Book review: For the time being

My younger son recently discovered Annie Dillard’s books and recommended several of them to me, including For the Time Being. Before I had a chance to read it, I took a weekend trip to Chicago to see, among other things, the King Tut exhibit at the Field Museum. The exhibit was impressive and oddly moving. I was struck by how many of the artifacts were meant to protect the dead in their travels through the next world. All that time and effort and money spent on the safe passage of dead rulers through an imaginary afterlife! Why? When I expressed that thought to Patrick in an email message, he said that I really ought to read For the time being, because in it Annie Dillard shares similar thoughts on the Chinese emperor Qin, who was buried roughly 2,200 years ago with thousands of life-size clay soldiers.

So I went to the library and checked out a copy. It’s a difficult book to sum up, but here are some of my thoughts. For the time being is a loosely linked collection of beautifully written essays. The topics that recur in each set of essays include birth defects, human population statistics, Eastern European Judaism, sand, clouds, the life and work of Teilhard de Chardin (paleontologist and priest), and Emperor Qin and his clay soldiers. The themes that tie this diverse material together are our mortality and vulnerability, and the tension between our feelings that we and those we love are uniquely special and important, and our knowledge of the vast numbers of other humans, past and present, with whom we share the planet.

I had a hard time coming to grips with a lot of the Jewish theology, because I don’t believe in God and thus see no reason to try to figure out his attributes or motivations. Sometimes I can see spiritual or religious ideas as metaphors and gain some understanding from them even if I can’t take them literally, but most of the theology that Dillard covered left me fairly cold. I’m sure my understanding of the book would benefit from a second reading, and maybe I’d see how the theology fits into the rest of it.

I did, however, find many Thinking Meat sorts of themes in the rest of the book. Dillard uses lovely images from nature as metaphors for the constant turnover of human generations:

“Our generations rise and break like foam on shores.”

And this, about the standing wave in the wake of a boat:

“Each crest tumbled upon itself and released a slide of white foam. The foam’s individual bubbles popped and dropped into the general sea while they were still sliding down the dark wave. They trailed away always, and always new waters peaked, broke, foamed, and replenished.”

And the clay soldiers are human simulacra that reflect the way we rise up out of the earth and return to it. The knowledge of the rising and falling of the generations and our own small place in the stream of humankind is not always comfortable:

“Huston Smith suggests that our individuality resembles a snowflake’s. The seas evaporate water, clouds build and loose water in snowflakes, which dissolve and go to sea. The simile galls. What have I to do with the ocean, I with my unique and novel hexagons and spikes? Is my very mind a wave in the ocean, a wave the wind flattens, a flaw the wind draws like a finger?”

The statistics that thread through the book emphasize the sheer numbers of humans; some of the statistics are about disasters (like a typhoon that hit Bangladesh in 1991 and killed 138,000 people) or other occasions of mass death like the atrocities of Pol Pot’s and Stalin’s regimes. Throughout the book Dillard asks how we can continue to find human life sacred and feel the magnitude of the loss when the numbers become mind-numbingly huge. To be truly aware of the individuality of each person lost in a catastrophe (or the humanity we share with babies born with birth defects, especially some of the more horrifying ones she describes) is too heart-rending. She quotes Ernest Becker, who said that “a full apprehension of man’s condition would drive him insane.”

I understand what she means. It strikes me that one of the most heartbreaking things about 9/11 was the way we learned a lot about many of the victims, not just their names or their jobs but little quirky things about who they were. The New York Times, in its “Portraits of Grief” (later gathered in a book) provided glimpses of the ordinary lives that were ended so abruptly. My mother died not quite a year before 9/11, and the stories about each individual’s story and family brought home to me that the loss and the grief that we felt was multiplied by so many families who suffered losses that day. It’s too sad to think about for very long.

And yet we never want to forget the people we love who have died. All we can do now is hold them in memory in all their specificity. And one of the ways we value our own lives is by remembering and cherishing even the smallest details of existence. Dillard gathers together a surprisingly large number of reports of clouds, observed and recorded by John Muir, John Constable, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and others. “Why seek dated clouds?” Dillard asks. “Why save a letter, take a snapshot, write a memoir, carve a tombstone?”

That consciousness of posterity and the wish to leave things behind that people will remember us by is totally human but in the very long run, of course, it’s unrealistic. Dillard writes about the hominid footprints discovered in Tanzania by Mary Leakey; these were likely left by three of our distant Australopithecus ancestors, a man, a woman, and a child. The footprints were preserved for millennia by fortuitous circumstances, and it’s proving unexpectedly difficult for us to continue to preserve them. What struck me the most, though, is that for all our contemporary efforts to leave traces of ourselves behind, Dillard points out that even though we don’t know where those hominids were going or why, or why the woman hesitated at one point, “We do know we cannot make anything so lasting as those three barefoot ones did.” Did I mention that the book tends toward the melancholy, and is not always easy to read?

The urge to preserve our memories and the material objects that tie us to them is related to our belief that we and our times are special, and I feel it as strongly as anyone. That’s one of the reasons I write (to capture what it’s like to be here at this place and time). But it’s also one reason I read (to learn what others have to say about their places and times). Dillard talks about whether we really do live, as we often feel we do, at a special juncture in history; she says our times are “ordinary times, a slice of life like any other”, and that we are “[o]rdinary beads on a never-ending string”. “New diseases, shifts in power, floods! Can the news from dynastic Egypt have been any different?” We resist that thought just as we resist the idea that our individuality resembles a snowflake’s.

The book is so diverse and episodic that it’s hard to sum it up, and I’m sure that a second reading would bring different facets of it to light. One of the images that stays with me the most poignantly from this reading is that of a nurse washing newborn babies in something of an assembly line procedure. (I love Dillard’s description of an obstetrical ward in a hospital as “…surely the wildest deep-sea vent on earth: This is where the people come out.”) The image of the continuous stream of babies, picked up at one end of a counter, bathed and dressed and wrapped snugly in a blanket and then set at the other end, is balanced by the way the nurse addresses each baby as she picks it up: “Now you.” That image provides one way to sum up the book: it’s a beautiful if often disturbing exploration of the tension between the realization that we are beads on a never-ending chain, and our need to address each other in the moment as a specific and irreplaceable “you.”