Dillard: humble child or wise sage?

James Ollen-Smith, ‘0, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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A quality in Dillard which sets her apart from most of the sages, satirists and travel writers whom we have read so far is her attitude of wide-eyed innocence and utter curiosity towards the world. While she sometimes pauses to pass on little pieces of ‘wisdom’, she generally maintains a humble, diminutive stance and holds the reader on an equal plane with herself. Unlike other writers, she doesn’t lead the reader along on a leash, saying, “I’m the authority, now listen to what I have to say.” The following paragraphs address the divide between conflicting styles of sage-writing.

I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he’ll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.

I am an explorer, then, and I am also a stalker, or the instrument of the hunt itself. Certain Indians used to carve long grooves along the wooden shafts of their arrows. They called the grooves “lightning marks,” because they resembled the curved fissure lightning slices down the trunks of trees. The function of lightning marks is this: if the arrow fails to kill the game, blood from a deep wound will channel along the lightning mark, streak down the arrow shaft, and spatter to the ground, laying a trail dripped on broadleaves, on stones, that the barefoot and trembling archer can follow into whatever deep or rare wilderness it leads. I am the arrow shaft, carved along my length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky, and this book is the straying trail of blood. [pp. 11-12]


How does this method compare to other styles that we have encountered, be they preaching, wisdom speaking, satirizing, or what-have-you?

Is it more effective to set oneself up as an authority imparting lessons upon the reader or as a humble companion, walking with the reader through a complicated world, pointing out interesting things along the way and letting the reader draw his or her own conclusions?

Does Dillard actually fit into this second description, or is she simply using the ‘curious-child' routine as a ruse while actually maintaining an air of superiority and pushing her propaganda upon us like any other sage?

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Last modified 3 December 2006