The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

For The Time Being
By Annie Dillard
New York: Knopf, 1999. $24.00

Reviewed by Michelle Huneven

September/October 1999

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“The thing we desperately need,” writes Theresa Mancuso, a church-sanctioned hermit living in New York City, “is to face the way it is.” Annie Dillard in her new book For the Time Being attempts to do just that: to look directly at life as we know it, a task she admits is difficult and, at times, impossible.

Dillard’s book is fragmented, layered, accretionary. Grudgingly (and, I suspect, at her editor’s insistence), she prepares the reader with an author’s note: “This is a nonfiction first-person narrative, but it is not intimate, and its narratives keep breaking. Its form is unusual, its scenes are remote, its focus wide, and its tone austere.  Its pleasures are almost purely mental.” She also announces the subjects that recur in each of the seven chapters: Teilhard de Chardin’s paleontological explorations, Eastern European Hasidic thought, “a natural history of sand, individual clouds, human birth defects. . . quizzical encounters with strangers,” among others. She writes of trips to Israel and China, and to a city hospital’s obstetrics ward.  By the third or fourth chapter, Dillard assures us, all these odd pieces will be more familiar; together, they’ll “make a complex picture of our world.” And she sets forth the book’s fundamental question: “Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?”

Dillard’s tone is at once no-nonsense, deadpan, and ironic. Reflecting on birth defects, she says, “Our sins have nothing to do with our physical fates. When you shell peas, you notice that defective germ plasm shrivels one pea in almost every pod. I ain’t so pretty myself.”

Dillard is remarkably erudite, and much of the book consists of sayings and anecdotes winnowed from years of reading. It is almost as if, going through years of collected reading notes, she herself found a pattern or affinity in her diverse selections, a complex, paradoxical yet consistent way of talking about God, the world, spirit, and individual people. 

Dillard is also one of the foremost observers and describers of the natural world: she describes birds mating in mid-air (“they start high”) and snails copulating on the ground (they knock heads for an hour or so). The world, she implies, exists on its own terms; it is up to us humans to face up to those terms, which include infants born with webbed feet, no nose, no lower jaw, with Hurler syndrome, happy puppet syndrome, leopard syndrome, cri-du-chat syndrome (which makes them mew like cats). So long as we’re looking at things head on, Dillard brings up humankind’s inconceivable cruelty: 85-year-old Rabbi Akiva killed by the Romans in 135 C.E. (they flayed his skin and stripped his bones using an iron scraper). Also flayed—this time in a church by 5th Century Christians—was the well-born lady Hypatia. “They stripped her flesh with oyster shells and threw the shellfuls of flesh, ‘quivering,’ in a fire. Her problem,” Dillard notes with characteristic dryness, “was Neoplatonism. . . . Also she studied mathematics.” 

And while we’re at this business of facing the unfaceable, what about plagues and tyrants and natural catastrophes that kill one, 10, 100 million people? Something—the denial of death, “reality fatigue”—kicks in at a certain point, Dillard points out; something stops us from taking in and making sense of the random suffering and death, the countless afflictions and cruelties. Numbers is a subject Dillard returns to again and again. Today, 100 million children live on the streets. Twelve million people fish from small boats for a living. Pol Pot killed two million Cambodians. A typhoon in Bangladesh drowned 138,000 people. Stalin starved seven million Ukrainians in one year. Dillard quotes him: “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic,” and she quotes the Hartford Courant: “HEAD-SPINNING NUMBERS CAUSE MIND TO GO SLACK.” But our minds should not go slack, says Dillard. “What,” she asks rhetorically, “will move you to pity?” 

Along with life’s unfairness, Dillard also faces its ever-shifting nature. She writes about fleeting clouds, sand and waves and exiles, wandering Jews, the world on the move, and Teilhard de Chardin’s sense of being an atom spinning in the universe. Dillard sets out to locate God in this whirl of time, change, beauty, and horror. “Natural materials clash and replicate, shaping our fates,” she writes. “Perhaps, and at best, God knows nothing of these temporal accidents, but knows souls only.” Or, with beguiling wryness: “God is—for the most part—out of the physical loop of the fallen world he created. Or God is the loop, or pervades the loop. . . .  Certainly God is not a member of the loop like the rest of us, passing the water bucket to splash the fire, kicking the bucket, passing the buck.”

The theology that slowly emerges from these pages is, in Dillard’s words, “a deeply grounded and fully paradoxical view of God.” Dillard leans toward “pan-entheism,” which she hyphenates to distinguish it from pantheism. Pantheism holds that God is immanent in everything. Pan-entheism holds that God is not only in everything but that everything is also in God. Or, as Dillard so succinctly puts it, “There is a divine, not just bushes.”

So how does a body live in this world? A few suggestions gleaned from Dillard: According to the Taoist Son Master Chinul, adept people are “in everything like empty boats riding the waves.” Teilhard said, “I can and I must throw myself into the thick of human endeavor.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison: “One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, even to make of oneself a righteous person.” 

After all, as Meister Eckhart said, “God needs man.” Or as the Lungman Taoists say, people “can assist in improving the divine handiwork.” 

Michelle Huneven wrote the novel Round Rock (Knopf, 1997). She belongs to Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, CA.

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