Seeing' by Annie Dillard: Book Summary

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Navajo people, as Smith writes, believe that there does in fact exist a world of higher powers. And yet, they have no idea of this unknown power or what it resembles. The one thing they do know, however, is that it is their absolute truth. Compare this to Joseph Campbell’s writings in “The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology,” where Campbell talks about a little girl playing with three burnt matches. Although she is completely fine at first, she suddenly “shrieks in terror (Campbell 22)” as one of the matches appears to turn into a witch. In this scene, the girl’s innate releasing mechanism, after a period of time, seemingly transforms a simple match into something more daemonic. Although the girl knows, in reality, that the match is not a witch, something inside of her psychological mind triggers a response that makes the girl respond in a matter that makes the match appear as if it is actually a witch. As her change in perception of the match changes, her perception of what appeared to be her absolute truth changes. In Anne Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” Dillard talks about the perceptions of those who used to be blind but are no longer. She references many different examples, showing how the blind interact with the world through their new tool of vision. While many rejoice in their new sense of perception, many do not like this new sense of vision and prefer to keep their eyes closed. Interested in this idea, Dillard attempts to shift her perception to gain a different form of sight. She talks about “another kind of seeing, which involves a letting go (Dillard 306).” Rather than searching, Dillard lets go of her senses in an attempt to shift her perception to gain this different form of seeing. Comparing Campbell and Dillard, I believe they would both agree that while there is one truth, there are multiple perceptions or ways of looking at the truth.

As human beings, we create symbolisms and stories to describe that which we cannot explain. Just as Whitehead states, “philosophy is akin to poetry (Whitehead).” In the same way that poetry can be viewed in many different ways, views on a subject can be perceived in many different ways. Smith talks about this idea when contrasting aborigines’ and anthropologists’ viewpoints on the aborigines’ life, coined by the aborigines as the term “the Dreaming (Smith 367).” From an anthropological outlook, the aborigines’ world is viewed as time being linear, while from an aboriginal outlook, their world was viewed as having cyclical time. The idea here is that aboriginal life can be looked at through two completely different lenses while maintaining the same truth. This ties into Campbell’s writings, where Ramakrishna talks about the seven floors of a building: “Some people climb the seven floors of a building and cannot get down; but some climb up and then, at will, visit the lower floors (Campbell 26).” As said by Ramakrishna, some people are stuck on a single floor of the building and have no floor mobility. I connected this with Dillard on how some people can only perceive the world using their eyes, or in other words, that these people are stuck on a single floor. Adding onto this, I concluded that in order to navigate up and down the floors of the building, one must be able to change their perception in order to access these different levels. I believe Dillard was attempting to shift up or down the ladder towards the ending half of her writings of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” where she talks about personally attempting to see the world from a different perspective. I believe that if one gets very good at meditation, they are rewarded with access to these different lenses of seeing the world. By having access to these different lenses, these people are able to combine their different perspectives on the truth they are trying to understand and are, subsequently, able to attain a better sense of its true idea.

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The reason we can alter our perceptions in the first place is that we have the freedom to do as we, please. As Dillard talks about in “Living Like Weasels”, she states that as humans we can do whatever we want with our reality. Dillard talks about how “People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience--even of silence-- by choice (Dillard 3).” Just like weasel yields to instinct, we have the freedom to yield to anything we want to. Some might wonder why we would yield to anything in the first place. This can be perfectly described by the weasel, who yields to instinct and nothing else. Because the weasel yields purely to instinct, it is free of bearing the hardship of choices which makes the weasel arguably freer than we are. What it comes down to, it seems, is our perception of the word truth. But because of the “Fallacy of the Perfect Dictionary (Whitehead 2),” as Whitehead points out, the definitions in the dictionary have infinite possibilities of meaning, so the idea of freedom goes beyond the boundaries of our dictionary. Thus, we must alter our perception to attempt to get a better understanding of this idea.

The pursuit of the truth, of discovery, is what makes us an intelligent species. Yet although this seems very simple, there are multiple perceptions of the same truth, which makes us wonder how we can alter our current perceptions to get a better understanding of the idea of truth. Through whole generations, the way humans act towards one another and the world as a whole has changed permanently. And yet, through these changes, through urbanization, through agriculture, humans have retained core thoughts and ideals that truly transform us from animals into humans. Questioning each other’s choices and the world around us is what strengthens our philosophical knowledge, and I firmly believe this constant questioning will continue for as long as humanity may exist.

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Seeing’ by Annie Dillard: Book Summary. (2023, April 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from
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