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.



2 thoughts on “Beyond the Observable World

  1. chutson says:

    I do agree with you that characters should be three-dimensional. After all, if we are focusing on fictional characters, they’re just a representation of ‘real life’, even within genres that do not embrace realism. And religion and belief are a part of human existence–we’ve had it throughout our history in a multitude of forms. I think the important thing with characters and spirituality is that there needs to be a reason why the characters believes in what they do–and it can be a great way to show the personality and moral code that a particular character follows. And the fun part about putting in a belief system into a story is you can then have the characters confront it–bam, instant tension.

    I see a place for spirituality and beliefs within fiction writing, but I do think it needs to balance with the rest of the character, and not be the whole of who they are (or, if that is the essence of the character, the why and the how). It can be an important aspect of a character, but sometimes it doesn’t need to be directly showcased.

  2. Molly says:

    This is a really interesting post. It didn’t take the direction I thought it would as I began reading. Also, I didn’t read it with this lens at all. But, you do have a really good point.

    A lot of times, people will render something beautiful as a spiritual connection — especially in dealing with nature as Dillard definitely does. Some will say it “speaks to their soul.” That’s particularly interesting because how can the wind speak? How can grasses display wisdom for the character? It’s a soul, spiritual connection that one can never truly explain until they experience it for themselves.

    From what I can see so far, this seems to be what Dillard is doing. She’s showing this connection through her characters. Though largely, I think spirituality takes a big part in the understanding of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as a whole.

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