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Fall 1997, Volume 14.3

Essay

 

James A. Papa, Jr.

Paradox and Perception: Science and Narrative in Walden and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.


James A. Papa Jr. (Ph.D., State University of New York) has recently published articles on Henry David Thoreau and Jack London in
The Midwest Quarterly. His poems and short fiction have appeared in The Long Island Quarterly, In Autumn: An Anthology of Long Island Poetry, Dumb Beautiful Ministers, and The North Atlantic Review.

 

Annie Dillard, writing over a hundred years later than Henry David Thoreau, inhabits a radically different natural world than he could ever have imagined. It is a "post-Newtonian world…of random order" (Aton 81), a world in which quantum physics has done away with predictability, and where even the most objective scientific observations are understood to be suspect.1 It is a world so devoid of scientific certainty that even physicists admit that "they cannot study nature per se, but only their own investigations of nature" (Dillard 207).

Dillard claims that she is "no scientist" (12). She eschews the kinds of measurements Thoreau takes of the natural world in Walden. Yet her mode of observation and her relentless desire to explore the material world around her are more akin to science than they are to metaphysics and mysticism. Ironically, at the same time that she attempts to distance herself from and to discredit science, she nevertheless relies heavily on the fruits of contemporary science, physics in particular, as a basis for arriving at a kind of late-twentieth century mysticism. Her continual references to exploration and discovery throughout Pilgrim at Tinker Creek further solidify her debt to science and the historical accumulation of scientific knowledge. In fact, science and its technology, primarily the microscope, offer her the very means with which to achieve a sort of modern mysticism that is, paradoxically, more powerful and more unsettling than that put forth by Thoreau in Walden .

Pilgrim's mysticism is more powerful and unsettling than Walden's because of its unique ability to assert itself so forcefully in an age in which mysticism itself is devalued, and even highly suspect. Even the notion of god, for the most part an assumed reality in nineteenth century America, is a somewhat tenuous article in our time. We live these days in a world in which mysticism is often considered nothing more than a spiritual indulgence of sorts, just another one of any number of intellectual constructs available to individuals in a time when meaning and the notion of universal truth are often considered naive illusions. To speak of a spiritual orientation toward, an awareness of, or an interaction with the cosmos is, in an existential age, something of a joke. The ideas and assumptions upon which such a belief is predicated, however tinged with secular trimmings, have long been dismissed in many quarters as intellectually deficient—derivative of nothing more than the subjective make-up of individual consciousness.2

In Pilgrim, however, Dillard makes the same claim about science—that its findings are no more than illusions, with no true objective basis in fact, and that science itself is nothing more than a product or construct of consciousness. She quotes a noted physicist as saying that the "universe [is] composed" of "'mindstuff,'" and that "'the physical world is entirely abstract and without 'actuality' apart from its linkage to consciousness'" (207). If this is true, then in Pilgrim Dillard is conducting a foray not into the natural world, or nature, but into her own consciousness, as well as into the consciousness of science. She sees in the world around her nothing but the workings of her own mind. This allows her to declare that "[i]f I have life, sense, energy, will, so does a rotifer" (124).

Dillard's position, however, is still far different from Thoreau's. For while Dillard may employ human consciousness as a means for understanding nature, she does not establish a hierarchy of consciousness privileging the human:

The monostyla goes to the dark spot on the bowl: To which circle am I heading? I can move around right smartly in a calm; but in a real wind, in a change of weather, in a riptide, am I really moving, or am I "milling around." (124)

This same self-doubt which prompts her to question free will and the limits of human consciousness leads Dillard to view the world as chaotic, a place where all living beings are merely "survivors huddled on flotsam, living on jetsam" (178), inhabitants of "a monstrous world running on chance and death, careening blindly from nowhere to nowhere" (180).

Thoreau, on the other hand, finds the universe an ordered phenomenon. His use of the words "patented" and "laboratory" when referring to the act of the creation suggests reason and design (Thoreau 203). This is in keeping with earlier scientific models of the universe that portrayed the creator as a master watchmaker of sorts, and the universe as a machine.3 Such is decidedly not the case in Pilgrim, where the creation is understood to be imperfect: "something is everywhere and always amiss" (Dillard 184).

What is ironic is that for Dillard science does not, in the end, provide her with the answers she seeks, but instead serves only to deepen the "mystery" of the universe as it manifests itself in the environs of Tinker Creek. The more she sees, the less she knows and understands. Indeed, much of what she does see in nature only serves to leave her "brutalized," until she is finally forced to ask herself whether her "only real home" is "human culture" and "its values." But having to choose between the world of the "creek" and the "library," she finds herself "paralyzed, unwilling to go on, for both ways lead to madness" (180). Neither one alone can help her account for or make sense of the world around her, which is precisely what she desires to do.

Unlike Thoreau, she cannot simply romanticize the natural world in an attempt to resolve the conflict by reducing nature to a kind of benign playground for the spirit, an "herb garden" in which "to stroll sometimes, gathering simples and listening to [Mother Nature's] fables" (Thoreau 92­93). Such an approach will not hold when confronted with a world full of insects and microscopic creatures, whose forms and behaviors have no correspondence at all to human form and behavior and are in fact so alien to human consciousness as to seem horrific. The cruel mating ritual of the preying mantis (Dillard 59), the bizarre life history of the horse-hair worm, the long passage from Fabre on the bee-eating wasp, all of these have no apparent corollary in human existence that might allow the narrator to make sense of them. They are "horrors" "performed in broad daylight before our very eyes," and "[t]heirs is the biggest wedge of the pie" (65­66), reducing human existence to a minor act in the drama of the creation.

Nor can Dillard anthropomorphize her way around or through the anxiety she incurs upon observing nature's brutal, and to her at least, senseless happenings.4 To attempt to make sense of the nonhuman world by assuming it beholden to the same moral standards we impose upon ourselves as human beings simply will not work. But what troubles Dillard most is that a world so barbaric and without conscience or mercy could have "somehow produced wonderful us" (180): "We are freaks, the world is fine, and let us all go have lobotomies to restore us to a natural state. We can leave the library, go back to the creek lobotomized, and live on its banks as untroubled as any muskrat or reed" (182).

In the end, such an answer does not sit well with her, and she closes the paragraph from which the above passage is taken by suggesting that the reader go "first." To escape what is an otherwise insolvable conflict, she makes the ultimate metaphysical leap and embraces a kind of religious faith, choosing to affirm and accept the objective ideal of beauty in a world that otherwise seems devoid of order and meaning:5

I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world and I am getting along. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering about on a splintered wreckwhose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them. (248)

No such feat is required of Thoreau in Walden. He does not have to come to faith, because he has never been without it. He simply does not see in nature those phenomena which create so much existential angst for Dillard. There are no contradictions for him to reconcile in order to remain sane; his faith in the goodness, indeed the rightness, of nature comes across as a given. While in Pilgrim nature's more horrific phenomena appear amoral, nature in Walden is anything but. Quite the contrary, it is morally superior to man: "[A]ll nature would be affected, and the sun's brightness fade, and the winds sigh humanely, and the clouds rain tearsif man should ever for a just cause grieve" (Thoreau 93).

For Thoreau the universe is not a hostile place; beauty and grace are not doubtful entities that need to be affirmed through exercises in faith. He never once questions whether "beauty itself [is] an intrinsically fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all" (Dillard 273). Unlike Dillard, who suspects at times that beauty might be nothing but a "mask" covering a "toothless old ugly" (273), Thoreau never entertains the notion that there might be some other reality besides the one he believes in.6

This is not to say that he does not ask questions. He does, but he does not ask the kinds of questions that Dillard does. He may sound Walden Pond to determine its actual depth, but that is a question that, in its very inception, presupposes an answer: the pond is "bottomless," or it is not. The answer does not require him to rely on faith or metaphysics, but rather on a piece of line and a weight. Even the self seems a measurable quantity, if only one would begin the exploration in earnest, and lower a sounding line into its depths.7

What is more, Thoreau never truly doubts or questions the concept of the/his self itself. The deeper issues of existential consciousness simply do not arise in Walden, if they arise at all, to the degree to which they inform and shape the text of Dillard's Pilgrim. The world of Walden Pond, though it may be a "wonderful and various spectacle," is, in the end, a familiar and manageable entity, easily adaptable to reason and philosophy, and requiring no special tools for viewing except one's own eyes. Thoreau, who would follow nature's ways, need not question them, since "Nature [itself] puts no question and answers none" (Thoreau 187).

Nowhere in Walden do we see the kind of searching after explanations for cosmic and natural phenomena that we see in Pilgrim. In the mid-nineteenth century, the notions of god and of order in the universe had yet to be challenged in any meaningful way (Oeschlaeger; Nash), and Thoreau feels no shame at his own attempts to impose some sort of order in the midst of nature. His domestic routine is itself an exercise in order and reason, and his long discussion of economy is based upon the notion of balance—i.e., that if we would just bring our wants into alignment with our true needs, we would achieve harmony. Indeed, his affinity for order is expressed in the fact that he "came to love [his] rows [emphasis added]" (103) of beans in his little plot of earth, and when sounding Walden Pond he takes comfort in the somewhat predictable correlation between its depth in various places and the topography of the surrounding landscape.

For Thoreau nature is a physical manifestation of divine design, and when confronted with the wanton destruction of life so inherent in nature, the "myriads [that] can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another," he sees nothing frightening. Instead, he thinks "the impression on a wise man" to be "that of universal innocence" (210). It is not the ways of nature that are questioned in Walden, but the ways of men in society. Nature itself is never questioned, but an answer is quickly, albeit effortlessly found:

some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring to answer in my sleep, as what,howwhenwhere? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. (187)

Here, whatever rumblings of existential angst might begin are immediately dismissed by the narrator's awareness of nature's presence.8 This is a far cry from Dillard's waking to "blood," "death," and "violence."

Dillard cannot simply "simplify" things the way Thoreau does. Science does not allow her the comfort of ignorance, and the microscope, more than anything else, serves only to unsettle and challenge her previous conceptions about nature: "I don't really look forward to these microscopic forays…. I do it as a moral exercise; the microscope at my forehead is a kind of phylactery, a constant reminder of the facts of creation that I would just as soon forget" (123).

But just as science opens the world up to inspection, and makes available worlds she would otherwise have no sense or knowledge of, it also serves, more than anything else, to come between Dillard and what she sees in nature. She cannot forget that a "nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing, cuts and splices what [she does] see, editing it for [her] brain"; her own physiology, its limitations revealed to her through biological science, leaves her estranged from the universe she inhabits, and all that science can tell her is that she cannot see what really is, "that only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it is" (20). Even "the patch of bluets in the grass," though "not…long on brains…might be, at least in a very small way, awake" (115).

Consciousness, then, is wasted on twentieth-century man, who, having first had the world of nature revealed and explained to him through science, must now accept that what he sees even through science is as much a construction of his own mind as the notions of any nineteenth-century Romantic. The only difference is that the Romantic of Thoreau's time could still take shelter in the supposed truth of his perceptions, because there was nothing yet that might challenge them seriously enough to suggest their abandonment. For Dillard, on the other hand, even science, with its supposed reliance on rational thought and hard objectivity, is suspect.

Adrift in the relative meaninglessness of the late twentieth century, she finds herself forced at night to "wander from window to window, looking for a sign." But there is no sign. "No culture explains, no bivouac offers real haven or rest." Instead, "[t]error and a beauty insoluble" remain "woven into the fringes…of things both great and small" (26). Science has no explanations even for its own discoveries. It raises more questions than it answers. Dillard, freed from the illusions of Newtonian physics, can no longer believe, as most people do, in the most basic premise of the scientific ritual—the belief that "at least the physical causes of physical events are perfectly knowable," and that we can "gradually roll back the cloud of unknowing" (206). Instead, she must accept the fact that "the physical world as we understand it is more like the touch-and-go creek world…than it is like the abiding world of which the mountains seem to speak" (208). The world is a place of flux and change, movement and indeterminacy, and all bearings are suspect.

Still, she must maintain some sort of orientation, some contact with familiar landmarks in the existential landscape on which to take a fix when she is lost. Without them, she runs the risk of finding herself as disoriented and panic stricken as the Greenland Eskimos who, when "too much light falls on everything," find themselves the victims of a "special terror" when "the landscape around moves into the realm of the unreal" and they find themselves suddenly "floating in a bottomless void, sinking, sinking, and sinking. Horrorstricken" (23). Read in the context of the larger narrative, this passage, quoted from Freuchen, suggests the metaphorical danger of too much knowledge when we have no means of grounding ourselves in it. "If we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light" (23). Science, in stead of grounding Dillard, serves only to set her adrift on her own "mirror-like" sea.

This being the case, she puts her faith in beauty and in grace, choosing to believe in them as objective facts, eternal universal truths, and not simply products of her own subjective consciousness. In Pilgrim, science becomes the subjective realm, while "beauty is something objectively performed…as real and present as both sides of the moon" (108­09); "it is not a hoax…. Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it" (273). Still, though beauty exists as an objective reality for Dillard, it remains a "language to which we have no key" (108­09).

The irony here is that language itself, i.e., the written text of Pilgrim, is used to construct a narrative in which the beauty of the prose passages must stand in for and take the place of beauty itself as it exists in nature and the cosmos. Dillard cannot answer why the mockingbird's song "is…beautiful," but she can sing her own song, manipulating rhythm and syntax, image and idea into a verbal tapestry as rich and varied as the mockingbird's tune. Even the thematic repetition in Pilgrim, the continual raising of the same questions through separate but similar metaphors, echoes the repetitions that make up the mockingbird's song. In the end, the same question can be asked of Pilgrim's narrative that Dillard asks of the mockingbird's song: not "what is the meaning, meaning, meaning," since critical interpretation of any text always transforms and creates meaning, but why is it beautiful and why does she, Dillard, sing.

The above question is, of course, a variation of the question asked by Thoreau in Walden: "With all your science can you tell how it is and when it is, that light comes into the soul?" Knowing full well that the question cannot be answered, he asks it anyway of those readers whose minds have not yet given themselves over fully to the validity of the intuitive. But even were readers in Thoreau's time to attempt to answer it themselves, science in the mid-nineteenth century had yet to even come close to claiming that it might be up to the task. It remained for Dillard, privy to the explosion of new sciences—biochemistry, neurobiology, psychology, to name a few—to consider whether or not that question could indeed be answered. The text of Pilgrim suggests that it cannot, but the narrative is nonetheless an ambitious attempt to at least explore, if only tangentially, the problem, especially given the powerful role intuition and transcendentalism play in Dillard's text. No, what Pilgrim does instead is to document and catalog not how "light comes into the soul," but the way in which we recognize its arrival and how we are to make sense of the attending spiritual implications. 

Science presents Dillard with a greater understanding of the natural world than Thoreau could ever have conceived of, and yet this understanding proves meaningless. Like the physicists she faults, Dillard is left with the realization that all observation is subjective and leads back to the self. Like Thoreau, she ultimately comes to rely on a transcendental belief in ideals such as truth and beauty, though she arrives at it in a different way. For Thoreau, these things are self-evident if one will just open one's eyes. For Dillard, however, these truths are not self-evident. They are spiritual necessities embraced in a desperate attempt to ward off a deep existential despair. Whether they are true or not does not matter. Not to believe in them is to face the possibility that the universe and our lives are without meaning, something Thoreau would never have believed or even considered.

 

Notes

1 According to Becker 407, "[t]here are many ways to measure the distance between Thoreau and Annie Dillard, but intervening scientific discoveries and the ways they have come to challenge the adequacy of empirical observation are, I think, the most striking. With its emphasis on objectivity and rationality and its rejection of teleology, science may seem to many to be the villain in the tragedy of the lost sacred. But that is because the layman's idea of science, as Annie Dillard notes, is still back with Newton in the seventeenth century. We tend to think of science in mechanistic terms and to be satisfied with those scientific explanations which show us the world as a big machine made out of little machines. But a moment's reflection admonishes us that science today is very different from the science Thoreau knew"

Physics is not the only science to have radically altered modern man's sense of his place in the world. As Thomas Lyon points out in This Incomperable Land (New York: Penguin, 1989), "[w]e know a great deal more about our ragged course on earth than our eighteenth and nineteenth-century counterparts could have" due to developments in "disciplines such as archeology, anthropology, paleontology, and paleobotany" (76).

2 "Most nature writers in the twentieth century have been rather quiet on the subject of deity, according well with the temper of the time, perhaps, but they have without exception maintained a reverential attitude toward nature. Oneness with nature, awe, and the spiritually potent deepening of conscious ness beyond the egotistic level brought about by intimacy with the environment remain prominent" (Lyon 22).

3 Walden's narrator refers to his own undertaking at Walden Pond as an "experiment," thus suggesting the requirements of order and design, purpose and measurability. As a creator of his own life in the woods, Thoreau can be said to embody many of the same traits he would attribute to the creator. Walter Benn Michaels, however, claims that the term experiment does not truly fit the narrative, since "the scientific term 'experiment' relies on the notion of repeatability…on an unchanging natural order," which can not be applied "in the historical context of human events" (141­42). Be that as it may, the history of scientific experimentation relies not only on the exact repeatability of tried experiments, but also on creative modification, suggesting that Thoreau's use of the term may have been more apropos than he could have imagined, especially in light of the fact that many writers have tried to repeat the experiment as best they could, modifying it perhaps in its particulars, but aiming still to answer some of the same questions the original experiment was designed to answer.

4 This is not to say that Dillard never anthropomorphizes. In truth, very few who have written about nature outside of purely scientific concerns (a questionable proposition itself) have been able to escape anthropomorphism completely. The question really is one of degree and awareness, and Dillard is more often than not decidedly non-anthropomorphic. Still, where she does fall victim to such a perspective, she is rarely blind to either her indulgence of it or the reasons for that indulgence. Writing of her own response to a bobwhite call, she remarks that "[a] bobwhite who is still calling in summer is lorn; he has never found a mate. When I first read this piece of information, every bobwhite call I heard sounded tinged with desperation, suicidally miserable" (222). It is clear here that she is aware that her response to the call is the result of objective information regarding the bobwhite's existence vis-a-vis the securing of a mate. Such an ornithological observation, however, in and of itself would not make a claim on the bird's emotional state, or even suggest that one was possible, and whatever meaning Dillard attributes to it is strictly the result of anthropomorphic tendencies on her part.

5 In Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing, Scott Slovic argues against "thinking of Pilgrim as a spiritual document, as a kind of exemplary confession of faith," and identifies it instead as "an informal, experiential work of psychology, the specific themes of which—because of their relevance at one extreme to religious experience—often appear more supernatural than natural" (76­82). While Dillard is especially concerned with consciousness and the nature of perception—with what she perceives, or sees, and the ways in which she does so—the reasons for her concern are spiritual. Her acceptance of and her faith in beauty as an objective truth indicate that her exploration of her own consciousness is simply a means for recognizing those moments when the "spirit" truly has found its "one home."

6 For an interesting discussion concerning Melville's ability to see through nature's "mask of beauty" in Moby Dick, see Clough 126­30.

7 William Howarth 138­39 argues that "[i]n mapping Walden Pond, [Thoreau] at last closes the distance between seen and unseen, matter and spirit, his own past and future. Knowing the surface well, he can understand the bottom and see their 'remarkable coincidence…. Extending his discovery, Thoreau uses Walden to map our inner lives—a survey of hidden terrain that anticipates modern psychological theory. Study the surface of a man and you know his depths." This extrapolation from the particular to the universal accounts for the failure of Walden's narrative to fully test conjecture against reality. In Dillard's text, it is the lack of correspondence between the seen and the "unseen" that is so unsettling for both the narrator and the reader. Assumptions do not hold, and they do not transfer. There is no unifying schema into which everything—self, cosmos, creek—will fit, except for that which art, in the form of a narrative text, can provide. Even the paradoxical realization that chaos and beauty can exist alongside each other is no more than a textual creation—without language, no such claim can be made, or understood.

8 Jim Borck and Herbert Rothschild refer to this particular moment in Walden's narrative as "a momentary feeling of dislocation" on the narrator's part, "which seems to pass without effort on his part" (94). However, they do not see Thoreau's response to Nature as simply "reinforce[ing] the preceding thought that Nature is self-sufficient in itself and for us, resolving all our nocturnal doubts when we view it with unveiled eyes" (95). Instead, they read the passage as a "resolution" of "tensions" that Thoreau himself has "purposely" set up prior to the moment of waking (94). Indeed, they see Thoreau's "awakening from a troubled sleep" as "an achievement rather than a matter of course" (97). Still, the fact remains that, as far as existential consciousness goes, while Thoreau may wake physically, he does not wake fully to the possibilities of his own spiritual doubt: the questions which he first fails to articulate, and then to answer. Nature here thus serves to limit, rather than expand, the possibilities of consciousness.

 

Works Cited

Aton, James. "'Sons and daughters of Thoreau': The Spiritual Quest in Three Contemporary American Nature Writers." Diss. Ohio U, 1981.

Becker, John E. "Science and the Sacred: From Walden to Tinker Creek." Thought: A Review of Culture and Idea 62 (1987): 400­13.

Borck, Jim, and Herbert Rothschild. "Meditative Discoveries in 'The Pond in Winter'." Texas Studies in Language and Literature 20 (1978): 93­106.

Clough, Wilson O. The Necessary Earth: Nature and Solitude in American Literature. Austin: U of Texas P, 1964.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Bantam, 1975.

Howarth, William. "On Reading Walden." The Thoreau Quarterly 14 (1982): 138­39.

Lyon, Thomas. This Incomperable Land. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Michaels, Walter Benn. "Walden's False Bottoms." Glyph Textual Studies 1 (1977): 132­49.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. 3rd ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 1982.

Oeschlaeger, Max. The Idea of Wilderness. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.

Slovic, Scott. Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 1992.

 

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