"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

19 August 2010

The Pursuit of the Absolute

Here's a piece I wrote to help my freshmen understand the final chapter of Annie Dillard's The Writing Life a few years ago. I ran across it today and thought some of my readers might enjoy it.

We can live comfortably, coming to very little harm, Annie Dillard tells us in Chapter 7 of The Writing Life, or we can risk our lives for the freedom and exhilaration of seeking God in His creation.

Dillard attended the Bellingham air show “with a newcomer’s willingness to try anything once” – not because she likes air shows, but merely to try out the local culture. Several pilots did some interesting stunts – then Dave Rahm flew. Dillard first noticed him, as she might a book on a subject in which she had little inherent interest, “idly, paying scant attention,” then found herself interested “reluctantly” – until at last she was drawn completely into Rahm’s “inexhaustibly glorious line” and “[began] to learn about beauty.”

What so impressed her was not merely the quality of the individual stunts Rahm performed – the other pilots had done these too, and well. It was, rather, the way he did them one after another without pausing to straighten out the plane between them: “he never quit,” she writes; “the music had no periods, no rests or endings; the poetry’s beautiful sentence never ended; the line had no finish; the sculptured forms piled overhead, one into another without surcease.” Rahm was using the plane as a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe, to explore the limits of beauty that can be created in his form of art, even as master composers, poets, writers, sculptors use their tools. He was not content to do the same things that others do in the same safe way; rather, he combined the stunts he had learned from others in original ways in order to “move back the boundaries of the humanly possible.”

When Rahm took Dillard up in the plane, she discovered the depth of physical pain and disorientation a pilot experiences, the fact that this work, this art is not one that “feels good.” Yet Rahm chose it and pursued it with a passion that made him the best there was; he became the master that could inspire the very swallows to imitation.

As the writer uses the line of words to discover meaning and articulate for others something of the vision he finds, Rahm thought of the air as a line which he followed from end to end, paying attention to the light so that his audience wouldn’t have to stare into the sun, considering the effect of the plane’s line on the audience’s senses. Dillard describes him as reticent, a “figure,” a stereotypical “strong, silent type” who appeared perfectly ordinary, maybe even boring – but, she adds, “the machine gave him tongue.” His art allowed him to express beauty as he could not with words, and that expression was worth the risk of the fiery death that ended it.

This, Dillard implies, is the task of the writer. Anyone can keep out of harm’s way by refusing risk, by staying on the surface of life and thought. But there is gain – for both the artist and his audience – in taking the risk.

Why are we here? Dillard asks, and answers: “for the sake of the choir” – to offer praise. We cannot praise what we know only superficially; we must “penetrate the universe,” “ride the point of the line to the possible,” seeking truth, seeking beauty, following the vision where it leads us. And that vision we follow, that truth we seek, is, ultimately, the “Absolute” who “fills the world” – the knowledge of the Creator whose life and love are evident in His creation. The pursuit of the Absolute is the only life worth the sacrifices, worth the risk of danger and death – because these are a small price to pay for the exhilaration of that freedom available only in the glimpse of Truth offered us along the way.


Justin G. said...

Annie Dillard is not an author one can simply pick up and read passively. She always has a depth of meaning that goes beyond the word pictures she creates. This is one of the chapters of The Writing Life I remember with distinct clarity, and one which really struck me as profound. The idea that the job of artists is not always pleasant flies in the face of the layman’s notion that writing novels, poetry, music is easy. Yet it is a goal worth pursuing, this thing called beauty. It makes me think about our lives as Christians and pursuing the beauty of our Lord. It will not always be pleasant; at many times it will be quite painful. But the goal is worth pursuing despite any suffering the journey might bring.

Thanks for the reminder, Dr. Impson.

Beth Impson said...

Thanks for visiting, Justin, and for your comment.

William Luse said...

If that doesn't help your students, your students can't be helped.

Beth Impson said...

Thank you, thank you, Bill! I'd like to do a lot more with this book in writing commentary on it . . .