bookish bits

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is absolutely stunning.  Here are some thoughts to send you on your way:

When I was young I fondly imagined that all foreign languages were codes for English.  I thought that “hat,” say, was the real and actual name of the thing, but that people in other countries, who obstinately persisted in speaking the code of their forefathers, might use the word “ibu,” say, to designate not merely the concept hat, but the English word “hat.”  I only knew one foreign word, “oui,” and since it had three letters as did the word for which it was a code, it seemed, touchingly enough, to confirm my theory.  Each foreign language was a different code, I figured, and at school I would be eventually given the keys to unlock some of the most important codes’ systems.  Of course I knew it might take years before I became so fluent in another language that I could code and decode easily in my head, and make of gibberish a nimble sense.  On the first day of my French course, however, things rapidly took on an entirely unexpected shape.  I realized that I was going to have to learn speech all over again, word by word, one word at a time—and my dismay knew no bounds.The birds have started singing in the valley.  Their February squawks and naked chirps are fully fledged now, and long lyrics fly in the air.  Birdsong catches in the mountains’ rim and pools in the valley; it threads through forests, it slides down creeks.  At the house a wonderful thing happens.  The mockingbird that nests each year in the front-yard spruce strikes up his chant in high places, and one of those high places is my chimney.  When he sings there, the hollow chimney acts as a soundbox, like the careful emptiness inside a cello or violin, and the notes of the song gather fullness and reverberate through the house. …

When I lose interest in a given bird, I try to renew it by looking at the bird in either of two ways.  I imagine neutrinos passing through its feathers and into its heart and lungs, or I reverse its evolution and imagine it as a lizard.  I see its scaled legs and that naked ring around a shiny eye; I shrink and deplume its feathers to lizard scales, unhorn its lipless mouth, and set it stalking dragonflies, cool-eyed, under a palmetto.  Then I reverse the process once again, quickly; its forelegs unfurl, its scales hatch feathers and soften.  It takes to the air seeking cool forests; it sings songs.  This is what I have on my chimney; it might as well keep me awake out of wonder as rage. …

Today I watched and heard a wren, a sparrow, and the mockingbird singing.  My brain started to trill why why why, what is the meaning meaning meaning? It’s not that they know something we don’t; we know much more than they do, and surely they don’t even know why they sing.  No; we have been as usual asking the wrong question.  It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing.  If the mockingbird were chirping to give us the long-sought formulae for a unified field theory, the point would only be slightly less irrelevant.  The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?  I hesitate to use the word so baldly, but the question is there.  The question is there since I take it as given, as I have said, that beauty is something objectively performed—the tree that falls in the forest—having being externally, stumbled across or missed, as real and present as the sides of the moon.  This modified lizard’s song welling out of the fireplace has a wild, utterly foreign music; it becomes more and more beautiful as it becomes more and more familiar.  If the lyric is simply “mine mine mine,” then why the extravagance of the score?  It has the liquid, intricate sound of every creek’s tumble over every configuration of rock creek-bottom in the country.  Who, telegraphing a message, would trouble to transmit a five-act play, or Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” and who, receiving the message, could understand it?  Beauty itself is the language to which we have no key; it is the mute cipher, the cryptogram, the uncracked, unbroken code.  And it could be that for beauty, as it turned out to be for French, that there is no key, that “oui” will never make sense in our language but only in its own, and that we need to start all over again, on a new continent, learning the strange syllables one by one. (pp. 106-108)


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