Saturday, February 23, 2008

no significance

In a recounting of her experience at the viewing of a total eclipse of the sun that’s included in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard gives this definition of what’s significant, what matters:

“If you were to glance out one day and see a row of mushroom clouds rising on the horizon, you would know at once that what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking. No use running to tell anyone. Significant as it was, it did not matter a whit. For what is significance? It is significance for people. No people, no significance.”

Really? Frankly, I have a hard time drawing a line here. If it only matters because people matter, then whatever happens (whatever ever happened) when people go unaffected, by definition, does not matter. Well, then, how much affected do “people” have to be before something matters? If one person is stung by a beetle indigenous to one swamp, and the person slogging alone through the turgid water into which, starving and lost, she eventually sinks, drowns, decays, and is never again encountered by any human sense (the beetle sting had nothing to do with killing the woman, it was just one of many discomforts, one of the most minor) – does the beetle matter? If a virus wiped out twelve villages eight thousand years ago then mutated into harmlessness forever would that virus matter? It hardly matters what rain falls on Titan, that smoggy moon circling Saturn; there’s nobody there to need an umbrella or galoshes. Huh, you say, looking out the window at what Dillard assumes is doomsday. I needn’t bother turning my head to tell the hubby. He’ll be dead in two minutes. Why make those two minutes more uncomfortable with the knowledge? Besides, being as humanity is about to wiped from existence, well, pff. So what!

I don’t know. Considering how fascinated Annie Dillard is by the detail, even the non-human detail (her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a lot of nature-watching), I wonder what she’s talking about here. Perhaps she was so freaked out by the indifference of the sun and moon to her emotional needs when they went about throwing and obstructing light that she couldn’t help herself – she had to claim that only what happened to her mattered, dammit, then subconsciously masked that egotism with “people”, which rung a reassuringly humane tone. People matter!

“Truth is, I THOUGHT it mattered. I thought that MUSIC mattered. But does it? Bollocks! Not compared to how people matter.” – a line from the movie Brassed Off, as sampled for the Chumbawamba song “Tubthumping”.

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