It's been an emotional week. On Friday when the result of the UK referendum about whether to remain in the EU came out as leave I felt an enormous sense of grief and worry. Like many people who wanted us to remain, I could do little but spend the day watching the depressing news unfold in the press and scrolling through the outcry on twitter. The consequences of this are so uncertain with theories and predictions running wild it gets to a point where it feels too maddening to continue following. So I decided to turn off the news and pick up a book I've been meaning to get to since it came out in April. Annie Dillard is a writer I've always adored, admired and read for inspiration. “The Abundance” is exactly what I needed. Reading this book now isn't hiding from reality; it's a way of facing the complexity and mystery of it more fully.
It turns out Annie Dillard has something very sensible to say about calamitous events. She writes: “It’s been a stunning time for us adults. It always is. Nothing is new, but it’s fresh for every new crop of people. What is eternally fresh is our grief. What is eternally fresh is out astonishment. What is eternally fresh is our question: What the Sam Hill is going on here?” Her cool gaze at the perpetually surprising turn of disastrous events in the world is tempered by an acknowledgement of our very human response to cry, shake our heads in wonder and react. What's important to remember is that there are lives of individuals like you and me at stake no matter how far removed we might feel from tragic events reported in the news.
Dillard's subjects are wide-ranging and idiosyncratic. She writes about on occasion when Allen Ginsberg and journalist/political dissident Liu Binyan took a stroll in Disneyland, a restrained deer in the Ecuadorian jungle and the life of the French palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin. Several of her essays explore poignant autobiographical moments from her childhood and adolescence. There are endearing recollections such as her parents' fondness for jokes and more touching moments such as her break with the church, a romantic obsession or dancing to loud music with her father and sisters after reading “On the Road”. Her sense of growing rebellion is described as “I was a dog barking between my own ears, a barking dog who wouldn’t hush.” And also “I was an intercontinental ballistic missile with an atomic warhead. They don’t cry.” These descriptions of the heightened emotion of adolescence are as strong as any metaphors you find in fiction. Although the story of her upbringing is particular it is easy to identify with her universal stages of development. She has a special way of articulating a burgeoning awareness and engagement “as though my focus were a brush painting the world.”
There are moments when Dillard begins to sound like the best kind of preacher. She's someone who describes the world and makes it feel utterly fresh so that you see more clearly how you fit into and interact with it: “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” It's easy in life to become complacent but Dillard urges “You must go at your life with a broadaxe” and to be present and committed: “you have to fling yourself at what you’re doing, you have to point yourself, forget yourself, aim, dive.” Imagery such as diving is repeated over a number of essays: “The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after.” This is a beautiful way of describing how we can wed the reality of our lives and the way we imagine it. Other moments describe a terrifying confrontation with the abrupt end of life such as an instance where she comes upon the deflated skin of a frog or the screams people emit when the landscape is consumed by darkness during a total eclipse.
The final essay is one of the most sustained and ambitious pieces in the whole collection. Here she alternates between passages about expeditions to the poles of the earth and attending services at a church. She describes arduous journeys of the 19th century when ships became trapped in ice, but the expedition continued on sled or on foot: “They man-hauled their sweet human absurdity to the Poles.” At one point in the essay the line between religious experience and the hunt for the ends of the earth blurs. The churchgoers become the explores trudging through snow. She explains how “Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand – that of finding a workable compromise between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.”
I've read many of the essays included in this book before. It was somewhat of a surprise to discover that there isn't any newly written material in “The Abundance.” This is work that has been taken from past books and rearranged. It hardly matters because it's Annie Dillard. If you haven't read her before this is a wonderful introduction to how her endlessly-insightful mind works and even if you've previously read everything she's written her writing bears endless revisiting. Certainly any writer should read and pay close attention to her classic essay ‘A Writer in the World’ where she describes the importance of reading as much as writing: “Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed?” There is a satisfying arc to how these essays flow from the first to the last. An excellent forward by Geoff Dyer proceeds them where he describes what she does in her writing better than I ever could. Dillard's gaze focuses both on the minute and the infinite. Unanswerable questions are posed and she suggestions ways of looking. She gets at the way we as conscious bodies blunder through life eager to know, experience and understand.