Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Attention & The Sacredness of Things

Having lunch with my best friend, Raymond, today, I mentioned that I'm reading Annie Dillard's book, Holy the Firm. I tried to describe what the book is about by saying it's a kind of long, poetic meditation on "the sacredness of things." At which Raymond, with his typical sharpness, scoffed a little and said that he doesn't like when people say something is something--that a thing is sacred, or someone is disgusting, or even that God is love. They're "loaded words," he said, less a statement about the things themselves as they are devices designed to evoke an immediate emotional reaction in the listener. Raymond likes to be precise and detached with his language. He says, for instance, that God is potentially always all-loving, but that, at any given minute, it is perfectly possible for God not to be loving--this is something that, in potentia, is also true. It is a paradox. Simply because, at any given moment, we encounter an all-loving Divine does not speak to the nature of the Divine itself. So when I tried to explain that part of Dillard's theme for the book seems to be that "every thing is sacred," he said he hoped she meant "every thing is potentially sacred."

So I asked him what is the difference, then, between something that is potentially sacred, and something that is actually sacred? I had a particular concept in mind that I was, at the time, struggling to articulate, and to ask this question was the best I could do. When does an object move from being potentially sacred to being actually sacred, what is the process by which this occurs? At one point, Raymond mentioned how, for instance, this tree we were walking past was a real and sacred object, but that he passes trees every day without giving them a moment's thought. Sacredness, then, is an attitude--but an attitude directly related to attention.

With much food for thought, what follows is a letter I wrote to him, having pondered these ideas on my walk home.

So, here's what I think is a great quote, and somewhat typical so far of Annie Dillard's writing:

Here is the fringey edge where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam. The salt sea and the islands, molding and molding, row upon rolling row, don't quit, nor do winds end nor skies cease from spreading in curves. The actual percentage of land mass to sea in the Sound equals that of the rest of the planet: we have less time than we knew. Time is eternity's pale interlinear, as the islands are the sea's. We have less time than we knew and that time buoyant, and cloven, lucent, and missile, and wild.

The room where I live is plain as a skull, a firm setting for windows. A nun lives in the fires of the spirit, a thinker lives in the bright wick of the mind, an artist lives jammed in the pool of materials. (Or, a nun lives, thoughtful and tough, in the mind, a nun lives, with that special poignancy peculiar to religious, in the exile of materials; and a thinker, who would think of something, lives in the clash of materials, and in the world of spirit where all long thoughts must lead; and an artist lives in the mind, that warehouse of forms, and an artist lives, of course, in the spirit. So.) But this room is a skull, a fire tower, wooden, and empty. Of itself it is nothing, but the view, as they say, is good.

I especially like her tangent about the nun, the thinker and the artist, as it seems to me that she's trying to evoke that same sense of "mingled realms," as if the sea-and-island landscape is not merely physically present as scenery, but enters into the definition of her own sense of being, somehow. It is not her thought that lends "meaning" to the landscape, but the concreteness and realness (and the feeling of time and eternity and their difference) that lends a more firm reality to her. She almost seems to be poking fun at the idea, like you were saying, that things are something. She doesn't say simply "the view is good," but she describes the view and its effect on her, and then undermines or subverts all that by saying it is in itself nothing, ascribing the simple statement "the view is good" to a "them," to an other. The room is like her, in that way, empty and only definite in relation to the immediacy of the surrounding landscape. "Firmness" exists outside of her activity of attributing meaning, the room exists mostly as a window to the outside, an emptiness inside of which she can be present to the firmness of external things. Later, she writes:

There is, in short, one country, one room, one enormous window, one cat, one spider, and one person: but I am hollow. And, for now, there are the many gods of mornings and the many things to give them for their work--lungs and heart, muscle, nerve, and bone--and there is the no man's land of many things wherein they dwell, and from which I seek to call them, in work that's mine.

I'm still struggling to grasp exactly what she means by all this, but again, I think it's a kind of exploration, in solitude, of how the self is itself in flux, is somehow ill-defined compared to "rock" and "water" and even more ephemeral things like sunlight, morning, "work," etc. Perhaps, even, that the "work" is that of attending to what is solid, of moving out of oneself and one's personal emotional descriptives (beyond "loaded words," as you called them) and simply paying attention to solid things.

For instance, she talks about the various insect corpses scattered beneath the spider's web in the corner, and how she recognizes some of the hollowed stubbed shells as the remains of moths. She goes on to tell a story about watching a moth actually fly into a candle flame one night, its abdomen getting stuck in the wet wax and its whole body going up in flame, eventually leaving only the hollowed stubbed shell burning cleanly like a second wick. After telling this story, she says:

And that is why I believe those hollow crisps on the bathroom floor are moths. I think I know moths, and fragments of moths, and chips and tatters of utterly empty moths, in any state. How many of you, I asked the people in my class, which of you want to give your lives and be writers? I was trembling from coffee, or cigarettes, or the closeness of faces all around me. (Is this what we live for? I thought; is this the only final beauty: the color of any skin in any light, and living, human eyes?) All hands rose to the question. (You, Nick? Will you? Margaret? Randy? Why do I want them to mean it?) And then I tried to tell them what the choice must mean: you can't be anything else. You must go at your life with a broadax.... They had no idea what I was saying. (I have two hands, don't I? And all this energy, for as long as I can remember. I'll do it in the evenings, after skiing, or on the way home from the bank, or after the children are asleep....) They thought I was raving again. It's just as well.

She doesn't say, "Being a writer is like being a moth throwing yourself into the flame." Not directly, anyway. And she doesn't say it, in part I think, because that is not the only thing she means. What she says, instead, is that she thinks she knows about moths, and she knows about them because she has paid attention to moths and what happens to them. She has attended to these kinds of details. It's not that she knows what it's like to be a writer, and the moth-flame idea happens to be a good metaphor for it. Again, as with the realness of the landscape earlier, it's almost as if she's implying that her sense of self is defined and shaped by the things that she has witnessed--that, as a writer, she attends to the firmness or realness of actual things, and so she cannot help but be filled by those things. Quite literally, she "can't be anything else"--she has to be empty, to be the act of listening and attending and remembering. To be a writer is to be like the moth burning like a wick, except that the flame, in this metaphor, is the moth, the details about moths, the islands, the spider, the morning... What she seems to be describing ("raving" with too many similes leading back in on themselves--the writer is like the moth which is like the wick which is like the moth--which is why I think she avoids such circuitous language and allows the reader to make the connection), what she is articulating, even demonstrating is the process of being consumed by the reality of things other than herself, through the process of noticing them, of paying them attention.

That is just what I am getting, slowly and haltingly, from reading her work so far. Maybe because that is partly how I already see my own life. But, as you said just before I walked home, it's as though these things are sacred because she is doing the work of noticing them. As if the difference between something being potentially sacred and being actually sacred, is that we attend to its sacredness, acknowledge it. Maybe sacredness is not an attribute we give to things, but something that we allow things to impart to and impress upon us. In which case, the firmness of things is itself an aspect of their sacredness.

Just my thoughts, anyway, and I'm only thirty or so pages into the book (to be fair, the book is only seventy-five pages long, anyway).


  1. Sacredness, then, is an attitude--but an attitude directly related to attention.


    These are my (almost) unfiltered, lightly organized first thoughts on reading this (well, first after "Good lord, she's done it again!" :) ...

    I think of the original meaning of "sacred", as something set apart or dedicated to the service of a god, and I see that, yes, it is an attitude, and an aspect of relationship; by deciding that something is sacred, we set it apart from ourselves and our own use and thus make the distinction between "human" and "divine". Sort of like a very young child learning that there is "me" and "not-me"? (Not the same in degree, but perhaps in kind...)

    Maybe sacredness is not an attribute we give to things, but something that we allow things to impart to and impress upon us. In which case, the firmness of things is itself an aspect of their sacredness.

    And yes!! again! Sacredness is an attribute, and mundaneness or firmness is an attribute... and if all things (including us) have firmness, then we are part of the world; and if we all have sacredness, then we are part of the divine... which means the whole universe is in fact part of the divine, and thus the only true sacrifice - "making sacred", which we already are, so that should actually be "realizing sacredness" - is self-sacrificing, which is then actually self-awaring (new word!) of our own being in the divine.


    Nirvana. Brahman. God. No difference.

  2. Another beautiful post. Sacred = holy. Something we have formed a relationship with. Something we have exchanged essence with. To sacrifice means literally to make holy. When Odin hung upon the world tree, he sacrificed himself to himself. (So did Christ of course.) The paradox is that we must empty ourselves in order to become full.

    We join spokes together in a wheel,
    but it is the center hole
    that makes the wagon move.

    We shape clay into a pot,
    but it is the emptiness inside
    that holds whatever we want.

    We hammer wood for a house,
    but it is the inner space
    that makes it livable.

    We work with being,
    but non-being is what we use.

    Tao Te Ching

  3. I think that I would like your friend Raymond. The important thing in making an identification between two words is always to also think about why they are in fact two different words. We say that X "is" Y all the time and yet do not assume that X always means the same thing as Y.

    It seems to me that Annie Dillard is here making more of a performative or injunctive statement. Let us act so as to treat all things as sacred, be open to what is good in each thing and how it participates in the divine.