The Widdershins Spindizzy: Wonder and the Reading of Fantastika
(Note: due to an avalanche of technical problems, I was not able to write the column I had intended for this week. Next week I will be reviewing some essays from 40k Books and talking about how writers and readers approach the story in fiction)
“Wondering’s healthy. Broadens the mind. Opens you up to all sorts of stray thoughts and possibilities.” – Charles de Lint
“If the unusual character of the stimulus extends so far as to present to the perceiving mind in no uncertain degree the conception of improbability (such as a story of a trip to the moon and back; or the story of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) the very improbability will tend to abbreviate or even, in some cases, entirely abrogate a state of curiosity in favor of one of wonder, providing always that the improbability is not so great as to instantly destroy all possibility of belief. The improbably is sometimes ridiculous; sometimes it is wonderful. Within the bounds of belief the very sense of the improbability clouds the effort of curiosity to find a sufficient explanation, and gives in advance a sense of the abortiveness in which the effort must end. Such a state is distinctly favorable to wonder. Most important, however, is this fact: that where the stimulus is the improbable, it is found, by the very nature of the case, and at least nine times out of ten, in the form of a story — not in the form of immediate first-hand experience. In this fact alone lies a justification of the critical study of wonder in literature.” - Benjamin Putnam Kurtz
I love this quotation from Kurtz, which is why I transcribed it in its entirety. I first encountered it in college while writing a paper on Irish drama. I was picking apart George Fitzmaurice’s The Magic Glasses, which I found to be delightfully fantastical but still bothersome with its excessive melodrama and broadly-drawn characters. It was bothersome to me that the play had a number of very obvious faults, yet there were moments when I felt a bit of awe, a taste of the strange allure of Jaymony’s artifact. I labored to understand my response to the play’s situation, a combination of marvelling and horror. I worked as an assistant in the library’s reference area so in my free time between patrons I looked around for ways to think about the tension between those two feelings, and at some point came upon Kurtz’s book.
It led me to the beginning of an answer, but more importantly got me thinking about the idea of wonder itself. I never had the time to explore the idea in more depth, and then years passed and I, in some rash, foolish ways, walked away from wonder. When I returned to the social and literary realms of fantastika I began to, well, wonder about wonder again (and I wonder how many emotions and thought-processes we can apply to understand themselves!), how essential it is to deeply interacting with fantastic literature, to writing it, reading it, talking about it, feeling the words and ideas and conjured people and worlds circulating through your mind. What immediately comes to mind is the Spindizzy from James Blish’s Cities in Flight, of some device, some translator and converter of energy that could move huge, almost imponderable things better than little, prosaic details. And yet, what I envision is one that goes widdershins, one that does not make great things fly, but anchors them in our thoughts and dreams, pulls them towards us and allows us to dwell in them rather than merely watching them fly off, unreachable amongst the stars. Wonder changes the gravity of the imagination and pulls the improbable and impossible and miraculous and marvellous inside us.
Wonder is a powerful capacity; one whose power we rarely feel a little of it; often we cannot quantify or qualify its capabilities or effects. It is a term with great elasticity and breadth, a capacity that all humans have, that is at the same time highly subjective. The word itself has an unremarkable, yet telling history. It began as a noun to denote something “of unknown origin” that provoked a strong response of astonishment. It was only later that the response, and the manner in which it was created, were also called “wonder.” It would be fascinating to trace this transformation (and I think this has been done in some specific contexts), but what interests me for the moment is the notion of that shift from wonder being external, a thing to marvel at, to wonder being something that a person possessed subjectively and that was also a distinctive activity.
Caroline Walker Bynum sees a commonality to early theories of wonder as “a significance-reaction: a flooding with awe, pleasure or dread owing to something deeper, lurking in the phenomenon. The wonderer was situated, wonder was perspectival.” So wonder has been in some way always subjective, always about a specific moment and reaction, and eventually it changed from eminating from a distinctive object to being a relationship, something engaged in by the viewer and taken in. the presence of wonder made you wonder, stimulated your ability to wonder, and with that wonder you drew it into your experience, into your memory and cognition. Wonder did not come from everyday things, from the habitual or casual, but from a marvelous source, something strange and literally brimming with wonder, with something unexpected, unforeseen, immanent and inexplicably transcendent. It is through seeing this thing, experiencing a jolt of astonishment, a miracle in the classic sense of the term, that creates an imaginative linkage through which the qualities that make it so different and singular are taken in by your mind, that creates the instance of wonder. It is a quality that the object (creature, natural feature, or text) holds within it, that creates a spark when viewed by someone who can wonder; the quality is inseparable from the experiencing person and only appears when one perceives it and allows that widdershins spindizzy to do its magic.
Science fiction and fantasy are often considered the literary genres of wonder, but they are latecomers to the world of the marvelous. Humans have a long history not just of imagining, of conjuring ideas and things not present, but of wondering, of finding some element of the unexpected and inspirational and terrifying in the world around us and having it stimulate not just an emotional reaction, but a creative response. The marvelous and miraculous (both ideas that have changed over time and been debated for about as long as there has been thinking about any subject) have existed as nodes of contemplation, inspiration and bewilderment for millenia, but have more recently become objects specifically of wonder.
As Stephen Greenblatt discussed in Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, the idea of wonder began to change with the European discoveries of the New World and great changes in the ideas of how the world worked. Kurtz talks about the inextricability of wonder from some types of literature, that literature itself is in dialogue with wonder. Fantastika, from the 18th century onward, becomes a part of the latest series of theories and conceptions of what is marvelous and wonderful. As Kurtz said, wonder begins when an explanation does not come easily to mind. Wonder tries to grasp the improbable not through curiosity, but through acceptance of something’s unknowability. There come a point where the imperviousness of an object to reason results in a sort of ecstatic acceptance, an opening to the unreasonableness of the thing. That opening establishes a dialogue between the viewer’s ability to wonder and the strange and enigmatic object of that wonder. The wondering is activated, inculcated and awakened, by that which does not submit to easy explanation, that resists accepted interpretation and instigates a sort of retaliation to its challenge.
To wonder is to strike back at ideas and items that refuse easy understanding, but that are also unreasonable in the emotions that they stimulate. To wonder is to merge strong feelings with an attempt to make sense of something that persists in being difficult and impossible, impenetrable in some respects but viscerally porous and enticing in others. Because when we wonder, it is not about things that are trivial, or that are invulnerable. We wonder about things that communicate with us, that share something, that invigorate us to use more than one aspect of our intellect or perceptions. When we wonder. . . we think, we feel, we dream, we fantastize, We do something complicated and remarkable and rather eccentric: we establish a connection with something we do not understand not to understand it better, but to experience the misunderstanding that it transfers to us.
Sir Francis Bacon said that “wonder is broken knowledge.” He wanted, I think, to understand it better, to comprehend knowledge, but by framing wonder in this way, he gives us a key to more than that. Wonder is how we anchor ourselves in a world that we only every partially, incompletely, and chaotically understand. Wonder is an acceptance of and revelling in what is not-possible, what is beyond what we know, what is true but not fully conceivable. We pull these things that make the wrong sort of sense towards us with our wonder, bring them into our skulls where we can play with them, become familiar with them, see their contours and depths and also see how they change in our internal vision.
Fantastika, the good stuff at least, gives us the stuff of wondering. Fantastic literature is a place where we can play with joy and seriousness and where some of us try to create new wonders for all of us to see, marvels that we might make our own so deeply that they become a part of how we think, of who we think we are, of how we lense and analyze reality. It is intentionally so, it is specifically a conceptual place where we try our hardest to make and see wonders. More than anything else, we want to make wonders that change the world for us. Caroline Walker Bynam, in talking about what the best history should do, wrote: “amazement yearns toward an understanding, a significance, that is always just a little beyond both our theories and our fears.” That yearning is even more pronounced and important in fantastika, and is what makes it so potentially alarming and edifying. The literature of fantastika can take us not just to new places, or acquaint us with new ideas, but it can give our capacity for wonder as many marvels as we can bear and, if we are lucky, just a bit more than we can bear.
“. . . the night is very large, and full of wonders.” – Lord Dunsany.
Filed under: The Bellowing Ogre
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