(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.
Read the rest of this entry