In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize winning book (1975), she writes the following:
The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork–for it doesn’t ….–but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz. (139)
In this profound chapter entitled “Intricacy,” Dillard adroitly explicates the strange details of nature, details so intricate and numerous as to defy reason. As an example, she mentions that “All the theories botanists have devised to explain the functions of various leaf shapes tumble under an avalanche of inconsistencies. They simply don’t know, can’t imagine” (134). In another place, she notes, “And it occurs to me more and more that everything I have seen is wholly gratuitous” (130). And again: “… even on the perfectly ordinary and clearly visible level, creation carries on with an intricacy unfathomable and apparently uncalled for” (133).
The truth that Dillard is driving at is that even though much of creation has a known and recognizable function, much of it does not. The brightest among us are wringing their hands, are shuffling their feet, looking a little bashful. We “simply don’t know, can’t imagine.” Thankfully, there are those scientists, those discoverers, those revelers in studying the universe that let out a sigh of relief at life’s mysteries. They are satisfied not to know. Or to know that they cannot know. There is a holy reverence of the universe due to our human limits, like an invisible wall declaring, “Try as you may, you shall go no further; indeed, you cannot.” Space is infinitely large, the quantum level simply too small and weird to nail it down with precision. (Check out this BBC article: What Is the Smallest Possible Thing in the Universe?)
But many of us don’t like the mysteries. Everything must fit tidily in the library catalog of the cosmos; every jot and tittle must have a function. However, as Dillard elaborates, “There is no one standing over evolution with a blue pencil to say, ‘Now that one, there, is absolutely ridiculous, and I won’t have it.’ If the creature makes it, it gets a ‘stet.’ Is our taste so much better than the creator’s? Utility to the creature is evolution’s only aesthetic consideration” (136, emphasis added).
Everything must have a function. This is why the arts are dying. We can accept a piece of art that has a message. But what about a bowl of fruit? Can we appreciate the expert contours of a master painter, one who bends light and darkness and the perfect amalgamation of color and texture, message-less save for beauty? This is why there’s a whole branch of philosophy dedicated to aesthetics; we simply can’t agree on what to do about it. That’s the mystery, though, that so much of our lives are surrounded by gratuity; it’s inscribed into the infinite. Dillard quotes Thoreau, “‘Nature,’ said Thoreau in his journal, ‘is mythical and mystical always, and spends her whole genius on the least work'” and adds herself that “The creator … churns out the intricate texture of least works that is the world with a spendthrift genius and an extravagance of care. This is the point” (128).
Finally, I want to finish my post with this final passage from Dillard’s chapter:
The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek.
May we all embrace the spirit of wild, inexhaustible, gratuitous, and extravagant beauty.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. HarperCollins, 2007.