Fein on Wonder |
by Robert Wexelblatt

“Just something I’d like you to see.”  That was all the explanation I had given my ten year-old daughter.  In the car Maya tried to guess.  At first she speculated excitedly:  the amusement park? a movie? street fair, hike, zoo?  Then she grew suspicious:  “Not another one of your museums, Daddy!”  My museums. This was Maya’s economical way of expressing disgust and my responsibility for it. Well, I do sometimes make her do things that serve up profit and, despite my hopes, no delight.  It’s bad enough to tell your child that the Brussels sprouts are good for her, but it’s dishonest to insist that they taste good.

            I parked the car a block away so we would have walk down a side street then turn a corner before Maya saw it. 

            Just inside the city limits, in the middle of an affluent neighborhood of Victorian houses, I had once stumbled on this park.  It is an oval of tended grass surrounded by mature copper beeches, twelve of them.  No slides, swings, benches.  Just silence, grass, and those dozen patriarchs.

            I wanted my daughter to see the trees and I wanted to look at them too and feel the peace of the park.  My favorite trees and I’d never seen so many perfect specimens of in one place.  Fagus sylvatica purpurea is my favorite tree.  It does you good to look at beeches, instead of reading the newspaper, for instance.  Trees are admirable beings. “Except during the nine months before he draws his first breath, no man manages his affairs as well as a tree does,” Shaw wrote.

            The bark of copper beeches is smooth and gray.  Their trunks grow thick and remind you of fragments of heroic statues.  Their leaves vary:  deep purple, brilliant red, burnished bronze, coppery orange.  The dozen beeches in this pocket park are old, uniformly broad, rounded, symmetrical, colossal.  Their inviting branches begin a little above head-height for a child of ten. As we age we give up even the desire to climb trees.  If our distant ancestors were at home swinging through the canopy, then it’s a case of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny.

            Maya stared at the park, the trees. She halted, arms a little out from her sides, eyes big as they could get in the effort to take it all in at once. I kept my mouth shut.  To see is what I wanted her to do, not listen, except to the quiet.

            Maya is captivated by Disney movies and enthralled by trapeze artists. But neither Cinderella nor circus performers—man-made things —elicited from her the reaction she had to those centenarian beeches, an elemental response drawn by living things made of real elements.  The trees couldn’t care less about entertaining her.

            Maya stood stock still for nearly ten seconds, a perfect emblem of astonished wonder, then gave a yelp and ran to embrace the nearest trunk, to grasp the lowest branch.


            “Philosophy begins in wonder,” Plato declares in Theatetus. The Greek word thauma does mean wonder or marvel, but carries also a suggestion of puzzle or problem.  To Plato the fitting, perhaps the most human, response to wonder is to get rid of it.  Wonder, conceived as a hyped-up version of curiosity, is the beginning of inquiry for philosophers who used also to be scientists.

            Scientists like talking about the wonder they felt in childhood, wonder at the natural world, like Maya’s when confronted by a dozen beeches.  The proto-scientists are the kind of kids who asked questions about the life expectancy of a Tyrannosaurus Rex or what goes on inside a black hole.  When they grow up they set about looking for answers.  These are the enchanted who become the disenchanters.  In a sense, scientists strive to turn the sublime into the ordinary; and yet I think for the most devoted scientists even demystifying the ineffable won’t do away with wonder.  How could it when wonder, and the ambition to probe its causes, is the very thing that keeps their shoulders at the wheel? “I want to know God’s thoughts; the rest are details,” Einstein confessed.

            A scientist’s wonder is active.  But what of my ten-year-old with her big eyes, open mouth, those outstretched arms?  Will her wonder be passive and not a spur to further investigation?  Have the two cultures got their own species of wonder?  Is the passive sort poetic—that is, a feeling sufficient unto itself?  Well, maybe.


                        There was a child went forth every day,

                        And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,

                        And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of

                                    the day,

                        Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.


Whitman’s sallying child assimilates indiscriminately, appropriates but doesn’t organize a program of research into “the early lilacs” or the “old drunkard staggering home from the outhouse.”  Whitman makes no distinction between the natural and social worlds, outer and inner, artificial and organic, custom or season.  All existence is equally wonderful to him.  Unlike the child who grows up and goes forth to conduct field work, whose wonder becomes, so to speak, professionalized, Whitman’s child—clearly Whitman himself—cleaves to the unmediated wonder of childhood, gobbling up the world, living every day as though it were the first, like those youthful Aquarian revolutionaries of a decade back.  Whitman concludes his poem by closing the circle but, still open, includes a tangent:


                        . . .that child who went forth every day and who

                                    now goes and will always go forth every day.


What a contrast between Whitman’s open lines of free verse, the democratic vistas of his prosody, and, say, Philip Larkin’s regular rhymes and iambs, between Whitman’s enchanting cosmos and Larkin’s cramped, class-conscious world.  Larkin’s “Vers de Société” is about the passing of religious wonder, of childlike faith, of a solitude that is sufficient unto itself.  In this disenchanted world, virtues are social, vices personal, and hermits are selfish nutters.  God and Whitman’s wonder are both absent. Larkin’s opening stanza is unforgettable and clever, yet too jaded to be really humorous:


My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps

To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps   

You’d care to join us? In a pig’s arse, friend.   

Day comes to an end.

The gas fire breathes, the trees are darkly swayed.   

And so Dear Warlock-Williams: I’m afraid


What begins as a refusal of against the hollow and wonderless social world winds up with resignation to a suburban soirée as a wretched substitute, even gratitude for the escape it will afford from the self’s fiascos and regrets. In place of wonder, we get this anxious, all-too-convincing faute de mieux:


Only the young can be alone freely.

The time is shorter now for company,

And sitting by a lamp more often brings

Not peace, but other things.

Beyond the light stand failure and remorse   

Whispering Dear Warlock-Williams: Why, of course—


            Like so many things we feel or do not feel or once felt but don’t feel any more, wonder is a function of perspective.  Reckoned from the moment of the Big Bang what could be more marvelous than my bicycle, or a bagel, or the First Barbary War?  Sub specie aeternitatis what isn’t a wonder?  But the narrower your focus in space and time, the more things become normal—a bike, a bagel, slaughter going on somewhere.  Not only is the next moment usually indistinguishable from the ones before and after, but the context of all three includes countless facts, beliefs, arrangements—wonders looked at one way but now commonplace, mere conditions of life, like gravity and summer, telephones, jet planes, bananas, the two-party system.

            There are different views from the aeternitatis perspective, notably Spinoza’s.  To him, the wonders of the cosmos are not contingent but unfold with Euclidean logic, in accord with the iron necessity of axiom and corollary.  It is an admirable system.  One can’t help being impressed by Spinoza’s determination that everything should make fine sense.  In the seventeenth century, I imagine, making sense of matters was much the thing, for Empiricists no less than Rationalists.  Spinoza too has a brand of wonder; it is a kind of pantheistic praying.  It’s as if the beauty of a copper beech might be arrived at by deduction.  Can a pantheist can love a copper beech, or God?

            A few years ago Thomas Nagel wrote an attractive article called “The Absurd.”  It is the obverse of Spinoza’s ethics.  Professor Nagel proposes a kind of consoling existentialism or at least one without crisis or angst. This is how it ends:


                        If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything

                        matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our

                        absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.


Here sounds a truly contemporary chord.  Kierkegaard’s faith and Camus’ solidarity are put quietly away in the attic, with the rest of the abandoned exercise equipment.  Is irony—superb balm though it is—really better than heroism or even despair?  For that matter, will irony save you from either?

            I wonder.


            According to my Oxford Universal Dictionary, the etymology of “wonder” is “unknown.”  (One can only wonder.)

            The Anglo-Saxons used different the vowels (“wundor”) but the meaning’s the same.

            I also learned that the phrase “in the name of wonder” was once used to lend emphasis to the question that followed it:  “In the name of wonder, Sir, has the Great Fire of London gone out yet?”

            Wonder can be a noun, a verb, an action, an event, an building, a genius, a feeling.  The last is what chiefly interests me, and the O.U.D., never at a loss, explains it this way: 


                        . . .the emotion excited by the perception of something novel and

                        unexpected, or inexplicable; astonishment mingled with perplexity or

                        bewildered curiosity.


That covers it, I’d say, everything from Maya’s standing still (astonished = to be turned to stone) to Einstein’s shaking his terrific head and giving us his famous dictum:  “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”

            Wonder, then, is something inward provoked by something outward—except for those times when we wonder at the peculiarities of our private thoughts and public behavior.  Wonder can be low or lofty, anything from idle speculation (“I wonder who’s kissing her now”) to the awe we feel watching an impossible over-the-shoulder catch or gazing at a few million stars.  When our perspective has narrowed like our prospects and we are, in the worst sense, grown up, we lose our capacity for wonder. That is, I suppose, what happened to the actor George Sanders.  Five years ago he began his suicide note, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.”

            Of course Sanders wasn’t simply bored.  After his death, an old colleague reported that fifteen years earlier his friend had declared the intention to kill himself when he reached sixty-five—which he did, right on time.  Depressing enough to hit sixty-five, but you have to add in the failed marriages and the declining career.  Nevertheless, Sanders’ case cannot be dismissed as purely clinical; he blaming boredom gives it a moral dimension.  It’s as if Sanders had reached the terminal stage of Kierkegaard’s aesthetic life, exhausting all of hedonism’s permutations, weighed down by the pointlessness of repetition, feeling life as mechanical with no spiritual dimension.  Existence without wonder.  The world, no doubt, had become all-too-intelligible to him.  That’s how it must be for the deeply cynical. I can imagine how, at the end, Sanders’ perspective would have contracted to the dimensions that hotel room in Casadelldefels and the little bottle of Nembutal tablets by the bed. 

            There are others whose perspective does not contract, not even to the dimensions of their own disciplines.  For that reason they retain, notwithstanding their mental sophistication, a child’s wonder.  Such people tend themselves to be wonders. How different they are from les mort d’ennui. These artists, scientists, and saints also seem to grasp their kinship.  I name Einstein and Kafka, contemporaries on the ground floor of modernism.  Both never lost touch with the wonder whose evaporation Larkin made poetic, on which Sanders acted.  Thus, Einstein:


                        The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.

                        It is the source of all true art and all science.  He to whom this

                        emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and

                        stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead:  his eyes are closed.


            Franz Kafka also understood art and science as proceeding from the same source—wonder, mystery, a person’s desire, as he puts it, “to rush beyond the limitations of his own small self.”  Thomas Mann called Kafka “a religious humorist.”  Somewhere I wrote of him as “an athletic agnostic.”  But one can say of such labels what Kafka himself did of a certain writer:  “Whatever he says something is always left out.”

            One afternoon Kafka met his young friend Gustav Janouch in Prague’s Franciscan Church of The Virgin of the Snows.  They spoke about the historic building. The setting must have prompted Kafka to speak of religion, of miracles, or the urge that underpins religion, art, and science.   Janouch, as usual, paid careful attention.


                        Miracles and violence are simply the two extremes of a lack of

                        faith.  Men waste their lives in passive expectation of some

                        miraculous directive, which never comes, precisely because our ears

                        are closed to it. . .


Janouch asked Kafka “What is right?” Kafka pointed to an old woman kneeling in a lady chapel. “Prayer,” he said and drew the young man outside before replying at length, like Einstein but even more like Kafka:


                        Prayer, art, and scientific research are three different flames

                        that leap up from the same hearth. . . Art and prayer are only hands

                        outstretched in the dark. . .


“And science?” Janouch asked.


                        It is the same begging hand as prayer.  Man throws himself into

                        the dark rainbow which spans dying and living, in order to offer

                        existence a home in the cradle of his little ego. That is what

                        science, art, and prayer all do.


Janouch ends his account here.  He does not record his reaction; but, if I were Janouch, I would have looked at the tall, doomed, tubercular Kafka with wonder.


            Wonder requires open hands, open ears, open everything.

            Why not open our eyes and our ears?  Why not stretch out a hand in the dark?  It’s impossible to deny that the world is a terrible place with deadly dinner parties and lethal hotel rooms.  But the world also has its little girls and copper beeches.  So it is wonderful.




Editor’s Note


            This piece dates from 1977. I found it, with the archaic word Wundor at its head, in his file for that year. The essay is in holograph; Fein never typed it up.  His daughter was born in 1967 and George Sanders died in 1972.  Professor Thomas Nagel’s essay, “The Absurd,” appeared in The Journal of Philosophy, Volume 68, No. 20, in 1971. 

            Like many of Fein’s unpublished essays, this one feels like an improvisation, a riff, n abandoned train of thought, not fully complete or polished.  About the many quotations and allusions, it is hard to say if they were deliberately chosen, the result of free association, or if they reflect what Fein chanced to be reading at the time, the Larkin poem perhaps.  Fein does not always let us know what set him off, but in this instance, what evidently got him thinking about wonder was the visit to the park with the copper beeches.  When I showed the essay to Maya, she told me she remembered the day very well.  She also recalled that, at her father’s funeral, an old friend told her that sometime in the Sixties, when he had become depressed over the state of the world, her father advised him to “listen to the news less and look more at trees.”

            It may seem surprising that Sidney Fein would express anything other than full agreement with Professor Nagel’s celebrated essay and its prescription to adopt, in the face of an indifferent universe, an attitude of irony.  On reflection though, I think it may be just because, as an ironist himself, he understood the limitations of such a stance toward life.  Then again, maybe it is only that, in writing in praise of wonder, Fein felt bound to be ironic about irony.

            The essay’s own irony derives from the contrast it sets up between the world-weary Englishmen Larkin and Sanders on the one side and, on the other, the deracinated Continental Jews Einstein and Kafka.  It is tempting to say that Fein gives his heart to the latter.  His admiration for Einstein and Kafka is obvious; he quotes both at length and savors their words.  Nevertheless, I think it would be wrong to suppose Fein is without sympathy for Larkin and even Sanders.  He was not unfamiliar with faithlessness and boredom or immune to thoughts of suicide. In 1977 he had just turned thirty-five, a dangerous age for some men.  He depicts wonder as an exceptional state, seen at its purest in children.  Loss of faith and ennui are two of the perils of middle age.  Yet he insists wonder is not puerile.  Wonder like Whitman’s requires an openness to the glories and variety of the world, an inward condition provoked by what is outside us, the starry heavens or a dozen copper beeches.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies.  He has published essays, stories, and poems in a variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal. His novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.  A new collection of stories, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, is forthcoming.