Friday, August 16, 2013

Defining Wonder

So we are calling this ambitious undertaking, our wandering across America the “Waller Grant’s Caravan of Wonder.”  For those just joining us, “Waller” is Colleen’s last name and “Grant” is mine.  Easy enough.  But this Waller Grant character is beginning to take the shape of a real character who has hitched a ride on this journey, kind of like Johnny Appleseed.  “Caravan” is an old fashioned word for “trailer” and still used, I believe, in England to designate the kind of vehicle that I am hauling around.  Also “caravan” makes me, at least, think of gypsies, and I rather like pretending I am an old-world sort of disreputable character, strumming the guitar and yelling “opah!”and scaring the citizens.  

But “wonder”?  Why “wonder?”  I can’t give you a full answer now.  And that is the point.  For me—and I will let Colleen speak for herself—the emotional texture of the word opens itself to, well, wondering.  It’s somewhere in the territory of awe, surprise, dreaming, curiosity, astonishment.  Less terrifying than awe, more purposeful than surprise or dreaming, less purposeful than curiosity, wonder is also more playful than astonishment. 

The word also takes me back to my youth and my college education and to a time when new ideas were confronting me like free beer at Wurstfest.  I received from my university exactly what a person is supposed to get from higher education—the shock that although one’s parents are decent and loving people, they are really limited in many ways and do not know everything that you need to know to become who you are destined to be. One of the things I learned about at the university and recognized that I needed terribly to be who I wanted to be was “wonder.”  And I learned about it in unlikely places—in two courses in the government department, the first on Classical Political Philosophy, the second on Religion and Politics, both taught by a young professor, Leonard Jonathan Lamm.  I was never smart enough to figure out what Professor’s Lamm’s politics were.  I am pretty sure he was not your typical neo-Marxist.  But neither was he your proto neo-conservative, either.  And that is when you know you have found the real deal, right?  When you can’t put someone in a box, when he is working, not from ideology, but from philosophy and some understanding of human nature. Professor Lamm’s classes shook this totally unformed, undirected innocent boy from Temple to my core.

Why am I talking about a professor from almost 40 years ago?  Because he did what great professors do.  He introduced me to two books that were very relevant to me then and, I believe, will be again this year.  Both were by Sam Keen, To a Dancing God and Apology for Wonder.  I don’t believe either book was an assigned reading; they were just books that he mentioned somehow in class.  Professor Lamm might have even disagreed with the premises of the books.  Sam Keen, a philosopher and psychologist, has a way of writing somewhat accessible books about a topic just as it becomes the next “in” topic.  He wrote about myth just as Bill Moyers made Joseph Campbell the next big thing.  And he wrote a book about men and masculinity just as Robert Bly and James Hillman created “the men’s movement,” which I am proud to say I was associated with.  Next following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Keen wrote Faces of the Enemy, and finally got the fame I assume he was searching for on PBS.  I guess you could say that Keen attempts to be a “public intellectual.”  Maybe I am being snarky when I say that he has been a little more “public” than “intellectual”; or maybe I am too much of an academic and haven’t fully digested his first two books. Maybe I am envious.

One of the basic raw facts about our trip that Colleen and I had to face early was that we could not take everything we wanted, and most likely need.  Both of us love books, but we reluctantly agreed to limit ourselves to one box of books each.  In my box are these two books by Sam Keen, the original paperbacks I read by at university.  I have started reading Apology for Wonder again. 

This is what I am learning—“Chapter One: The Anatomy of Wonder”:  There are two kinds of wonder.  The first type is “ontologic wonder,” which is simply just that astonishment that something exists at all.  “I didn’t know there was such a thing as this!”  I think of Darwin when he spied an iguana.  The second type is more mundane; it is experiencing something we know exists but we are surprised by its sensational aspects.  Think of the early European traders and trappers who travelled across the Great Plains and first saw the Rocky Mountains.  They knew mountains existed, but these, by God, were special.  Another type of the mundane wonder is akin to poetical revelry, when you notice that unusual quality of a very familiar object.  For me, it could be simply holding a baseball, feeling the shift in texture from hide to stitches, squeezing it to rediscover the firmness of the thing, the complexity of touch, the smooth leather covering that essential stone hardness of it.  “My, isn’t that just amazing.”

Next are the qualities of an object that provokes wonder.  Keen identifies these as contingency, mystery, and presence.  By contingency, Keen means that the object that we are wondering at and about does not immediately come “bearing its own explanation.”  At this moment, I am in a St. Louis RV park looking out my window at a children’s playground, swings, slides, the whole bit.  I look at it and think, “Yep, a playground.”  No wonder, on my part, here.  Then I look up and see a little further away The Gateway Arch, and I think, “What is that?”

Mystery is a trickier concept, and I am not totally sure why Keen chooses this word to name it.  At I understand it, Keen says we experience wonder sometimes when the lines between us (the subject) and the object blur.  We can know a great deal about the object and it still remain mysterious because we are so intimately connected to it.  I know a lot about Colleen, but she is still a mystery to me.  Keen uses the example of birth.  We know enormous amounts of information about how babies are created, gestate, and are born.  But if you watch your wife giving birth . . . wow, that is a wonder.  “How the hell did that just happen?”  The borders between me and that thing I witness are weak.  I know a lot about it, but I can’t get the distance and cool objectivity needed to separate myself from it, and thus to understand it.

A third characteristic of the objects that provoke wonder is presence.  Objects that inspire wonder stand there before us and somehow reach out to touch us emotionally.  Keen mentions Martin Buber’s concept of the I-Thou relationships.  In an I-It relationship, we (the subject) can look upon an object impersonally and treat it as if it were a mere thing.  We can behave so with people also.  The “it” is less than the “I.”  In the I-Thou relationship, we recognize the special individuality of the object.  The “thou” is equal to or greater than the ‘I.”   Buber’s concept comes loaded with religion and theological history, and Keen warns us not to assume all wondrous events lead us to experience God.  Wonder can, of course, be a completely secular experience.  If you want to see what I think Keen means by “presence”  read Richard Wilbur’s poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,”  which I want to re-title “Things Calls us to the Love in the World.”

Hoping that I am not taking the wonder out of wonder for you, let’s talk about what Keen calls “Subjective Aspects of the Experience of Wonder,” but do so by visiting the great St. Louis landmark, The Gateway Arch.    I had been to The Gateway Arch in St. Louis before. I can’t quite remember when, however.  I seem to recall being with my father but no one else, so I am thinking maybe we are talking about high school or college years.  And though I do not remember much detail about that visit, I do remember it fondly.  I remember “liking” The Gateway Arch.

This trip I stood in wonder at it.  The Gateway Arch was designed by Eero Saarinen (1910-1961), the Finnish American architect, who is also well-known for his designs of the TWA terminal at New York’s Kennedy Airport, the terminal at Dulles Airport, the John Deer Corporate Headquarters, and the Saarinen chair.  Saarinen is regarded as one of the great modernist architects, along side Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe.  His first designs for the arch date back to 1947, when he won a competition sponsored by the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association.  Then while the slow machine of local, state, and national business and political interests chugged along, he fiddled with the design, which is based on a catenary curve. Construction began in 1962 and finally was completed in 1965. 

The arch stands more or less in the heart of downtown St. Louis, or rather the edge of the heart as it stretches along the banks of the Mississippi River.  Rising 630 feet, 63 stories tall, the arch is visible for miles as one drives into town.  We drove in on Interstate 44, pulling our house behind our like a turtle or a snail, rising and falling in the gentle hills to the west.  One moment we could see the arch, a half ring, a shining silver rainbow, above the skyline in the river valley, and the next it would disappear as we curved behind a hill.  But the reaction in the truck was “Look, look, boys, do you see the Arch!”  As Keen points out, one of the first ways we experience Wonder is surprise.  And then that surprise shifts into silence.  In our truck, the game unwittingly turned to now-you-see-it-now-you don’t, each phase provoking its own form of elation and disappointment.   

Besides surprise, Wonder also produces in us, according to Sam Keen, feelings of puzzlement, ambivalence, admiration.  If we hadn’t known the Arch existed and had not been looking for it, I am sure one of our reactions would be—“what the hell is that?”  There is nothing on this continent that prepares you for the Arch.  Far away and up close, it seems so unlikely that such a structure could exist.  Why would anyone build such a structure?  It has no use at all. As such, its only purpose is to call attention to itself as itself, to announce its presence and to intrude into your life. The Arch is so big, so outrageous, so (forgive the pun) over-the-top.  For me, this puzzlement just makes me enjoy and admire it even more.  If one were going to build a monument to this giant migration of human beings, their bravery and tenacity, I say make it large and undeniable. 

But in that bravado is contained the sin of pride, and thus ambivalence, like unwelcome flood waters, rushes in.  In all things great, massive, forceful is also contained some level of grief and pain and regret.  In the story of that great migration of Europeans and Eastern Americans is also the story of the annihilation of the Native American.  The way I see it is that there are a great number of “maybes” and “could have beens” in this narrative.  Maybe the White Americans could have stayed put.  Maybe they could have honored and respected the various treaties they made with the various tribes.  Maybe they could have found a way to live side by side, adapt to the migrant lifestyles of the Great Plains.  Or maybe Native Americans could have realized the force of the culture that was coming at them and accept the inevitable.  Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. All this is also contained in the Wonder of the Arch.  The world, this nation, we, I are/am far from perfect—And this perfect monument is a massive reminder of that.

Keen wraps up the first chapter of Apology for Wonder by describing how we humans react to the stimulus of things that provokes wonder.  One is curiosity and explanation.  A second is contemplation and celebration. I know I am simplifying human beings here, but one way to think about these two responses is the division between the sciences and the humanities. One is “how did they build that?” I certainly have that response.     What does one need to know about geometry and about materials to accomplish such a thing—to build a three-way skin of steel, concrete, and stainless steel section by section beginning from the two bases and moving toward the center until there is only one piece remaining, the keystone, and the two sections have to be pried apart to connect that final piece and the windows for the observation deck have can be only a certain size to withstand the pressure exerted on them.  That is a wonderment, and for the appropriately trained, can be explained. 

The second is “isn’t that amazing?”  Because of my nature and my education, this is my natural response, and this blog post is an example of it.   I felt fully alive with Wonder at the spirit and creativity of my species while biking around downtown St. Louis, walking under the Arch, eating a picnic lunch beneath it with Colleen and the boys.     The Arch as a structure is so simple and pure, the stainless steel so smooth and bright, the size so magnificent that I felt as I imagine a stranger, a wonderer, must have felt at the foot of the Parthenon, so many complicated and contradictory emotions, but perhaps the most important is uplifted. 
Soundtrack:  Louis Armstrong:  "It's a Wonderful World."


  1. The Arch does invoke wonder, indeed. Love the post. Missed you and miss you.

  2. Wonderful post. (Sorry, couldn't help it). You have me scrambling for Keen's book, so I can keep up, but what a powerful piece of writing. One of the six kitties I have, who were born about 8 weeks ago, has a sense of wonder which I have seen before in kitties, though rarely. It is difficult in our time and our culture to have much wonder, gotta go, gotta get the rent/car payment/mortgage paid, gotta-gotta-gotta. This kitty stops playing and scrambling with his mates and looks at the wall, looks at my shoes, looks at the light fixture, as if "what is it, where did this come from, what does it do?". I look forward to reading Keen's book to see the variations of wonder. Thanks for being so keen as to allow us who follow the blog to participate in your journey.

  3. Well written Sir, I am heading to the library today and Keen is now on my list. We will be living vicariously through you this coming year. "Stay thirsty my friend!"