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WHAT DOES WONDER MEAN?

By Sam Magavern

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The Montréal Review, September 2022

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Image: Olafur Eliasson & Andrej Tarkovskij*

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By “wonderful” I do not mean “very good,” but mysterious, uncanny, baffling, unknowable, or sacred. I wonder at meanings I can’t understand, truths I can’t grasp, beauty I can’t explain, joy I can’t express, goodness I can’t predict, and love I can’t fathom. I also wonder at ugliness, terror, sorrow, and evil. You might think that I spend all day wondering, with nary a moment to brush my teeth. Actually, I don’t spend that much time in wonderment, but that deficit tells more about me than it does about the world.

 

I believe that “the gods are in all things,” that every phenomenon has a sacred dimension, from gnats to elephants, amoebas to galaxies. Why? Because if I pay enough attention to any phenomenon, it will mystify me with more meanings than I can hold in my head at once. I will wonder at the myriad ways it is related to other phenomena. I will wonder at the brute fact that it exists instead of not existing. I will wonder that one day it will not exist – that it will decompose, with its elements to be re-used and re-composed in other phenomena.

 

                Mysticism is a strain of thought that devotes itself to wonder. Some mystics follow the via negativa; they clear their minds of worldly things until nothing remains but the pure light of the divine. Only by divesting themselves of all beings, they believe, they can meet with Being. Because I don’t believe in anything supernatural, I get limited traction on the via negativa. I can follow it up to the point of trying to silence my selfish internal babble in order to pay attention to the wonderful. But then I turn not to silence or emptiness but to the world: a bird’s song, a creek sparkling in the sunlight, a beloved voice, a psalm.

 

                Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder. It begins when Socrates, instead of taking things for granted, wonders at them and begins drawing other people into conversation designed to make them wonder, too. It begins again when Plato wonders about Socrates: his life, thoughts, and death. Something about Socrates is terribly baffling – not least the fact that he presents himself as a sage who knows only that he does not know anything. As his young lover Alcibiades says in The Symposium, “such is his strangeness that you will search and search among those living now and among men of the past, and never come close to what he is himself and to the things he says.”1  

 

                Too often, philosophy has betrayed its original wonder by seeking to become a total, scientific knowledge of the cosmos. The scientific pretension began with Plato himself, but it inflated wildly in the era of Rene Descartes, when science became so sophisticated that dreams of complete explanation grew increasingly plausible and alluring. In the twentieth century, many philosophers have returned to the Socratic standpoint that philosophy must end, as well as begin, in wonder. But what does it mean to end with wonder? For Ludwig Wittgenstein it means that philosophy must stop at the borders of wonder; in fact, it must draw and enforce those borders. For Martin Heidegger, it means that philosophy, like poetry and religion, must itself produce wonder. Wittgenstein devotes himself to the via negativa:

 

I once meant to include in the preface a sentence which is not in fact there now but which I will write out for you here, because it will perhaps be a key to the work for you … My work consists of two parts, the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one…where many others today are just gassing I have managed…to put everything firmly in place by being silent about it.2 

 

Heidegger, for Wittgenstein, is just gassing, but at least he is gassing about the same wonder that Wittgenstein leaves in silence:  

 

To be sure, I can imagine what Heidegger means by being and anxiety. Man feels the urge to run up against the limits of language. Think for example of the astonishment that anything at all exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is no answer whatsoever . . . 3

 

            Heidegger belongs to the other great strain of mystics: those who, while agreeing that the sacred is ineffable, nonetheless write long books about it. When they run up against the limits of language, they do not, like Wittgenstein, take a vow of silence and return to the cloisters of science; instead, they coin new words, retrieve old ones, stammer, speak in tongues, and write poetry or philosophy. For Heidegger, language, not silence, is the “house of Being.” Even if we never inhabit that house, only through words can we at least find ourselves on way to it, instead of wandering about lost in the trackless dark.  

 

We need to weave and dodge our way between Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Wittgenstein says that philosophy should be written like poetry, but he does not write it that way. His prose, except for a scattering of luminous passages, is dry and boring. Although he rejects much of Descartes’ scientism, he remains severely distrustful of language and its enchantments, of any thinking that devolves into myths and fabrications. He has so many scruples about using words, with all their promiscuous, unintended meanings, that he becomes hard to understand. Heidegger, by contrast, is delighted by the question, “how to do impossible things with the words?” He is willing to use them in all sorts of mythological, archaic, or newfangled ways – willing to become maddeningly dense, abstruse, and irresponsible in his quest to force us to think differently. For Wittgenstein, language goes to hell when it attempts to express what is wonderful; for Heidegger, only in such attempts does language become divine, which means becoming itself.  

 

I would like a philosophy that begins and ends in wonder – not wonder at Being, but wonder at beings. If philosophy is to be more than a critique of language’s failings and pretensions, if it is to talk about how to live, then it must make meanings – even though that requires making myths and fictions. Yet, if philosophy is to remain true to itself, and true to truth, it must constantly question and dismantle its own myths and fictions. That is why Plato wrote fictional conversations that always lead to more conversation. The dialectical interplay – the constructing and deconstructing – is the closest we can come to truth and the closest we can keep to wonder. The philosopher must be like Penelope, weaving a new picture each day and unweaving it each night: an inauthentic performance that somehow enables her to remain true to Odysseus, her ideals, and her soul.  

 

                 Wittgenstein and Heidegger, though for different reasons, are difficult to read. Influential as they are, they are not found on many bedside tables. People don’t read them on the bus for morsels of wonder to get them through the day. Throughout history, religion, not philosophy, has been the primary custodian of wonder. Religion, even as it seeks to explain our lives and world, makes it clear that some things are inexplicable. Religion is filled with warnings to stop and go no further: avert your eyes, step away from the fire, and bow your head. 

 

                Religion creates wonder in two contrary ways. The first way is to mark off the sacred from the profane: to concentrate holiness in special places like temples, special times like Sabbaths and holidays, special people like saints and priests, not to mention special words, pictures, food, plants, mountains, rites, ceremonies, rules and taboos. The second way is to assert that everything is sacred. We associate this type of thought with pantheism, but it exists in monotheism, too. Judaism, which seems to make such a clear distinction between the Creator and the created, blurs that distinction with the notion of the Shekhina, which is God’s immanence in the world. One of the Talmudic sages, Rabban Gamaliel, taught that God revealed himself to Moses in a lowly thorn-bush to show that “there is no place upon earth void of the Shekhina.” He said that the Shekhina was like the sun, shining on the entire world at once.4

 

                If I don’t keep the Sabbath, I run the risk of spending my whole week working and chasing pleasure. I may discover too late that, as William Wordsworth writes, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” But if I keep the Sabbath, I run the risk that, having set aside one day as holy, I will consign the rest of the week to profanity. Similarly, if I don’t keep kosher, I run the risk of forgetting that eating should be a sacred rite. But if I keep kosher, I run the risk of thinking that people who don’t keep kosher have forfeited their relationship with wonder.

 

                In the modern era, it can be hard to express wonder in ways that are neither supernatural nor exclusive. The great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, expresses the dilemma this way:  

Modern man lives in a private world of his own, enclosed within himself, and modern symbolism is not objective, it is private, it does not oblige. The symbols of the kabbalists, on the other hand, did not speak only to the private individual, they displayed a symbolic dimension in the whole world. The question is whether in the reality in which today’s secular person lives this dimension will be revealed again. I was strongly criticized when I dared to say that Walt Whitman’s writings contain something like this. Walt Whitman revealed in an utterly naturalistic world what kabbalists and other mystics revealed in their world.5 

As Whitman himself puts it, in a kabbalistic phrase from “Song of Myself,” “I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name.” Wordsworth, too, believes in his ability to read wonder in nature and then give it voice in enduring, “objective” words – words, which, no matter how personal or autobiographical their origins, can become cultural foundations. He writes in “The Excursion:”

 

Paradise, and groves 
Elysian, Fortunate Fields – like those of old 
Sought in the Atlantic Main, why should they be 
A history only of departed things,  
Or a mere fiction of what never was? 
For the discerning intellect of Man, 
When wedded to this goodly universe 
In love and holy passion, shall find these 
A simple produce of the common day. 
-- I, long before the blissful hour arrives, 
Would chant, in lonely peace, the spousal verse 
Of this great consummation. 

  

                When we dwell long enough with poets like Wordsworth and Whitman, we realize that, while he hints at the answer, Scholem has set up a false dilemma. He writes as if modern symbolism’s failure to “obligate” means that it must remain “private.” But private is a strange word to use in the face of great symbol-makers like Wordsworth and Whitman. Wordsworth may live and write in “lonely” peace, but what he chants is universal – a spousal song for a “goodly universe.” And Whitman tell us in the opening stanza of “Song of Myself,” “what I assume you shall assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” 

 

                There is a middle ground between the obligative and the private, and that middle ground is precisely the democratic. Wordsworth, inspired by the French Revolution, and Whitman, inspired by America’s promise, dream of democratic wonder. Ralph Waldo Emerson gives up his pulpit to preach democratic wonder in lyceums and lecture halls across America, to be an entirely public and liberated kabbalist. As he says to the ghosts of authoritative, “obligative” symbolism:  

 

Ah, ye old ghosts! Ye builders of dungeons in the air! Why do I ever allow you to encroach on me a moment . . . In every week there is some hour when I read my commission in every cipher of Nature, and know that I was made for another office, a professor of the Joyous Science, a detector and delineator of occult harmonies and unpublished beauties, a herald of civility, nobility, learning, and wisdom; an affirmer of the One Law, yet as one who should affirm it in music or dancing.6 

 

Even Herman Melville, for all his darkness, is convinced that wonder has been democratized; he writes to Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces.”7 

 

                For some Romantics, the democracy of wonder is made more palatable by the conviction that men, from their newly free perspectives, will still discern “One Law” – a new version of providence. The German Romantics, in particular, try to re-formulate that “One Law” in secular terms, which leads to oppressive consequences in thinkers like Hegel and Marx. But those who have never been monotheists may not feel the need to cast wonder as a monolithic entity. If wonder is an ever-present potential, a permanent dimension of how humans experience life, then we will always experience it somewhat differently, and yet usually we will recognize each other’s experiences. No human symbol is purely private. All symbols are born through communication; all are open to interpretation.  

 

                We often think of the Romantics as communicating with nature in solitude and then reporting back to us. But Wordsworth walked with Coleridge, Emerson walked with Thoreau, and Whitman walked with all sorts of “camerados.” Whitman understood that his symbolic effusions, his “leaves of grass,” were a product of conversation and communion, not just spontaneous blossoms, as he says in one of his finest poems:

 

                I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing. 
                All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches, 
                Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green, 
                And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself, 
                But I wondered how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without  
                         its friend near, for I knew I could not. 

 

                “Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none more wonderful than man,” as Sophocles writes in Antigone. Although, or because, we know each other better than we know anything else in nature, we experience humans as more mysterious, beautiful, and terrible than storms, trumpeter swans, or the Milky Way. Why does Antigone act as she does? Why is she fated to die? What does justice mean? We can interpret forever without reaching bottom. 

 

                Increasingly, we find ourselves surrounded by manmade – not natural – wonders. But while even artificial phenomena have a sacred dimension, some are definitely more wonderful than others. Giant amusement parks and Hollywood blockbuster movies don’t arouse much awe in me because I experience them as attempts to sell me something pre-packaged. If you design something as a tool to make me feel a certain way, then you have not allowed yourself or me to be surprised and mystified. New Walt Disney movies do not begin in wonder, they begin in marketing studies. Nature is always more wonderful, because nature has no designs on me; it does not care about me whatsoever. Reading nature’s mind can never be as simple and humdrum as reading the mind of someone trying to sell you a bill of goods.

 

Olafur Eliasson, The weather project, Tate Modern, London, 2003

 

                If commercialism and the destruction of nature pose threats to wonder, so does the way we alternate high-speed busyness with passive entertainment, bypassing both contemplation and play. When I drive down the highway at 75 miles per hour, I am moving too fast to pay close attention to my surroundings. My car is like an elevator: an isolated box in which I defer experience for the sake of convenience. If I work all day at tasks with pre-ordained goals, I may not experience much mystery. If I interact with people only by sitting quietly next to them on subways or sitting quietly next to them watching TV, I may never experience their uncanny souls. God’s letters, to use Whitman’s phrase, lie about us in the streets, but often I am too busy, sedentary, or distracted to pick them up.

 

                Kant, like the ancient Greeks, was moved to philosophize by the mysterious order of the stars, the great script of the constellations. Most of us now live in cities or suburbs, where the light from human sources (“light pollution”) obscures the stars. So we sit inside, wondering at the stars who populate our home entertainment systems. Entertainment and sports stars are the most numinous presences in our lives. We hang their pictures on our walls like icons; we read articles about them like lives of the saints. We want their relics, want to touch them, and want to be them. We want to know everything about them, despite our conviction that they are ultimately unknowable and larger than life. They are simultaneously persons and personae, natural presences and monumental artifacts.  

 

                Is this the democracy of wonder that our nineteenth century sages envisioned? In some respects, it is. Anyone can be a star, given talent and luck. For all their racism and sexism, sports and entertainment are more open than many other spheres. At the stadium and multiplex, people of different races and classes commingle more than they do in churches or private clubs. Many stars have been great artists – from Bessie Smith to James Brown, from Cary Grant to Spike Lee. Other stars, however, are simply manufactured. They are fungible cogs in a “star-making machinery” that makes them famous for being famous. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with “star-worship.” It’s all a question of what we revere: a star’s uncanny gifts or her mechanical aura of fame and power. 

 

                The most wonderful characters in our pantheons are often mixtures of fact and fiction. Moses, Socrates, Jesus, and the Buddha were all real people, but we know them only second-hand, through the imaginative writings of others. We don’t know any biographical facts about them except those that were relevant to the wonder of their reporters – with the result that they are eminently real and yet, at the same time, entirely mythical and archetypal. This “magic realism” gives them special advantages as founders of religions and philosophies, both of which begin with wonder. Not just their teachings but also their lives are free to become completely exemplary.  

 

                The great modern philosophers vanished into their books in a different sense – by leading mostly private lives. Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger were all somewhat solitary men who did not engage much in public life. They stayed at home. (One glaring exception, Heidegger’s time as a Nazi university administrator, was even worse than Plato’s involvement with the tyrant Dion). All of them seemed to sense that they must live through their writing, without distracting themselves or their audiences with too much other activity. Each was a perfectionist, and only writing offered them the control they needed to formulate their grand, cosmic thoughts. The question is, whether in seeking to become exemplary solely through their cloistered musings, they missed something crucial, or at least something wonderful. 

 

                Socrates was no control freak and no recluse. He spent his life talking to other citizens, experimenting with different statements, contradicting himself, and resorting to myth-making and even sophistry. He was willing to become a public figure even if that meant being misunderstood, caricatured (as he was by Aristophanes), and, in the end, executed. He wrote nothing down, which meant that he delivered his posterity over entirely to his reporters. He turned his death into an occasion for statements and a statement itself. By refusing to flee, as his followers urged him, by refusing to disavow Athens, he made it impossible for Athens to disavow him. They had to kill him as an Athenian. He took ultimate responsibility for his meanings – even those meanings he never meant, like the “corruption of youth” of which he stood accused. He made his life an “open book” that refused to be a mere book. 

 

                The most Socratic thinkers of the modern age were not academic philosophers but public figures: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Socrates (to whom King compares himself in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”), they spent their lives talking to their fellow citizens and were willing to die at their hands. While Heidegger and Wittgenstein poured themselves into solitary thinking and writing, Gandhi and King poured themselves into their tragically divided republics – threw themselves into the breach. To be a Socratic meaning maker, you must be willing to be misunderstood and pilloried: to see your meanings refracted in the warped and broken mirrors of public discourse. You must embody your words and back them with your life. Wittgenstein and Heidegger wrote wonderful books; Gandhi and King led wonderful lives.  

 

                Even more crucial than our wonder at heroes is our wonder, or lack of wonder, at those around us. Too often, we stop looking at people and are content with mere seeing, or we look with an imperious gaze that turns them into stone: bad statues of themselves. Is my social life made up of “functions” – official, choreographed events designed to homogenize experience? Is my dinner table just a place to consume food and beverages? Do I treat the people I work with like machines, or do I stop to wonder at the depths of their suffering and joy? Philosophy began with Plato wondering about a mentor whom he loved and lost – wondering at the possibility and impossibility of truly knowing him. It is odd how little time philosophy has spent since then wondering about other people. Montaigne and Nietzsche wondered about themselves quite impressively, but no philosopher has emulated Plato in devoting himself to the mystery of another person’s life and death.   

 

                To wonder at another person, a tree, a beetle, or a poem is to stand at the shore as the sun sets. The mind reels at the simultaneous sense of vastness and limit. I can see all the way to the horizon, but no further. I can look at the sun, but only because it is about to vanish. The surface of the water looks sterile and blank, but the waves are constantly casting new specimens of life and death up onto the sand. Only the ocean can give form to the land, marking it off into islands and continents, just as only death can give form to life, making it something with a beginning, middle, and end. As we begin listening and responding to death, what at first seemed a mere zero becomes a “goose egg:” a round world of its own, from which new life hatches out – squawking with terror and joy. 

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Sam Magavern is a writer and public interest lawyer, currently teaching at the University at Buffalo Law School.  He is the author of Primo Levi's Universe. He has written in a wide variety of genres – poetry, fiction, film, scholarly essays, and comic books – and published in many of the leading literary magazines, including Poetry, The Antioch Review, and The Paris Review.

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1 Gregory Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 1.

2 Letter to Ludwig von Ficker, quoted by Allan Janick in “Wittgenstein’s Strategy,” New York Review of Books, July 10, 1969, accessed October 5, 2019 at https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1969/07/10/wittgensteins-strategy-2/.

3 Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 29.

4 Marcus Jastrow et al, “Burning Bush,” in Jewish Encyclopedia, accessed December 18, 2020, at http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3845-burning-bush; and Ilel Arbel, “Shekinah,” in Encyclopedia Mythica, accessed December 18, 2020, at https://pantheon.org/articles/s/shekhina.html.

5 Stanley Cavell, A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises (Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1994), xi.

6 Robert N. Linscott, The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Random House, 1960), 196.

7 Nicolas Delbanco, Herman Melville: His World and Work (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 137.

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* Image Credits: Olafur Eliasson, The weather project, Tate Modern, London, 2003 / Andrej Tarkovskij, Nostalghia, 1983

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