Mrs. Cooper’s challenge was to write an essay on Holy The Firm by Annie Dillard. The challenge comes not from being able to sum up enough words in enough time to meet the requirements of this assignment, but from being able to contain such vast information, learned and decoded out of the book, into an essay format, a container so small and structural that, like Annie Dillard did in her own writing, one must carefully decide which thoughts, quotes and ideas are most important, based on your essay topic, and squeeze them into a vessel for a reader, or listener, to understand and grasp your vast message.
Annie Dillard did the same thing while writing Holy The Firm, she took her contained ideas on subjects including; Time, Reality, The Will of God, Death, Nature, and the theme I will be focusing on, Sacrifice. Holy The Firm, though full of questions, is just as much full of answers, that Annie Dillard came up with while secluding herself, aside from her cat, spider and community of neighbors, on an island in Puget Sound, for two years.
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While all of the previously listed themes are completely intertwined and overlap everywhere, I will use the best of my abilities to discuss mainly Annie Dillard’s views on Sacrifice, her questions and answers regarding what it is and the reasons for it. While Annie Dillard gives a complex, and hazy answer for the question of sacrifice, I will share my interpretation of that answer which Annie Dillard has shared with me.
The reason for sacrifice is to bring us enlightenment of God’s power and the reality of His world. Throughout the book, one of the most commonly used motifs is a moth, whether it is being eaten by a spider, or burned on a candle, the moth’s death is a commonly used symbol for sacrifice. The moth is first brought up where it is being eaten by a spider, but the best imagery of the dying moth first appears on pages sixteen and seventeen, where a moth flies onto the candle and is burned to death.
And I paraphrase this action, where a large female moth with a two inch wingspan flies right into the wick and is burned to its structural like skeleton and is filled with wax, and acts as a second wick, and a flame embodied this moth, “a saffron yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating monk”. Right away Annie Dillard is screaming sacrifice by comparing a moth being burned to a monk sacrificing himself in protest. But what is the moth’s sacrifice for? If you look back a few aragraphs you will notice Annie states, “One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. ”. Annie states that she, “saw it all”. She is not referring to seeing all of the moth being burned, but she is referring to “all”, and all is enlightenment, all is wisdom, and while the moth was literally being burned like a wick, it is symbolically creating a light, a light that allows Annie to see and be shown. She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning—only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light…”(17). The imagery is unmistakably obvious at this point, the moth has become another source of light, a light house, a symbol of light that will show you the world outside of the darkness. At the cost of sacrificing itself, the death of this moth has shown Annie “all“, and its light has shown her the true nature of God’s reality.
On the next, possibly deeper, level of symbolism, Annie introduces a second motif, a plane, a girl and her face being burned off. Before I analyze the symbol, something must be known to truly understand Annie Dillard’s symbolism, almost a mathematical equation of understanding it. All symbols. motifs, words, characters, imagery and events in this book are the same based on a transitive property. If Annie Dillard compares herself to the moth, and the moth is compared to a monk, then Annie is a monk.
In part two of this book a new character, Julie Norwich, is introduced, when her father’s plane crashes, “Into this world falls a plane. The earth is a mineral speckle planted in trees. The plane snagged its wing on a tree, fluttered in a tiny arc, and struggled down”. What does this quote remind me of? It reminds me of the moth fluttering and crashing into the flame of the candle. “The fuel exploded; and Julie Norwich seven years old burnt off her face. ”. Is this girl, with her face flaming, the same as the moth?
Un-coincidentally, earlier in the book during part one, when describing the moth burning, she says it was “like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled…”(17). This girl, this virgin, whose face is on fire, has been sacrificed to once again, to show Annie the light. The next section where Julie is referred to, is where Annie describes her first encounter with her at a friends farm where they are making cider and Julie is playing with Annie’s cat, where she compares herself to the girl, and mentions “We looked a bit alike, her face is slaughtered now, and I don’t remember mine. . The first thing to notice in this quote is how Annie emphasizes the word “looked” by italicizing it. Why does she do this? Because she wants to stress, that deeper than them looking alike physically, they look at the world similarly, sharing the same, enlightened view. Earlier in the book Annie, while describing the girls face, post injury, states, “Little Julie mute in some room at St. Joe’s now, drugs dissolving into the sheets. Little Julie with her eyes naked and spherical, baffled. Can you scream without lips? Yes. But do children in long pain scream? ” What does this all mean?
Well after further reading, on the last page, Annie writes, “Julie Norwich; I know. Surgeons will fix your face. This will all be a dream, an anecdote, something to tell your husband one night. I was burned. Or if you’re scarred, you’re scarred”. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Julie is Annie. Annie also earlier mentioned “your eyes are naked and spherical”, this is a metaphorical way of saying that after being burned, Julie (or Annie) has been enlightened, her “eyes are naked” and unsheathed from any darkness that could fill her with ignorance.
This Connection also shows the source of Annie’s enlightenment, where she had her faced burnt, she has been reminded of God’s cruel reality, and although surgeons can fix her facial, physical scars, once you’re scarred, you’re scarred. Or once you are shown the light, and you’re filled with this wisdom there is no going back. “Can you scream without lips? Yes. But do children in long pain scream? ”, Annie is this child in long pain, and Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm is her medium of “screaming without lips”.
While reading Holy the Firm, many references are made to the bible, Jesus and other holy figures, to answer and explain things, while also bringing up many questions. The first significant biblical and sacred reference to be analyzed occurs on page 45, where Annie explains her understandings of God and angels based on her readings. “So I read. Angels, I read, belong to nine different orders. Seraphs are the highest; they are aflame with love for god and stand closer to him than the others. Seraphs love god. Cherubs who are second possess perfect knowledge of him.
So love is greater than knowledge; how could I have forgotten? The seraphs are born of a stream of fire issued from under God’s thrown. They are according to Dionysius the Aeropagite, ‘all wings,’ having, as Isaiah noted, six wings a piece, two of which they fold over their eyes. Moving perpetually toward God, they perpetually praise him, crying Holy, Holy, Holy…. But according to some rabbinic writings, they can sing only the first ‘Holy’ before being the intensity of their love ignites them again and dissolves them again, perpetually, into flames. Abandon everything,” Dionysius told his disciple. ‘God despises ideas’. What can be taken from this quote? The seraphim angels have their eyes covered by their wings, so that they cannot see the fire that they are flying into, that also they were born from. These angels, though are God’s favorite, die by the same hand that created them because they would not open their eyes. This light, which they cannot see, is knowledge, and by blinding themselves from knowledge with their love for God, they are in return burned and destroyed by God, before they can even finish praising him.
The Cherubs, although they are God’s second, they see the seraphim angels being killed and being burned, like Annie watched the moth being burned, the seraphim angels are being sacrificed to show the cherub the light of God’s ways. The second prominent sacred or biblical reference is on page 60, where Annie tells of Christ explaining to his disciples, a man who was born blind, and they ask the question, “’Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? ’”, to which Christ responds, “’Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him’”.
In other words, Christ tells his disciples, that he was not being born blind (like the blind seraphim who burned) as a punishment, but to show and remind everyone that God has the power to do this to someone, its as if God does terrible things only to assert his dominance onto Earth. It is after this that Annie, very clearly answers her question regarding sacrifice and the reasons behind it as she asks, “The works of God made manifest? Do we really need more victims to remind us that were all victims?
Is this some type of parade for which a conquering army shines up its terrible guns and rolls them up and down the streets for the people to see? Do we need blind men stumbling about, and little flame faced children, to remind us what God can—and will—do? ”. There you go, Annie clearly answers the question of what sacrifice is in exchange for. It is to open your eyes. It is to show you light of God’s cruel reality that we all live in, to remind us that at any second, God can, and will, take everything away.
When Annie Dillard decided to live in pungent sound for two years, secluded, she, like Julie and the cherubim angels, opened her eyes, at the expense of a sacrifice. Holy the Firm is exactly that, an outlet for Annie Dillard to “scream without words”. When Annie refers to God, she is not referring to a specific person, or entity, but rather the reality we live in. The entire book, in fact, is Annie doing just that, giving us a look through her eyes, and allowing us to view these burning figures of light, sacrificing themselves so that we may be aware of God’s power and of His mercy, this is the reason for sacrifice.