Technically Speaking . . .

William Bostwick '07, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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Annie Dillard is an observer who uses sage-like powers of perception to see and understand an otherwise hidden part of the world. Sometimes, however, one wonders if Dillard is really all that perceptive by herself. Indeed, in one passage she relies on a child to see the hidden world of caddisfly larva and in the following section she uses the technology of a "very expensive microscope" to peer into life's cellular level (p. 126).

I was in a laboratory, using a very expensive microscope. I peered through the deep twin eyepieces and saw again that color-charged, glistening world. A thin, oblong leaf of elodea, a quarter of an inch long, lay on a glass slide sopping wet and floodlighted brilliantly from below. In the circle of light formed by the two eyepieces trained at the translucent leaf, I saw a clean mosaic of almost colorless cells. The cells were large — eight or nine of them, magnified four hundred and fifty times, packed the circle — so that I could easily see what I had come to see: the streaming of chloroplasts.

All the green in the planted world consists of these whole, rounded chloroplasts wending their ways in water. If you analyze a molecule of chlorophyll itself, what you get is one hundred thirty-six atoms of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen arranged in an exact and complex relationship around a central ring. At the ring's center is a single atom of magnesium. Now: if you remove the atom of magnesium and in its exact place put an atom of iron, you get a molecule of hemoglobin. The iron atom combines with all the other atoms to make red blood, the streaming red dots in the goldfish's tail. [pp. 126-27]

We have seen this dependence on technology before in Joan Didion's "Holy Water." Here, Didion the sage observes the world from the perspective of human control of nature through water management technology.

I stayed as long as I could and watched the system work on the big board with the lighted checkpoints. The Delta salinity report was coming in on one of the teletypes behind me. The Delta tidal report was coming in on another. The earthquake board, which has been desensitized to sound its alarm (a beeping tone for Southern California, a high-pitched tone for the north) only for those earthquakes which register at least 3.0 on the Richter scale, was silent. I had no further business in the room and yet I wanted to stay the day. I wanted to be the one, that day, who was shining the olives, filling the gardens, and flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile. I want it still. [66]

In both these instances, the sage writer gains an uncommon perspective on the world by looking at it through some form of technology. The conclusions the authors reach, however, are very different.


How does the use of technology enhance each author's position as a sage?

Dillard "came to see" nature while Didion "came to see" man's attempt at controlling nature. What does each writer end up discovering? Is there something about the manner of observation that leads to these different conclusions?

Does the dependence on technology problematize the writer's position as sage? Does it make the sage in question less effective then, say, Ruskin, whose observations were made with his eyes alone? Does it affect the sage's credibility?


Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper, 1988.

Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

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Last modified 3 December 2006