Annie Dillard’s Rhetorical Vision

annie-dillard-quoteDillard’s “Total Eclipse,” the opening essay of Teaching a Stone to Talk, explores her encounter at an actual total eclipse that was evident in the northwestern U.S. in February of 1979. Here is video from it, as recounted on the news live. Of course, now we all can appreciate some or all of what she encountered, after the recent eclipse in August 2017–the first total eclipse in the U.S. since 1979.

Dillard’s metaphorical references  to photography and film suggest, perhaps, that as an essayist she is something like a journalist, something like Cronkite, recounting her expedition and encounter with this natural phenomenon. That certainly fits with what seems to be the purpose of these essays: a writer’s exploration, somewhat scientific, somewhat personal, of the natural world. Dillard is known as an essayist and, first and foremost, as an environmental writer. In my American Environmental Writing course, we read her first book, a classic in the field, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. One phrasing for her argument or purpose in that book: “I am no scientist; I explore the neighborhood.”

However, I will emphasize Dillard’s visual exploration of the natural world in these essays as rhetorical, not merely factual. There is something at work in these essays, a rhetorical project, that we can begin to approach by thinking of “rhetoric” using some basic terms. We commonly associate “rhetoric” with persuasion; that works, so long as we don’t limit our senses of persuasion to political discourse. More broadly, rhetoric attends to the power of discourse (written or spoken) to move an audience (listeners or readers) into seeing, feeling, understanding, believing what the writer or speaker wants us to see, believe, feel, understand. So, think of rhetoric in relation to the motives of a writer and a text–but with motives understood more specifically in terms of its roots (movement):

noun: motive; plural noun: motives
  1. 1.
    a reason for doing something, especially one that is hidden or not obvious.
    “a motive for his murder”
    synonyms: reason, motivation, motivating force, rationale, grounds, cause, basis,object, purpose, intention; More

  2. 2.
    (in art, literature, or music) a motif.
    “the entire work grows organically from the opening horn motive”
    synonyms: motif, theme, idea, concept, subject, topic, leitmotif

    “religious motives in art”
adjective: motive
  1. 1.
    producing physical or mechanical motion.
    “the charge of gas is the motive force for every piston stroke”
    synonyms: kinetic, driving, impelling, propelling, propulsive, motor

    “motive power”
  2. 2.
    causing or being the reason for something.
    “the motive principle of a writer’s work”

Emerson writes in his journal in 1845: “Every work needs a necessity/ a nature/ a material already existing, for motive to the poet & credence to the people” (9: 344). Cicero writes of three primary motives for the orator or rhetorician: docere, delectare, flectere; or, to teach, to delight, to move (literally, to bend). With Dillard, we might think of the ways her essays attempt all three–and perhaps embody that purpose in the title of the collection. But that awaits further reading and discussion. My primary question for us with each text we will read in this section of the course, a version of what’s the motive, or what’s the argument, is one of our revision questions: What’s the project?

This “motive power” of rhetoric , motivating the writer as well as the belief (credence) of the reader, can be characterized by modes of persuasion for any argument. This is the way any writer or rhetor can address his/her argument to the audience. Traditionally, as characterized by Aristotle, the basic modes or motives of persuasion are three: ethos, pathos, logos. We can use these three categories for persuasion to examine the rhetorical elements of Dillard’s book as we work through it. As you read, look for passages in the text that might fit into one of these categories:

  • Ethos: an appeal to the credibility/authority of the writer
  • Pathos: an appeal to the emotions and experience of the audience
  • Logos: an appeal to logic and evidence provided in the text

As you read through the book, identify moments that you find particularly compelling. But also, mark places where you feel the argument, the rhetorical project of this book, is less compelling. Be prepared to share those in class as we explore the rhetorical work of this essay. And, as always, think about the ways you can write about, and write with, these rhetorical lessons in mind. As we explore other texts in coming weeks, we will continue to think about the rhetorical workings of the essays.

With Dillard, and particularly with her opening essay “Total Eclipse,” we can begin with pathos. The wild details of that clown painting with which she begins the essay, the clown with features made of vegetables, tells us that she is interested in other aspects of seeing in addition to the sort of factual description we would associate with documentary reporting. Something about vision, beyond vision, is being reported here. We find a good indication of that with her description of the platinum effect of the eclipse; her vision is represented as photographic, but it’s a photography that’s uncanny and disorienting, rather than the accuracy or precision we normally associate with photographic evidence.

The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. their every detail of step, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print….The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. [16]

Dillard provides incredible visual details of this encounter. Her rhetoric of vision certainly offer a good lesson for us in thinking about how her essays work–and what we might do if we are interested in following her. Specificity matters; extended figures, particularly metaphors for seeing, matter in this writer’s exposition. We get immersion. We get enargia. We get ekphrasis. (These are all critical terms found on the keywords page we will discuss further). These rhetorical elements of Dillard’s writing represent the natural world as clearly as a photograph sees. But the rhetoric of vision, detailed as it is, at the same time also focuses on something paradoxical: what seeing isn’t seeing. The very metaphor of photography she uses thus invokes conventions of seeing clearly, accurately, but also suggests its opposite. The hillside is like a photograph; but it is also in the process of being turned into its negative. These are moments of the uncanny in the essay.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard’s first book, she identifies this paradox of vision in this way:

But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

Pilgrim presents Dillard’s environmental vision; the photographic description, by way of this more complicated use of the photographic metaphor, complicates what natural description and observation means for a writer. To see the world, we need to open our eyes; but there are limits to what we can see, or say.

And so, as we think about the “vision” this opening essay establishes or frames for the whole of the collection, we will need to reckon with these two types of seeing. We can look for ways Dillard focuses our attention on what we are and aren’t seeing; we can listen for ways her language marks this paradox of seeing. And we can ask of the book overall, or each essay, what’s the argument? What does she want us to see, or see differently, about this “wide world” (20)? What encounter with the world will this book provide, and perhaps more strongly, more in the Emersonian vein, what encounter with our world does this book provoke or demand of us?

By the way, Emerson titled his first journals “Wide World.” Dillard elsewhere expresses her lineage in what we might call Emerson’s school of thinking and writing. Do you see or hear anything of Emerson in Dillard’s essaying?



Recomposition: Emerson’s Original Quotation

English: Photo of American Transcendentalist, ...

English: Photo of American Transcendentalist, writer, and minister Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Emerson has long been known as a sort of patron saint of originality in American culture. The primary location for this message is his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841). The argument of that essay would seem to be, from the title onward, that the individual and his/her genius is of utmost importance. There are many famous lines and passages in the essay that suggest this, including, perhaps most famous: “imitation is suicide.”

Believe it or not, that line and some others from the essay were used in a Reebok commercial in the 1980s. Reebok was just starting and trying to knock Nike–the shoes that everyone else was wearing. The logic was, strangely: be yourself and buy our shoes; don’t imitate Nike (imitate us).

Given this tradition of Emersonian originality, what should we make of Emerson’s later essay, “Quotation and Originality,” in which he declares surprisingly, “all minds quote”? Is this view of writing and reading and, more broadly, thinking, as some form of quotation a contradiction of his earlier views of self-reliance and “creative reading?” Does this break from the earlier essays, or somehow extend the vision?

Emerson, mid-way through the essay, seems to admit his own contradiction when he begins to voice a challenge to what he has been saying of quotation. That voice sounds much like the Emerson from “Self-Reliance”: “Quotation confesses inferiority.” Is this just a case of Emerson contradicting himself, being willfully or whimsically inconsistent? (In “Self-Reliance he claims famously: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”)

Emerson, however, has always had a more complicated vision of originality–much as the notion of originality in writing and thinking is more complicated than conventionally presented in schools. Emerson’s vision of original quotation speaks to the essay tradition and its philosophy of relating the personal and ordinary in the world of the writer to the public world of the reader. A good essayist needs to work through quotation, and consider the relation between the quotation and originality of thinking. A better context for understanding the tension between originality and quotation, I suggest, is a rhetorical tradition Emerson was familiar with. The rhetorical context for this essay, for any essay Emerson might have in mind, opens up contradiction as a strong potential for an essay, when handled honestly. Contradiction becomes counterargument; the logic in the essay moves (is not fixed), is dialectical or dynamic. Think, as Emerson liked to think, of the natural analogy of polarity. And so thought, and thinking in writing, when it accurately reflects its contexts as a natural process, moves between positive and negative poles. All things, as Emerson says, are in flux.

Composition and decomposition are the natural poles. Recomposition is the form of writing that generates from this. Reading such writing, as we also see by the end of the essay, participates in the recomposition by being inventive. Invention is a concept of classical rhetoric that speaks to the paradoxical but necessary tension between the originality of our ideas and argument and the given, quoted, borrowed structures and contexts that those ideas must live in. There is no pure originality. Of course, this line from a late Emerson essay (1868) takes us back to Emerson’s “American Scholar” thirty years before: “One must be an inventor to read well.” Thus Emerson quotes himself originally.

How does Emerson’s vision of recomposition inform David Shields’ project in Reality Hunger? How does Emerson’s vision of original quotation compare to your emerging philosophy of the essay?

My annotated (inventive? quotational?) reading of “Quotation and Originality”