Annie Dillard opens Pilgrim at Tinker Creek mysteriously, hinting at an unnamed presence. She toys with the longstanding epic images of battlefields and oracles, injecting an air of holiness and awe into the otherwise ordinary. In language more poetic than prosaic, she sings the beautiful into the mundane. She deifies common and trivial findings. She extracts the most high language from all the possible permutations of words to elevate and exalt the normal. Under her pen, her literary devices and her metaphors, a backyard stream becomes a shrine. Writing a prayer, Dillard becomes an instrument through which a ubiquitous spirit reveals itself. Yet in other cases, she latches on to an image of holiness and makes it ugly, horrifying, disturbing, as if to suggest that the manifestation of all that is holy need not always be pretty, that the gorgeous and the gruesome together comprise all that is holy, and without one the other would be meaningless. The written words are a spiritual pilgrimage to the holy shrine where language tinkers with itself, makes a music unto itself, chips and shapes itself into the stuff of Dillard's essays.
Religious overtones score the text, emerging as references to Islam, Hasidism, and to a lesser extent, Christianity; there are also subtle intimations of mysticism. Dillard plucks the title of the first essay, "Heaven and Earth in Jest," from the Quran, quoting Allah directly. Describing the darkness capping the ocean as "a swaddling band for the sea" (7), a repeated phrase, her diction implies the Christ child. She makes a power evident without ever saying so aloud, explicitly, by naming it. By means of archaic phrasing, she conveys the sense that what ...
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...(82). She defines innocence as "the spirit's unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration" (82), combining the lexicon of religion and mystical journey to elucidate how awareness and knowledge can integrate with openness to fulfill the state of innocence. McIlroy understands her pages of scientific and mystical experience in a two-dimensional way, leaving unturned the third dimension where a seeming dichotomy merges and seams together opposites in a contiguous loop designed to illustrate a coherent and encompassing exploration of the outer world of the creek and the inner world of the mind.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Quality Paperback, 1974.
McIlroy, Gary. "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the Burden of Science." American Literature 59 (1987): 71-84.
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