Phenomenology Online

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Pedagogy in the Face of Wonder


Hove, Philo


In this paper I explore some dimensions of the phenomenon of wonder in human life. Such is its subtlety that wonder may be easy to dismiss or ignore; however, the resounding profundity of the ‘stillness of wonder’ (van Manen 1986, 41) perpetually calls for attention. Wonder lies at the heart of what it is to be human: it places us directly and transparently in the face of the world in which we live with others. Wonder reveals things in a new light and tends to promote mindful and gentle regard for their inherent worth. Accordingly, to respond to others in a manner which somehow acknowledges and is congenial with the emergence of wonder should have an explicit place in any relations oriented towards the ‘good’ of the other -what more can be said of the pedagogic relations which animate the essential concerns of curriculum?


While I reflect upon the phenomenon of wonder for the child in what follows, I do not limit the inquiry only to children, nor do I situate children specifically within a classroom with a ‘teacher’. Wonder is associated with a wide array of experiences and it is possible that it may arise in regard to anything; but at a deep level wonder seems to reveal, or put into question, certain fundamental features of human experience: among other things, wonder can expose our vulnerability. Before teachers-adults-can appreciate the subtlety and delicacy of wonder more fully in the living experience of children, we need to become attuned to, and reflect deeply upon, wonder in our own lives.


A beginning-the photograph

There are times when recollections return with the vigour and freshness with which we associate their ‘original’ state, as if the myriad dimensions of an experience were suddenly alive again in that form which until now had been forgotten. This happened recently while listening to some jazz: the lyrical geometry of a double-bass solo by Charlie Haden. The solo acts as a prelude. With the other instruments standing silent, Haden begins to move unhurriedly forward: soft double-stops, loving, gentle scales rising and falling upon the ebony finger board; sombre, gracious and deep, deep voices reverberating from within the generous spaces of the instrument’s great body. And then, for the first time I detect the magic-an oblique foreshadowing of what is soon to be the piano’s opening figure-a splendid moment, but prefiguring something else, altogether unexpected: a vivid memory (who can say why this memory? why now?) from my high school years.


I recall sitting at home on a school day waiting for lunch, idly flipping through the newest copy of Time magazine, when my attention was caught by a photo. If memory serves, the accompanying article was about a violinist (it might have been Ruggiero Ricci) who had recently obtained permission to record the last of Nicol� Paganini’s violin concertos. Under instruction from Paganini’s will, the work had remained hidden in a vault until that year. Aside from this news, though, was for me the more intriguing information about the nineteenth century virtuoso himself: his technical audacity (extemporising along the length of a single string, left-handed pizzicato), his libidinous habits, the contemporary rumours of demonic aid. Something of the romance and prowess of Paganini enraptured me, I suppose, and often, while rereading the article, my eyes returned to that remarkable photograph of the master: chiseled face, long black hair, serpentine fingers-standing in taut readiness to strike an opening chord.


Seen in the context of the plethora of images which assail us there is little doubt that this photograph was memorable, if only for its evident age. Recently finding a reproduction of it again (Sheppard and Axelrod 1979, 330), the long-remembered pose of the violinist, standing with bow raised, is confirmed anew. I see the great hands (larger than I remember), medals displayed on his chest (which I had forgotten); his boots had been polished. A slender figure: he is, though, somewhat less sinewy than I recall. Again, Paganini’s face intrigues me: long, hawkish nose, prominent chin-it is a strange face: seen against the shaded background, the black hair and clothing, its whiteness makes it appear mask-like. Although I can make little of his eyes, which look down to the violin, his expression seems rather impassive; in fact, calling to mind the few biographic sketches of Paganini I have read, little appears in his face which can be said to reveal the vigour of his artistry or passion. No doubt it is the modest lie of such early photographs, where the subject was suspended from the many currents of daily life by the requirement to ‘stand’ for the camera, there to be ‘caught’ for all time [1].


These are my most immediate impressions of this study, presumably taken not long after the advent of photography itself. Paganini died in 1840 and a print of the first photograph-a ghostly, still-life arrangement taken ‘around 1823′ by Niepce-can be found in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1981, 86). Among other things Barthes’ phenomenological inquiry into the ‘Photograph’ yields an impressive array of surprises and so is germane to my present question. If the photograph of Paganini no longer calls up the romantic images which once stirred my attention I must admit, still, to a fascination-perhaps a surprise-of some kind. For Barthes a photograph may surprise us owing to the rarity or freakishness of the image it reveals; because it has caught a fleeting or ‘decisive’ gesture seldom noticed, or, due to technical ‘prowess’, an event the naked eye could never see (a fired bullet, its movement impossibly frozen as it punctures an apple); deliberate distortions may be produced by tricks of perspective; our attention may be arrested by some happenstance or ‘lucky find’ (32-33).


None of these quite capture the sense I have in this case; however, a distinction which Barthes establishes does bring clarity to this question. He writes of an image’s studium, which connotes a field of interest, the fact that a photograph expresses a range of influences and signs which render it recognisable, locatable. For instance, the photograph of Paganini shows a musician who participated in an age of different manners-the ‘pose’, the display of medals. In contrast to aspects of an image which are apparent in this way, Barthes speaks of an ‘unexpected flash’ (94) which occasionally disturbs this field of interest, a break from the studium wherein an ‘element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces’ (26), one which ‘stings’, ‘pricks’, and even ‘bruises’ the observer (27). He names this the punctum.


A favourite poster in my office shows an expanse of calm sea divided near its lower edge by the line of a single wave. I like it for its quiet rhythm, and for the way the wind has collected some spray near the wave’s powerful centre, where it has just started to roll and break. Also caught by the sunlight, this shock of white spray offers the only interruption in the photograph’s pale evenness. Even such a simple image can get one thinking, and once or twice I have placed myself on an imagined shore with this scene before me, listening to the surf and seabirds; feeling breeze and sun. I enjoy all these things about the poster but it wasn’t until after I bought it that I noticed something else: a lone freighter whose bulk ‘lurks’, nearly dissolved in the dense mist, at the very top. This discovery (how could I have missed it?) was a happy surprise that I now often refer to as a ‘bonus’ when pointing the poster out to a visitor. Unlike the wave, which is ‘caught’ by the wind and light somewhere in the midst of its eternal movement, the freighter waits. It is a slightly incongruous thing, at once motionless and unsettling: like a quiet stranger whose motives are unknown. Barthes would probably say that the presence of this vessel acts as a punctum, for I never quite get used to it.


I return to the photograph of the violinist. Where might its punctum reside, for me? Here is Paganini, who died leaving behind him, among other scores, the twenty-four daunting Caprices; a man who dazzled his contemporaries-imagine bearing for a lifetime the memory of having heard this man play the violin, authorising you to say: ‘Yes, the performance had its merits, but it does not compare to that evening I heard Paganini‘. Indeed, it is difficult to exaggerate the impact Paganini had on some of his listeners-in 1829 one Paris critic implored his readers to,

Sell all you possess; pawn everything, but go to hear him! Woe to him who lets the opportunity go by! Let the women bring their new-born babes so that sixty years hence they can boast of having heard him! … This thing is the most astounding, the most surprising, the most marvelous, the most miraculous, […] the most unexpected that one can imagine! … In a dream Tartini saw a devil playing a diabolic sonata-that devil was surely Paganini! (De Courcy 1957, I, 361).

Apparently, I experience a vague nostalgia while looking on it. Although silent and still here, this is a man once fully engaged in the sweeping movements of his time and whose work continues to find expression in our own. Not that there has ever been unanimity about him,[2] whether in reference to his art (mere technique?) or to the man himself (his notoriety). But these observations, too, identify its general interest, not its punctum. What is it that unsettles me, slightly, when I look at this old image? Perhaps it is this: issuing from the distant, unchanging figure is the irrefutable evidence that he once lived. The photograph’s punctum is strikingly ontological-with more certitude than the legends and even the music this photograph demonstrates to me Nicol� Paganini’s existence. Owing to this revelation, no doubt, it was understandably gratifying to find the picture again while gathering these impressions of the artist. Imagine my shock upon learning that it is a photograph of someone else.


It is true: this image which had once so captured my imagination and returned to my attention only recently, stimulating these reflections, was contrived. Please note that I have not withheld this throughout for the sake of its ironic effect; in truth, I discovered the fact while actively composing these ideas, well after being implicated by my memories. But the fact remains: the figure holding the violin in the photograph is someone who occupied another time, those remarkable hands and face are the features of another man. A biographer of Paganini, Geraldine de Courcy, has identified both the Bologna instrument-maker who perpetrated this fraud in the late 1890s and the Venitian photographer with whom he colluded; she has traced its copyright and sale in Germany and its eventual publication in England (1957, II, 309 n. 1) [3]. Does my knowledge of this deception efface the photograph’s interest, now? (Another surprise:) No.


In part this is surely due to its real presence, however ill-deserved, within the experiences I’ve recounted. But for a bit of investigation, inspired above all by a simple desire to look at the photograph again, I could easily have lived my life untroubled by any questions of its authenticity. Although I no longer can give a name to the odd, still face which looks down on the violin (a secret, even after de Courcy’s research), its appeal is undiminished by this recently acquired anonymity. It persists within all of my recollections of ‘Paganini’-and not merely as evidence of the traces it has left-somehow the face of this man still catches me. Yet, curiously, while its studium has if anything grown to evoke other fields of possibility I find that its punctum remains the same, for, emerging from out of the photograph itself is the continuing fact of its age. This requires qualification: while its rarity or age makes it different from the thousands of other photographs I am exposed to, this is not quite the point that reaches out and probes me. Rather, its punctum is an extension or deepening of ‘age’-that is, insofar as the photograph somehow reveals temporality.


There is both a paradox and a coincidence here. Whatever else the image may suggest after these revelations it is no less the face of a living man who is now certainly dead. This point can be sharpened by a painful simultaneity. Looking upon a photograph of a condemned man waiting to be hanged, Barthes decisively remarks: ‘He is dead, and he is going to die‘ (1981, 95). Beyond the question of identity the photograph demonstrates the simultaneous ‘defeat’ (1981, 96) and revelation of time. This wonderful insight must be credited to Barthes, who concludes his study by observing that a photograph which disturbs or ‘wounds’ in this way does so because it provokes us ‘to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality’ (1981, 119). Is this, finally, what I find so striking: a poignant demonstration of time’s passage and, by extension, my own?


It might well be the case, were it not that another type of punctum remains to be disclosed. Strictly speaking this recollection, this punctum, was what originally disturbed me while listening to the jazz solo. It is easily as unsettling as the one related and returns us to the time shortly after my having first seen the photograph in the pages of a magazine.


After school a few days later I visited my good friend, Arthur. Spotting one another earlier in the day we had made plans to listen to music at his house. We had plenty of common interests, including art-although I did not share his marvellous talent for it, which by that time was well known at our school. (In a conversation I often recalled with envy and awe, our art teacher had confided to me that Wesley was something a teacher could expect only once in his career, if lucky: ‘a genius’.) As I walked through the back door after a perfunctory knock he called from his room: ‘Downstairs!’ So down I ambled: my first visit in almost a week.


It is no trouble to recall the great fondness I had for going there. The generous room he shared with his older brother (a tremendous musical talent, an aspiring luthier: it was a gifted family) betrayed such variegated, Bohemian interests-‘Bohemian’ had seemed a very suitable word for the room’s many distractions, when I was seventeen. Walking in, only a casual glance was needed to confirm its familiar feel.


While Arthur searched for something he wanted me to hear I looked over a group of paintings randomly stuck on the wall opposite the record player, and beside them, to a sculpture he was still working on. There were dried bits of clay underfoot. As the music started and my friend fiddled to get a record back into its sleeve I slumped into the only uncluttered spot, an ancient upholstered chair. My attention focused a bit on the song and then began to wander around the walls again and that is when I saw it-the pen-and-ink drawing off to my left. ‘Hey, what’s this ?’ I quickly approached it for a closer look:

Standing in it was a weird, wiry figure of a man. He had stringy hair, angular, bird-of-prey features, and most curiously, sprouting from his head-a pair of devilish horns. The man was holding a violin.

For that brilliant moment I could not take my eyes from it. When they began, all of my questions to Arthur were charged by a sudden intensity: he seldom read Time and, no, he hadn’t heard of Paganini. ‘ Okay, but when did you draw it?’ As he paused I thought back to the day I had been reading at home. His response confirmed my expectation: he’d drawn it during the lunch break at the precise time that I had been looking through the article. (What made me so certain of a connection between these events?) The next day I brought the magazine over to compare his composition with the photograph. Each of the expressive details was mirrored, from the dramatically poised bow to the shaded texture in the background of the violinists. They differed only in the preternatural horns, although these had been very much alive in my reverie, and as I reflected upon the event I became persuaded with some enthusiasm of the astonishing extent and permeability of life.

Somewhere, here, there looms a double aporia: that the world is comprised entirely of familiarity and strangeness, and that everything is independent of and implicated by everything else. However surprising or confounding this might be, it is also enduringly evident.

Naturally enough my friend and I attempted to ‘explain’ the uncanny timing of his drawing, and the fact that the two violinists were so alike, but perhaps because they are endlessly contestable these attempts now seem to obscure more than they reveal. Beyond and (critically) before any question of its ‘origin’, the event of happening upon this drawing caught me unawares, disturbing without warning the flow of ordinary moments which had until then been comprising another day.


Yes, the stunning, paradoxical truth that resides in the photograph-the simultaneous passing and cessation of time-lingers in me still; but what continues to pull me back to this constellation of memories is the sudden discovery of the photograph’s ‘double’. I was surprised, delighted, bewildered, and for a few moments-and at the heart of it all-in wonder[6]. Can you see it yet?


No doubt there is much that is questionable in the angles and folds of this narrative; no doubt a good deal of the difficulty of this beginning issues from the fact that the real locus of my interest eludes the normal grasp of my reflection and words. At least my approach achieves a measure of caution, now. For one thing, although a fascination with the photograph of the violinist continues, its soundly refuted identity elicits a prudence towards ideas held with conviction. More tellingly, I see that the composite and curious nature of my memories of this event have tended to draw me away from what I am most concerned to find: a species of punctum, that momentous instant when I happened to be struck. [7]To raise this distinction again, the studium’s interest resides in an image, an experience; it is given to it, found and located in it-whether by history, culture, an artist or observer; its interest and familiarity are present and recoverable. But the punctum is an inversion of the apparent and familiar. I do not find it; somehow in its sharpness and startling reach it finds me.


Accordingly, further care is needed. Because they are comparative, reflective, and -however brief the interval-after the fact, even the ‘timing’ and ‘alikeness’ of the photograph and drawing do not disclose the real evidence of the experience; not quite. One might say they are (literally) ‘beside the point’. Yet, forever inclined to movement, thought requires care, in this instance, merely to settle. Something remains; before the resumption of the familiar there was just this-an irreducible co-incidence: the fact that that drawing appeared then.


My friend kindly gave me his pen-and-ink drawing and I often brought it out to ponder during the next few months. But in the awkward, uncertain movements of early adulthood it was left behind, or forgotten … forgotten for many years, until, stirring so unexpectedly in the thrall of a double-bass solo was the recollection of a deep surprise, which briefly resounded in me again. Whatever it all may mean the event has drawn me with undeniable gravity to consider something I seek to understand: an experience which flashes, disturbs, perplexes, and arrests; one which awakens or fades forgotten in the lives of us all-one which I name once more: wonder. Though time and endless occupations may intervene, does one ever wholly recover from this kind of thing?


What is wonder?

Who among us does not pause from time to time to consider the manner in which we live, the meaning and significance of things around us, or the texture of our relations with others? In such moments, are we not on occasion inexplicably struck with a startling new way of seeing things? Or, does it never happen (while we are doing nothing in particular) that the continuous, inured fabric of experience suddenly snags? Is this wonder? Allow me to continue this tentative approach to the phenomenon of wonder while still a discrete distance from it, by introducing some characteristics of a fictional person. Calvino (1985, 113) has written of a man who is given to observing the world of objects and his experience in an uncommonly meticulous fashion. His name is Mr. Palomar.

A bit nearsighted, absent-minded, introverted, he does not seem to belong temperamentally to that human type generally called an observer. And yet it has always happened that certain things-a stone wall, a seashell, a leaf, a teapot-present themselves to him as if asking him for minute and prolonged attention.

Everything which falls under his gaze is scrutinized with the medieval air of a scholastic. No phenomenon in the natural or social world is neglected out of hand: from the arrangement of stars in the night sky to the cheeses displayed in a shop, from the awkward quality of our relations with the young to the very nature of death. Whatever the subject, Mr. Palomar applies to it a fastidious attention:

Mr. Palomar sees a wave rise in the distance, grow, approach, change form and color, fold over itself, break, vanish, and flow again. At this point he could convince himself that he has concluded the operation he had set out to achieve, and he could go away. But isolating one wave is not easy, separating it from the wave immediately following, which seems to push it and at times overtakes it and sweeps it away; and it is no easier to separate that one wave from the preceding wave, which seems to drag it toward the shore. (Calvino 1985, 3-4)

It seems inevitable that each of the phenomena he observes presents to him certain innate difficulties, some of which are surprising. Mr. Palomar is not a man who expects immediate success, though; and he is capable of ingenious response, as when he mentally describes a square zone of the sea in which to catalogue all wave activity within a given time. There is a precision, a logical tidiness, in this method which is fitting, for he has postulated that one might discover in the nature of waves the ‘key to mastering the world’s complexity by reducing it to its simplest mechanism’ (Calvino 1985, 6). It is a possibility which holds enormous appeal for this man [8]. Yet when applied to this square section of the sea, does his method of observation yield the understanding he seeks?

Concentrating the attention on one aspect makes it leap into the foreground and occupy the square, just as, with certain drawings, you have only to close your eyes and when you open them the perspective has changed. Now, in the overlapping of crests moving in various directions, the general pattern seems broken down into sections that rise and vanish. In addition, the reflux of every wave also has power of its own that hinders the oncoming waves. And if you concentrate your attention on these backward thrusts, it seems that the true movement is the one that begins from the shore and goes out to sea. (Calvino 1985, 7)

Worse still, the complications do not stop at this unexpected development, as he notices that the shape of the shore line, the tide, the wind speed, and innumerable other conditions come to bear upon his painstaking observations. Despite his persistence, the sheer detail and complexity of the phenomena Mr. Palomar is determined to understand, seemingly admit his attention only to rebuff him, one by one. It is as if a man or woman who would swim were time and again cast back upon the arid shore.


At times we may find ourselves amused with the futility of such impeccable vigilance. It is not that we wish to find fault with Mr. Palomar, exactly; to do so would be unfair and perhaps a little unkind. After all, the dedication alone with which he applies his attention to these things is a remarkable achievement: confronted with objects or phenomena that merit further understanding, he redirects his attention, he continually disposes himself, in their direction. This requires effort and persistence, since he must always be willing to leave behind what is routine. (Indeed, for so fastidious a man there is a charming audacity to his ambitions.) But the fruit of his attention is merely reformulated perplexity and renewed frustration; for this reason, in fact, it may be that the futility of his endeavours elicits a faint sadness in us. Do we find ourselves empathizing with this curious figure-might there be a sadness for ourselves, on occasion? (After all, perhaps Mr. Palomar is not so unlike us.) More than this, we may become unsettled as we face the fact that he perpetually arrives at this state for good reason: ‘”It is only when you have come to know the surface of things”, he concludes, “that you can venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface of things is inexhaustible”‘ (Calvino 1985, 55).


It might be said that Mr. Palomar is a man of our age, who takes the situation of his life seriously. He seems to be a man directed by a restless concern to understand and organize the world sufficiently to protect himself from the inexplicable. The world is for him a place brimming with problems, intense curiosities and puzzles, but with no mystery. For all his meticulous attention, Mr. Palomar represents a person who stands aloof from wonder. On this point I should be more precise: Mr. Palomar is given to careful thought and even to wondering but he does not once find himself struck by wonder.


‘Nothing ever happens’: It’s no wonder

A man sits looking at the television, flipping channels. (There’s nothing on.) Very slowly, the afternoon has become laden with a flat, lifeless duration, to which everything about him conforms. His heavy indifference is confirmed unendingly: now, by the painting on the wall, purchased only last month-where has all its appeal gone? Lifting himself from the couch, he wanders away to another room. At a window he gazes out somewhere into the middle distance, blankly facing the people and cars below. ‘Feel like going anywhere?’ his wife asks. ‘No not really’.


Later in the day, not far away-perhaps in another apartment along the same street-a woman is on the phone with her sister. They don’t usually talk so long, but tonight their conversation has taken a reflective turn. The woman pauses before answering the question her sister has posed; at last she says, ‘Oh, I don’t know, nothing ever changes in my life. It’s just the same thing, year in year out-we never seem to do anything …. Sometimes I worry that one day I’ll die and it really won’t even matter‘. At hearing her own words a deep sadness wells up in her: such regret! She feels empty, as if something were lost or forever beyond her grasp.


A world without wonder is bereft of possibility. Sometimes even the taken-for-granted quality of things can be missing. Things sit mutely in the shadows of time and space, where they merely exist (or do they?). Our ‘disinterest’ is a felt distance from and absence of another: people and things make no difference to us and so we are indifferent to them. Under this pervasive attitude they fail to offer themselves to us for engagement. We lack relation to them and they to us. In a world without wonder there is nothing to enter into relations with; because the world is mute, colourless and inanimate, we lack the means for really living in it. We are implicated in-stuck and pressed into-a deepening wonderlessness and, so we say, become depressed.


The tenor of the wonderless is not always so deep as this. When we ‘make do’ or cope we are able to act steadily in the sameness of things. Our lives are predictable; we move along a set route, in a routine. Things must move along in a manner which enables us to function, but anything unusual, out of the ordinary, or unpredicted, jars us. We are not so removed from the world that things mean nothing. Indeed, we expect them to mean something quite specific: we know where things belong, what they are called, and, intolerant of the slightest change, expect them to ‘stay put’. Is it conceivable that life begins to seem meaningless on occasion because the things of our life have only the meaning we have given them, and the meaning of our life only the function we perform with these things?

In this recurrent, inconsequential manner of living, something stands out only when propelled by extraordinary circumstances: birth, death, urgent despair, compelling chagrin, unexpected joy a walk in a park:

A couple of years ago I was having trouble with depression. One day when I was walking alone in the park, for a brief period all of my interior monologue just stopped a moment of the most beautiful stillness. All of a sudden I felt close to everything: the park, the birds, the light, the air. I can’t think of anything that led up to this experience, but there was such a wonderful release to it. I suddenly felt like a part of life instead of an observer.

Do we recognize wonder in this experience?


Locating ‘Wonder’

What is wonder? The word ‘wonder’ is used in a rich variety of contexts. In this paper I am focussing upon the experience of wonder itself, that is, on the experience which corresponds grammatically to its substantive usage: what can be termed ‘existential wonder’. While reference is sometimes made to the experience of beginning ‘to wonder’, or of ‘wondering’ (that is, its verbal form), my main concern here is with the ‘state’ or experience-the phenomenon-of wonder. Among the many examples used to reveal the meanings of the noun ‘wonder’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is the following brief passage dating from the sixteenth century: ‘Then he turning about, and beholding him with wonder stayed a while without any word’ (Oxford 1971, 3809). As oblique as this reference is, it does express a common aspect of wonder: that it is unbidden, or not fully anticipated. Also, it is worth noting that language is silent in the face of wonder: we stand speechless before it. Therefore, when the word ‘wonder’ is employed here it reverberates with the following definition:

The emotion caused by the perception of something novel and unexpected, or inexplicable; astonishment mingled with perplexity or bewildered curiosity. Also, the state of mind in which this emotion exists. (3809)

Mr. Palomar may be said to be wondering a great deal but never to be caught by the experience of ‘wonder’ itself. Earlier, Barthes’ observations stimulated a stream of wondering in me, and the emerging ‘conversation’ between this wondering and the photograph of the violinist led to the dawning of a fresh way of seeing. Perhaps this is a variety of wonder: a gentle reception of something both new and stirring. The moment of discovering the deception of ‘Paganini’s’ photograph is best termed a ‘surprise’ whose resonance, for whatever reason, did not stir me so deeply (though it did leave a lingering taste of caution and irony). However, it is the experience of first seeing the drawing of the violinist that struck me so unexpectedly, leaving me briefly dazed. Here, I suggest, is where wonder resides.


It is worth returning to that time once more. Arthur and I had attempted in our subsequent conversation to ‘explain’ what occurred. (Why not say it?) In my excitement I told him that we must have been psychically connected, that over the distance between my living room and the school’s art room he must have ‘absorbed’ my own absorption with the photograph. My friend was more reticent to declare this a fact but if anything his caution simply spurred my certainty along, for it was not the first time coincidences of this type had met my attention. Even now, admittedly, I am not much moved by the possibility that some other extraordinary occurrence might actually have taken place. For instance, one (rather pedestrian) alternative is that he absorbed the image from another lunching student (but no one else noticed his drawing; there was no ‘co-incidence’), or, even more improbably, that the ‘causality’ might have been reversed: that I was sensitive to my friend’s creative workings during that noon time-only then to have been struck by the violinist, which happened to be in the magazine. Then again, at least one commonplace possibility remains: might not Arthur’s drawing and the photograph of ‘Paganini’ simply be independent? While it is true that, among the dozens of sketched figures I had seen in his notebooks and on the walls of his room, none had ever held a violin (many guitarists though: both he and his brother played the instrument; his brother built them), I know that this can never prove my feeling of certainty…. But is it proof I seek?


However natural it may be, this tone of questioning (wondering?) inclines me away from-it deflects or obscures-the very experience I am most keen to understand. Before such questions began to emerge, there was the ‘irreducible coincidence’ (to repeat): the fact that that drawing appeared then. This is what struck me then, and what concerns me now. Here the tone of experience reverberates with real force, and locates a lived moment whose dimensions and implications elude and perhaps exceed me.

Is this confusing? If speaking of ‘wonder’ is elusive, it is likely due in part to the wide variation found in our use of the verb ‘to wonder’:[10]

‘Say Honey? -I wonder if you can give me a hand with this ladder?’


‘Not one promotion in all this time-who’s to wonder that she finally left?’


‘I wonder if I should bring my umbrella today?’


‘Have you ever wondered how cats can sleep so much?’


‘Where’s the joy in my life gone? I’ve begun to wonder about this a lot lately’.


‘Me? Oh, just wondering if I should try the cheesecake’.


‘Do you ever wonder if you’d have been better off marrying someone else?’


‘I’ve sometimes spent hours looking into the night sky, wondering about where we belong in all of this’.


‘I wonder if you’d just mind your own business for a change!’


‘I’ve been wondering, what makes Jennifer such a great person to be around?’


‘After seeing the look on his face when I told him, I had to wonder how I ever got into this whole mess’.


‘As for me, I never let myself wonder about that stuff-it just gets me depressed’.


‘Physicists have been wondering about the fundamental characteristics of gravity for generations but still haven’t got it figured out’.


‘You’ve really got to wonder how he can eat so much and stay slim’.


‘It was when I learned their little girl had cancer that I seriously began to wonder if God cares’.


‘He’s really settled about things now. You’ll never catch him wondering about the “meaning of life”!’


‘Instead of sitting around wondering about stuff all the time, why don’t you start doing something with yourself?’

So much wondering. But is there a rapport with existential wonder in any of the above examples? ‘To wonder’ is to be engaged in the current of familiar experiences. ‘Wondering’ is a manner of thinking, pondering or reflecting on something. However, when ‘wonder’ moves or strikes us, when we are wonder-struck, words escape us. We may stroll along wondering about something, whether trivial or profound, but when wonder arises we stop-silent and still. ‘Wonder is situated in the middle of movement’, observes Verhoeven (1972, 36). It is a gap in language and thought. Our breath is caught-we are ‘aghast’-in wonder; perhaps our mouth drops; our eyes open wide, eyebrows raised: wonder brings us to a stand-still [11]. In a moment of wonder we find ourselves at ‘wits’ end’.


Sometimes wondering bears no conceivable relation to the experience of wonder, as when we wonder about which shoes to put on. Similarly, wonder may arise in some moment when we are not wondering-say, while occupied with preparing a hurried lunch. Wondering does not always precede nor proceed from wonder. But at other times their relation can be quite intimate, for wonder may unexpectedly arise out of a process of wondering, and likewise, an extended period of wondering may be stimulated by an initial moment of intense wonder [12]. Verhoeven (1972) speaks of this type of wondering as the ritardando, a gradual slowing down of the expansive and exhilarating pace of wonder. Regardless of the case we choose to consider, though, the critical distinction between ‘to wonder’ and ‘wonder’ stands.


Although less firm, one other distinction can be made here. This journey may be said to tread upon a middle path of sorts: between the commonplace and the miraculous. It would appear obvious that the commonplace simply does not strike us, by virtue of the fact that it is ordinary and expected (‘It’s no wonder that…’); however, the miraculous falls outside our province for a different reason. While wishing neither to deny nor argue for the possibility of ‘wonders’ of the miraculous variety, suffice to say that I am presently more interested to explore the dimensions of the experience of wonder in daily living. Although it is always possible to look to religious literature, from Hindu epic poetry to the prose of German mystics, to read of great miracles and wonders, my focus here is more modest, more pedestrian: it is to speak of something that can erupt out of even the most meandering and mundane passage through life. I should add, however, that this is not a middle of exclusion. Rather, this middle path is of a more dialectical nature, and so who is to say that on occasion we might not come to consider things in daily life as ‘wondrous’, and thus to look with new eyes upon, or see the wonder in, the ‘ordinary’?


Where’s the wonder in it?

A young boy moves down the densely wooded slope towards the river. As he follows this familiar trail along the bank, he happily breathes in the rich air, still redolent of last night’s rainfall. The morning’s light finds its way to him through the dripping tree tops, here and there revealing the shining faces of exposed rocks and a glistening spider’s web, upon which tiny drops of water cling.


In this light the world is only half awake, for all the light seems concentrated on a few prominent things in the wood, which stand out sharply and luminously against deep shadows where the night has not yet been dispelled. The birds are becoming busy above him as he picks his way downwards, and the river’s lazy current grows a little more audible now-briefly drawing his attention…. A flicker of colour… shshsh. …What’s that? His opened mouth suddenly draws a short breath. His heart jumps as he sees it. (Snake!) In a frozen instant it crosses his path a short distance ahead.


The youngster stands fast, excited to the very edge of belief.


His eyes follow its quick course into the wild grass. For a few seconds the creature’s improbable body darts in and out of the light and before the boy knows it the snake has soundlessly disappeared.


‘A snake!’ ‘What what was it doing?’ ‘What if it bit me?’ ‘Where does he live?’ ‘Snakes are so fast!’ And then, following a deep pause his focus recedes and softens; another question emerges: ‘How does he move?’


Many of us have had an experience of this sort: alone in some lovely spot which nourishes our senses. Sometimes it seems easy to be drawn out of our normal preoccupations and simply to watch and enjoy the sights and smells around us. The world calls, and on such occasions we hear it. Even if we are not personally reminded, here, of the careful placement of young feet on sloping ground, the smell of moss, or the startling first sight of a little snake, perhaps another experience of serene beauty or happy interest comes to mind. These are first encounters with things in the world, or, things encountered in some new way for the very first time.


For the child, we may say, there is so much new to see; so little has yet been handled or tasted or named. For the child such experiences are natural and necessary. We even expect it of them-‘Look Suzan! What’s that?’ A young girl or boy may not have a name for ‘that’ as yet; we, however, more than likely do. At times, perhaps we are even too ready to affix names to objects or phenomena that we experience[13]. It is possible to make mistakes, of course, but I’m thinking just now of the possibility of naming something prematurely-in the wrong way-as an act of foreclosure.


Clearly the matter of language is germane. For example, what do we call the boy’s experience with the snake? Being sensitive to the distinction between wonder and wondering, we can suggest that the questions of the boy following his encounter are some manner of wondering. But what of the initial experience? Is it surprise, amazement perhaps? Is there a brief element of shock or fright initially present? Quite likely. Perhaps an exhilaration, as well, at the possibility of the snake veering (but not too closely!) towards him. Later, he doesn’t seem bewildered by the experience, but might we say he is somewhat perplexed by, or curious about it? And finally, what urges the boy to ask how the snake moves; do we find wonder in any of this?


Part of our difficulty in discerning where the wonder is to be ‘found’ here might be attributed to the fact that snakes mean so much to us: at the very least they frighten, delight, horrify and intrigue us. But to varying degrees this ambivalence can also be found wherever we come face to face with things never before seen, or seen for the first time in this way. Everything we are stands exposed before some unknown.


Is it possible that there have ever been humans unmoved by-men, women, children who have not been awestruck, confounded, driven to panic by-the snake? Sometimes, too, people have honoured them. For instance, during his travels Mr. Palomar learns that to the ancient Toltecs the snake symbolized the continuity of life (Calvino 1985, 48). Many cultures have similar traditions. In India, where it is known as the naga, the snake has long been associated with wisdom. Indeed, the renowned second century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna acquired his own extraordinary gifts, legend maintains, during a journey to the mysterious ocean realm of the great naga king (Vogel 1972). While there he received profound insights which had been guarded unwaveringly since the time of the Buddha, lying dormant for centuries until one of sufficient intelligence arose to claim them. Nagarjuna, whose dialectical reduction of reified views forces us to look continually anew upon the animate process of living-all this wisdom, the kind gift of a snake to a man. Surely among the host of emotions and thoughts we have towards these creatures there must be some wonder?


At the tail end of the day, now, as bed time arrives, his father-book in hand-begins to settle our boy into bed, and to ready him for a favourite story. The mood grows quiet in the room and they turn to the book. It is a fine way to end the day.


This book contains a gentle, good humoured tale which soon begins to draw them into its weaving narrative. There is no need to hurry tonight, and anyway, a story like this cannot be read in a single evening…. Only at long last does the man place the marker at a chapter’s end.


As he puts the book aside, though, he looks up to see his son curiously less sleepy than he had expected at the end of so lengthy a reading. What is more, the child’s face reflects an alert, thoughtful mood that somehow belies the recent events of the tale. Several moments pass before the boy turns to look at his father; he asks a single question, one he’d forgotten until now during the busy day:


‘Daddy, how do snakes move?’


How does one respond to such a question? For one familiar with or well studied in natural phenomena, the question of a snake’s manner of locomotion is explained without much difficulty. For most purposes this question can be factually answered with reference to the shivering coordination of its scales, or its flexible spine. No kinetic laws are suspended by its movement along a stretch of ground or a branch-however fluid it may appear. (Do we sense Mr. Palomar drawing near, adjusting his glasses?) From a certain perspective, even to call it ‘remarkable’ is little more than to acquiesce to a bipedal or anthropocentric bias. And perhaps we may be moved to observe (in the pique which descends upon most adults on occasion) that the questions of children often reflect a na�ve and almost wilful amazement at things easily explained. But can this really be the end of it?


The answer begins: ‘It has to do with how they move their skin’.


‘Skin?’ the boy considers this for a second, ‘but how?’


‘Well, you see, it sort of ripples along the ground bit by bit, like little waves, and this motion pushes them forward’.


The child touches the skin on his arm. This isn’t making sense. His snake, the one he has seen, didn’t moved like that at all; it had just glided along, gracefully twisting.


‘How can skin do that, Daddy? The snake by the river is really fast. You you should see him!’

With this, the father recognises more directly the appeal in his son’s eyes. And he remembers being struck himself by the sight of snakes as a youngster-for that matter, even that large one last year-and a distant awe for their effortless, silken movement reawakens in him. (They are quite wonderful, when you think about it.)


‘You know, Michael, every time I see a snake I’m amazed, too. It just doesn’t seem possible, does it?’ His son agrees. Both are quiet for a moment, and then the man adds, ‘It’s kind of beautiful, really do you suppose they’re happy to be so close to everything?’ In response, a soft smile warms the boy’s face; before long he begins to settle contentedly into his covers.


Where is the wonder in this story? As we leave them, the question of snakes’ movement has turned into a manner of wondering. The little boy’s present wondering has arisen out of that initial experience during his morning adventure, an experience that was unavoidably complex and rich. Surprise, awe, fright were all most likely present. Yet it is in the very openness of his encounter, in that sudden open-faced gasp, that we have witnessed this child caught in wonder. Then, in one of his questions (‘How does he move?’) he slips into a current of wondering. The boy’s wondering bears the impression of wonder in the softness of his curiosity; all the same, he does emerge again from wonder, back into his thoughts, and names, and questions, and all the rest.


A ‘question’ is not a uniform thing. Some questions spring from the fickle surface of a restless curiosity (‘mere curiosity’), and demand the placation-or closure-of direct, conclusive ‘answers’. Conversely, a question borne from wonder draws upon the depths of one’s encounter with the world; such questions of wonder (‘true wondering’) seem to call most immediately for acknowledgement, appreciation[14].


While it is true that the father might instead have articulated a more ‘informative’ answer, it is important to note that the response he gives in no way precludes further inquiry-quite the opposite. The response sought by the boy must be such that the wonder which enlivens his questioning is not dismissed, or ‘explained away’ [15]. Note that the plausible variations of this narrative are endless; so too are the factors not rendered explicit. The boy’s age, life-experiences and maturity; the particular relationship he and his father have; the specific mood of this evening; and even, the father’s plans by way of ‘education’ the next morning: each of these conditions, among many, are germane to the particular response the man gives his son. Rather than being brought to a close, the boy’s interest in the snake has been refreshed during the exchange with his father. In a crucial sense, if the resonant wonder were not left fully ‘intact’, there would no longer even be a question to which to respond. Admittedly, this makes of wonder a very delicate thing, something vulnerable to an insensitive grasp. It is so easy to attend to the words, the questioning and answering, and yet to miss the open, elusive and radically ineffable moments of wonder itself. No doubt a good deal of the delicacy required on this occasion is owing to the youth and innocence of the child, who in the end elicits his father’s most gentle nature. Certainly; but might wonder of itself also call for special regard of this sort?


Wonder and Philosophy

It has been said that our specialized branches of knowledge each derives from familiar, commonplace origins: chemistry from cooking, mathematics from carpentry, and philosophy from the questions of children (Maturana 1992). Now it may be true that (with the possible exception of Nagarjuna) questions concerning snakes have never engaged the attention of philosophers. Yet our central concern is, of course, not with snakes but with wonder. We may observe that moments of wonder do not arise in relation to snakes alone, but to photographs, as well-even waves upon the sea, the constellations, social relations, teapots, and death may be included. The question of the boy, above, is special because it is informed by a quality of wonder; it is for this reason that it calls for a manner of care. It is a beautiful question because it reveals an openness to his experience and a wonderful appreciation for the object of this experience. The question shows him at his most vulnerable and reverberates with the initial wonder he felt. It is an important question, therefore, because our response must sensitively take into account the innermost recesses of the questioner in his relations with the world. Even if they do not strike us as being ‘philosophic’, the questions of children may often arise out of wonder; consequently, their special appeal to us is owing to their being touched by the wondrous. For this reason, a response only truly speaks to such questions when something of this same intimacy is echoed in it. Can it be that any question arising from wonder deserves the quality of attention we label ‘philosophic’?


In the Theaetetus (155d) and in the Metaphysics (I.2. 982b) Plato and Aristotle each, respectively, affirms the central role of wonder (=thaumazein, also translated as ‘astonishment’) in the enterprise of philosophy. For instance, Plato has Socrates praise the perceptive young Theaetetus by observing, ‘This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin’ (Plato 1961, 860). Although not afforded the central place one might expect, germinal statements of this kind have not gone unnoticed. Heidegger (1956, 81), for one, dwells lovingly upon wonder, astonishment, as both the starting place and the rejuvenating impulse necessary to philosophy:

The pathos of astonishment thus does not simply stand at the beginning of philosophy, as, for example, the washing of his hands precedes the surgeon’s operation. Astonishment carries and pervades philosophy.

Llewelyn (1988) has explored the early Greek treatment of wonder and traced under-standings of the term through later Western thinkers, including Aquinas, Hegel, and especially Heidegger. Irigaray (1993) offers a modern reading of Descartes’ treatment of wonder in his Passions of the Soul (1985). Verhoeven (1972) illuminates a number of important dimensions and implications of wonder in human life and thought.


Note, however, that the subtlety of wonder might easily draw us away from looking at the experience itself, to considering views about the experience. Presently, a more immediate, phenomenological concern directs these efforts. Quoting Goethe, Heidegger (1977a, 385) re-orients this inquiry:

‘Look for nothing behind phenomena: they themselves are what is to be learned’. This means the phenomenon itself… sets us the task of learning from it while questioning it, that is, of letting it say something to us.

Merleau-Ponty (1962, xviii) makes a similar observation:

Our relationship to the world, as it is untiringly enunciated within us, is not a thing which can be any further clarified by analysis; philosophy can only place it once more before our eyes and present it for our ratification.

In Husserl’s oft-repeated words, no more need be done than to return ‘to the things themselves’. It has taken a young child settling into bed, however, one naturally emersed in ‘the season of the mind’s possibilities’ (Lyotard 1993, 100), to serve notice that delicate regard must be our companion as we set out once more.


Wonder-struck: Wonder brings us to a stand-still

One day, walking among the tulips in the garden, I was unexpectedly struck with their vivid beauty, and the subtlety of their colours and forms. Of course, I’m very fond of flowers and take lots of pleasure in gardening, but this particular occasion was special and it stopped me in my tracks. It just grabbed me-not like a thought, there was an uncommon immediacy and wholeness to the experience, and it was accompanied by incredible joy. I somehow felt akin to the flowers. All this started with a definite sensation, a physical impact: ‘Oh‘!


I once had the opportunity to attend a seminar held by a distinguished composer, one for whom I had long held a deep admiration. There were many demands on his time and I had tried to think of what I would ask him if the chance arose. I decided to bring a score of his which I had found almost impenetrable, and simply ask him how he would perform it. So many people milling about this man! Crowds often produce some discomfort in me, and yet, summoning my courage I finally seized an occasion to introduce myself, showed him the piece, and asked my question. His response left me in complete wonder: he said, ‘Well let’s see’. And with this he leaned over and started to look at it, I thought, as if he had never seen it before. This was not done in an artful manner, and you should understand that he had an extremely good memory-it’s not that he’d forgotten the piece. When he responded like that I had a sense of amazement, like: ‘How could a person do that‘? It was a magical moment; all of the confusion around us evaporated.

While not always expressed with all the visible signs of a wonderstruck child-eyes wide, mouth open-it is true, nonetheless, that the experience of wonder arrests us. We stop and stand in wonder. When wonder arises it is as if the surface of water is suddenly broken-with a gentle plop or a startling splash -by the presence of the unexpected. We are plunged into and saturated by it. Or, it is as if our steady, habitual course were radically redirected by an object which would not give way to the usual momentum of our experience. However it is described, its impact is felt and it leaves its impression: ‘Oh!’


Wonder is most ‘striking’ in its sudden and radical expressions; and yet, are we never gently stirred by wonder in some passing moment, while strolling in a garden, say, or as when, in the very instance that we gaze upon its face, a baby breaks into a smile? ‘Wonder strikes the heart but does not hurt it’, says Augustine (Verhoeven 1972, 40). It is this gentle wonder, which stops an already restrained or leisurely pace, that the Japanese poet, Ryokan (1758-1831), evokes (Watson 1977, 17):

In the twilight
crossing over
Mount Kugami
at the crest I heard
the cry of a deer

Notice that a casual glance around the room in which we sit may yield, upon inspection, an impressive number of unknown objects or phenomena. How is the carpet under my feet produced? I don’t honestly know. What prompted my cat to swish its tail, just then? Again, I can’t say for sure. And yet at present I don’t find myself ‘struck’ by these uncertainties. Nothing about them provokes the compelling urgency, the delight or disturbance of wonder. Why not? For one thing, none of them has intruded upon my attention unexpectedly-I went looking for them. The continuity of my experience has not been arrested in the case of the carpet or the cat. But in wonder I stop, or more properly, I am stopped, and it even seems that in some sense the world stops, too: ‘all the confusion around us evaporated’. Or, if things do not stop, perhaps their tenor suddenly modulates to a remarkable degree. In any case, something about the world changes, and this is our accustomed experience of it: wonder is an experience of discontinuity.


‘Oh…’: Wonder leaves us speechless

There is a special moment in a forty-part choral work by Thomas Tallis. I still remember my first experience of hearing it. For a long time I felt immersed in its very intricate texture-it really is dense. But late in the work completely without warning it comes to a stop. And then, just as suddenly it begins again, but in a strikingly discontinuous manner. It is a moment of such penetrating beauty. My breath caught in that moment: it was like the sun rose.


Wonder and language, wonder and thought, do not co-exist. We have no words for what arises in wonder because it does not conform to, nor can it be absorbed into, the texture of habitual experience: (without knowing it) we are ‘at wits’ end’. In the sense that the phenomenon about which wonder has arisen is seen anew, wonder arises only in relation to what is experienced as new or unique, and so the phenomenon cannot be recognised or named. As is suggested by the seventeenth century Japanese poet, Basho (1966, 79), the fact that something is anomalous does not stand between our experience of it, quite the opposite:

Not knowing
The name of the tree,
I stood in the flood
Of its sweet smell.

The stand-still that wonder brings is not only bodily. Daily experience has a steady, predictable quality. Thought, language-all the means we employ for making sense-tend to acquire a familiar tenor or pattern. (‘What are you looking at? It’s only a tree!’) To experience things as predictable means that by drawing upon past experience we extend ourselves into the future, in some sense imbuing the continuity of lived experience with duration or length. But the wonder that arrests us is all so unexpected or unprecedented. Verhoeven (1972, 37) remarks that ‘[t]his halting does not result from an inner deliberation; it is the involuntary break in a rhythm not only of thought but of the whole of life’. In wonder, the continuity of thought, language, experience-of living itself-is momentarily broken: we both stop short and our words fall short.


Wonder promotes or incites an open space in the familiar texture of lived experience. Are we left speechless because thought and language are drawn right out of us? In the very next moment, with the choral piece beginning to ‘take shape’ again, our listener relaxes and silently remarks, ‘Oh that’s wonderful’. Are we emptied by wonder of our capacity for thought? No: wonder is more than thought and language can bear. In wonder, thought, speech, and action are momentarily suspended. We are drawn into and become filled by wonder.


In a new light: Wonder opens our eyes

I was in the National Gallery, becoming rather overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of art and feeling a bit hurried. Then I walked into a room with a large C�zanne in it. Although I ‘recognised’ the painting from books this was different: its presence, here, made it almost leap off the wall. I was totally unprepared for this. It was such a surprise to see something familiar in this new light. The whole room came alive, and the rest of my visit to the gallery was charged with a silent wonder to the beauty around me. It all began in that one moment.


A short while ago I was visiting with my mother. We were in the kitchen while she was doing some cooking: nothing unusual. But, all of a sudden, everything about her just moved me: it was like a shock of recognition. I can’t be certain how this should just happen, but it was as if I was seeing all her dimensions at once-wife, mother, friend. Maybe it was the light grace in her movements, which bore no trace of the passage of time. However it began, in one sweeping moment she took shape for me in a new and lovely way. For the first time I felt I was seeing her as a whole person!


In wonder, we see with new eyes. Again, the familiar current of experience has shifted to reveal something new: a rich beauty and depth that has emerged from the midst of the familiar, and which compels us. It leads me to suggest that with wonder it may be useful to distinguish between ‘seeing’ and ‘really seeing’. What is it to speak of ‘new eyes’ and ‘really seeing’? In this sense, to see something is a manner of viewing wherein that which we expect to see appears: what appears confirms our expectations. To see something is an action attributable to the viewer; an object conforms to our view of what it ‘should’ be. However, wonder is experienced as a ‘dilation of attention’. Really to see something implies that the object itself stands out or is ‘brought to our attention’ in a new way. (‘Imagine I’d never noticed that before!’) Wonder is a pure seeing in which the ‘seer’, is suspended or absent.


Wonder is a passive experience; the ‘seeing’ that occurs in wonder is not a process whereby our vision actively reveals things of the world to us. Rather, things reveal themselves to our opened eyes. Of course, wonder is not limited to vision alone. For instance, it is equally true to say that wonder puts us into intimate contact (‘in touch’) with something, or that we ‘hear with new ears’. Regardless of the sense through which it moves us, wonder is experienced as an integrity. Seeing something in this new way is to be fully present and open to its possibilities.


While it is not vital to question why this particular painting should suddenly ‘come alive’ in the experience above, it is an interesting happenstance that the viewer has been sensitive to what Merleau-Ponty (1964, 169) considered a special gift of this artist: ‘The “world’s instant” that C�zanne wanted to paint, an instant long since passed away, is still thrown at us by his paintings’ (emphasis added). Merleau-Ponty’s observation is highly suggestive of wonder in general. In wonder things reveal themselves to us in an active and compelling sense. Indeed, so compelling is the experience of wonder, at times, that everything in our experience may become illuminated-flooded-by its special light.


Looking again to my cat-now she yawns and begins to clean a front paw-I see nothing unfamiliar here, even though I cannot locate, measure or fully describe the conditions that prompt her to do this. While it is true that I may denote her yawning and so forth as ‘unknown’ phenomena, this is merely word-play. In spite of the fact that they may be inscrutable at times, I am comfortable and familiar with our cat’s mannerisms. The cat’s yawn is not unfamiliar to me precisely because it is familiar to me. But when wonder arises, the familiar is seen in an unfamiliar light. What could be less unusual than our mother’s manner of cooking? That one should find something unexpected here is in itself unexpected: how many times has this person observed her mother busy in the kitchen? what can be so different about this occasion? (Doubtless Mr. Palomar could oblige us with a rich array of conjectures, should we ask.) Yet something has happened: the familiar has become deepened or enriched. It is rather awkward to assert that familiarity and unfamiliarity actually occur together; after all, we do not wish to say that the face of our daughter or son is not ‘recognised’ when seen in wonder. Even so, in wonder the tenor of familiarity modulates.


‘Look!’: wonder calls to us

Recently I was interrupted at work to deal with an older woman. She had been waiting a long time for a social worker to see her and when I finally got there she blurted out all sorts of eccentric complaints. Very quickly I had her pegged as being off her medication and I found myself dealing with her very ‘professionally’, at a distance. (I’m not very comfortable admitting this.) But then, there was a moment when I could see myself viewing her in this way. I can’t say that this did it, but after this internal pause all of a sudden something switched for me, and I saw her as a real person. It’s hard to explain, but seeing this ragged old woman in this way was a wonder for me. There was a kind of beauty to her, just as she was. Once this happened the whole tone of our conversation altered and it became a good exchange.


While participating in the retreat, I’d been spending a lot of time simply walking-in the woods, along the beach. As I was walking this one day the tonal quality of the things around me began to change. I especially recall the striking, distinct beauty of the individual stones lying on the beach, and their complex patterns and relations with one another. In my musings I have sometimes encountered and even cultivated this before, this enchantment or magical seeing. This time, too, I was moved by a deep appreciation that this marvellous web of relations extended to me as well. But in the midst of this wonderment I began to sense something unfamiliar resounding in me, and then slowly the intricate and intimate connectedness I had been experiencing softly immersed all of my relations. I can say that this occasion of wonder transformed my way of viewing the people in my life-I suddenly wanted to reach out and give freely and lovingly of myself. It promoted a new way of being in me. I’m so grateful I have lived long enough to see this.


In the moment of wonder things come to life; it may even be that the life they always possess is revealed and appreciated. Wonder places us in contact with an enlarged or enriched world of relations and experience. The world is animated with interest; it suddenly becomes appealing: just as surely as a beloved child capering into our room with breathless news, wonder calls us. In this way, as an experience of compelling openness which reveals and propels us into new possibilities, wonder naturally draws us into relations with the world. It reveals a significance which draws us forward even while withdrawing from us, beckoning. Heidegger (1977b, 350) writes,

Once we are drawn into the withdrawal, we are, somewhat like migratory birds, but in an entirely different way, caught in the pull of what draws, attracts us by its withdrawal. And once we, being so attracted, are drawing toward what draws us, our essential being already bears the stamp of that ‘pull’.

In addition to the ‘stand-still’ of wonder, therefore, that stillness within the incessant continuity of familiar experience, wonder possesses a dynamic quality wherein we feel ourselves caught and implicated in the flow of its deep current. In so doing, the appealing wonder of the ‘other’ calls on us to respond. Wonder urges us. The call of wonder is in the imperative: ‘Look!’ Depending on the force with which it impresses us, wonder’s imperative call may be soft as an invitation, urgent as an appeal, or directive as a summons.


Besides this subtlety of the ‘dynamic stand-still’ there is another striking co-incidence at the heart of wonder: something becomes open to us in the same moment that we become open to it. This seems more than a dilation of attention, in that it is an opening of everything that we are to something. Wonder leaves an impression, therefore, because we are open to the imprint of the other.


The wonder of it all: Wonder gives things their meaning

Watching all the school kids arrive one morning I noticed a boy being helped out of the car by his mother. He was obviously quite handicapped and looked, you know, ‘like a boy whose mother had dressed him’. They got out of the car, the boy had his lunch bag, and together they made their way haltingly into the school. At a point in all this I can’t locate, something happened. Before I knew it the experience just became intensely rich: I was aware that their life together was highly challenged, and yet here they were just walking along, chatting. They were completely okay with each other. The poignancy of the moment touched me very deeply. I felt as though I was becoming aware of their whole lives together. These people were entirely unknown to me, and yet I was suddenly so appreciative of the care that was bestowed on this young boy, and of the fact that he was simply himself.


When I was a student in Strasbourg I had to walk across a bridge on the Rhine every day to get to the university. On this particular day, I lingered awhile in the middle to look out over the city and for some reason all of a sudden became profoundly affected by all the old buildings, and the parks, and the people. There was a touching, timeless beauty to the whole scene. A powerful appreciation welled up in that moment as it dawned on me that for centuries people had lived and died here, and had stood right where I was standing: all those human beings. And instead of being the reference point for everything in my life I was suddenly taken outside of myself. I was deeply appreciative-just to be living, just to be alive to experience all of this.

Wonder brings us into intimate contact with things. There is nothing half-hearted about it-any more than we can remain only partially dampened when plunged into a river. People and things really come to life in wonder. Verhoeven (1972, 63) comments: ‘I pause in wonder because a thing is as it is, in this moment, and not different. It is precisely the emerging “thusness” of the thing that provokes wonder’. When I see something in this new light I gain a fresh appreciation for it: it means more to me. People and things revealed in the light of wonder are shown to have intrinsic beauty and worth. Therefore when wonder arises it tends to be accompanied by an appreciation both for the presence of the wondrous, and simultaneously, for being present-in this moment, and for this person or thing. For this reason (and in the strictest sense) wonder is contemplation. The other is open for us as it is open to us, as itself; and we are open to and for all of this as we are open to ourselves.


Even so, that for which wonder arises does not become entirely exposed to us. The wondrous acquires deep meaning and significance for us, but does not become ‘known’, once and for all. It may happen that wonder presents us with an answer to a question we didn’t know we had; conversely, it may present us with a question we assumed was answered. Thus, when we are struck by wonder for something, in appreciation for all that it is and for all that remains beyond our purview, we are compelled to look upon it with a certain modesty.


Emerging out of the deep acceptance residing at the heart of it all, alongside of the urging to do is an equally sonorous call simply to be. The acceptance proper to wonder comes at the price of certainty, and the delimitation and denotation of our experience. It entails a softening of our struggle with the living process in which we are implicated. It entails as well the emergence of consent. In wonder, we consent to be, and in so doing become open to a grateful appreciation simply for being. What is it that keeps us longing for life? Not, Rilke (Mitchell 1984, 199) suggests, the fact that happiness exists, or out of curiosity,

But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.

In the passive yet curiously dynamic experience of wonder words fall short; then too, among the responses natural to wonder-among those actions we choose to undertake following this experience-is silence. In reference to this active suspension of language it is with great appreciation that Barthes (1982, 72) cites a haiku by Basho:

How admirable he is


Who does not think ‘Life is ephemeral’


when he sees a flash of lightening!


The open face of wonder: Wonder exposes our vulnerability


I noticed this fellow as he walked into the caf�. He was making rather odd gestures and my first thought was that he was trying to be funny-an instant later, with a jolt, I realised he had cerebral palsy. This mistake really ‘brought me to attention’, and after he sat down more or less directly across from me I found it doubly hard not to notice him. Seeing him in the middle of the caf�, with this immense awkwardness, I became moved with a sense of compassion for this man. I knew that he was simply unable to be inconspicuous in the way I took for granted. When the waiter came to take his order it became clear from their banter that he was a regular here. And then, a few seconds later something else caught my attention: a bicycle helmet! He had ridden here, in traffic, on a bike! It really hit me. I was filled with admiration for him: here is a person utterly undaunted by challenges, who meets life squarely. Although I can express these things now, the whole moving impression of this man swept over me in a torrent, and for several days this wonder and appreciation would resurface, and saturate me. He gave me this gift.

The openness at the heart of wonder is impressive. We are moved, urged, by its call both to respond and simply to be. Are we also at times disturbed? ‘To be disturbed’: perhaps this is still another way of describing the consequence of wonder for us. Do we find the caf�-goer, above, disturbed? In the sudden jolt of attention, certainly, but what of the situation of finding himself face to face with this particular young man? More to the point, is there wonder in this?


In these reflections I have sought to illustrate some of the qualities of wonder: that it delights and inspires; that it reveals and perplexes; and that in wonder people or things become both beautifully, touchingly unfamiliar, and stirringly, profoundly familiar. Yet now I wish to suggest that it also disturbs. Since it is such comfort to dwell where wonder is situated in the vicinity of the ‘wonderful’, that is, the beautiful or lovely, its potential for stirring us, and perhaps leaving us in deep disquiet, may often be dismissed or ignored.


A little girl comes running into the house from the front yard where she has been playing. The girl’s cries, and the urgent sound of her feet, bring her mother in haste. ‘Mommy! Charlie! A car hit Charlie!’ She reaches for her mother’s arms and the two of them rush through the door and down the steps, hurrying across the pavement to find the neighbour’s dog lying prone on the street. Putting her daughter down the woman hesitates, then gingerly touches the animal, probing its body for life. There is no response. Only the trace of blood at its open, still mouth offers any outward sign of its injuries. The girl gazes at the dog and her mother in tremulous silence. ‘Mommy, is Charlie dead?’ It is not a word she has had occasion to utter very often. Even though softly spoken, it does not seem to belong within the intimate space between the girl and her mother. ‘I’m afraid so, Angela’. For several moments longer the girl looks, and then very slowly she reaches down to the animal: cautiously at first, her small hand approaches the long fur on its back, tenderly moving it towards his neck. She touches his exposed ear, then strokes his forehead ever so gently between those dull eyes where the fine fur lies smoothly back-between his eyes, which had always greeted her so happily, and made her happy, in turn. It is when the dog’s owner comes and lifts Charlie’s limp form to carry him away that Angela, now clasping her mother’s strong hand, begins to cry.


This incident could have developed differently, of course. Neighbours frantically rushing about, an angry driver, a mother’s firm refusal (‘Now you stay right here, Angela!’) or understandable panic (‘That could have been my daughter!’), the dog’s shocking visible injuries-any of these might have stimulated an engulfing fear or caused her to recoil from this pitiable animal on the street. Any number of conditions could have made the experience frightfully disturbing. Nevertheless, on this occasion they were not present, and so my question is this: do we also find wonder somewhere in moments of this kind? The child has no reason not to accept the ministrations and word of her mother, or the evidence of her own eyes and hand; she is open to the experience as it unfolds by virtue of who she is. What is there to do here? In a sense, nothing; and yet, might the call of wonder (look!) be reflected back from this poor creature to the young girl herself? What sort of urging do we find? For the first time in her short life, perhaps, the child is present to an experience of wonder which stirs and disturbs her in this way. Many an adult would be hard pressed to ‘absorb the shock that wonder causes’ (Verhoeven 1972, 13) with this sensitivity. Should we try to prevent such a thing from happening? Is the child too young for this? And more generally, what can it mean, simply to be in the face of such wonder?


Wonder does more than open us to something: in the way that we use these words, we become open in appreciation for and moved by what is beautiful and meaningful, but we become exposed to and disturbed by the tremendous, awesome, and profound. Wonder both opens us to rich possibilities and exposes us to our vulnerability. Yet it is not a vulnerability to life that wonder exposes; rather, it seems to expose the vulnerability of that which attempts to shore up and contain the flowing current of life. In wonder, the fact that we are irremediably implicated in all of life is sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully, made transparent.


Wonder and pedagogy

The intention of this exploration has been to reveal some of the modalities of wonder; to do this, the experience of adults has received the primary focus. While the question of wonder in the lives of children has been treated tentatively in narrative form, its relation to pedagogy remains open. Nevertheless, the bearing of wonder upon the concerns of curriculum has never been far from the observations made and questions elicited by this inquiry-especially where ‘pedagogy’ (or ‘agogy’) is understood to extend far beyond the context of the classroom, into any human relations in which, for instance, a purposeful interest in fostering the ‘contingent possibility for “being and becoming”‘ (van Manen 1991, 17) in another, is present. In the following I will gather together some themes which bear upon the relevance of wonder to pedagogy. Although they tie up no ‘loose ends’, these remarks may begin to clear a few pathways which together might direct us towards a more fruitful pedagogical understanding of wonder.

A sensitive attunement to the wonder of students begins with an attentiveness to the experience and implications of wonder in our own lives.


Attentiveness to wonder and the many dimensions of experience it reveals in our lives can cultivate a sensitivity to the emergence of wonder in others, and therefore has significant implications for the way in which we can be pedagogically oriented towards students. An alertness to these lucid moments of ‘seeing’ may reveal a new richness in those modest, commonplace moments which comprise some part-perhaps a large part-of each day.

To be receptive to the persistent possibility of wonder may cultivate a manner of being present for students that encourages ‘true wondering’, and wonder, in them.


An attunement to wonder might allow us more truly to hear questions that arise from it, and to respond with sensitivity. Such questions call for a special ear, a willingness to afford them space and respond from the depths of our experience. We can speak of being pedagogically alert to a developing ‘atmosphere’ of wonder, of being gentle in its presence, and proceeding so as not to outdistance its ‘pace’. Attunement to the wonder which resounds in a question demands that we be willing to stand at or near to that place of astonishment and risk in ourselves. Even if we do not presently share another’s wonder, this willingness to risk (our authority, certainty, preoccupation) is crucial. Met by such a response a student’s fragile questioning is supported, and is free to unfold further and be followed or explored.

Wonder inspires our interest.


While wonder is passive, the compelling ‘givenness’ of experience incited by wonder, the ‘new light’ in which it reveals the world, can be a potent stimulus for learning. It propels us into, and establishes anew our relations with the world. This interest may be viewed as the least ‘reflexive’ of active responses, that is, one which is motivated out of the least degree of self-centred concern, and so from which-somewhat unlike curiosity-one always proceeds with a manner of care. Of course, curiosity is also vital to learning; it too may arise out of wonder. But the resonance between curiosity and wonder holds only so long as the expression of this curiosity-its inquiry, analysis, probing-maintains within it a living appreciation for the integrity of the other. Wonder inspires our interest in the world for its own sake; in Irigaray’s (1993, 80) admirable phrase, it is a ‘movement lighter than the necessities of the heart’.

Wonder elicits respect.


An ethic of wonder is therefore indicated: it urges us to respect that which it reveals. If cultivated, this respect may imbue our approach to living with a tenor of mindful and gentle regard. Notice that the ‘givenness’ of experience in the passive, yet dynamic, face of wonder does not preclude our acting out of interest or curiosity, acting to explore, transform or undo; it does not diminish our responsibility to deliberate upon and critically undertake things. Rather, by bringing us to a stand-still wonder’s influence tends to be one of ‘priority’: it marks a certain quality of beginning.

Wonder reaches to the very heart of identity.


Of the concluding points gathered here, this is the least well developed, the most tacit and suggestive. Nevertheless, it merits consideration. Our vulnerability in wonder, the immediacy of view it affords of the other, comes at the price of established assumptions and certainty. In wonder our experience or ‘world’ as conceived is at stake. Just as it opens up and offers (sometimes even thrusts upon us) a horizon of new questions and possibilities, the palpable discontinuity provoked by wonder also undermines the way in which our world ‘stands to reason’-nowhere is our vulnerability in wonder more conspicuous than here, with all that is familiar poised in abeyance. Whether gently or disturbingly, that is, identity itself is implicated and ‘put into question’ in the experience of wonder.
Speaking of a ‘wonder-sensitive pedagogy’ is unavoidably subtle in this regard. Being present in a deeply pedagogical manner to a student’s open-faced gasp of wonder is an appeal for humility and ‘tact’ (van Manen 1991)-both because of the tenuous, living relation wonder forms with the other and because of the defencelessness it briefly provokes. The manner in which we see ourselves, the texture of our relations with others, and the innermost place from which we respond to our experience deep matters of this kind are exposed to the eyes, the heart, in wonder. As teachers we need to consider the consequential nature of the openness that occurs in this experience, where we seem-simultaneously-to find and lose ourselves.




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