Doug Bruns

We are what we…

In Books, Literature, Reading, Writing on August 3, 2012 at 6:00 am

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Anne Dillard

Schopenhauer famously said that we are what we eat. But for a reader things are a different matter. A reader’s muscle is composed of pages, bones of bindings, blood of ink, thread for sinew. A reader is made of books consumed.

There are armfuls of books that fill my cells, that course through my blood, pound against my temples from the inside. The best I return to, like a favorite meal, a metaphor Schopenhauer would surely understand.

I have returned to one such feast, Annie Dillard‘s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Pilgrim won the Pulitzer in 1974. Dillard was twenty-nine. It is a breath-taking and beautifully written book and fills my current appetite to better understand the physical world I move through. Allow me to share an extended quote:

The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance. “Launch into the deep,” says Jacques Ellul, “and you shall see.”

Not all meals are equally satisfying, of course. Nor is nutrition evenly spread. I like a hearty meal, something that sticks to my ribs. I am not humorless, but have few deserts; nor am I given to starch. The books of my life seem endless in metabolic energy; like nuclear fusion they will burn long after my departure. Walden comes to mind. The essays of Montaigne. The Great White Whale, Moby Dick. And so many others. I eat and am never satisfied. Fortunately.

  1. Beautifully composed commentary, Doug, and you’ve inspired me to download this tome into my pantry of good reads. Thank you…

    • Thanks, Peg. I appreciate your kind words. I read Pilgrim first while traveling through India. It was such a juxtaposition, Dillard’s quiet book and the crazy intensity of India. Now, reading it again in the peace and quiet of Maine, at a different stage of life, it has really gripped me–another reminder of how books find us at different places in our lives. It’s a wonderful and beautiful meditation on seeing and how to travel through the world with observation. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for reading and the note. Best to you and your family.

  2. Yes, a delicious quote and comment. You have also provided me with an opportunity to share some marvelous language that is just too good not to be read out-loud. Though a different take on the physical world, the following selection might be read as an example of the “realm of the real where subjects act and rest purely.”

    The author/narrator meets his friend’s new lover and finds about her “little to raise one’s carnal expectations.” As he observes her tending to the cows on a dairy farm, he notes:

    “The carnally authoritative-looking creatures were those with the bodies that took up all the space, the creamy-colored cows with the free-swinging, girderlike hips and the barrel-wide paunches and the disproportionately cartoonish milk-swollen udders, the unagitated, slow-moving, strife-free cows, each a fifteen-hundred-pound industry of its own gratification, big-eyed beasts for whom chomping at one extremity from a fodder-filled trough while being sucked dry at the other by not one or two or three but by four pulsating untiring mechanical mouths – for whom sensual stimulus simultaneously at both ends was their voluptuous due. Each of them deep into a bestial existence blissfully lacking in spiritual depth.”

    Sort of a David Foster Wallace description (written by Philip Roth in The Human Stain), don’t you think? Subjects acting purely!

    • That is one sensual quote. Makes me want to take to pasture. I’ve read a lot of Roth, but not The Human Strain. The last few things I’ve read I’ve grown incredulous over his insistent and tired old-aged sexuality. I mean really! Cannot we not lay down that old trope? That is one of the things the young writers, including DFW, have walked away from successfully: the Updike/Roth/ scratching of the pubic area.

      That said, the passage you share is beautiful and remarkable, indeed. Thank you for sharing…think I’ll make hamburgers this evening…

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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