The Self as Instrument: Personal Boundaries in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Rachel Aviv '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

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Like a modern day Job, Annie Dillard explores the mysteries, the monstrosities and the beauty in nature. Her task is to convey the idea of the wilderness, to recover the aura of the frontier. Her involvement with nature, her subject, is intensely intimate, even mystical. The boundaries between self and nature often slip away. In one particular passage, for example, Dillard, after watching and listening to birds for several hours, begins to sound like them:

Today I watched and heard a wren, a sparrow, and the mockingbird singing. My brain started to trill why why why, what is the meaning meaning meaning? It's not that they know something we don't; we know much more than they do, and surely they don't even know why they sing. No; we have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. If the mockingbird were chirping to give us the long-sought formulae for a unified field theory, the point would be only slightly less irrelevant. The real question is: Why is it beautiful?


Just as Tom Wolfe often adopts the speech patterns of his subjects — the pilots — Dillard appropriates for herself the speech patterns of her subjects — animals. Her brain "trills" like a bird: "why, why, why, what is the meaning meaning meaning?" How does Dillard's use of this technique — the adoption of the subject's speech — differ from Wolfe's?

In this passage figurative language bolsters the overarching metaphorical relationship between Dillard herself, the referent, and the birds, the external subject. Joan Didion also frequently conflates the patterns of her own mind with that of her external subject — 1960s culture. For example, in the opening chapter of the White Album, she offers us her psychiatric report as a sign — an "appropriate response" — to the summer of 1968. These two texts — Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The White Album — both appear to be personal. And yet, how personal can they be if the writers are constantly utilizing the events of their own life as a point of departure through which another subject (in Dillard's case, nature, and in Didion's case, culture) can be better examined? How personal can these texts be if the authors' lives are constantly used in service of some larger (non- autobiographical) point? Can these texts indeed be considered autobiography?

Dillard consistently castigates the condition of self-consciousness. "Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies," she says. How can we reconcile her castigation of self-consciousness with the fact that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is, as Dillard phrases it herself, a "journal of the mind?"

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Last modified 3 December 2006