steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

I wonder...

Over at the Book View Cafe Sherwood Smith has an interesting post about the idea of a “sense of wonder”, prompted by a discussion with a first-time novelist who asked: “How can you get any sense of wonder into a story when everybody tells you to write from experience? What is ‘sense of wonder’ anyway? Is it just inventing new kinds of vampires or unicorns or aliens?”

Sherwood’s post covers various aspects of what a “sense of wonder” might actually involve, including the proposition that children have more of it than adults, and insights from Nabokov and Tolkien. I’m not going to summarize it here, so do go and read it if you haven’t already. Being a person who’s happier when things are in a list, though, I tried to separate the varieties of wonder out in a comment, which I have reproduced here with slight amendments:

I suspect there are at least three things being combined here under "sense of wonder."

a) one is implicit in your conversationalist's question about unicorns, and equates wonder with the impossible or supernatural: "I will show you wonders!"

b) another is novelty-inspired-wonder, which is by its nature temporary (nine days being the traditional shelf-life, though some say 15 minutes). Today's must-have iPhone ends up in tomorrow's trash, however many oohs and aahs it evoked on its first appearance. Today's genre innovation rightly gets plaudits and creates a buzz, but after it's been copied 50 times it will lose its shine for ever, or at least such of its shine as was due to novelty. Duchamp can put a urinal in an art gallery only once: after that, the idea gets boring, as subsequent 20th-century art proved all too well. Children have more "wonder" in this sense only because more things are new to them than to adults. It's one of their compensations for inexperience.

c) Wonder in the third sense can be evoked as easily by something everyday and familiar as by the impossible or by the novel. It's the capacity to see things afresh, and to experience the enchantment of the ordinary. The Russian Formalists valorized this as a literary technique under the name of "estrangement", but it goes well beyond literature. A sine qua non for this capacity, but distinct from it, is I would say a receptiveness to new experiences, and a reluctance to foreclose that receptiveness by deciding "this is what the world is like" or "this is the kind of person I am". These don't seem to me to be peculiarly child-like skills, but ones that can be trained, or lost, over time.

Sherwood noted that I had omitted the numinous from this list, which in turn prompted me to realise that, for me, the numinous is really an aspect of type c) – or perhaps vice versa. I’ve always thought, like Blake, that “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it really is – infinite.” Though few of us can pull that off, we can at least keep scrubbing away, trying to get the worst of the grime off, and sometimes we are rewarded for our efforts. Infinity, note, shows itself as an aspect of the world and the things in it, not necessarily as something beyond it. Just as there are physical dimensions that we cannot perceive, corners we can’t even imagine peeking round, so there are others down which (having chammied our perception goggles) we can gain a perspective on Meaning itself. “The Marriage of Meaning and Phenomena”, is not as good a name as “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, but that’s kind of what I took away from Blake, all the same. I begin to wonder whether I’m really a pantheist.

But going back to definition c) – it’s helped me articulate a tension within much children’s, and particularly YA, fiction, or at least in my reading of it. Because “finding what sort of person you are”, and fixing your place in the world, is so often what constitutes the wished-for consummation of such books - and maybe of any Bildungsroman - and there’s part of me that wants to go “Noooooo!” in a Luke Skywalker voice whenever this happens.

That’s one of the things that rubbed me the wrong way about His Dark Materials, for example, which seemed (beneath its ostensible championing of personal freedom) far too keen to “fix” people and their daemons in an ossified form of adulthood.

It occurs to me now, though, that there’s something childish (-ish, not –like, in English always the suffix of opprobrium) about my own attitude. If self-knowledge were truly antithetical to change, after all, the world’s therapists would have to resign en masse. “Knowing the sort of person you are” cannot mean matching yourself against a swatch of fixed personality types (or daemon forms). “I study not being but passage,” wrote Montaigne – and that’s surely what self-knowledge ought to be like, an understanding of oneself as something mutable and surprising; as a style, perhaps, but never as an essence. The most satisfactory way to end a story, then, might be by throwing everything up into the air with a cry of “I wonder what comes next?!” (which is essentially what I did in The Fetch of Mardy Watt). Resolve the problems of the past, if you wish, but not those of the future. That way, you leave the door open a crack for wonder to shine in. And yet, and yet... maybe that recklessness is born of having lived a relatively ordered life, albeit one in which I’ve always felt myself to be at odds with the expectations others had of me (while at the same time being quite timid and conventional – it’s complicated!). Had my upbringing been more chaotic I’d probably have quite a different and more positive attitude to the prospect of fixing my place in the world. I also suspect myself of a left-over Puritanism that tells me the world isn’t a place I should feel entirely at home in – not because I’m particularly expecting to go anywhere better, but just because “nothing heere long standeth in one stay” and one shouldn’t get too comfortable.

As ever, these maunderings are directed only at myself, though anyone’s free to leap in...
Tags: books, maunderings
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