“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysteriousness. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead – his eyes are closed.” So wrote Albert Einstein in his essay “The World as I See It.”
And Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, whose performances in Paris just before World War I electrified audiences and changed ballet forever, said to the young Jean Cocteau, who was beginning to make a name for himself in the theater, “Emerveille-moi!” (“Do me wonders”).
This post is about wonder, our sense of it, our need of it. In it longtime viewers of this blog will recognize themes of earlier posts, as for example trees (#71), insects (#34), silence (#55), and near-death experiences (#62). But what is wonder? A feeling of being surprised and overwhelmed by something, a revelation of something new and mysterious and meaningful, or the familiar transformed. It takes us out of ourselves, it puts us completely in the moment. As examples of experiences provoking wonder in my own life I would cite these examples:
· The rose windows of Chartres cathedral, incomparably beautiful, which, far from being embedded in a wall, seem suspended in space.
|Chartres, the rose window in the north transept. But no photograph can |
truly convey the beauty of a rose window.
Andreas F. Borchert
· Dawn on Mount Canigou in the Pyrenees. Having climbed the mountain and spent the night in a chalet near the summit, on awaking early in the morning I looked out a window and saw the sky suffused with rose – the most beautiful sky I had ever seen; it cast a spell, it transformed me. Hurrying through breakfast, I rushed out to find the rose replaced by a milky white that was still magical, still enchanting. Fifteen minutes later I was at the very top of the mountain, but the milky white too had vanished, giving way to a bright, sunny day where every detail of the landscape stood out clean and clear. Impressive, but the awesome splendor, the mystery was gone.
· On Monhegan Island, off midcoast Maine, a turbulent ocean, roiled up by a storm the day before, breaking over Gull Rock, a ninety-foot-high slab of gray rock hunched up against the sea like a reclining giant, its rounded crest vanishing at intervals in a torrent of white spume: the most violent sight I have ever witnessed in nature, a display of raw, brute force compelling wonder and awe.
· Jacques Cousteau’s description of underwater reefs that he explored with the aid of the aqua-lung he had pioneered: corals like brain or staghorns or cactus or candelabras or skulls of dwarfs and giants; clams with shells ajar, displaying swollen mantles like the painted lips of harlots; sinister moray eels glowering from crevices with bared teeth; a crumpled feather bonnet that explodes into the bristles of a lion fish; and two hundred feet down, the boundary of reason and the beginning of rapture of the depths, as danger becomes voluptuous and enticing and the diver is lured ever downward toward steep walls of white walking canes, witches’ heads, and giant sponges festooned with spider webs: vistas he must renounce or risk his life.
That is all very fine, you may say, but Chartres and Mount Canigou and an island off midcoast Maine and underwater reefs in the tropics are not exactly urban phenomena, and this blog is supposed to be about New York. Where in this crowded, noisy city is one supposed to experience wonder?
Not easy. For what characterizes this city is precisely what inhibits a sense of wonder:
· Busyness, exertion
· Concern with the practical
· Greed, the obsessive preoccupation with money
· Ambition, the drive to get ahead
· Skepticism, doubt, irreligion
Certainly, to experience a sense of wonder one wants quiet and calm, freedom from practical concerns, and an abatement of ego. Which for New Yorkers isn’t easy. And yet, there is wonder to be had, if we look for it.
|A sycamore bud opening.|
This is April, the miracle month, when buds open and parks and gardens come alive. Look at an opening bud: a tiny clenched fist that gradually begins to loosen and expand into leaves and flowers – for me, an emblem of all beginnings of life, even the embryo in the womb. From nothing, or almost nothing, a clenched bud or the tiniest speck of a seed, comes the wonder of life, which we take so much for granted.
And trees, whose glories I have already sung (post #71). Both the majesty of their skeletal architecture in winter, and the vast expanse of their rustling leaves, pulsing and shimmering in the sun, when traversed by summer breezes.
And light on water, any water, whether a puddle or a river or the sea, if one looks toward the sun: depending on how much or how little wind there is, sheets or splotches of light, dancing tiny silver specks, a pulsing, glistening expanse that so fascinates me and sucks me into it, that I would almost call it the living face of God.
|Clinton and Charles Robertson|
And insects, which can be seen, with patience, in the city’s parks. Monarch butterflies (now, alas, endangered) migrating north from Mexico in spring to feed on milkweed here, and then returning there in autumn. In Maine in the fall I have caught the tail end of the migration, with their orange wings boldly lined with black fluttering over or perched and feeding upon the blue or purple asters. Their numbers wax or wane from season to season; some years I was told that at the peak of the migration they were so thick that you could almost walk through a field of them, brushing them gently aside as you went. But even here in the city you can see them in smaller numbers in the parks.
Or the sinister beauty of the praying mantis, its spiked forelegs waiting patiently for some unwary victim to venture into their lethal embrace and be trapped and eaten alive.
And the familiar honey bee, whose mating habits elicit wonder perhaps tinged with horror. The virgin queen bee in her one nuptial flight soars into the air and the drones, the males, follow; the queen then mates in midair with one after another – maybe a dozen or more – each of whom ejaculates with such force that his penis ruptures and is left inside the queen, following which, emasculated, he falls to the ground and dies. Leaving a trail of dead drones in her wake, the queen, with their sperm stored inside her, returns to the hive to begin her endless task of laying as many as 2,000 eggs a day, thus assuring the survival and continuance of the hive. For a sensitive and dramatic account of this and other aspects of the honey bee’s existence, poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Life of the Bee (1901) is essential, even if it needs to be supplemented today.
But mating is only one phase of the mysterious life cycle of the hive, the whole of which inspires even greater wonder and awe. And maybe a warning to the males of all species: once you have implanted your sperm, biologically you are no longer needed and can easily be dispensed with. And so, guys, if you want to stick around, make sure you make yourself needed in some other way.
And now, having glanced at these minuscule creatures, let’s engage with vastness: the night sky strewn with stars, albeit not easily seen in the city unless one goes to a rooftop, a pier, or a park (if one cares to venture at night into a park). But if we do and see the starlit heavens, we can be mesmerized, yanked out of our worries and concerns, and vaulted into some higher awareness. Having read The Universe Story by cosmologists Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, I can envision the first flaring forth, the explosion of primordial energy, never to be equaled again, as frenzied particles cascade into existence, and gigantic galaxies pinwheel through the dark emptiness of space, creating clusters of systems, and clusters of clusters of systems, till the Milky Way begets ten thousand new stars, including our Sun, and the clouds of elements hovering about the Sun give birth to that tiny fragment of the cosmos that we presume to apprehend, the planets, including what Swimme and Berry call “the extravagant, magical, and living Earth.” The universe, they conclude, is a celebration of existence and life and consciousness, of color and sound and movement, of living and dying – a celebration in which we humans must participate. There is only one story, the story of the universe, and every form of being – ourselves included – is an integral part of it.
All this, out of a glimpse of the sky at night? Yes, for that glimpse, or even the mere memory of it, points me to the cosmos, to vastness, to the mystery of origins. Just reading my scribbled notes on Swimme and Berry, I am swept away, humbled, overwhelmed. What they and other cosmologists give us is the modern Genesis, to which the only conceivable response is wonder.
Contemplating the cosmos, or some significant part of it, isn’t the only gateway to wonder. Certain lines of poetry, even when torn from their context, grab me in a more modest, but still inspiring, way:
· “The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.” (The last line of Matthew Arnolds’s “Dover Beach,” and surely the best line he ever wrote.)
· “DETERMINED, DARED, and DONE.” (The triumphant last line of Christopher Smart’s “A Song to David.”)
· “plus vaste que nos lyres” (Yes, even a fragment of a line can reach me. From Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau ivre,” a magical poem that never fails to dazzle me.)
· “with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their
own bodies good to eat a thousand years.”
(The last line of Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl,” another magical poem.)
Swimme and Berry’s cosmos overwhelms me; these lines simply hint at mystery, but mystery is the key to everything, and certainly to wonder and awe.
If literature can lead to wonder, then why not all the arts? Of course. For dance, the ending of Jerome Robbins’s Illuminations, inspired by Rimbaud’s poetry: the poet, his forearm bleeding with a wound inflicted by profane love, watches as in the distance sacred love, all in white, arabesques back and forth, back and forth, hypnotically. (In real life Rimbaud had indeed been shot by his angry lover, Verlaine – an instance of very profane love.)
For sculpture, the dancing Hindu attendant to the gods at the Met, and Shiva’s cosmic dance, both in the marvelous South Asian hall, give me a feeling of mystery and wonder, though almost any Buddha could surely do the same.
For painting, Kandinsky’s four abstract compositions at the Museum of Modern Art, created in 1914 for the American collector Edwin R. Campbell. For me, their explosions of line and form and color express primordial energy akin to that evoked by Swimme and Berry.
As for the cosmic in music, one can’t do better than Bach.
Too artsy-fartsy? All right, how about higher math? In the New York Times Book Review section of December 5, 2013, I was amazed to read a review of Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, by the mathematician Edward Frenkel. Frenkel, a Russian immigrant who became a professor of math at Harvard at the tender age of twenty-one and now teaches at Berkeley, says that as a boy he was hit by the beauty of mathematics like a coup de foudre; in other words, he was suddenly, totally, and hopelessly smitten. And when, still in his teens, he made a new mathematical discovery, it was “like the first kiss.”
The beauty of math? Falling suddenly in love with it? For most of us, once mired in the intricacies of algebra, this at first seems close to inconceivable. My mother used to say that, with effort, she could figure out x, but she didn’t have a clue as to what to do with it. Like Mom, like son: I have to enlist myself in the same army of ignoramuses, even though in high school, idiotically, I pursued the affair into the abstruse realms of trigonometry, of which I remember not one jot or tittle.
But Professor Frenkel is of another tribe altogether. He insists that mathematics must be beautiful; there is no room in the world for ugly mathematics, and the fitting response to it is love. A photo shows him teaching at Berkeley in 2010 with dark, somewhat tousled hair, in a polo shirt and jeans, gesturing earnestly in front of a blackboard inscribed with mathematical formulae. His fervor is obvious. Yes, decidedly a lover.
|Edward Frenkel at Berkeley in 2010.|
Eget vaerk, Soren Fuglede Jorgensen
But Frenkel takes it further: mathematical structures, he insists, are every bit as real as anything in the physical or mental world. Nor are they human inventions. Like Plato’s ideas, they exist timelessly in a realm of their own, awaiting discovery by mathematicians. And these structures or patterns, emerging unexpectedly, hint at something hidden and mysterious. And if they are not of our making, who put them there? Frenkel doesn’t mention God, any more than Swimme and Berry (a Jesuit, by the way) posit a Divine Force initiating the first flaring forth. But Frenkel’s mathematical world is in the end one of awesome mystery, of wonder.
And if mathematics can lead us there, what cannot? Wonder, and all it implies, seems to be the ultimate goal, acknowledged or not, of the human race. To be without wonder is to be entombed in desolation. Whatever our woes (and they are real), we aren’t meant for desolation; we are meant for celebration and joy.
For believers, wonder leads us back to the Creator, whose ways are truly wondrous and mysterious. For nonbelievers it points to the mystery of origins and endings, and the final mystery that we must all one day confront. Having begun, like all organic life, in the sea, we will end where the cosmos began -- in light. Immeasurable, incomparable light.
Note on the callery pear: For years I wondered what those small to medium-size trees are that at this time of year, still leafless, explode into masses of small five-petaled white flowers all over New York City, but no one I asked could tell me. They are everywhere along the streets and in the parks, but for me they remained a mystery. I knew they belonged to the rose family, as do apple and cherry trees and most of the common native fruits, but that was all. Finally, a year ago, I consulted the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, and they gave me the answer: my mystery tree is the callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), a name I had never heard before. It is a planted tree, not a wild one, native to China and Vietnam, but the second commonest tree on the city’s streets. View it while it’s in riotous bloom, but don’t expect a luscious, soft, edible fruit; the reddish fruit is small, hard, and inedible for humans, though birds will feed on it once it has been softened by frost. But you probably won’t even notice it, or the tree itself, once the flowers are gone. This is its moment; enjoy it.
This is New York
Coming soon: Exiles in New York, part 4: strife among the Gauls; an exile who hated bathing, Southern California, and capitalism; and a keeper of the flame with orange bangs. And then some more famous deaths.
© 2014 Clifford Browder