this. In his dialogues we often find Socrates asking questions normally thought to have obvious answers, questions like, “Do I want what is good?” As part of a chain of questions that bring the other’s inconsistencies of thought into higher resolution, he is surprisingly effective. Socrates often leaves his company in a state of shock from having lived so long under the aegis of certain beliefs and values without examining them.
Similarly, artists often present situations without explicitly taking a side. In crafting a story, an author takes all the time that’s required for viewers to believe and situate themselves in the whole driving conflict. In order to do this, they must give equal weight to opposing sides. Good is labored equally to evil. This cannot be understated. Evil is not run away from. The author must take a detached stance to good as well as evil, and the long process of crafting such a story is a redemptive process for the author, for in that time love has been taken to evil. The work is finished; now the conflict is felt by the reader, in all its natural complexity. And this is what the work offers that life tends not to: honor to the paradoxical complexity of living.
The feeling of conflict is not going to be novel for anyone. Life is difficult, long, a labyrinth. No map could ever be created that would give absolute lasting order to the world, whereby we could determine what to do or where to go next. What is unique to the arts is that they offer safe passage through experience, and thus to transformation. In other words, the arts offer the best simulacrum of such a map. Life is always giving us experience; too often we fail to travel through it. Whether from anxiety or what Kierkegaard called the “dizziness of freedom,” fear or sheer confusion, we seem resistant to understanding or processing what happens to us. Such resistance promotes undesirable thought and behavior loops. If we would travel through experience, our transformation would be the effect. In order to do this, we must sometimes come down from the clouds of our own cleverness and righteousness and ground ourselves in earthly silliness. There are many compatible modes of being. There is no going out of character. To quote Walt Whitman,
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)