Holy the Firm (1977)


“Write as if you were dying.” This is the admonishment Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard gives readers of her 1989 book The Writing Life. The grim truth behind this charge, she points out, is that we are all dying. What Dillard is getting at is that the writer should jettison anything that does not matter in the face of death. It’s great advice, so long as one doesn’t wish for a lucrative writing career. The advice hints at the debate between genre and literary fiction, traditional versus experimental writing. In Holy the Firm, Dillard directly addresses her audience: “Nothing is going to happen in this book.” Amusingly, the disclaimer comes a quarter of the way into the text, as if she suddenly remembered to point this out, as if she became aware that the reader, by this point, is wondering what exactly the book is. In one way, what this slim little volume is is the embodiment of her own advice.

Holy the Firm is without a doubt one of the most fulfilling pieces of literature available. I define it as a euphonic prose poem—I can’t think what else it could be. On the surface, it is a masterclass in writing: It employs alliteration (“holiness holds”; “snaps slap”; “fits flush”); anastrophe (“over the mountains split”); ploysyndeton (“and that time buoyant, and cloven, lucent, and missile, and wild”); bathos (“I salt my breakfast eggs”); allusion (“it rises inside the doors of barns and rubs at yellow barn windows” which I submit is a direct allusion to Prufrock: “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes”); and much more. It just might rival Ulysses for number of literary devices. Dillard also takes a cue from the Bible to elevate statements with carefully selected Elizabethan locutions. Many sentences amend and improve themselves as they unfold, giving a time dimension to the language. Indeed, the writing itself is belletristic to the point of obscuring the content. But this just means that the reader can savor the work on multiple levels across multiple readings, for there is content here.

The book is the outcome of Dillard’s choice to play Thoreau on the Puget Sound in Washington state. She lived in a small wooden house with her cat, Small, moths, a spider, and, apparently, some dense religio-philosophical tomes (the title of the book is taken from esoteric Christianity, as she informs us toward the book’s end). She spent her self-imposed exile pondering the perennial big topics: time, space, existence, infinity, death, and, of course, God. To distill the contents to a single preoccupation, I would say that the burn accident that left a seven-year-old’s face ruined prompted the unanswerable question of suffering.

The book opens with a genesis of its own and rivals Norma Mailer’s reincarnation that begins Ancient Evenings for its power of imaginative writing. For the first half of the text, everything is anthropomorphized and the view of God is pantheistic à la Spinoza (Ethics). Dillard sweeps us away to some metaphysical non-place where we can examine and talk about eternity with lines that will make anyone sensitive to language stand up and applaud. You will read some passages repeatedly and wonder how a human being was able to craft them. For example, this is what Dillard comes up with as she looks at the mountains and sea:

Land is a poured thing and time a surface film lapping and fringeing at fastness, at a hundred hollow and receding blues.

Here is the fringey edge where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam.

Yet toward the end of the text, after Julie Norwich’s accident, the tone changes. Pantheism gives way to a the distant, watchmaker version of God. Dillard draws from her predecessors Job, Epicurus, and Solomon (“This is the beginning of wisdom”). Yet, thankfully, there is a mind behind the writing that refuses to throw its hands up, to give way to nihilism. Though the philosophy turns solipsistic (“There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turning….”) and there are barbed jabs at Catholicism (“Learn Latin, an it please my Lord, learn the foolish downward look called Custody of the Eyes”), love still stands on the outside, with eternity, as a rope around our waists.

I have read Holy the Firm three times now. The first time I was completely blinded by the mellifluous writing and only somewhat registered the larger topics on the table. The second time, I began to experience a jarring feeling of the war between beauty and ugliness. Now, after the third time through, still without any definitive revelations or answers, I’ve come to a sort of conclusion about what this book is. Annie Dillard has caught, in amber as it were, a specimen of human consciousness. The very thing that artificial intelligence professionals are pounding away at keyboards to generate has already been suspended in a Petri dish comprised of roughly seventy-six pages. The book itself is a life, a human life, consciousness on the page. But it’s one thing to know what something is and quite another to understand what it is.

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