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Annie Dillard on How to Live with Mystery, the Two Ways of Looking, and the Secret of Seeing

“I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”

In her 1984 novel The Lover, Marguerite Duras wrote that “the art of seeing has to be learned.” It is a sentiment at once poetic and practical — cognitive science now knows that our brains invest a great deal of resources in learning to unsee and tune out irrelevant stimuli, which is why “when you look closely at anything familiar, it transmogrifies into something unfamiliar.”

Anything that can be learned can be taught, and there is hardly a greater teacher in the art of seeing than Annie Dillard — an astute and lyrical observer of the world, both inner and outer, and a supreme enchantress of aliveness. Her 1974 masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (public library) is one of those rare treasures best described as secular scripture, partway between Thoreau and Mary Oliver. In this gift of a book, Dillard explores seeing as an act of love (“The lover can see, and the knowledgeable,” she writes in one of her bestirring asides), but also as a monumental task for which we are chronically and profoundly underequipped (“My eyes account for less than one percent of the weight of my head,” she observes with sweet resignation; “I’m bony and dense; I see what I expect.”).

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from The River

Dillard writes:

We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence… “Seem like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.”


I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and it keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about. The creeks … are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection.

Indeed, this uncertainty of vision is necessary if we are to befriend the mystery we call life — for the wider a view we take in observing that mystery, the more space for uncertainty there is. Dillard explores this with enormous wisdom and grace in another passage, using the word “we” with the perhaps intentional ambiguity of connoting both the universality of all human beings and the subset of humans who call ourselves writers. (For, lest we forget, “a writer is a professional observer.”) She reflects:

We don’t know what’s going on here. If these tremendous events are random combinations of matter run amok, the yield of millions of monkeys at millions of typewriters, then what is it in us, hammered out of those same typewriters, that they ignite? We don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.

“Beams of Light Through Glass” (1960) from Berenice Abbott’s Documenting Science

The darkness, indeed, suits us — too much illumination can be paralyzing. (This happened quite literally when electric light was first introduced, but it is also part of our spiritual pathology as we spend much of our lives almost completely opaque to ourselves.) Citing one of Van Gogh’s stirring letters to his brother“Still,” he wrote, “a great deal of light falls on everything.” — Dillard reflects on the counterpoints that define our existence:

If we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light. When too much light falls on everything, a special terror results.

Dillard illustrates this in the most visceral of ways imaginable. Referencing a wonderful and wonderfully obscure 1960 book called Space and Light by a surgeon named Marius von Senden, she relays the numerous case studies of the first generation of patients on whom safe cataract surgeries were performed, and the extraordinary ways in which the restoration of vision — especially for those who had been unseeing since birth — fully disoriented people’s sense perceptions and ideas of space.

The Bowery in the 1930s. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from Changing New York

The notion of shadow and light was particularly incomprehensible, for shadow is evidence of depth and dimension — something the patients had never experienced and thus something that made no sense at all, that presented them with “the world unraveled from reason.” The newly sighted were suddenly so overwhelmed by the world of light, form, and space that many retreated into their old ways of navigation and sensemaking, choosing to keep their eyes shut and to orient themselves via their familiar senses.

This, of course, is a metaphor at once incredibly elegant and incredibly jarring for how we all react to overwhelming new knowledge — especially knowledge about ourselves and ourselves in relation to our formerly familiar surroundings, our suddenly confusing inner world in relation to the suddenly nonsensical outer. It produces, in the words of one doctor Dillard cites, “the rapid and complete loss of that striking and wonderful serenity which is characteristic only of those who have never yet seen.” She writes:

The mental effort involved in these reasonings proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. It oppresses them to realize that they have been visible to people all along, perhaps unattractively so, without their knowledge or consent. A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision, continuing to go over objects with their tongues, and lapsing into apathy and despair.

And yet there is a light — a gloriously breathtaking light — at the end of that tunnel of confusion, as much for the patients as for our spiritual blindnesses. Quoting another physician’s clinical case, Dillard captures this beautifully:

A twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, “the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful!'”

Dillard returns to the elusive art of seeing in our everyday lives. In a sentiment that calls to mind what cognitive scientists now know about attention and Mary Oliver’s piercing assertion that “attention without feeling is only a report,” she considers the two ways of seeing:

Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it.


If Tinker Mountain erupted, I’d be likely to notice. But if I want to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present… Like a blind man at the ball game, I need a radio.

When I see this way I analyze and pry. I hurl over logs and roll away stones; I study the bank a square foot at a time, probing and tilting my head. Some days when a mist covers the mountains, when the muskrats won’t show and the microscope’s mirror shatters, I want to climb up the blank blue dome as a man would storm the inside of a circus tent, wildly, dangling, and with a steel knife claw a rent in the top, peep, and, if I must, fall.

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.

Manhattan in the 1930s. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from Changing New York

Indeed, the “aesthetic consumerism” of which Susan Sontag accused photography easily befalls the mind’s eye as well, if we aren’t careful. But when we allow ourselves this letting go, when we let shadow and light permeate our willful blindness, the warmth of illumination washes over us and leaves us transformed. “Something broke and something opened,” Dillard writes of one such transcendent moment in which she let herself experience this second kind of seeing. And something must always break in order for something to open within us — especially when it comes to seeing our interior worlds in their full dimensionality. Dillard writes:

When I see this way I see truly. As Thoreau says, I return to my senses. I am the man who watches the baseball game in silence in an empty stadium. I see the game purely; I’m abstracted and dazed. When it’s all over and the white-suited players lope off the green field to their shadowed dugouts, I leap to my feet; I cheer and cheer.

But I can’t go out and try to see this way. I’ll fail, I’ll go mad. All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West, under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod. The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance.

What John Steinbeck advised his teenage son about the secret of falling in love Dillard parallels in her counsel on the secret of seeing:

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise… I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is an infinitely enlightening read in its totality, itself belonging to this canon of “the literature of illumination.” Complement it with Dillard on the life of sensation versus the life of presence, her enduring advice on writing, and an illuminating conversation with cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on learning to see the everyday wonderland of life, then revisit astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge.

Published March 4, 2015




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