Annie Dillard (b. 1945) is an American author of fiction and non-fiction. She won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction in 1975 for her work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This nonfiction book was written in the first-person detailing Dillard’s exploration around her home in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and her close observation of nature and life.
The following passages comes from that book. The first is her review of passages from another book about congenital blindness and gaining first sight.
I chanced on a wonderful book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight. When Western surgeons discovered how to perform safe cataract operations, they ranged across Europe and America operating on dozens of men and women of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth. Von Senden collected accounts of such cases; the histories are fascinating.
. . . For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning: “The girl went through the experience that we all go through and forget, the moment we are born. She saw, but it did not mean anything but a lot of different kinds of brightness.” . . . In general the newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches. They are pleased by the sensation of color, and learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormentingly difficult. . . . The mental effort involved . . . proves overwhelming for many patients. . . . On the other hand, many newly sighted people speak well of the world, and teach us how dull is our own vision. To one patient, a human hand, unrecognized, is “something bright and then holes.” Shown a bunch of grapes, a boy calls out “It is dark, blue and shiny….It isn’t smooth, it has bumps and hollows.” A little girl visits a garden. “She is greatly astonished, and can scarcely be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names by taking hold of it, and then as “the tree with the lights in it.”. . . [A] twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, “the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful!’”
(Source: Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, pages 27-31)
Later in the book Dillard describes her own experience of “first sight”:
When the doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The lights of the fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had my whole life been a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.
(Source: Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)
Dillard’s “first vision” account is quite literally about first vision. It is about seeing things as if for the very first time, before meaning and understanding occupies the mind, less seeing than “being for the first time seen,” “the world unraveled from reason, Eden before Adam gave names” (p. 32).
Compare with Joseph Smith’s accounts of his First Vision:
“a pillar of
firelight above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me” (1832)
“A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with unspeakable joy.” (1835)
“he at length, saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above; which, at first, seemed to be a considerable distance. He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him; and as it drew nearer, it increased in brightness and magnitude, so that, by the time that it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness, for some distance around was illuminated in a most glorious and brilliant manner. He expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed, as soon as the light came in contact with them; but perceiving that it did not produce that effect, he was encouraged with the hope of being able to endure its presence. It continued descending slowly, until it rested upon the earth, and he was enveloped in the midst of it.” (1840)
“When it first came upon him, it produced a peculiar sensation throughout his whole system (“filled me with unspeakable joy,” 1835); and immediately, his mind was caught away, from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision,” (1840)
“The vision then vanished, and when I came to myself, I was sprawling on my back” (1843)
“and my Soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me” (1832)