Back in the spotlight with the release of a new collection of old essays, Annie Dillard recently described in an NPR interview how it took her eighteen months to shake off the pressure of winning the Pulitzer prize and write her seventy-six-page masterpiece of 1977, Holy the Firm:
I kept trying to build myself up into a pitch where I could even understand what I'd written the day before. It's metaphysics. And it turns out that not a lot of people are comfortable with that, but I was. I guess that's why they told me I had a masculine mind.
I’m honestly not sure what she means by “masculine mind,” but like so many of her provoking, confusing phrases, I’m sure it will linger in my own mind like a hypothesis, or a dormant revelation.
For Dillard hypotheses are dormant revelations and for Dillard God does reveal truths to humans in the language of metaphysics as much as in the language of theology; in the form of a poem as much as in the form of a joke; and most likely in the form of nothing our minds can comprehend but which regardless physically exists as—for example—time does.
Holy the Firm is set on northern Puget Sound in Washington, where Dillard lived for two years in a one-room cabin with her cat Small. Over the course of three days, the first-person narrator asks herself questions about time, reality, salts, minerals, sacrifice, death, and the will of God.
Day one is glorious. In awe, the narrator observes the landscape, seascape, shifting patterns of sky in “this world, a dream forced into my ear and sent round my body on ropes of hot blood.” Her descriptions hint at the presence of an animating force beneath the surface of everything. (“The hill creates itself”; “The sky is gagging on trees”). She repeatedly introduces us to “the god of today,” whose characteristics are manifold: “rampant and drenched"; "pagan and fernoot”; “wholly here and emptied.” Day two is violent. A little girl’s face is burned off—her skin melted—by a spout of jet fuel burst from the wing of a falling plane. That day God is “a brute and a traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matter unhinged.” She questions faith, and whether God has any “willful connection with time whatsoever, and with us.” By day three she “only know[s] enough of God to want to worship him, by any means at hand.” In the last pages of the book, through an acrobatic display of theological, scientific, poetic, and crude language, the narrator somehow resolves nearly all of her unresolved questions.
Some surmise that the three-part, three-day structure of Holy the Firm is meant to accompany the three days in the Triduum. Dillard hasn’t confirmed this, but it nevertheless seems plausible. Try Holy the Firm this year. I promise you’ll want to read it again soon.