What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns or over the desolate plains? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burnt out, any muck ready at hand?
In 1975, Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard retreated to an island in Puget Sound, vowing to write a book about whatever happened during her first three days there. After two years, she finished Holy the Firm, a slim tour de force about the self-sacrificial nature of art, the metaphysical problem of pain, and the deep-down holiness of the natural world. Though richly poetic, Dillard’s imagery is also violent and visceral. Mimicking the sacrifice of the artist, a moth gives its life to a candle’s flame, becoming a supplemental wick; and little Julie Norwich, only seven years old, loses her face to the fire of a plane crash. Though Dillard warns us that “nothing is going to happen in this book,” somehow everything happens at once, as seemingly insignificant moments are elevated to a sacred and earth-shattering importance.
I came to Holy the Firm with higher than high expectations due to my dear friend Shelby‘s
obsession with deep admiration for Dillard and her writing. That’s always a risky starting place — what if it’s not as good as I was led to believe? However, Dillard captivated me on her own merit, living up to even the most glowing recommendation. Despite its far-reaching themes, Holy the Firm is remarkably cohesive. Every sentence, every word, acts as a functioning cog in the book’s machine; no quote holds the same power when divorced from its context. And whittled down to a mere 76 pages, it never suffers from unnecessary wordiness — each word is carefully chosen, essential, and packed with precise meaning.
At the heart of Holy the Firm is the assertion that art (especially Christian art) must be painful, exhausting, and emptying, or nothing at all. If we are to become artists, we must surrender ourselves like the moth to the flame of the work, obliterating ourselves to become the lights of the world. I think she’s right, whether one’s art is her writing or her life itself. If you are an artist, a Christ-follower, or both, “you can’t be anything else. You must go at your life with a broadax. . . . ” Of course, this is easier said than done, and I have not even begun to master it. But if we view ourselves as conduits for God’s work, as wicks rather than flames, won’t the Kingdom be better lit?
Holy the Firm is a difficult book. It reads like poetry, and like poetry, it refuses to surrender its meaning without a fight. I found myself taking long pauses, reading and rereading paragraphs, trying to connect the dots between one image and another — and truthfully, I still don’t understand some of it. But unlike some (I’m looking at you, William Faulker), Dillard manages to invite rather than alienate. She deserves a reread (or two, or three), and I’m willing and anxious to give it to her.