On Annie Dillard and Riots

In the novel I’m working on (*how can I start this without sounding pretentious?…too late*), one of my goals is to break down the divide between how we are able to name objects around us without seeing them. We do this all the time. I don’t look at the tree in my front yard and think of how it’s a lined gray vertical section, breaking into three, and then exploding into a web of gray against blue, marked by fluffs of pink and white this spring.

No, I think: our tree out front is in bloom.

Of course, living in the former way would be exhausting. We’d be crawling up to trees and rubbing our hands against their bark, some version of acid-dropping tree-huggers in awe at the flashes of color around us. We need words to make sense of the world, to move through it.

But art–visual art and even written art–is able to break through our labels and show us mundane, quotidian objects anew. I think of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, as she describes an experience for a newly-sighted person standing beneath a tree in the garden:

“[She] stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names on taking hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it.'”

I think all art begins with this attempt. The creator sees or experiences something so profound that he or she cannot help but try to put words or music or color to it. And, the art which most surprises and transfixes us is that art that shows us this experience–fear or wonder or love–in a language which is both entirely new and utterly familiar. We see the tree with the lights in it and know exactly what this is.

In my novel, during a riot scene where blue-helmeted police move a crowd down the road:

Bodies press against yours, and you take the woman’s hand again and she squeezes. Another gunshot—this one makes you jump and you see wetness on the woman’s cheeks—and the shouts intensify, hammering the air now, the black heads all in front of you, the water somewhere in front of them.

An elbow jabs your back, two steps nearer the edge of the quay, the whistles screeching like an animal and the blue helmets close enough to throw at when you glance back, and someone in front of you throws a stone. The woman clutches your arm just above the elbow and you can hear her recite something, her words so close to your ear; the l’s and w’s and r’s almost seeming to come from within you, but all the syllables are clipped and hurried…

My goal in the scene is to dis-embody the bodies, to make the riot (told in the second person) all sound and elbows and heat. The police are simply blue helmets, because that’s all the main character can see of them through the crowd, and she only sees the bouncing black heads: I want the reader to feel the riot rather than simply be told of it.

Whether I’ve succeeded in the scene yet is not the issue. In the end, we create art with a very Thoreau-ian aim: to suck the marrow out of life and see if, in the end, we’ve really lived. Art–novels and paintings and poetry and music–brings us into contact with a reality we can only guess at and grope for. We shuffle our pack of words or colors or notes and try to help each other–and help ourselves–experience this world in an entirely fresh and familiar way.

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