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?



Metaphor and Metonymy

There are two key elements of poetics, figures of speech, that we have encountered recently with Woolf’s (and Dillard’s) “Death of the Moth” and White’s “Once More to the Lake,” and Emerson’s essays. The moth and Emerson’s circles are examples of metaphor; the lake (and all the various things White describes connected to it, from fishhook to the soggy, icy garment at the end) and Emerson’s books, reading, scholar are metonymy.  These poetic figures can also be thought of as rhetorical figures or what are known as “tropes”; they create imagery in the essays, but they also serve a larger, organizing purpose. The writers focus–or “turn” (from the Greek “trope”) our attention almost entirely around them. As Emerson says of the power of analogy in “American Scholar”: “the near explains the far.” Both metaphor and metonymy are symbolic figures: they substitute or replace one thing with another thing in some way related to it. With metaphor, the relation is one of resemblance: two things are physically different, but share some sort of similarity or resemblance. With metonymy, the relation is one of proximity or contiguity; two things are compared that are physically related, often a part of something that represents a larger part or whole. In his later work, Emerson characterized metonymy as the primary figure of all thinking and writing–since to his way of thinking, everything was scientifically, not just poetically, related, even the most remote items.  I suppose Terence Malick’s Emersonian-inspired vision in his film Tree of Life, taking the local story back to its remote origins in the big bang, is an example of this metonymy in action.

As elements of poetics, as well as rhetoric, these important figures of speech (and thinking) remind us that in nonfiction, in an essay, the writer can be creative and symbolic and still be nonfictional. You can, and do need to, “make” stuff up in an essay, and still represent the topic truthfully. Metaphor and metonymy play important, but different, roles in the symbolic action (remember Kenneth Burke’s definition) of all writing and thinking–not just in poetry.

Here are two further examples of metaphor and metonymy in action in writing. The examples are both from poetry, but the ways the figure of each works (the bird as metaphor for young writer/daughter in “The Writer”; the metonymy of the car/road and all its associations of travel, moving in “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road “) applies to nonfiction writing as well, since the larger issue is how we conceive of the world in language. With metaphor, we tend to see and represent our world through resemblances and figures that substitute wholly for what we are thinking about–that are not directly related to thing we are thinking about; with metonymy, we tend to represent and see through the various parts and pieces of the world we are in, with things in some way related to what we are thinking. 

Here is the metonymy example:

“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” by Lucinda Williams

sittin´ in the kitcken, a house in macon
loretta´s singing on the radio
smell of coffee, eggs, & bacon
car wheels on a gravel road
pull the curtains back & look outside
somebody somehere i do not know
c´mon now child we are going to go for a ride

car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road

can´t find a damn thing in this place
nothing is where i left it before
set of keys & a dusty suitcase
car wheels on a gravel road
There goes the screen door slamming shut
you better do what you are told
when i get back this room better be picked-up

car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road

low hum of voices in the front seat
stories nobody knows
got folks in jackson we are gonna meet
car wheels on a gravel road
cotton fields stretching miles & miles
hank´s voice on the radio
telephone poles trees & wires fly on by

car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road

broken down shacks engine parts
could tell a lie but my heart would know
listen to the dogs barkin in the yard
car wheels on a gravel road
child in the backseat about four or five yeahrs
lookin´ out the window
little bit of dirt mixed with tears

car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road

Here is the metaphor example:

Richard Wilbur, “The Writer”:

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back, 
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

For some further thought on metaphor and the essay, consider this discussion from the essay journal River Teeth about the origin of its name.