Here is how it happens.

The vision is, sub specie aeternitatis, a set of mental relationships,
a coherent series of formal possibilities.
In the actual rooms of time, however,
it is a page or two of legal paper
filled with words and questions;
it is a terrible diagram,
a few books’ names in a margin,
an ambiguous doodle,
a corner folded down in a library book.
These are memos from the thinking brain
to witless hope.

Nevertheless, ignoring the provisional and pathetic nature
of these scraps, and bearing the vision
itself in mind –
having it before your sights like the very Grail –
you begin to scratch
out the first faint marks on the canvas,
on the page. You begin
the work proper.
Now you have gone and done it.
Now the thing is no longer a vision: it is paper.

Words lead to other words
and down the garden path.
You adjust the paints’ values and hues not to the world,
not to the vision,
but to the rest of the paint.
The materials are stubborn and rigid;
push is always
coming to shove.
You can fly –
you can fly
higher than you thought possible –
but you can never get off the page.
After every passage another passage follows,
more sentences,
more everything
on drearily down. Time
and materials hound the work;
the vision recedes
even farther into the dim realms.

And so you continue the work, and finish it.
Probably by now you have been forced
to toss the most essential part of the vision.

But this is a concern for mere nostalgia now:
for before your eyes,
and stealing your heart,
is this fighting and frail finished product,
entirely opaque.

You can see nothing
through it.

It is only itself, a series of well-known passages,
some coloured paint.
Its relationship to the vision that impelled it
is the relationship between any energy
and any work,
anything unchanging
to anything temporal.

The work is not the vision itself, certainly.
It is not the vision filled in,
as if it had been a coloring book.
It is not the vision reproduced in time;
that were impossible.

It is rather a simulacrum
and a replacement.
It is a golem.
You try –
you try
every time –
to reproduce the vision, to let your light so shine before men.
But you can only come along with your bushel
and hide it.

Annie Dillard, from The Writing Life, Harper Perennial, 1989 (pp. 57-8).


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