On the Symbolic Journey
Introduction / Thesis
“One man accomplished it – he raised the veil of the goddess at Sais – but what did he see? – wonder of wonders – he saw himself. A favorite of fortune longed to embrace unspeakable nature.” Written around 1799 by the German author and philosopher Novalis, the quote comes from the novel De Lehrlinge zu Sais (The Novices of Sais). In the story, a young man becomes the first mortal to ever discover the hidden location of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of nature. In his quest for truth and nature, he lifts the mysterious veil—and finds himself!
Well over a century and a half later, two writers merge literary voice with scientific knowledge: Annie Dillard, in an essay titled “Jest and Earnest” (from her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) and Lewis Thomas, in an essay titled “On the Uncertainty of Science.” In Dillard’s piece, she imagines herself as an observer of three nature vignettes: One is dreadful, one is beautiful, and one is a combination of the previous two. In Thomas’ essay, he contemplates science, humanity and the nature of the universe.
A closer look reveals intriguing similarities in the two writings. Both authors embark, in a sense, on a vivid ‘symbolic journey’ in which they struggle with such cosmic questions as evolution, time and nature. Each essay, or individual’s ‘journey,’ has three parts: At one point, the writer feels uncertainty or doubt; later, he sees an indication of harmony or order; lastly, having contemplated or questioned, he is more reconciled to the mysterious nature of life. And while an obscure 18th-century story hardly seems relevant to such contemporary thought, consider this: In the quest to look upon hidden nature and truth, each writer sees himself reflected, and what they discover about themselves is, in fact, the central truth of the essay. Each deals with the writer’s self-discovery and new understanding of man’s role in relation to the world around him. They do not find answers that wholly satisfy them; they find instead that the universe seems to us both purposeful and irrational at once.
Annie Dillard’s “Jest and Earnest”
As far as being able to divide the essays into three parts or elements goes, Dillard’s piece seems more straightforward or clear-cut, but that doesn’t make her less complex. She describes each scene as something she witnessed firsthand, and after she re-envisions it, she reflects on how it affected her. Her “journey” begins with the first remembered scene, in which a giant water bug gruesomely kills a frog. The scene begins peacefully enough, and Dillard seems amused by nature and is a close observer of detail: She notices the “inelegant” frogs, which resemble a “schematic diagram of an amphibian,” and sees how the “texture of the light” reflects differently on various surfaces (251). Shortly thereafter, though, her calmness is shattered as she witnesses the grisly death of a frog, which is “monstrous and terrifying” (252). Dillard has read about giant water bugs before, and knows how the poisonous process occurs, and she even admits that this is common practice among many carnivores. Despite this, though, she has never actually seen such a killing firsthand, and it leaves her breathless and shocked.
The scene, Dillard implies, caused her to question the idea of an ordered, meaningful existence, and she remarks that “it’s rough and chancy out there” (252). The word “chancy,” by definition, means either “risky” or “occurring by chance” (Merriam-Webster); her use suggests both meanings. She quotes Allah (“thinkest thou I made them in jest?”) (252): The question is actually an affirmation that all of creation was purposefully made, but Dillard reconstructs its meaning as a way to question meaning and order. She wondered what to make of the “unthinkable void” and its “unthinkable profusion of forms,” and doubted whether there was anything but the “sickening reaches of time in either direction” (252). But because she is reflecting both on what she saw and how it affected her afterward, it seems clear that her next remark is a foreshadowing of the second part of her journey—that is, something she later saw that countered her view of “cruel,” disordered nature and restored the idea of meaningfulness.
The second part of her journey, then, is in the second image, but as stated, she makes some comments beforehand that indicate she has since reconsidered the cynicism and doubt that the first vignette had instilled in her. Maybe all, even the water bug, was made “in earnest” she says (252-3), preferring the concept of God as “subtle … but not malicious” over the idea that he simply created all and then hid himself from human understanding (253). In other words, something changed her and allowed her to consider God and nature as beyond human comprehension, but not without meaning. At times, she suggests, we see that the world can be cruel and brutish, and we may convince ourselves that such is the inherent character of existence, but then occurs an “inrush of power and light”—something beautiful and graceful happens—and shows us that there is an “essential grandeur” to the universe, even if we don’t always recognize it or believe it.
For Dillard, this reaffirming moment came in the form of a mockingbird that fell from a building but saved itself. Interestingly, she calls the drop “as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star” (253), which suggests other processes of nature that are not readily explainable but occur nonetheless. There is a certain horror implicit in Dillard’s initial sight of the freefalling bird, but she is gladly surprised when it spreads its wings and makes a safe descent to the grass. She explains that this event allowed her to believe once more that there is a certain elegance and order to all.
The last image, though, is the most complex, and in a sense, completes Dillard’s “journey.” Her prose changes here, becoming a bit more abstract, and the ocean imagery has a metaphysical feeling to it. The motion of the waves is likened to “a triangular wedge against the sky” (253-4), and the swift, powerful sharks seem to rise and fall rhythmically, vanishing and reappearing within the waves, “like scorpions in amber” (254). For Dillard, even the motions of wild, tumultuous waves and fierce, predatory sharks seemed to have a certain natural symmetry. Dillard brings together both of the previous vignettes, saying that the sight “held awesome powers: power and beauty, grace tangled in a rapture with violence” (254).
Reflecting on the three scenes, but particularly the last one, Dillard admits that such “tremendous events” as she had witnessed surpass complete understanding. But she has since become skeptical of the idea that nature is just “random combinations of matter run amok,” the product of “millions of monkeys at typewriters” (254)—because if she were to accept the concept of inherent chaos and meaninglessness, then what could possibly explain “what it is in us … that [those events] ignite” and drive us to seek answers? Instead, she says, we must look at creation in its entirety, in all of its complexities and apparent contradictions, so we can “at least wail the right question” or know what it is we seek. Lastly, Dillard remarks, “the extravagant gesture is very stuff of creation,” and “the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances” (254). Dillard recognizes the infinitely elaborate and intricate quality of nature and creation, and she seems able, more than ever before, to both marvel at it and to confess her own limited ability to comprehend it all. Clearly she has not found a satisfactory answer to many of her questions, but she is at least reconciled to an understanding of both nature and her own limits. This, in a sense, gives her a greater sense of her relationship to the world around her, and continues to give her purpose, because the world around her has a sense of order and meaning, as well.
Lewis Thomas’ “On the Uncertainty of Science”
On one hand, there are a number of strong and compelling parallels between the two essays—especially in terms of some of the broad issues that are considered and the general progression of thoughts—as indicated by the explanation of the term “symbolic journey” that is applied to the two writings. But compared to Dillard, Thomas’ “symbolic journey” can be a bit more difficult to follow, because his movement through the three “elements” (or parts) of the journey is expressed not through short literary sketches and reflections but as a more internalized thought process. Dillard’s essay takes the form of a series of three vignettes and her reflections on each, whereas Thomas employs visual metaphors less frequently and for different effects.
An anonymously authored online essay, titled “The Naturalist and God Naturalism,” suggests that the first part of Thomas’ journey is his consideration of a “purposeless, meaningless cosmos” in which “human beings are the result of random accidents of the evolutionary process channeled only by survival of the fittest” (“Naturalist” n.p.). More to the point, though, Thomas begins with an extended contemplation of the uncertain, unpredictable and ever-changing nature both of science; he even says that trying to understand “puzzlement” overwhelms his mind, adding that “uncertainty … is one of the marks of humanity” (304). Thomas seems to view science as representative of both human achievement and “fallibility” (304). Science is a “mobile, unsteady structure,” composed of small facts that constantly “[discovers] that it was wrong” and never manages to put the pieces together and assemble those individual facts into the truth (304).
Thomas continues to seem rather troubled by the implications of the inability to know or understand more. We don’t know the nature of language, he says, which is our greatest gift; “we are aware of our consciousness” but can’t determine how or why that awareness exists; we can’t fathom “how a tadpole accomplished his emergence,” much less how we evolved or “why we make music, or dance, or paint, or write poems” (305). Surely his confidence is not increased by his observation that we tend to act as though “we know everything” (305) and think that “humankind’s meaning is merely human, merely our own imagined values” (“Naturalist” n.p.). The greatest uncertainty that seems to arise in the first part of Thomas’ journey, then, is not in his own beliefs about meaning but what he has observed of humanity, which seems fundamentally self-centered, prone to error and almost entirely unable to make sense of almost everything.
But Thomas later reconsiders somewhat, proposing a different viewpoint: “Our place in the life of the world is still unfathomable because we have so much to learn, but it is surely not absurd,” he says (305). In this second stage of his “journey,” then, he has shifted the emphasis of his feelings (particularly regarding human progress) toward a greater confidence in the idea that there exists the potential to develop and become capable of much greater understanding and progress. That is, he considers the idea that evolution marches on, whether or not we yet understand how it works.
In a sense, Thomas draws confidence from and is encouraged by two factors: first, by his change of focus from ‘humanity in its current, embryonic state’ to ‘greater humanity as it will someday become’; and second, his belief in the natural processes and forces of evolution and nature. He comes to think of humanity as part of an ongoing process, with the emphasis not on ‘where we are’ but ‘where we’re going.’ He also toys with the idea of whether humanity is a part of something larger: “Are we a tissue for the earth’s awareness?” he wonders (306), and “tissue” is an interesting word to use, as one of its meanings is “an aggregate of cells usually of a particular kind together … that form one of the structural materials of a plant or an animal” (Merriam-Webster).
It’s an intriguing thought, and it fits the structure of this second part of Thomas’ “journey,” because it recalls the idea of humanity as an emergent, collective ‘body.’ When he looks at nature and evolution, his descriptions suggest he has a great confidence in these processes, and in the notion of an elaborate, ordered design. Even the “tiniest and most fragile,” most primitive organisms, for example, are driven by nature’s most “fundamental force,” which is “the urge to form partnerships, to link up in collaborative arrangements” (306). Shortly thereafter, Thomas refines this concept as he believes it applies to humans (and sets them apart from all other life-forms): “I am willing to predict, uncertainly … that there is one central, universal aspect of human behavior, genetically set by our very nature … driving each of us along … [and] it can be defined as the urge to be useful” (307). In other words, all life-forms may be driven by the same instinct to function together, as single entities—and they display a collective intelligence—but humans also act as individuals, and it is part of what gives us purpose. Notice how he says that this urge “sets our behavior as individuals and in groups” (emphasis added) and “invents all our myths, writes our poetry, composes our music” (307). Earlier on, he identified those same activities but could not offer any explanation for why we do them (305); now, though, he at least has settled on something that helps him try to comprehend.
The third and last stage of Thomas’ journey could be described as a more clearly developed concept of ‘man in the grand scheme of things.’ In the first part of his journey, he dealt with, for example, the uncertainty of man as an individual and as an immature species; in the second part, Thomas expanded his perspective to man’s role both as an individual and as an ‘entity,’ and became more confident in the future of mankind, especially as guided by the hand of evolution and nature. Lastly, Thomas looks once more at man but ‘in the grand scheme of things.’ His use of the term “embryo” has become one of optimism: Perhaps “we are … becoming an embryonic central nervous system for the whole system,” he says (308), and he considers the idea that the rest of this “system” is still developing, as well.
He says that he still wonders, now and then, whether we are but a “transient tissue,” a failed attempt at “something needing better means of perfection” (308). He never quite manages to shake this doubt and questioning, but he keeps it in check, because he reminds himself of the incredible ability we have proven ourselves capable of—even as a flawed, “juvenile” species. Nature “[hangs] on to things when they really do work,” he says, and so we must be becoming an integral part of the system. We have an individuality, and an urge—not simply an instinct—to be useful, to give ourselves purpose. That purpose, he realizes, should extend far beyond the self-centered, narrow view that only we as individuals are worth considering.
Both Thomas and Dillard clearly struggle with some difficult questions and doubts, but one of the ways in which their writings differ is that they do not question quite the same ideas. For example, Dillard’s first experience (of the frog’s death) clearly unsettled her to the point that she cast doubt on the concept of an ordered, meaningful, purposefully created existence, instead wondering if perhaps all was made “in jest” and was inherently senseless, cruel and inclined toward chaos. And while it’s quite clear that Thomas also expresses initial doubts, he is more concerned with such matters as science, the universe and man’s progress and role in the grand scheme of things. For him, whether or not there is meaning is not the issue: “An intellectually fashionable view … [is that] it makes no sense … the universe is meaningless for humans” (305).
But whether or not the two writers explore the same topics or come to the same conclusions is beside the point. As stated, probably the most important truths they discover are about themselves, during their quest to “come to grips” with some very significant questions and difficult concepts. Also, the “symbolic journey” refers not to traversing physical distance, or even coming to firm conclusions or answers, but the three basic stages that both authors—and probably everyone, in a way—go through. One part of this journey is a time of questioning, doubt and uncertainty; another part is an affirmation of hope; the last part is a reconciliation of the previous two.
Both Thomas and Dillard seem gradually to become more comfortable with the implications of their insights. The act of questioning is itself of fundamental importance, because one who never questions or doubts is probably not thinking enough about what is important. But as Dillard and Thomas show, simply asking questions is not enough; one should also seek answers. Neither writer would be accurately described as arriving at answers, but that too is beside the point: The end of the journey, it seems, is in coming to terms with the limits of human understanding. Dillard’s piece differs from Thomas’ in that her “journey” deals with the questions of nature, order and purpose, through which she comes to better understand herself, whereas Thomas’ “journey” deals with the matters of evolution and the role of people both as individuals and as a group. In other words, Thomas’ writing speaks more to the question of man in relation to the universe around him; Dillard reflects more on her own, personal role in a universe that can sometimes seem cruel and meaningless. In both cases, though, the author discovers the most about himself when he looks beyond himself to contemplate the world around him. Maybe lifting nature’s veil reveals our own image because we are, in fact, part of nature—even if we don’t fully comprehend it.