Nov 112010

Annie Dillard, self-portrait

Annie Dillard’s “Seeing,” a philosophical, literal, and historical romp through the seemingly simple act for which the piece is named, is packed with but-constructions.  They appear in nearly every paragraph, sometimes two-to-a-graph.  They fall into two clear types: “action/description buts” and “mood change buts.”  It is easy to distinguish between the types because, almost without fail, the action/description ones appear within a sentence, while the mood change ones are the initial word in a sentence.

The action/description buts don’t particularly stand out.  They occur within sections of basic storytelling, rather than in the more philosophical passages of the essay.  Some examples:

I wandered downstream to force [the blackbirds] to play their hand, but they’d crossed the creek and scattered.

I bang on hollow trees near the water, but so far no flying squirrels have appeared.

When you see fog move against a backdrop of deep pines, you don’t see the fog itself, but streaks of clearness floating across the air in dark shreds.

In all these examples, the ‘but’ is necessary to accurately relate the action or accurately describe something.  They make for nice sentences, but don’t have great symbolic value.

Dillard’s other type of but-construction, the “mood-change but,” is the main method she uses to swing the essay from the thrill of seeing something new to the despair of not being able to see something, and back.  This “ocean swell” rhythm, from optimism to pessimism, hinges on the ‘buts,’ which occur at the crests and troughs. These “mood-change buts” typically also employ a more complex grammatical structure, which effectively breaks the flow of the essay and turns it in a different direction.

There are numerous examples, but the two discussed here include more than one “mood-change but” in rapid succession.  The essay begins with a short section about how a young Dillard used to hide pennies in the public realm.  The second section flashes to the present and, within the first two paragraphs, there are four “mood-change buts.”  The text begins (after the section’s two opening sentences):

The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.  But – and this is the point – who gets excited by a mere penny?

Then a sentence that introduces some natural elements into the mix, then:

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny.  But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.

Then a few short connecting sentences, then:

I used to be able to see flying insects in the air…. My eyes would focus along that column of air, picking out flying insects.  But I lost interest, I guess, for I dropped the habit.  Now I can see birds.

Then several sentences about nature and Thoreau, then:

I cherish mental images I have of three perfectly happy people.  One collects stones.  Another – an Englishman, say – watches clouds.  The third lives on a coast and collects drops of seawater, which he examines microscopically and mounts.  But I don’t see what the specialist sees, and so I cut myself off, not only from the total picture, but from the various forms of happiness.

The first “mood-change but” turns the mood down, from the happiness of a world studded with pennies to pennies being worthless.  The 2nd turns the mood back up (pennies can be valuable); the 3rd turns it back down (Dillard can’t see flying insects any more); and the 4th — an instance that actually packs two ‘buts’ into one sentence — brings it into a deeper trough (the inability to see as specialists do).  In each case, the ‘but’ begins a sentence.  It is an abrupt change of course from the previous sentence: one mood, full stop, second mood.  Even reading only the ‘but’ with the end of the preceding sentence, the impending mood change is apparent: “…generous hand. But….”  “…won’t stoop to pick up a penny.  But….” “…picking out flying insects.  But….”  The period and the big capitalized ‘B’ serve, in written form, as the verbal inhale-and-pause people use when delivering news (either good before bad or bad before good).

The second example of “mood-change buts” occurs in the last paragraph of section 4 (page 700 in Lopate’s book).  The grammar here is even more complex, and an initial reading might not make clear whether the ‘buts’ are meant to turn down the mood or turn it up.  Here is the text:

Oh, it’s mysterious lamplit evenings, here in the galaxy, one after the other.  It’s one of those nights when I wander from window to window, looking for a sign.  But I can’t see.  Terror and a beauty insoluble are a ribband of blue woven into the fringes of garments of things both great and small.  No culture explains, no bivouac offers real haven or rest.  But it could be that we are not seeing something.  Galileo thought comets were an optical illusion.  This is fertile ground: since we are certain that they’re not, we can look at what our scientists have been saying with fresh hope.

The feel here is dreamlike, and both sentences that have a ‘but’ also contain a negative.  The first, however, transforms the hopefulness of the first two sentences into dejection.  It concludes “looking for a sign” with “terror.”  The second ‘but’ sentence looks pessimistic, and read alone it could be interpreted as such (as in, we’re missing something important).  This little sentence, though, moves the passage from a scary dark place (with no “haven or rest”) to the possibility of understanding (“fertile ground”).  By suggesting that “we are not seeing something,” Dillard is stressing the “something:” there is something there to see, and that’s a positive thing.

But, says Dillard throughout the essay, it’s not always easy to see, and this paragraph grammatically parallels that challenging journey.  There are adjectives after nouns (“beauty insoluble”), an expected second verb (in the first sentence) that never appears, vague descriptions (“things both great and small”), and the sudden introduction of a real person (Galileo).  This is a tricky paragraph (including the five following sentences not transcribed above), and the “mood-change buts” reinforce its up and down tone.  The tension is resolved after the section break that follows this paragraph, when Dillard turns the narrative to a long discussion of a book about blindness and sight by Marius von Senden.  That entire section contains not a single “mood-change but.”

It is worth noting one more use of ‘but’ in this essay.  Near the end of the piece there are two sections that begin with the word.  These are the only two sections that do so, and both deal with the same topic: seeing by letting go.  This, Dillard admits, is the most difficult type of seeing.  To introduce it, she creates the shortest section in the entire piece, and begins that section with ‘but’ (“But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go”). Then she writes a section with a specific experience of seeing fish flashing in the sun in the creek; a section that contains not a single ‘but.’ Then the idea returns in the next section with another initial section ‘but’ (“But I can’t go out and try to see this way”).  If the “mood-change buts” as described above are the inhale-then-pause, these section-beginning ‘buts’ are the inhale-then-pause-then-look skyward-then-sigh.  They physically jump out from the page and create the most prominent moments in the essay (especially the first, short section).  They are used to begin the essay’s conclusion and to highlight the most true (say Dillard and Thoreau) way of seeing.

Interestingly, the final one-paragraph section includes two “mood-change buts,” both turning the mood up.  Unlike all other “mood-change buts,” the ‘buts’ here are inside their sentences, perhaps signaling an end to the rise and fall of the essay:

The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power.

And, three sentences later, the last sentence of the essay:

The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

Adam Arvidson


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