Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A quotable collection of wonders

Full title: For the Time Being
Author: Annie Dillard
Genre: Non fiction
Attributes: 222 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Vintage Books (2010)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

With Annie Dillard one learns how to wonder. She sees things in a light that must have been the light of their very beginning, the light of metaphors; as when she contemplates the excavation site for the unearthing of Emperor Qin’s terracotta army:
“We can see a half-dug horse, whose lower jaw dips into the ground as if the planet were a feed bag.”
Beautiful. Quotable. Memorable.
A book of travels, that’s what For the Time Being is supposed to be. And it is that. It is that and much more. Travels through poetry and philosophy, at the end of which we realize there’s only one thing we've really seen: the human species. Us, as we appear on earth in the short span between birth and death; us, through the statistics we make, through the mystical ecstasies that elate us, our poetical aberrations, our philosophies, our biological deformities and cultural imperfections. Us, the most fragile and at, the same time, perhaps the most promising creatures on earth.
Almost every time she quotes numbers (from sources rarely mentioned; but who cares, really?), Dillard gives the impression of an accountant keeping the books of the universe. Her numbers are always astonishing. They read like arguments that leave no room for retaliation. They hurt while enlightening; or is it the other way round?
“In our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are four hundred billion suns – give or take 50 percent – or sixty-nine suns for each person alive.”
This “give or take 50 percent” is a stroke of genius. Four hundred billion or two hundred billion (or to put it differently, 200,000,000,000 or 400,000,000,000) are, to the mind of an inhabitant of a one-sun universe, the true test of imagination. A test at which, if I’m not wrong, we fail. Who can imagine such calamities? Who can count to such a length? Who can cope with so much?
Precisely the point.

We will also wonder how slowly but surely sand and debris cover us all.
Source: National Geographic
But the shock of numbers isn't everything the book delivers. One falls in love with the way things are described, as in the case of the horse image quoted above. Of course, there’s more where that description came from. Like, for instance, this one, where we stand in a maternity ward and watch babies receiving their first baths:
“This is where they wash the newborns like dishes. A nurse, one or another, spends most of her eight-hour shift standing here at the sink.
Different nurses bring newborns, one after another, and line them down the counter to the sink’s left. The newborns wear flannel blankets. Knit hats the size of teacups keep sliding up their wet heads. Their faces run the spectrum from lavender through purple and red to ping and beige.”
Then, once she’s made poetry of our coming-about, she moves smoothly, gently, irrevocably to the other part of us: our going-away. Here’s one quote about it, borrowed by Dillard from Juan Rulfo, the Mexican writer. It stands to highlight one technical aspect of the book: the use of crude, unrefined, often uninterpreted quotes. In the novel Pedro Páramo, Rulfo makes a dead woman speak to her dead son thus:
“Just think about pleasant things, because we’re going to be buried for a long time.”
And thus death leaks into the text like rain finding its way into a room through the eaves of a water-proof house. It finds its way into the Chinese terracotta army, into Hasidic literature, into the theological-paleontological writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, into the fragility of those babies washed like dishes, into the natural history of clouds, into stories about sand and dirt. Death infiltrates every aspect of the book the way birth infiltrates it as well. So much so that nothing is truly dead, but everything is fully alive.
The volume is an intricate system, where texts speak to each other, in a networked mesh of images, concepts, colours, and flavours. Reading through these networks brings readers the pleasure of seeing diagrams unfolding. Most importantly, though, it turns everything into a huge quotable thing. It makes fans of the readers. All of them, one hopes.