Beyond the Observable World

The world is full of both horrors and beauties. Dillard explores both in relatively equal measure. For example, the narrator describes how the conenose bug “bites the lips of sleeping people, sucking blood and injecting an excruciating toxin” (Dillard 235). Such descriptions obtain pretty high scores on my personal undesirability scale. Beauty, however, is just as natural as horror, as shown through the narrator’s experience with and continual references to a specific tree. She says, “I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world’s turning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time. Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water” (Dillard 34).

In her afterward, Dillard explains these differing views as representing two ways to God. There is the via positiva, which stresses that God possesses all positive attributes. Then, there is the via negativa, which stresses the unknowability of God and does not focus on only the good (Dillard 279). As a religious individual, I would agree that it is not possible for mortals to fully understand the ways of God. However, I want to go further; I want to talk about the questions that extend beyond the horrors and beauty of our observable, mortal world and talk about how they matter in writing.

The narrator explains that “Your needs are all met. But not as the world giveth. You see the needs of your own spirit met whenever you have asked, and you have learned that the outrageous guarantee holds. You see the creatures die, and you know you will die. And one day it occurs to you that you must not need life. Obviously. And then you’re gone. You have finally understood that you’re dealing with a maniac” (Dillard 275). A person who clings to the world as a thing to be measured and believes in only what he sees would indeed find this focus on the spiritual foolish. He may ask what the spiritual matters when there is death, suffering, despair, and hopelessness all around. “Fix this,” he may say to God, “and I might consider following you. Otherwise, you can’t be fair or humane or love everyone. Otherwise, you are nothing to me.”

I have met a staggering number of people who think in this way, but it is just this variety of spiritual bankruptcy that religion counteracts. When you see mortal life as a lesser stage of existence, you may recognize that God deals in spiritual fulfillment that matters after death as well as in life. Faith is about recognizing that you don’t necessarily have to see in order to believe. It tells us that we must act to make the world a place more aligned with God’s will because these actions will help all of us reach a higher plain of being than exists within the coils of horror and beauty encircling the mortal world. Recognize that both horror and beauty exist, and then do what you can to create more beauty and less horror. As a popular prayer goes: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The same spiritual nature that matters in life is also important in many kinds of writing. Of course, it’s of little use in dictionaries, recipes, and other texts that do not include humans as actors. When humans are part of a text, however, things other than the visible and entirely understandable matter. Interactions beyond the physical matter. When I read, I don’t just want to know that one character traded with another because it was useful and helped them both survive. I want to know what they were both thinking and feeling while the interaction took place. I want to discover their essence, what makes them who they are. I want the author to reveal the souls of his or her characters to me.

Without the spiritual, characters are nothing more than objects. Readers don’t want texts about unfeeling objects; they want texts about humans like those they meet and befriend in the mortal world. If we can understand that audiences are desirous of the spiritual, then perhaps it is time that we put more emphasis on what such interests mean. Perhaps it is time to embrace the spiritual and recognize that the horrors of this world are passing things that may test us but should not decimate us. We have things to embrace that can make even the great intricacies of the mortal world feel small. We have each other. We have the spiritual. We have God, if only we can generate the will to accept Him.

 

An Abundance of Complexity

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book of details and intricacies. The further I have delved into the book, the more overwhelming the sheer number of details has become. Instead of simplifying the world for readers, the narrator makes readers confront the sheer complexity of their surroundings. Our narrator explains to us that “creation carries on with an intricacy unfathomable and apparently uncalled for” (Dillard 133). Although these details are so overwhelming that no man or woman could ever hope to comprehend even a respectable portion of them, the narrator also expresses a respect for their cumulative beauty. She explains that “the texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek” (Dillard 141).

I think the narrator’s description of details and intricacies in the world can also be applied to writing, and not just because writers are often attempting to describe some of the complexities of the world. I see similar complexity in language and the act of writing. Grammar rules within the English language are exceptionally extensive, and then there are all of the individual cases for which the normal rules are disregarded. But grammar is only the beginning. There is pragmatics to consider, and the number of ways in which context can affect both speaking and writing are so numerous as to be beyond the bounds of my comprehension. What of sarcasm, irony, overstatement, and all the other devices that can cause a difference between the locutionary act and the illocutionary act? What of rhyme, alliteration, and the multitude of other strategies utilized by speakers and writers to affect the sound and meaning of words or text? How about the many differences between languages and how they affect meaning and comprehension? The list of intricacies in language and the act of writing could go on and on, and they can seem beautiful for all the options they give a speaker or writer.

What does all this complexity mean for writers? I think the answer will be slightly different for each individual. However, I think the will that many writers possess to understand the language that allows their craft to exist may make many of them at least a little curious about the details of how language works. Perhaps this interest is what separates dedicated writers from the majority of the population just as the narrator in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is different because of her interest in the details of the world around her. The narrator divulges that “I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly. I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and, like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glitt’ring eye and say, ‘Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?’ The poor wretch flees. I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life” (Dillard 134). I sometimes have a similar tendency to speak at length about rhetoric and writing techniques to an uninterested audience, and I have a feeling that only manners keep many of them from fleeing. And like the narrator, I usually have the impression that the details I espouse could change the way others view the world if they would only listen. Just as the knowledge of others can change me if I accept it, the knowledge I possess can change others.

Supposing that a writer does possess an interest in the details of his or her craft, the question of how they apply directly to the way he studies writing seems more difficult to understand. Should we, like the narrator of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, limit our explorations to a more easily manageable area so that we may become experts about what resides within that limited area? Is it more valuable to let many of the details go and explore more areas of writing? These are questions I just can’t answer.

I also don’t fully understand how knowledge about the details of writing and language translate into greater writing skills. I do stop in my writing to consider the use of alliteration, irony, and other more uncommon devices. However, I normally don’t stop to think about my use of grammatical forms and other more commonly used tools of the craft of writing. Does what I know about the details of these tools translate automatically into my writing? How much of what I know about language and writing is simply ignored while I am engaged in writing? Should we be careful to avoid thinking too much about the details of writing to prevent a loss of productivity? In short, how productive is it for a writer to understand the complexity of his craft? These are more questions that, for me at least, have not been answered.

Breaking a Dichotomy

Two world views exist in a state of constant conflict and turmoil. The first is the view of objectivism. Those who embrace it believe that “science provides us with a methodology that allows us to rise above our subjective limitations and to achieve understanding from a universally valid and unbiased point of view” (Lakoff and Johnson 187). The competing view is subjectivism. Those who favor the subjectivist viewpoint support that which “denies the possibility of any scientific ‘lawlike’ account of human realities” (Lakoff and Johnson 223). This view is one of an unfixed and amorphous world that is wholly unpredictable. In some circles of society, a strong dichotomy is created between objectivity and subjectivity. In the words of Lakoff and Johnson, “if you’re not being objective, you’re being subjective, and there is no third choice” (185).

It has long been my common practice to rail against dichotomies like the one manufactured between objectivism and subjectivism. I find them to be distasteful and limited foundations from which to build; I have long believed that they oversimplify and generalize the scope of human understanding, forcing it into categories that strictly limit exploration. In this case, my unflattering perspective of dichotomies is easily validated. A person trying to be objective fails to consider that which he or she believes cannot be considered universally valid, strictly limiting his or her knowledge. For example, an objective person would not consider why an anthropomorphized domestic cat could consider himself a lion. He or she would just say that a domestic cat is not a lion. One attached to subjectivism is so intent on an unfixed reality that he or she can fail to heed realities that are supported by the experiences of many, considering such finding to be little better than speculation. A hardcore subjectivist might say that, in the domestic cat’s reality, he may be a lion. The subjectivist may believe that there is no way to invalidate the reality of the domestic cat, so his view is as valuable as any other. I believe both the subjective and objective perspectives fail to encompass the complexities of a situation.

Luckily, Lakoff and Johnson get down to business to break the absurd (at least in my view) dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity. They offer a third way of viewing the world, called experientialism, in which a perspective between the objective and subjective is sought. Lakoff and Johnson say that “we see the experientialist myth as capable of satisfying the real and reasonable concerns that have motivated the myths of both subjectivism and objectivism but without either the objectivist obsession with absolute truth or the subjectivist insistence that imagination is totally unrestricted” (228). This is what I have sought! Experientialism is a perspective that is inclusive of the helpful characteristics of objectivism and subjectivism but seeks to eradicate the extremism that can characterize both. An experientialist examining our anthropomorphized domestic cat would not ignore the fact that our interactions with cats tell us that there is a difference between a domestic cat and a lion. However, he or she may also say that an anthropomorphized domestic cat could metaphorically view himself as a lion due to experiences that have made him feel like a grand predator. After all, experientialism’s “emphasis on interaction and interactional properties shows how meaning always is meaning to a person” (Lakoff and Johnson 228). Or, in this case, a cat.

For some, a shift to the experientialist view may come as a bit of a shock. Some scientists may not be particularly pleased with the idea of a view of reality that is not objective. In their afterward, Lakoff and Johnson observe that “our basic claims have nonetheless met resistance for an obvious reason: they are inconsistent with assumptions that many people in the academic world and elsewhere first learned and that shaped the research agendas they still pursue” (273). For many, however, I contend that the experientialist view has long been commonplace in thought even if it has not been identified as such. I have met few people who are unwilling to consider any ideas that are not considered universally valid. I have also met few people who ignore all the findings of science because they think all views are equal. Social psychology is an example of a discipline that uses the scientific method but is deeply devoted to studying the effects of human interaction. The experientialist view was present even before Metaphors We Live By discussed it, just as the history of social psychology suggests.

The implications of the experientialist view are broad and far-reaching. The closer we get to exterminating the disturbing dualisms of objectivity and subjectivity, the closer our society will be able to get toward a shared understanding of truth and reason that does not seek to devalue art (like objectivity) or science (like subjectivity). Writers and thinkers could then have a superior chance to reach a wider range of others through their chosen means of communication. Lakoff and Johnson note that “meaning is negotiated: you slowly figure out what you have in common, what is safe to talk about, how you can communicate unshared experience or create a shared vision. With enough flexibility in bending your world view and with luck and skill and charity, you may achieve some mutual understanding” (231-232). What could a writer desire more than a world where meaning is more easily negotiated and more understanding is reached?

It would take me a great deal of in-depth study to devote myself entirely to the experientialist view. I still don’t fully grasp how it accounts for language and understanding outside of prior experience like insight learning can potentially produce. However, I think that experientialism is at least a step in the right direction. It is a step away from unyielding extremism and a step toward integrated theories of meaning.