This is What I Do: The Essay as Embodied Skepticism
For once, then, something.—Robert Frost
The skeptic’s or relativist’s dilemma: that they assert, with certainty, that nothing is certain, or make the absolute claim that there are no absolutes. For instance, philosopher David Hume leveled his infamous “wrecking ball” of skepticism at Reason, Belief, and even the Self, forgetting, it seems, that it was his own Self that set the ball swinging.
Yet Hume was fully aware of the contradictions in which all skeptical philosophies seem to be mired, and he comes up with a fascinating response to it: a rational argument, he claims, even one we agree with, does not necessarily have the power to derail deep habit, belief, and disposition. And, Hume argues, this is a good thing: a creature guided solely by skepticism would probably never get around to the messy, irrational business of living.
So for Hume—for all of us—the wrecking ball becomes a pendulum, transcribing an arc between extremes of world-dismantling doubt, on the one side, and life-sustaining delusion on the other. While we philosophize, we may see the truth of our abstract thought, but seconds later, or even at the same moment, we hold the unprovable belief that the sun will rise tomorrow.
While I’m persuaded by Hume’s point that even the most dogmatic skeptic (!) is incapable of living her skepticism, I’m not quite satisfied that he really captures the contradictions and paradoxes of the skeptical point of view. This may be in part because language, at least in most of its sanctioned forms, is governed by rules of non-contradiction. It’s all about agreement and consistency: subject/verb, pronoun/antecedent, tense, person.
To articulate an embodied skepticism would require a form that comfortably inhabits uncertainty and contradiction, such as the essay. As Montaigne once wrote, “If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions.” More specifically, it could be argued that an articulation of the many paradoxes of skepticism calls for a brutalization of language, or at least an exploration of its limits. This is what Annie Dillard does in her stunning essay “This is the Life,” the last piece featured in the recently published anthology of essays and short fiction, Life is Short—Art is Shorter: In Praise of Brevity, edited by David Shields and Elizabeth Cooperman. Dillard examines the tension between what we know and how we live through a masterful, subtle, and shifty use of pronouns, articles, and conjunctions. While such words typically serve as the sentence’s invisible glue, for Dillard, they are the primary means by which she states, or more accurately, enacts, our slippery state of affairs. Dillard’s essay takes its readers not from ignorance to knowledge—an expectation we unconsciously bring to non-fiction—but from “ignorance to exposure,” to borrow a phrase from Stanley Cavell.
Consider the essay’s first sentence: “Any culture tells you how to live your one and only life: to wit: as everyone else does.” That opening “any” is a stay against ethnocentrism, a broad perspective that acknowledges many possibilities, but the sentence quickly sharpens down to the limited and egocentric: “your one and only life.” The “everyone” here is perfect: she means, of course, not everyone everyone, but the “everyone” of any given culture. But the potential confusion is accurate, so to speak: it represents our own confusion. Dillard’s sentence enacts the kind of amnesia that even the most “enlightened” of us suffer from, knowing that our way is one of many, but behaving as if it were the only way.
The next sentence continues in a similar pattern: “Probably most cultures prize, as ours rightly does, making a contribution by working hard at work that you love; being in the know, and intelligent. . . ” Starting with skeptical hesitation and hedging, “Probably most. . .” the sentence quickly shifts a narrow point of view: “as ours rightly does.” This dogmatic “rightly” is, in turn, affirmed by a list of values that are likely to align with the perspective of the audience of the essay when it first appeared in Image: A Journal of art and Religion: “. . . making a contribution by working hard at work that you love; being in the know, and intelligent; gathering a surplus; and loving your family above all, and your dog, your boat, bird-watching.”
The next two paragraphs swing us back to skepticism, each offering other possible ways of living a life. They open:
Another contemporary consensus might be: You wear the best shoes you can afford, you seek to know Rome's best restaurants. . . . (para 2)
Or you take the next tribe's pigs in thrilling raids; you grill yams… (para 3)
The third and fourth paragraphs continue to survey what various cultures see as “the life,” but Dillard begins to speed up and increase the contrasts, barely acknowledging even the most jarring shifts: “Since everyone around you agrees ever since there were people on earth that land is value, or labor is value, or learning is value, or title, necklaces, degree, murex shells, or ownership of slaves.” The universalizing “everyone” is at odds with a list of singularities, and those singularities are at odds with themselves. The anaphoric “or” serves a similar equalizing function, reducing even the shocking phrase “ownership of slaves” to just another item on a list of what people prize. The reader begins to experience (not just understand) the contingency of universalizing words we so often utter without a thought. Dillard shows that our tendency to make “a” viewpoint, the viewpoint, works on every level, from the most innocent to the most reprehensible beliefs.
Knowing, perhaps, that’s she’s begun to instill a true awareness of our tendency to slip into a specious universalism, Dillard leans on the word “everyone” a bit more, asking, “Who is your ‘everyone’?” She also leans on the reader. The entire essay is in second person, and, for the most part, it simply gives the essay a feel of informality. But with this question, there’s no doubt that readers are being addressed directly. We’re no longer reading a theoretical consideration of a philosophical conundrum. It’s personal now. We’re implicated.
With the implication of the reader, Dillard intensifies her questioning. Now that we know—have experienced, in our own small way, through Dillard’s essay—that no value is universal, that there are infinite ways of living a life, Dillard asks, “then what?” (she repeats this question five times over the course of the essay). The questions comes fast:
Say you scale your own weft and see the breadth and length of space. . . . What, seeing this spread multiply infinitely in every direction, would you do differently? No one could love your children more; would you love them less?. . . Would you dance any less to music you love, knowing that music to be as provisional as a bug?
Hume points out that we could question every assertion we make, every value we hold, ad infinitum; this is why he comes up with the explanation I’ve outlined above. But Dillard doesn’t merely tell us this; she makes us experience the shifts from a narrow to a broad perspective; from naive belief to enlightened (but still theoretical) skepticism, from theoretical skepticism to, finally, a personal awareness that everything we say or do can be questioned, and is “provisional as a bug.”
It’s at this point, we may say, along with Wittgenstein, “If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’” And in a sense, this is what Dillard encourages: she continues to pile on the contradictory examples and pummels the reader with questions, until there is no choice but to say, “This is simply what I do.” As the reader, I must acknowledge that even though I know my preferences have no rational justification, I cannot stop myself from having them.
Later in the essay Dillard reminds us that
Our lives and our deaths count equally, or we must abandon one-man-one-vote, dismantle democracy, and assign six billion people an importance-of-life ranking from one to six billion—a ranking whose number decreases, like gravity, with the square of the distance between us and them.
The alternative offered after the “or”—that we bestow undue value on those who happen to be near us—is precisely the option most of us choose, even though when Dillard states it outright, it sounds appalling. It’s like a variation of the familiar ethical dilemma of a train heading towards a group of people. The classic version gives us two choices: either allow the train to continue, or switch the rails and send the train careening towards one person standing on another track. Most people hit the switch: one death is better than many. Some philosophers have added a twist: What if saving the group involves not merely switching tracks, but pushing a large person who happens to be standing beside you in front of the train? Here most of us hesitate. It’s the same result: one life sacrificed for many, but the nearness—which has no bearing on lives saved or lost—of the sacrificed individual causes us to pause. Call it “proximity bias.”
Which takes us back to the title and its masterful pronoun, “This is the Life.” “This” generally refers to something present or near, as contrasted with “that,” which refers to something at a further remove. So the “this” in Dillard’s title reminds us that one’s way of living is another irrational choice, made for us by mere proximity. We are compelled to acknowledge that no life or way of living it ever truly merits the “the” of exclusivity and importance; that the only honorific we deserve is the indefinite “a,” while simultaneously we live as if “this” irrational, unjustifiable life is all that matters. Dillard leaves us in the same moral quandary she found us in, still in an impossible circumstance, still skeptical but heedless, for the most part, of the truths that our skepticism reveals. We may feel we’ve seen “something”—another perfect pronoun employed by Dillard in the final paragraph—but we’re not sure what to do with that murky “something.” We conclude (or begin?) with Dillard’s parting words and the mantra of the essay: “Then what?”
Ty Clever is the director of South Central PaARTners, an arts-in-education program at Millersville University in central Pennsylvania. He blogs about poetics, style, and art at http://hazlitter.tumblr.com.