In Praise of Wonder
Our modern concept of wonder dates back to French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596– 1650). “Descartes sees wonder as prompting an urge to explain or to give an account. Confronted with a wonder, you are at first astonished, and then you wish to understand how you came to be astonished,” writes Robert Macfarlane, a professor of English at Cambridge. Thinkers such as Descartes and Locke ushered in a new age of philosophical realism, which presumed that the truth could be discovered by the individual through his or her senses – a newfound emphasis on individualism perhaps best encapsulated by Descartes’s famous statement Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).
Descartes’s particular formulation of wonder as astonishment followed by the desire to seek explanations gave rise to modern science. The scientific method grew out of the philosophic trend of discarding purely theoretical methods in favor of empirical investigations. Scientific practitioners sought to construct testable hypotheses based on observable phenomenon. If the same cause produced the same effect, it was called a scientific theory or law. By the 18th century, science had become the dominant force in European intellectualism. We call this time period the Age of Enlightenment.
As we might expect given the tremendous ideological changes in this time period, literature changed too. Critic Ian Watt describes how following the Enlightenment, the novel emerged as a literary form that was radically interested in the individual’s experience of the world. In contrast to the general type characters of romances (the chivalrous Sir Knight), for the first time, fictional characters had proper names that were like real people’s names, and were titled as such: Tom Jones or Robinson Crusoe. The novel “interested itself much more than any other literary form in the development of its characters in the course of time” (Watt, 22). Furthermore, as people began demanding more rational, logical explanations for what they witnessed, fiction became much more invested in causality. Before, literature was dominated by the romance, defined by Reeve as “a heroic fable, which treats of fabulous per sons and things,” and which featured “what never happened nor is likely to happen.” Drawing on older forms including the myth and the fairytale, romance stories depended on chance, coincidence, and deus ex machina. But following the advent of formal realism, Watt writes, “The novel’s plot is… distinguished from most previous fiction by its use of past experience as the cause of present action: a causal connection operating through time replaces the reliance of earlier narratives on disguises and coincidences”1 (Watt, 22).
Though the various disciplines have their own methodologies and standards for what constitutes proof, all pursue truth by asking what-if questions. Thus, we should expect to find fundamental similarities in their approaches. For example, contemporary novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson sees direct parallels between science and literature because narrative, like a scientific hypothesis, is something we construct for its explanatory power in getting to truth3. She writes, “Fiction has the character of a hypothesis, or it is written in an implied subjunctive, because it means that reality is greater than any present circumstance. It says, ‘I will show you how that past or other or potential reality might feel, how it might look’” (Robinson, 34-35). ‘Potential reality’ is key here. Robinson notes, “Fiction is narrative freed from the standard of literal truth. In effect, it is the mind exploring itself, its impulse to create hypothetical cause and consequence” (Robinson, 36). Unlike journalism, which has an allegiance to what really happened – to literal truth – fiction’s territory is everything that could happen.
If not literal or scientific truth, then what kind of truth can fiction be said to express? Along with most other forms of art, fiction conveys emotional truth. Whether categorized as high art or low art, paintings, architecture, movies, and songs are usually not so much about making a point as they are about making you feel something. To put it another way, art can provide an experience which contains emotional truth.
Narrative forms in particular can also have a component of moral truth. Good stories make us see other people’s point of view and wonder how they feel, which has implications for how we should treat one another.
That does not mean that stories should moralize; writer and Catholic Flannery O’Connor in fact says that true art forbids it. I still remember the first of her stories I read, when I was about thirteen – A Good Man is Hard to Find, about a bickering family finally brought to a boil by an encounter with a murderer called the Misfit. The story features a complete dramatic action, that is, its plot resolves itself, and yet it leaves you with questions. For example, who is to blame for what happened? The car crash that occurs isn’t quite an accident, and yet the Grandmother can’t be said to have intentionally caused it, even if she led them to the wrong state and brought the cat that startled the driver who then drove into a ditch. The Misfit justifies his actions by saying that he was first treated unfairly – “I found out the crime don’t matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it.” But he also rejects the Grandmother’s attempts to reform him, saying, “I don’t want no hep. I’m doing all right by myself.” It’s precisely the story’s refusal to provide any easy answers that so compels its characters and readers alike to confront their deepest beliefs.
No coincidence, then, that the best-known line from the story should also be the most enigmatic. Of the Grandmother, the Misfit’s unflinchingly pronounces, “She would have of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” To some extent, the Misfit is channeling the voice of the Grandmother’s conscience. But the violence of gunfire also implies that trying to be “good” might also prove fatal.
What can we make of this? Fiction writer Jim Shepard puts O’Connor’s vision in the context of his summation of a general Catholic perspective – “that serious transgressions matter. As in, what you did to that person is a terrible thing and still affects them. And the idea of redemption, then, is also a serious thing.” To put it another way, you can imagine an alternate worldview in which serious transgressions don’t matter. But under Christianity, which holds that Jesus had to die in order for sins to be forgiven, transgressions and their consequences cannot be taken lightly.
Stories can be said to have three overlapping levels of meaning: firstly, what the writer deliberately puts forth, secondly, what the writer unconsciously includes, and thirdly, what readers and critics perceive. O’Connor is particularly insightful and intentional with regards to that first level and in light of her Catholic beliefs. On her own fiction, she writes, “I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity… It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery… I have found that, for me, this is always an action which indicates that grace has been offered. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace.”4
Two ideas are worth expanding on; firstly, grace. Grace, for Christians, specifically refers to the love and forgiveness of God which none of us deserves and yet all of us desperately need. The Grandmother in A Good Man winds up radically changed by grace. She starts off admonishing the Misfit, “You could be honest too if you’d only try” – a statement whose full comic absurdity only comes through when you picture your most humiliating relative saying it. But by the end of the story, the Grandmother has realized her wretchedness and the poverty of her own moral state. When she finally tells the Misfit, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” and touches him on the shoulder, she’s a completely different person – perhaps even a good woman. But her transformation irrefutably comes at a high price.
Mystery, the second idea, also has a particular meaning in a Christian context: as O’Connor explains, “that [human life] has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.” Together, grace and mystery comprise a wondrous paradox. On the one hand, it implies that all human efforts to live up to God’s standards are worthless; on the other hand, God’s unconditional love – to the point of death on the cross – bestows upon every human being profound worth. Christianity is founded upon many such mysterious paradoxes. Christ came not as a king, but as a servant. He claimed that His kingdom belonged not to the religious leaders, but to little children. To believe Jesus’s words seems to simultaneously require foolishness and faith. In novelist Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, it’s an old and learned priest who, when asked for his opinion on a miracle, smiles and says, “I don’t believe it’s possible. I do believe it happened.”
Returning to wonder – in the same way any analysis of a story shouldn’t be taken as exhaustive, mystery is what all good literature teaches us to respect and leave intact. The experience of reading fiction at once compels us to seek truth and grants us space to wonder. Hansen writes elsewhere that fiction “is far better experienced than interpreted… To fully understand a symbol is to kill it” (Hansen, Stay, 12). We’ve all felt the frustration of the English classes where we’ve stabbed away at symbolism as if to exhaustively wring out ‘the meaning’ of the text. Unlike the mystery of a mystery novel, which exists only to be fully and neatly figured out, good fiction defies our attempts to ‘solve’ it. “A story really isn’t any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind,” O’Connor writes. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t construct theories and look for meaning, only that we should expect what we find to expand our understanding of mystery’s complexity rather than reductively hammer it out.
In life, as in fiction, fundamental irresolvability can be confounding – yet liberating as well, if we will only keep up hope. Art researcher Khadija Carroll notes, “Where there is a lack of closure there is wonder.” Fitting last words in praise of wonder – at the end of investigations, when we discover there’s still more that we don’t know, we’re back at the mercy of wonder again.
1In his essay The Rise of the Novel, Watt concludes that regardless of the direction of influence, philosophical and literary realism “must be seen as parallel manifestations of larger change – that vast transformation of Western civilization since the Renaissance which has replaced the unified world picture of the Middle Ages with another very different one – one which presents us, essentially, with a developing but unplanned aggregate of particular individuals having particular experiences at particular times and at particular places” (Watt, 31). For another take on the novel’s influence on Western development, Catherine Gallagher argues in The Rise of Fictionality that “novels promoted a disposition of ironic credulity… Indeed, almost all of the developments we associate with modernity – from greater religious toleration to scientific discovery – required the kind of cognitive provisionality one practices in reading fiction, a competence in investing contingent and temporary credit”2 (Gallager, 347).
2More on the rise of the novel; critic Michael McKeon points out that formal realism doesn’t fully displace romance conventions: Gothic myth Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus comes five years after Pride and Prejudice. Charles Dickens’s novels frequently set the two conventions side by side: deeply realist characters are haunted not just by their past actions, but by actual ghosts as well. Mark McGurl suggests that our contemporary obsession with zombies as allegorical figures is a sign that we’re heading into a new age of ‘speculative realism.’ In other words, people are still interested in the kinds of stories that formal realism can’t handle all by itself.
3Central to her essay, Robinson links art, language, science, and religion by their common quest for beauty, noting how mathematicians and physicists endorse as beautiful or elegant theories “which are likelier to cleave to the nature of things because of their efficiency and soundness of structure.” She continues, “If this were at all a philosophic age, we might be wondering why it is that beauty can test reality and solve its encryptions in the modest, yet impressive, degree our humanity allows. For me, this is a core definition of beauty: that it is both rigorous and dynamic and that it somehow bears a deep relationship to truth.”
4On the mind-boggling subject of grace, O’Connor goes on, “I don’t want to equate the Misfit with the devil. I prefer to think that, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that’s another story.” (In parables, Jesus used the mustard seed as a symbol of how the smallest faith may grow into the biggest tree, an image of the kingdom of God; He also says that His disciples may move mountains with faith “as small as a mustard seed.”)
Dillon, Brian and Macfarlane, Robert. O Altitudo! Cabinet Magazine, Issue 27: Mountains. Fall 2007.
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, Fielding. University of California Press, 1962.
Reeve, Clara. The Progress of Romance through Times, Centuries, and Manners. 1785.
Gallagher, Catherine. The Rise of Fictionality. From The Novel Volume I: History, Geography, and Culture, ed. Moretti, Franco. Princeton University Press.
McKeon, Michael. Generic Transformation and Social Change: Rethinking the Rise of the Novel. From Theory of the Novel: An Historical Approach, ed. McKeon, Michael. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
McGurl, Mark. Zombie Renaissance. n+1. 27 April 2010.
Robinson, Marilynne. On “Beauty.” Tin House Issue 50: Beauty. Winter 2011.
O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find. Image Books, 1970.
McGarvey, Bill. Busted: Authors Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard – A Catholic Conversation about Faith, Fiction, and Friendship. March 14th, 2006. http://bustedhalo.com/features/busted-authorsron-hansen-jim-shepard
O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners, ed. Fitzgerald, Sally and Fitzgerald, Robert. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1961.
Hansen, Ron. Mariette in Ecstasy. HarperPerennial, 1991.
Hansen, Ron. A Stay against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction. HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
Carroll, Khadija Z. Curating Curiosity: Wonder’s Colonial Phenomenology. http://www.nowlook.at/PDF/curiosity_text.pdf
Inez Tan ’12 is an English major from New York, N.Y. She agrees that a good man is hard to find. She would like to thank Professor Gage McWeeny and Professor Jim Shepard for their help.Tags: Catholic, Christian, critical theory, Descartes, devil, fiction, Flannery O'Connor, God, Jesus, Jim Shepard, literature, Locke, Marilynne Robinson, Mark McGurl, mathematics, narrative, philosophy, redemption, Ron Hansen, science, Williams College, wonder