"I" Versus "They": The Textual and Communal Self in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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

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Dillard stands as an interesting counterpoint to Didion and Suleri in that, despite her differences, she shares two fundamental similarities with them. First and foremost, Dillard, like Didion and Suleri, writes about her self. The major difference between autobiography and the personal essay is, as stated by Nancy Mairs, that "autobiographers offer an extensive account of a good part of their lives while personal essays, as Phillip Lopate states, spend their time "diving into the volcano of self and extracting a single hot coal to consider and shape" (15). Neither Dillard nor Didion nor Suleri provides a story of their life, wherein story is a narrative, that which has a beginning, middle, and end. Instead they fix their attention on only those pieces of themselves (those "single hot coals") which illuminate their subject.

The second key similarity among the three writers involves a conception of identity as communal. According to Oliver Lovesey this sense of "collective identity" marks a distinctly female sense of self (36). Mary Belenky, in Women's Ways of Knowing, postulates that women see the world in terms of connections and men see the world in terms of individual outlines, compartments, and divisions. Indeed, Didion, Dillard and Suleri's depiction of themselves conforms with this so-called feminine world view: the three writers blur the boundaries between self and community, observer and observed, "I" and "They."

This conception of self as communal — enmeshed with its surroundings — comprises a major similarity among all three writers, but the process by which that self becomes enmeshed is quite different for Dillard: whereas Suleri and Didion depict themselves as symbols of their object of study (culture), Dillard depicts herself as a component of her object of study (nature). Whereas Didion and Suleri define themselves through self-conscious gestures, Dillard's text is the product of her immersion into nature, her loss of self-consciousness.

A the opening of The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard provides a paradigm for her conception of the process of writing: she describes how certain Indians used to carve long grooves along the arrow's wooden shafts. If the arrow failed to kill the game, blood from the animal's wound would stream along the grooves, run down the arrow shaft, and trickle to the ground, leaving a trail so that the archer could follow his game. "I am the arrow shaft," Dillard writes after this explanation, "carved along my length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky, and this book is the straying trail of blood" (12). More than a stalker of nature, Didion literally becomes in this image an instrument of the hunt. What she hunts — creatures of nature — is also what she hunts as a writer. The blood that results from the arrow's wound, she says, is the equivalent of her book. Her writing, we see here, results from her immersion into the object of the hunt, her penetration of nature's flesh.

In order to penetrate nature's flesh, though — to "lose herself in a tree" (81), to become "petal, feather stone" (201), to "let the wind do [her] breathing" (52) — Didion must let her "self-awareness disappear" (81). If writing is the act of immersing herself into nature and immersing herself into nature requires a loss of self-conscious, then writing, according to this formulation, necessarily involves an effacement of authorial identity. Whereas for Didion writing "is the act of saying 'I'" ("Why I Write," 50), for Dillard writing demands that we "stop saying hello to ourselves" (198). Writing involves an erasure of self-consciousness.

Didion and Suleri depict the cultural world surrounding them by linking civic discourse with personal discourse, Dillard, on the hand, depicts the natural world surrounding her by attempting to eliminate self-conscious discourse itself. And yet, this, too, is a linking of discourses of sorts — the sphere of life she links herself to just happens to be silent. In order to observe a muskrat at intimate quarters, for example, Dillard must essentially turn off her self-conscious, language-grasping mind:

For that forty minutes last night I was as purely sensitive and mute as a photographic plate; I received impressions, but I did not print out captions. My own self-awareness had disappeared; it seems now almost as though had I been wired with electrodes, my EEG would have been flat. I have done this sort of thing so often that I have lost self consciousness about moving slowly and halting suddenly; it seems second nature to me now. [198]

Here Dillard becomes essentially a bundle of tissues. She observes, she takes in, but she does not comment upon, analyze or contextualize. In a similar passage, Dillard's complete immersion into nature, her surrendering of her own discourse and her adoption of nature's discourse becomes even more clear. After watching and listening to birds for several hours, Dillard begins to sound like them. "Today I watched and heard a wren, a sparrow, and the mocking bird singing," she writes. "My brain started to trill why why why, what is the meaning meaning meaning?" (166). Here, the boundaries between self and nature begin to slip away. Whereas Suleri and Didion embody cultural dialogues, Dillard becomes part of a natural one. She adopts the rhythms, intonations and verbal patterns of the birds.

In "To Fashion a Text," Didion recalls that she initially planned to write The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in the third person about a man and then in the first person, but from the perspective of a man. "I wasn't out to deceive people" she explained. "I just didn't like the idea of writing about myself. I knew I wasn't the subject" (145). Her comment recalls Suleri's comment in her interview, when she claimed that she was not the subject of her seemingly personal essays. It also reflects the attitude in which Didion writes — offering those "single hot coals" but often to a markedly impersonal end. All three authors complicate the idea of the personal essay: they give themselves over to their subject matter, treating themselves not as the subject of their work, but as the medium through which the real subject of their work can be understood. Michael Spinker describes "a pervasive and unsettling feature in modern culture, the gradual metamorphosis of an individual with a distinct, personal identity into a sign, a cipher, an image no longer clearly and positively identifiable as 'this one person'" (Nair, 77). Didion and Suleri, whose subject is indeed modern culture, demonstrate that exact logic. Dillard, on the other hand, becomes not a sign or cipher or image, but an integral component of nature. She is integrated within it — "in the clustering thick of things, rapt and enwrapped in the rising and falling real world" (221). For Dillard to write, to depict the natural world — to leave her blood-stained trail — she must forget her self and submerge herself in nature. "The death of the self," she says "is merely the joining of the great rock heart of the earth in its roll. It is merely the slow cessation of the will's sprints and the intellect's chatter" (258). Whereas Didion and Suleri situate their identity in language, Dillard locates herself by letting go of self-consciousness and language — "intellectual chatter." Suleri refers to herself as a plot ( Meatless Days 108, 156). For Dillard, on the other hand, the "actual plot" — and the only plot she cares to identify with — is the "intricate texture of things in the world . . . the way we the living are nibbled and nibbling . . . not held aloft on a cloud in the air but bumbling pitted and scarred and broken through a frayed and beautiful land" (227).

In "Professions for Women," Virginia Woolf writes aboout the "essayist's most proper and most dangerous and delicate tool: the self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist" (Woolf 150). Didion, Suleri and Dillard quite literally employ their self as a "tool," a technique, a means and medium of conveying their surroundings. This is not to take for granted, however, that using the first person is always an effective technique. Writing from the first person is a delicate proposition, and in comments about their writing, Didion, Suleri and Dillard all convey ambivalence about speaking from their own voice. Their actual texts convey a similar ambivalence: each author presents a deeply qualified self. Such qualifications are manifested in the perpetual tension between the personal and the universal, the self and the community. And yet, ironically, one has to wonder whether it is in fact the limitations placed upon the self that enable these three writers, as they interrogate the world around them, to turn that self — that potential antagonist — into a dangerous, narrative tool.

Other sections of "I" Versus "They": The Textual and Communal Self in Three Female Autobiographical Texts

Cited Works

Belenky, Mary. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice and Mind. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Didion, Joan. "Why I Write." The New York Times Magazine 5 December 1976: 50.

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

Dillard, Annie. "To Fashion a Text." Inventing the Truth. Ed. William Zinsser. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. 143-161.

Lovesey, Oliver. "'Postcolonial Self-Fashioning,'" in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days." Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 32.2 (1997): 35-46.

Mair, Nancy. Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Woolf, Virginia. "Professions for Women." The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. London: Hogarth Press, 1942.

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Last modified 3 December 2006