From Womb to Tomb

Annie Dillard
For the Time Being

I know a man whose face is as wrinkled and brown as a baked potato. Actually, I don't know him; I recognize the potato-faced man because I pass him every morning on the street. He walks with a cane and a limp, and one of his arms hangs at his side as though it weren't really part of him at all, but some foreign object stuffed into his jacket. He is always off kilter, body leaning to the left and gray fedora tilting off to the right. I don't know anything about this man except that he wears a hat and shuffles down the sidewalk at about the same time every morning, yet he never fails to arouse thoughts of dread and doom. Why is God wrinkling our skin and causing strokes? Who is looking out for the 5.9 billion people that shuffle about the planet every morning? How can anyone, even God, account for each and every one of us?

Essayist, poet, and erstwhile theologian Annie Dillard has made a career of banging her head against such big questions. If the answers she offers in her new essay, For the Time Being, are no more satisfactory than those of the scholars, priests, and demagogues who have come before her, they do work by process of accumulation toward forming a cogent philosophy of the mad rush from womb to tomb.

It's been said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and the examined life is damn depressing. Despite some inevitably gloomy conclusions, Dillard has never wavered in her passion for introspection. At the tender age of 16, she respectfully resigned from her family's Presbyterian parish because her minister could not give her a satisfactory explanation as to why bad things happen to good and bad people at about the same frequency. Since then, she has scoured the globe and culled the collected ramblings of the world's philosophers in order to formulate an answer. Such teleological anthropology is common enough, but rarely does it produce an essay so meditative in temper, restrained in style, and free of metaphysical gymnastics. As Dillard writes of her book in an author's note, "Its form is unusual, its scenes are remote, its focus wide, and its tone austere. Its pleasures are almost purely mental."

In true Miltonian form, Dillard begins at the beginning, poring over a graphic encyclopedia of birth defects and pondering the cruel teratogenic joke that produces babies without faces or legs and "bird-headed dwarfs." From that disturbing preface, For the Time Being shoots off in a number of apparently aimless directions: a natural history of sand; a collection of writing about clouds; impressions from the author's travels in Israel and a trip to the tomb of the terra-cotta warriors in Xian; snippets of cryptic wisdom from the Talmud and the Baal Shem Tov, the mystic who founded modern Hasidism; and statistics designed to rattle the reader's faith in the significance of the individual. (Did you know that 6,381 Americans died today? Or that for each of the 85 billion humans who have ever walked the earth, there are about one hundred billion known stars in the sky?)

Dillard's guide on her meandering trip is the diary of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and paleontologist who spent his life digging about in the sand of western China for traces of human habitation. "The realm of loose spirit never interested Teilhard," writes Dillard. "He did not believe in it. He never bought the view that the world was illusion and spirit alone was real. He has written in his notebook from a folding stool in the desert of the Ordos, 'There are only beings, everywhere.'" Almost 6 billion beings, Dillard notes, of whom 100 million are street children and about half are Chinese peasants. So how are we to care, or even comprehend, when a typhoon, famine, or genocidal dictator sweeps a few million of us into the grave?

As always, the big questions elude simple answers; yet Dillard, never satisfied with the troubling notion that there is no ghost in the metaphysical machine, keeps asking. In the prenatal ward of a North American hospital, she finds infants popping endlessly into the world "trailing clouds of glory." In Xian, where Chinese peasants have plowed the same soil for centuries (which are still a mere tick on the cosmic clock), she finds a perfect metaphor for the march of human history. Like the statuary warriors buried by a tyrannical emperor, human generations are layered one on top of another in ever-thickening strata of dust. We build on our collective history, Dillard decides, and when our short and pitiful lives run their course, we become part of the world, like raindrops falling into the Mediterranean Sea.

Hopeless as it seems, Dillard tries diligently, even courageously, to find comfort in the inscrutable magnitude of it all. Her fool's errand is not unlike the tale of a Pacific Islander's doomed pursuit of the unknowable that ends For the Time Being. In the 1930s, a British officer named James Taylor discovered a tribe living in prelapsarian simplicity in the highlands of New Guinea. As Taylor prepared to return to civilization, one of the villagers lashed himself to the fuselage of the explorer's airplane. The man explained to his loved ones that "no matter what happened to him, he had to see where it came from."

How much insight you find in Dillard's questions may depend on how many deeply deep conversations you've had with people who use German words like weltschmerz. And how much comfort you take from her answers will depend on whether you accept the great escape clause, first proposed in rudimentary form by Thomas Aquinas: that God greased the gears of evolution, flipped on the power, and settled in to nap until doomsday. There is perhaps more hope in a line Teilhard wrote while wandering in a lifeless desert 6,000 miles from home: "If I should lose all faith in God, I think that I should continue to believe invincibly in the world."

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