Saturday, February 10, 2007

For the Time Being

Religion, time, and what it feels like to be alive. Randomness, tragedy, and belief in God. Annie Dillard brings many subjects and thoughts together in this superb book.

I first read this years ago, but so many topics remind me of something I read in these pages, that I keep going back, searching.

"Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our generations the crucial ones? For we have changed the world. Are not our heightened times the important ones? For we have nuclear bombs. Are we not especially significant because our century is?--our century and its unique Holocaust, its refugee populations, its serial totalitarian exterminations; our century and its antibiotics, silicon chips, men on the moon, and spliced genes? No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other. Who can bear to hear this, or who will consider it? Though perhaps we are the last generation--now there's a comfort. Take the bomb threat away and what are we? Ordinary beads on a never-ending string. Our time is a routine twist on an improbable yarn."

Her writing is both beautiful and fascinating, and the above passage answers an illogical feeling I've had lately, that we're just--doomed. Nothing is going to work out in the Middle East, bombs will go off, and we are all going to die.

Throughout her book, Dillard returns to an archeological site she witnessed in Xi'an, China, and of course she describes it so beautifully that I've decided that I must see it, someday. China's first emperor, Qin, had sculptors construct a clay army to guard his tomb. It had been the custom to have one's entire living army buried along with their leader to guard him in the afterlife, but Qin had their likenesses made, instead.

"At my feet, and stretching off into the middle distance, I saw nothing resembling an archaeological dig. I saw what looked like human bodies coming out of the earth....From the trench walls emerged an elbow here, a leg and foot there, a head and neck...

There is at least this one extraordinary distinction of our generation: For it is in our lifetimes alone that people can witness the unearthing of the deep-dwelling army of Emperor Qin--the seven thousand or the ten thousand soldiers, their real crossbows and swords, their horses and chariots...The sight of a cleaned clay soldier upright in a museum display case is unremarkable, and this is all that future generations will one will see them crawling from the walls. Future generations will miss the crucial sight of ourselves as rammed earth.

...The area now under excavation is larger than most American counties. The average height of a clay infantryman is five feet nine inches, while the average height of a member of the honor guards is six feet two inches..."

Later on, Dillard tells us more about Emperor Qin, in her riveting style, informing us that the Emperor started building his mausoleum when he was just thirteen years old, all the while searching for the secret to immortality. That's an intriguing story, and there's more! There are enough interesting places, stories, and facts woven together in this little book to draw anyone into reading it cover to cover, very quickly.

What I mean to say is, if you should happen upon this little book, pick it up! And by the way, Annie Dillard won a Pulitzer for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I haven't read that, but will, someday. One novel of hers I did enjoy was The Living, a lucky pick a few years back at the library. It was--random luck.


TLP said...

Sounds good! Your dad and I saw some of those terra cotta soldiers at a museum in San Francisco, and read about them then too. Very strange and interesting. (It was a traveling exhibit.)

somewherejoe said...

Sometimes the feeling of impending doom is because of, well, impending doom.

Everybody I like wants me to read Dillard.

Doug said...

Beautiful excerpt. It sounds like a great book.