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Dillard: frayed in a fallen world

October 22, 2016

What do you make of Dillard’s interest in parasites and parasitism? How and why do we get this fairly scientific vision of her neighborhood wrapped up with what is clearly a more spiritual vision, marked by the various Biblical references she makes? For example, the very title of chapter 13, The Horns of the Altar, a reference to sacrificial practice of the ancient Hebrews.

Here is some etymology that might lend us a hand at least regarding parasites:

First used in English 1539, the word parasite comes from the Medieval Frenchparasite, from the Latinparasitus, the latinisation of the Greekπαράσιτος (parasitos), “one who eats at the table of another”[3] and that from παρά (para), “beside, by”[4] + σῖτος (sitos), “wheat”.[5] Coined in English in 1611, the word parasitism comes from the Greek παρά (para) + σιτισμός (sitismos) “feeding, fattening”.[6]

A reminder of the role that snakes play in Genesis (to say nothing of apples).

Wikipedia entry on the Ichneumon wasp, a particular focal point for Dillard–and as it happens, an example of parasitism that particularly troubled Darwin:

The grisliness and apparent cruelty (at least, from a human perspective) of Ichneumonidae larval cannibalism troubled philosophers, naturalists, and theologians in the 19th century, who found the practice inconsistent with the notion of a world created by a loving and benevolent God.[9] Charles Darwin found the example of the Ichneumonidae so troubling that it contributed to his increasing doubts about the nature and existence of a Creator. In an 1860 letter to the American naturalist Asa Gray, Darwin wrote:

I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.[10]

In case you are wondering, the wave breast/heave shoulder that Dillard gets to in the last chapter derives from the Hebrew scripture, specifically Leviticus (glossed here).

I am compelled by the line that follows her rather playful (and humorous–now look what you made me do) invocation of religion.

We are people; we are permitted to have dealings with the creator and we must speak up for the creation. God look at what you’ve done to this creature, look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the long damned waste!

Dillard seems to have a different sacrifice in mind–or a different attitude to the sense of sacrifice that she identifies with nature. Different, at least, than the interpretation of the same passage that I found on a religious blog. Where the sacrificial offering reflects man’s dominion. In any case, no hint of the anger at God that Dillard shows.

What do we make of Dillard’s spirituality, her invocation (as here) of specific religious perspectives? Does her spiritualism fit with her naturalism? Are environmental perspectives and religious perspectives compatible?

I might suggest this late line, speak up for the creation, almost as the thesis and argument of the book. Finally, we get it. But it is not the creation, it seems, of any one province: not exclusively the Hebrew Bible’s God, not Christian creationism, not Romanticism’s sublime nature, not science’s perfectly economical machine. It’s the creation of the giant water bug (notice how it comes back, along with the cat) eating the world. It’s Emerson; but the emphasis is not on transcendence (remember his transparent eyeball from 1836 Nature) but the totality of vision. “All of it. All of it intricate, speckled, gnawed, fringed, and free.” We have got to take (eat) it all, for better and for worse.

If we go back to “Fecundity,” does this vision answer the questions she raises, provide an explanation? Or leave us, in the end, with a picture but not an explanation? Is her vision, her project, then  ecological (wanting to account for evolution)? ethical and moral (wanting to account for a human purpose missing in evolution)? political (speaking up for the creation)? spiritual (speaking up to the creator)? creative (speaking as a creator)? Or all of these? None of these?

I am left thinking my way back to Thoreau: trying to make, as he puts it in “Spring,” a fathomable account of unfathomable nature.

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