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Dillard’s style: fractal, like the creek

March 20, 2009

As a follow-up to our discussion of Dillard’s style of writing, I would argue that many of the characteristics (and especially the poetic-scientific hybrids we keep observing, perhaps inherited from Thoreau) can be categorized under the heading fractal. This is a mathematical concept that emerges, in fact, within a year or two of Pilgrim (mid-1970s). Her version of it: the frayed and fringed texture of the world that she focuses on in “Intricacy.”

The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork–for it doesn’t, particuclarly, not even inside the goldfish bowl–but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. 

I see her writing as such a fringed tangle, replicating a kind of texture that she finds in the movement between her thinking and her observing, like the movement between creek-water and creek-bank. Fractal texture might be a word for this. Here is the definition of fractal from the OED–see if you hear anything of interest. The entire book as a fractal?


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[a. F. fractal (B. B. Mandelbrot 1975, in Les Objets Fractals), f. L. fract-us, pa. pple. of frang{ebreve}re to break: see -AL1.] 

    A mathematically conceived curve such that any small part of it, enlarged, has the same statistical character as the original. Freq.attrib. or as adj.

1975 Sci. Amer. Nov. 144/3 It seems that mountain relief, islands, lakes, the holes in Appenzeller and Ementhaler cheeses, the craters of the moon, the distribution of stars close to us in the galaxy and a good deal more can be described by the use of generalized Brownian motions and the idea of the fractal dimension. 1977 B. B. MANDELBROT Fractals i. 1/2 Many important spatial patterns of Nature are either irregular or fragmented to such an extreme degree that..classical hardly of any help in describing their form… I hope to show that it is possible in many cases to remedy this absence of geometric representation by using a family of shapes I propose to call fractals{em}or fractal sets. 1977 Sci. News 20 Aug. 123 Sets and curves with the discordant dimensional behavior of fractals were introduced at the end of the 19th century by Georg Cantor and Karl Weierstrass.1978 [see snowflake curve s.v. SNOWFLAKE 7]. 1984 Nature 4 Oct. 419/2 Parts of such patterns, when magnified, are indistinguishable from the whole. The patterns are characterized by a fractal dimension; the value log2 3 {appreq} 1·59 is the most common. 1985 Ibid. 21 Feb. 671 Mandelbrot has argued that a wide range of natural objects and phenomena are fractals; examples of fractal trees include actual trees, plants such as a cauliflower, river systems and the cardiovascular system.


A fractal image: like Dillard’s sycamore tree vision? Or perhaps the creek, seen from space?
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