Book presents a unique view of humanity, past and present
August 17, 2004
“For the Time Being” by Annie Dillard
In this arresting piece of non-fiction, Annie Dillard takes us on a journey that only she, with her vast intelligence and curiosity, could recount. “For the Time Being” is a tale for the faithful and faithless and every gradation in between – it is the author’s loom upon which she weaves a garment of seemingly inchoate wool that astutely ends up fitting everyone. She invites the reader to consider the unfathomable – God, miracles, evil, tragedy, individual existence and inevitable death – and although one may not fully comprehend the depth of her reasoning, her words are reflective of questioning minds everywhere and resonate with the ring of objectivity and truth.
Facets of her account, most of it factually appended by personal thought, include the natural history of sand, a catalogue of clouds, a family of Mongol horsemen, newborns (some defective) on an obstetrical ward, Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin digging in the deserts of China, Emperor Qin and his buried army of clay, Mao Tse-tung, who told Nehru in 1954, “The atom bomb is nothing to be afraid of. … The death of 10 or 20 million people is nothing to be afraid of,” and Baal Shem Tov (the greatest of those who know and use the name of God) and the story of Hasidic thought rising in Europe.
Although “For the Time Being” was published in 1999, many of Dillard’s references have particular relevance to current world circumstances – for example, a quote from an English journalist in Calcutta: “Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and in some the other.” Often, as an adjunct to philosophical thought, Dillard will slip in a sly or self-deprecating note, for example, sharing a cigarette with a Palestinian merchant in Cana and then asking the reader, “Do you think I don’t know cigarettes are fatal?” She wants to know: “Does God stick a finger in, if only now and then?” In regard to prayer, which physicians agree can work miracles, she says (in paraphrase): ” … when your friend might die or might live, then your prayer can add enough power – mechanism unknown – to tilt the balance. Though it won’t still earthquakes or halt troops, it might quell cancer or pneumonia. I don’t know. I don’t know beans about God.”
Dillard moves easily from a reference to bird-headed dwarfs: “friendly and pleasant who suffer moderate to severe mental deficiency, only eleven pairs of ribs apiece, displaced hips, easily distracted;” to a Talmudic blessing for birth defects: “Blessed are thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who changes the creatures;” to an obstetric nurse, who washes and bundles an assembly line of newborns, saying “Now you,” as she moves on to the next one.
The predominant thread in Dillard’s book is that of the life of Jesuit paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin. He spent most of his life on paleontological digs in China, where he and his party found evidence of fires made by pre-Neanderthal man some 450,000 years ago. Throughout the book, Dillard makes reference to high-order, comparative statistics – those born, those living, those dead, those killed by war or tragedy – that eerily support her overall theme of an ever-questioning, yet ultimately unknowing, array of humanity.
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Justice cannot be done in writing about an author of Annie Dillard’s magnitude, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, shining star who observes the world from on high and records its beauty and turmoil in a most brilliant fashion for those of us less insightfully blessed. In short, “For the Time Being” is truly an astounding read.
Other recommended works: “An American Childhood,” “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”
– Joan Walthall is a member of The National League of American Pen Women, Lake Tahoe branch.