John Pappas

The Ultimate Understanding

By John Pappas

Writing 111: Writing Seminar

“This is a difficult question for which there is no short answer”—William Covino and David Jolliffe’s second line  of their essay in the book Writing about Writing: A College Reader reveals the ambiguity behind their initial title, “What is Rhetoric?” (327). It’s ironic that there is “no short answer.” Why would they pose a “difficult question” that they don’t know the answer to? They do so to demonstrate that even seemingly obscure words can be understood with a meticulous approach. They manage to comprehensively define the ambiguous word “rhetoric” as: “the intellectual, cognitive, affective, and social considerations that guide the writer…to use the language as he or she does, and…the effect it actually has on people who…read it” (331).

In her celebrated essay, “Seeing,” Annie Dillard masterfully incorporates the “rhetoric” that Covino and Jolliffe speak of. Dillard uses the rhetorical elements of exigence, arrangement, and audience awareness to ensure that her “language” will leave an everlasting “effect” on her readers. Her shrewd usage of these rhetorical elements enables her to enlighten readers on the topic of seeing; she subtly demonstrates the fact that there is more to seeing than meets the eye.

Before she decided to write “Seeing,” Dillard must have been thinking a great deal about the topic. With “Seeing,” she finally “put in [her] oar” (Kenneth Burke qtd. in Corvino 329). Her exigence is that many people in this world don’t “see” the way she thinks we should. According to Dillard, “seeing” is understanding the world for what it really is by letting the mind go; searching for the right way to “see” is tedious and will only complicate the process. Dillard mentions two methods of seeing. The first method involves looking too hard. Dillard mentions, “When I see this way I analyze and pry. I hurl over logs and roll away stones; I study the bank a square foot at a time, probing and tilting my head” (167). Dillard uses the words “analyze,” “pry,” “study,” and “tilting.” All of these words demonstrate the meticulous nature with which she sees the world this way. These words emphasize the strain on her mind when she tries to view the world from this perspective. The second method of seeing is different, however. Dillard says, “But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway, transfixed and emptied” (168). In this way she, “[lets] go,” using less effort. The second way of seeing is more relaxing and calming and about enjoyment of the present. This second way of seeing is analogous to when someone constantly looks for a lost item but only finds it when he or she is not actually looking. When Dillard doesn’t stress about seeing things is when she actually sees.

Through these two ways of seeing, Dillard reaches the secret of seeing—the secret that will allow one to not only see, but to also understand. She says, “The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff” (171). When you act as a “sail” you only let the wind drive you. One could view the wind in this case as the surrounding world. When we put too much thought into seeing, our minds get in the way, as in Dillard’s first way of seeing. When we forget, and let the mind be free, we see and understand without mental bias. We see clearly.

The aforementioned “secret of seeing” is discovered by Dillard through her seemingly stream of consciousness-like approach in which she simply writes down ideas in a cohesive manner. She expects the reader to quickly follow along with her fast-paced style that contains allusions without appositives that clarify authority, such as when she writes, “Donald E. Carr points out that the sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited by the brain” (158). Her thoughts may seem scattershot when read quickly and without any thought; however, if one looks carefully, he or she will notice Dillard’s meticulously crafted arrangement. This essay is arranged in such a manner that demonstrates how Dillard gradually comes to subconsciously “see” the right way.

Dillard’s opening to this piece cannot be overlooked. In the opening anecdote, she talks about how she used to hide pennies in different places for other people to pick up (151). The penny-giving was a “curious compulsion” that she has not been “seized by…since” and the pennies were a “free gift from the universe” (151). Taking all of this into consideration, it seems as if Dillard, when she was little, thought that she was called upon by “the universe” to give these pennies to other people. She was handing out “free [gifts]” to the curious people who stopped to pick up the penny. But she would never “give the matter another thought” (151) after hiding the pennies because she was too innocent to think, or care, about seeing. Dillard, in this stage of her life, is purely innocent. She has not even grappled with the idea of seeing.

In the middle of the piece, where one can infer that she is older than she is in her anecdote, she starts to give some thought to seeing. The middle of the piece represents her struggling and coming to terms with the concept of seeing. Mastering anything is not easy, and Dillard encountered some rough patches along the way. She talks about small things like “traps in sandy soil, monarch pupae near milkweed” and “skipper larvae in locust leaves” that “are utterly common” and how she has “not seen one” (155). Another example in which she discusses her frustration with seeing is when she almost falls on a mountain while following a hawk through binoculars (164-165). The act of “staggering” that she experiences symbolizes her “confusion” (165) with seeing at that moment in time; she states, “I don’t understand what I see” (165). Dillard can’t stay steady on the mountain while viewing the hawk because she is not “seeing” the way she wants to be.

At the end of her essay, or intricate arrangement, Dillard seems to have come to more wisdom on the topic of seeing. She has completed the innocence stage of placing pennies under trees, and the aggravation stage where she does not know how to come to terms with sight. The moment where she starts to come to terms with seeing is when she sees “the tree with the lights in it” (171). The roots of this epiphany are embedded in her example involving a blind girl. When surgeons discovered how to take out cataracts, people like this blind girl could see for the first time (171). Dillard mentions how the girl “stands speechless in front of the tree, which she names ‘tree’ only by taking hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it’” (171). The blind girl only recognized the tree by “taking hold of it,” or touching it, not by seeing it, which implies that seeing is more than just sight—it also encompasses understanding of the world. But when the blind girl could finally see the sun filtered tree for the first time, she sees a “tree with lights” in it. These “lights” represent the vision aspect of life. The blind girl does not need the sight to “see,” or understand, that the object was a tree beforehand. For individuals like Dillard who already have vision, seeing the “tree with the lights in it” works the opposite way. They have seeing first, but they need to come to understanding with time.

At the end of the essay, Dillard calls herself “a bell” that “never knew it until at that moment [she] was lifted and struck” (172). The moment she is “struck” is her epiphany; she knows how to “see.” To understand. One could go even further and say that the arrangement is such that we can now see why Dillard meticulously planted pennies for people when she was little. Taking into account her penny- giving and her epiphany, one cannot help but make a connection. When Dillard was giving people free pennies as a kid, she was indirectly teaching them to see; in writing this essay, as an enlightened adult, she is subtly helping her audience to see and understand as well.

Just as Dillard teaches herself about seeing through her stream of consciousness writing, she also teaches her target audience, those who are willing to fish for meaning in her stream of consciousness. Dillard’s piece satisfies her own curiosity regarding seeing and the natural world, and it also does so for her audience of curious individuals. In Dillard’s stream of consciousness, she continuously alludes to her alertness and curiosity when it comes to these aspects. Dillard describes this part of herself when she says, “If I can’t make out these minutiae, still I try to keep my eyes open. I’m always on the lookout…” (155). Dillard’s audience is the group of similarly curious individuals who are “always on the lookout.” The inquisitive individuals that are provoked by her essay will find themselves questioning seeing and understanding. Thus, if you find yourself “fishing” for meaning, then you are an inquisitive individual who is part of her audience.

In order to see Dillard’s indirect mention of audience, one must understand the extended metaphor involving the penny from the anecdote on the first page. In this extended metaphor, the penny represents the benefits that people can receive just by being curious and attentive. An example of this instance is when Dillard is attentively examining the abundance of birds flying out of a tree; the closer she gets, the more birds disperse. Dillard describes how, when she gets very close to the tree, the “real diehards, appeared, spread, and vanished” (154). Reflecting on this instance, Dillard says, “These appearances catch at my throat; they are the free gifts, the bright coppers at the roots of the trees” (154). Just by being curious and looking for “the bright coppers,” Dillard receives a “free [gift].”

Dillard’s curious audience is willing to take the time to look and find “the bright coppers” of life that lead to “free gifts.” Curious people are most likely to find these “bright coppers” because they are the ones who care to look, care to “see.” She indirectly mentions her intended audience of inquisitive people when she says, “But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty brought a lifetime of days” (152). “A lifetime of days” is the beneficial result of being interested, like Dillard, and this is what she wants her audience of inquisitive minds to know. Dillard also addresses the audience that she does not appeal to when she says, “It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so hungry and tired that he won’t stop to pick up a penny” (152). Dillard does not literally mean “hungry and tired.” When she uses these two words she is emphasizing the fact that there are some people who lack curiosity and are always too preoccupied to look around and capture the beauty of the little things. Just because you are seeing out of your eyes, does not mean you are inquiringly using them.

Works Cited

Covino, William, and David Jolliffe. “What is Rhetoric?” Writing about Writing: A College Reader, Ed. Elizabeth Wardell and Doug Downs, Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2014, pp. 325-344. Print.

Dillard, Annie. “Seeing.” The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. New York: Ecco, 2016. 151-72. Print.

A Word from John

Picture of John Pappas“The Ultimate Understanding” was the second essay that I wrote in college. It was challenging to write because I had to completely change my writing process to make it a success. In high school, I was taught what everyone else was taught—the systematic five-paragraph essay. This type of essay includes an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Yes, it’s very structured; however, it places serious constraints on students. Throughout high school, I found myself worrying more about the structure of my essays than about their actual content; I was tailoring my essays to the exact template that teachers wanted. Doing so took away a great deal from my essays because I was being too conservative—not taking any risks.

Everything changed in my Writing 111 class taught by Professor Anne Boyle. She taught me to steer away from the constraining five-paragraph essay and to move towards a more relaxed essay structure that best fit the particular topic that I was writing about. I obviously still needed the basic essay elements (intro, thesis, and conclusion, etc.), but the core of the paper didn’t have to be three plain paragraphs anymore; it was now whatever I wanted it to be as long as it was logical and cohesive. For the first time, I felt like I was writing for myself rather than for someone else.

Thanks to Professor Boyle, I now enjoy writing because I no longer see an essay as five separate and distinct paragraphs, but as a bunch of interconnected parts that work together to become one product.

From Professor Anne Boyle


Rhetorical Analysis

Your second formal essay assignment is a 4-5 page rhetorical analysis of the rhetorical strategies used either by Dillard or Coates.

In Chapter 3, we have studied the rhetorical situation and have described such elements as exigence, audience, pisteis or the appeals of logos, pathos, and ethos; you have also read about the 5 canons that include invention, arrangement, and style (also memory and delivery).

You will write your essay to an audience that has read both Coates and Dillard, an audience who is informed of the principles of the rhetorical situation.

The purpose of your essay—your exigence—is to analyze how either Dillard or Coates uses at least one, and no more than three of these rhetorical elements, to construct the essay. Your analysis should focus on three questions: What is/are the most effective rhetorical element(s) used in the essay? How and where are the elements used? Why and how are they effective?

Professor Commentary

John Pappas’s rhetorical analysis of Annie Dillard’s sophisticated essay, “Seeing,” is a work that not only exemplifies John’s ability to write clear and profound prose, but also to read carefully and closely and use Dillard’s complicated arrangement to his own advantage. Like Dillard’s essay, John’s essay deserves more than a single reading by curious readers who want “an ultimate understanding” of both essays.

John described himself in class as a slow reader, but he is a meticulous reader with a fervent desire to use his analytic and aesthetic skills and master complicated texts. He understands that the youthful Dillard left pennies for others to find and the mature Dillard scatters her essay with seemingly random gifts for readers who “are not so hungry and tired” that they will fail to locate and value these gifts. In his reading and through his writing, John comes to terms with an essay that, at first reading, seems to be written as a “stream of consciousness” reflection. He recognizes, however, that Dillard’s essay is, in fact, not only tightly argued and intentionally arranged, but also targeted to readers who are prepared to do the intellectual work necessary to mine challenging texts and interpret their meanings. The very structure of John’s essay is challenging, but John is adept at scattering his own pennies and creating excellent transitions to guide curious, active readers through his own argument.

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