“Ours is a planet sown in beings. Our generations overlap like shingles. We don’t fall in rows like hay, but we fall. Once we get here, we spend forever on the globe, most of it tucked under. While we breathe, we open time like a path in the grass. We open time as a boat’s stem slits the crest of the present.”
For the Time Being is Annie Dillard’s musing on life and death, on infinity and God and the masses juxtaposed against the individual. It’s an interesting theme, one I’ve enjoyed and grown familiar with in my readings of Don DeLillo (Mao II, being a great example. Cosmopolis another) and I wondered as I read whether reading these books set against each other would elevate the subject; but it turned out that reading Annie Dillard alone was enough. Infinity is enough by itself, after all. I’ve read Dillard before: her collection of essays ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’ and another work on writing ‘The Writing Life’ and both works are, frankly, amazing. She is an intelligent, observant, considerate woman with a skill for words. This book is no different, yet it is different in a way. It is denser, less penetrable, it is more overt in its exploration of God and once upon a time that would have put me off; but whilst I remain agnostic in my beliefs and have become more open to the concept of religion, its value, its presence as a force for helping people through this mystery that is life (as long as it is not turned towards hate, that is). Dillard here, too, pushes no agenda but explores this idea – the infinite, God, faith, death, chance – through a number of interlinked themes.
“On April 14 1977, at dawn. I saw a cloud in the west from an island in the Pacific Northwest. The cloud looked like a fish fillet. Recently, hundreds of volunteers searched the world’s skies, but they could not find the cloud again.”
Clouds is one of those themes, because clouds are infinite and transient just as we are. Juxtaposing clouds captured for all time – in paintings, in documented records – against those which come and go and which a mere handful of us see. The idea of searching for a specific cloud is bizarre, and yet that is how we are towards people; Dillard contrasts the idea of searching for the cloud against the search for a child missing in the woods and the thousands that will turn out to in the hope of finding just that one person, whether or not they know them. Why one and not the other? This is a question that runs through the book. Birth defects is another theme: Dillard explores the chance nature of being born whole, intact, and the question of the nature of a God who would, too, deliver to the world bird headed dwarf children, a child with gills and a tail, a myriad of birth defects to which the owner may have varying states of awareness.
Numbers is another theme: if anything defines the infinite it is numbers. Here she considers the Terracotta army and the man (individual of course) which created it and the numbers he slaughtered in pursuit of immortality. Not, in this case, his army, though in the times it was commonplace to bury the living with their dead leader. She considers the thousands killed in tsunamis, in Mao’s Great Leap Forward, in Stalin’s Russia, in the Irish potato famine and all those other events around the world which cut individuals down like heads of wheat at harvest time. What does it take to stir our compassion? To lift ourselves out of concern for the individual, for those around us, to consider humanity as a whole. At what level are the numbers too great or too small? At what point do we begin to recognise our own frailty, the inevitability of our death?
“Los Angeles airport has twenty-five thousand parking spaces. This is about one space for every person who died in 1985 in Colombia when a volcano erupted. This is one space each for two years’ worth of accidental killings from land mines left over from recent wars. At five to a car, almost all the Inuit in the world could park at LAX. Similarly, if you propped up or stacked four bodies to a car, you could fit into the airport parking lot all the corpses from the firestorm bombing of Tokyo in March 1945, or all the world’s dead from two atomic bombs, or the corpses of Londoners who died in the plague, the corpses of Burundians killed in civil war since 1993. You could not fit America’s homeless there, however, even at eighteen or nineteen to a car.”
Religion is a core theme of the book. Making a regular appearance is the founder of Hasidic Judaism Baal Shem Tov, as well as the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Dillard explores how both examined the nature of God, how their lives were dictated by their faith and how their faith responded. Is God omnipotent, or does God act in the world through us? If God is good, why is there evil? If God is infinite, why are children born with heartbreaking defects; why are people allowed to die in great swaths; why are individuals, people of faith, flayed to death, their flesh scooped out with oyster shells and burnt on a fire? None of these questions are new, and Dillard offers no answers just possibilities from different philosophical views.
“There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware: a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discolouring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time – or even knew selflessness or courage or literature – but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.”
It is a difficult book. It is difficult in its disjointedness and connectedness. There are multiple themes: sand and clay, trees, God, numbers, infinity, death, defects, chance, wanderers, faith, clouds. There were times when I found the book opaque and impenetrable and others where it moved me to unexpected tears. Can we think of ourselves as one body: humanity, moving towards a single goal (which is what)? And at the same time can we reconcile the individual, our desires and needs and loves? This is the problem of religion which asks us to think of the infinite when sometimes even great numbers are too much and yet, at the same time, not enough.
“Are we ready to think of all humanity as a living tree, carrying on splendidly without us? We easily regard a beehive or an any colony as a single organism, and even a school of fish, a flock of dunlin, a herd of elk. And we easily and correctly regard and aggregate of individuals, a sponge or coral or lichen or slime mold, as one creature – but us? When we people differ, and know our consciousness, and love? Even lovers, even twins, are strangers who will love and die alone. And we like it this way, at least in the West; we prefer to ensure any agony of isolation rather than to merge and extinguish ourselves in an abstract “humanity” whose fate we should hold dearer than our own. Who could say, I’m in agony because my child died, but that’s all right: Mankind as a whole has abundant children? The religious idea sooner or later challenges the notion of the individual. The Buddha taught each disciple to vanquish his fancy that he possessed an individual self. Huston Smith suggests that our individuality resembles a snowflake’s. The seas evaporate water, clouds build and loose water in snowflakes, which dissolve and go to the sea. The simile galls. What have I to do with the ocean, I with my unique and novel hexagon and spikes? Is my very mind a wave in the ocean, a wave the wind flattens, a flaw the wind draws like a finger?
We know we must yield, if only intellectually. Okay, we’re a lousy snowflake. Okay, we’re a tree. These dead loved ones we mourn were only those brown lower branches a tree shades and kills as it grows; the tree itself is thriving. But what kind of tree are we growing here, that could be worth such waste and pain? For each of us loses all we love, everyone we love. We grieve and leave. What marvels shall these future whizzes, damn their eyes, accomplish?”
There’s a nebulousness to this book which is, at the same time, so rooted in concrete ideas. It makes the head hurt, and yet it is still beautiful. It is a book I cannot say I have fully absorbed – I think I could read it a thousand times and still have missed something – and yet what I took from it was something hopeful, a feeling, perhaps, that in our infinitude we are not alone, and though we are varied and different and frail and meaningless, we are part of a glorious whole if only we choose to see it. We are clouds and snowflakes, we are no different to these things. Dillard, here, helps us to see it but she also offers us membership to a wider community. Whether you get there through religion or philosophy or something else is neither here nor there.
For the Time Being is published by Vintage.