Sunday, June 11, 2017

Wonder: encounters of the first or second kind

Continuing to reflect on Mythmoot IV.

Experiencing Wonder

The panel shared some of their earliest or profoundest experiences of wonder.  Michael Drout remembered being so taken with Wes þu hal? that he changed his major.  Verlyn Flieger was blindsided by the "Window on the West" in LotR, specifically that moment when "The level shafts of the setting sun behind beat upon [the thin veil of water], and the red light was broken into many flickering beams of ever-changing colour. It was as if they stood at the window of some elven-tower, curtained with threaded jewels of silver and gold, and ruby, sapphire and amethyst, all kindled with an unconsuming fire." John DiBartolo remembered his mother singing away his fear of the dark, an experience that may have led to his own career in music.

My own experiences of wonder most often involve natural beauty -- which can be present even in an urban environment -- and a certain quality of light that strikes me to the core.  C.S. Lewis perhaps came close to capturing its essence.
  • Perelandra's light, filtered by an opaque roof like the golden backdrop of a medieval painting,  is "rich and dim," so that Ransom's "eyes fed upon it undazzled and unaching.  The very names of green and gold, which he used perforce in describing the scene, are too harsh for the tenderness, the muted iridescence, of that warm, maternal, delicately gorgeous world.  It was mild to look upon as evening, warm like summer noon, gentle and winning like early dawn."
    -- C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (1944).
    (Source: C.S. Lewis. Perelandra: A Novel.  New York, London, Toronto, and Sydney: Scribner, 2003.  32.)
Indeed, hundreds of photos posted on this very blog, and thousands more on my computer, reflect my attempts to capture and share this particular luminous beauty, limited only by the quality of the equipment (point-and-shoot) and the skill of its operator (an untrained amateur).

Other memorable experiences of wonder:
  • One extraordinary night on the beach in southwestern Florida in November 2001 with my family, watching the Leonid meteor shower.  The dark sky was filled with shooting stars everywhere.  We started out excitedly pointing them out to each other, but lapsed into awed silence.  We stared up as if in dream, eyes wide, unsleepy.
    "Every star shining brightly / Just like a million years before / And we were feeling very small /Underneath the universe." -- Eurythmics, "When Tomorrow Comes" (video)
  • The day I rushed from the bookstore to a local park and read Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad   cover to cover, each story more dazzling than the last.* 
  • My favorite poems, which all do something extraordinary with language.
  • That feeling when you suddenly notice that you've been fully immersed and absorbed in the task at hand, to the exclusion of all other things.  And then you return to it with a sense of wonder that only enhances clarity and focus.  
  • The day I tested for my yellow belt in karate.  I'd forgotten my gi.  I'd forgotten the test had been scheduled for that day.  And then the test started, and I forgot that I didn't know how to do karate.
  • Sleeping out under the stars, in the open air, in the Grand Canyon.
  • The night during that Grand Canyon trip when I awoke thinking it was noon.  But the air was still and the sky above was dark; only the low, unseen moon had sent a shaft of light horizontally through some slot or crevice to my left (out of sight around a sharp bend in the river) to illuminate the entire cliff wall to my right.  
  • A production of Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory, where we walked across the blasted heath, past a ruin with three tall arches, to reach our seats all around the long dirt stage.  In the opening scene, the witches levitated in those arches, gently bobbing up and down.  
  • My first time seeing The Lion King musical live.  I entered at intermission, not knowing what to expect, and suddenly the air was filled with birds and with song, as the cast walked down the aisles waving puppets on long poles and singing.   As the story unfolded, the puppetry was magical -- I'd suddenly notice a puppeteer next to a life-sized puppet and think "When did he get there?" and then immediately be re-immersed and lose awareness of the puppeteer again.  It was like Faerian Drama for me.**
  • Seeing The Lion King again with my little nieces.  
  • When fireflies light the actors' final bows at the end of a peripatetic Shakespeare performance.
  • Dazzling wordplay, and brilliant parodies that transform an irritating pop song into something truly original, endlessly delightful and clever.   Weird Al's "Ebay," for example.  I'm always in awe of the line "I'll buy your tchotchkes; / Sell me your watch, please!"
  • The "surprisingness" (to use C.S. Lewis's term) of a well-remembered turn in The Lord of the Rings or other favorites.
  • A performance of Beethoven's Fifth by the Budapest Festival Orchestra at Lincoln Center this past March.  
  • Seeing a river otter in the wild - it darted across our path to safe cover at the water's edge, only to reascend the bank and cavort in front of us.
  • The islands of the Galapagos - each one an alien landscape with its own character and fauna.
  • Sycamore trees on a winter afternoon:  Their bark is "silvery white, and yet it seems simultaneously to glow gold in the afternoon light.  On a sunny day, against the bright winter sky, with snow on the ground, the quality of the light is arresting."
  • So many magical evenings at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  Here's a memory from September 2009:
Sounds of insects (crickets and others) swelled, at times drowning out the traffic noises. Bats swooped raggedly in the dusk. And I wandered off following the will-o-the-wisp fireflies among the trees.... Thinking, of course, of the Owl City song ("I'd get a thousand hugs from ten thousand lightning bugs as they tried to teach me how to dance. A fox trot above my head, a sock hop beneath my bed; a disco ball is just hanging by a thread...").

Origins of Wonder
Tell me where is fancy bred, / Or in the heart, or in the head? / How begot, how nourishèd  / Reply, reply.
-- William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice 3.2

Since the panelists and most of the audience were more steeped in Tolkien than Lewis, some of them suggested that wonder is inherent in the human observer, rather than the thing observed.

It's true enough in one sense, especially for the materialists.  But those whose minds are open to the possibility of some kind of higher power and objective Truth may find Lewis persuasive on this issue.

He starts by recounting the de-constructive commentary of a pair of textbook authors who
comment as follows: 'When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall.  Actually he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings.  What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word "Sublime" or shortly, I have sublime feelings.' [...]   They add: 'This confusion is continually present in language as we use it.  We appear to be something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.'  
Lewis, "Men Without Chests," at 2-3 (omitting Lewis's ellipses).

Virtually the entire essay is a reaction against this claim and an exploration of its implications.  I've attempted to assemble the core of Lewis's correctives here for convenience:
Even if it were granted that such qualities as sublimity were simply and solely projected into things from our own emotions, yet the emotions which prompt the projection are the correlatives, and therefore almost the opposites, of the qualities projected.  The feelings which make a man call an object sublime are not sublime feelings but feelings of veneration.  If This is sublime is to be reduced at all to a statement about the speaker's feelings, the proper translation would be I have humble feelings.
Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it -- believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.  [...] The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions.  But for this claim there would be nothing to agree or disagree about.
To say that the cataract is sublime means saying that our emotion of humility is appropriate or ordinate to the reality, and thus to speak of something else besides the emotion; just as to say that a shoe fits is to speak not only of shoes but of feet. 
"Men Without Chests" at 3, 14-15, 20.

Defining Wonder

The panelists grappled with definitions and near-synonyms (e.g., "marvel"), coming up with ideas such as: wonder is something that defies explanation and cannot be captured; it may be a way of perceiving the world and gaining Recovery; it may be aligned with mystery, curiosity, and awe; in literature, it may be something that is evocative rather than detailed. Words such as awesome and terrible came up as well, in their earlier or classical senses (something that inspires awe or terror).

For me, there is a fine line between delight and wonder.  Wonder is clearly not limited to delight, but it might be that wonder (in its positive sense) encompasses a particularly intense and overpowering experience of delight.

My own tentative working definition, after hearing everyone's experiences, sharing my own, and re-reading Lewis, is something along the lines of:  Wonder is what we call it when something -- at least momentarily -- shakes us out of complacency into humility, reverence and awe.  The encounter cannot leave us entirely unchanged.  It forcibly reminds us of our smallness, and may jolt us out of self-awareness entirely.  It arrests us, takes our breath away, or moves us to laughter or tears.  If nothing else, it leaves us more susceptible to the next attack.  In the most extreme cases, we may find ourselves unable to resume exactly the lives we led before, and we will be all the richer for it.

"You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”
“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.
--J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, ch. 19.

FN* There was an element of eucatastrophe to my acquisition of The Cyberiad.  Once I'd noticed that every single quote that I loved from my quote-of-the-day macro just happened to come from the Very Same Book, I went to hunt down a copy.  This bookstore was not the first place I'd looked, but it was my last great hope.  I searched the shelves.  It was not there.  In desperation, I went to the counter to ask if perchance they might have a copy in the back.  The clerk said No, everything was on the shelves, but on seeing my disappointment, he went off to check anyway and - to his surprise and mine - returned triumphant.  It was a sudden, joyous turn: a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.  (Then again, this was before was a thing.  Or maybe it was a thing and I wasn't aware of it.  In any event, an online transaction would have deprived the clerk of the radiant smile he received from a girl who was thrilled and delighted beyond words at buying a book she'd almost despaired of finding.) 

FN** Serendipity got me in to The Lion King.  It was about 9 p.m. and I'd been peering in through the glass at the theater lobby, idly wondering if the musical was any good, when some guy walked up to me and asked whether I'd like to see the show.  When I said yes (wondering what he was up to), he handed me a ticket and walked away.  The seat next to mine was vacant, so it may have been that his date stood him up.  They were really nice seats, too.

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