Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Sense of Wonder

Elizabeth Zelvin

Note: This post was published by accident for about two hours in November, along with the one scheduled for the same day. So if it seems familiar to you, that's why.

In the Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem about the Greek hero Odysseus’s long, adventure-filled journey home from the Trojan War, there is a passage in which Odysseus visits the Underworld and talks to the shades of the dead. One of these, the blind prophet Tiresias, tells him that once he’s straightened out the mess he’ll find at home, he must make another journey in order to appease the sea god Poseidon. He must put an oar on his shoulder and travel inland until he’s so far from the sea that he meets people who have no idea what the oar is.

Here’s the passage itself, in Ian Johnston’s translation:

Once you have killed
the suitors in your house with your sharp sword,
by cunning or in public, then take up
a well-made oar and go, until you reach
a people who know nothing of the sea,
who don't put salt on any food they eat,
and have no knowledge of ships painted red,
or well-made oars that serve those ships as wings.
I'll tell you a sure sign you won't forget—
when someone else runs into you and says
you've got a shovel used for winnowing
on your broad shoulders, then fix that fine oar
in the ground there, and make rich sacrifice
to lord Poseidon with a ram, a bull,
and a boar that breeds with sows.

It’s a wonderful poem and a grand adventure story. But what strikes me about the story of the oar, composed close to 3,000 years ago, is that it is no longer possible to travel—whether on foot like Odysseus or in a car or plane—anywhere on earth where nobody has ever heard of an oar or any item a traveler might bring along. Thanks to modern communications, we’ve seen it all.

What has happened to our sense of wonder? I’m afraid it has been lost in proportion to our ability to transmit images and information, not only of everything in the world, but lately of many things that we only imagine or speculate about as well. We don’t have to visit Antarctica to see Emperor penguins marching 70 miles from the sea to their breeding colonies. We’ve seen it on the big screen. For the same reason, we don’t have to be astronauts to see the great blue and white sphere of Earth floating in space.

If teleportation became a reality, and someone suddenly materialized in front of our eyes, how astonished would we be? We saw it years ago on Star Trek. When light streams from Sookie Stackhouse’s fingertips on True Blood, we’re interested, but not amazed. We can do the same by squeezing the LED light on our keychain. If we could time-travel to the age of dinosaurs, how awed would we be by sights that had lost their power to surprise us by the time Jurassic Park III came out?

The two greatest mysteries we know are whether we are the only intelligent species in the universe and death itself. Even these have had the edge of wonder rubbed off them. Aliens? Everybody knows our nearest neighbors, should they ever choose to reveal themselves, will look a lot like ET: attenuated body, narrow, triangular white face, big eyes. Death? There’ll be this tunnel of light….

Even children, whose sense of wonder is supposed to be an essential, have become blasé. Not so very long ago, even very simple things outside their experience could surprise and delight them. Consider this passage from Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar, written in 1949:

“Every birthday had been made iridescent and every Christmas a tingling expectation by the thought of Great-uncle Charles’s present….Once he had sent a set of chopsticks, which upset nursery discipline for a week. And once it had been the skin of a snake; the glory of owning the skin of a snake had made Simon dizzy for days.”

My two little granddaughters, who get more presents than God, are certainly capable of delight, pleasure, and gratitude. But a sense of wonder? I’m afraid it’s rapidly becoming extinct.


Sheila Connolly said...

That's the joy of having small children around--everything is new and wonderful (as in, full of wonder) for them.

I try to hang on to that innocent enthusiasm. I still get excited when I see something I've never seen before, up close and personal. Sometimes the people around you put you down for that--but they're grinchs! Why should it be uncool to consider something marvelous?

Sandra Parshall said...

I don't think this bleh response is anything new. I remember the first time astronauts went to the moon and some people I knew seemed utterly uninterested. Good grief. Earthlings went to THE MOON and walked (bounced) around on it. How can anybody be blase about that? Some people are hard to impress.

Julia Buckley said...

It's true--young people today, including my own children--seem more like cynics or skeptics than they do like wide-eyed innocents. Perhaps they're reflecting what they see in their parents' eyes.

But I like to the think the moments of wonder still sometimes come back, in small bursts. For me it comes in that moment when I hear a breathtakingly beautiful piece of music or see an amazing work of art.