Disorientation and the Experience of Wonder*
By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes
“We came up over the crest and were walled to a stop.”
“Walled to a stop.” So Ivan Doig begins his powerful evocation of that first startling glimpse he and his father get of the Continental Divide in This House of Sky.
Deterrent alike to proceeding and to heeding, a wall, any wall, becomes in this instance exactly the reverse—the vehicle of vision, of vision and amazement, the very antithesis of impediment, prohibition! Doig’s choice of metaphor is compactly paradoxical. He might have chosen “stalled” as easily “walled,” but it would have had considerably less verbal force. Admiration has its costs, as I’d earlier proposed, and our being “arrested”—brought to a halt—is among those costs.
. . . The “cost,” of course, creating an opportunity for us as well as an expense, exactly as that glass (or plexiglass?) wall served to do at the national park overlook, the convex discs set into the wall offering to visitors “magnified sight.” What Doig so nicely captures is the curious condition of involuntary constraint that amazement puts us under, “amazement” deriving from the Anglo-Saxon āmazian, the verb “to bewilder.” It’s fair enough to say that the experience of amazement—of wonder as well—is largely characterized by stillness on our part, often muteness as well, as when Macbeth is left “rapt” by what he learns from the witches (the pun is on wrapped; he’s immobilized, “shackled”).
Robert Frost veers close to this in a very interesting way in “After Apple-Picking,” when he (the narrator) says that, just as he’s “drowsing off,” he finds himself trapped in a kind of delirium:
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
—the “pane of glass,” of course, being the thin sheet of ice he has held up as a “lens.” And, once he’s fully asleep, what does he observe through this lens but—
Magnified apples . . .
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
—a beautiful instance both of “magnified sight” and of how the act of “inspection,” the closely looking-into, can so thoroughly take us captive that we’re “impaled” by the situation, and cannot, as in Frost’s case, succeed in expunging the strangeness from our sight. His metaphor, like Doig’s, has a paradoxical quality: the “pane of glass” (ice) that he holds up as his lens is figuratively a window giving access, as windows do, to what lies beyond . . . but all he can see through it is “hoary” in his sight—distorted, unclear, giving rise to the “magnified apples” of his dream.
(*Of the two senses of “wonder”—as in wonderment, awe—and its alternately meaning curiosity or uncertainty, as in “I wonder if” or “I wonder when,” we’re largely concerned here with the first of these meanings.)
Disorientation and the experience of wonder: being “walled to a stop”
Many years ago, while training for a marathon, I was out for a long run, a solitary one. It was a hot August day, the sky clear, the humidity low—ideal running weather.
I’d completed some fourteen miles of this run when a curious thing happened. I had fallen into something of an “inward” state, as will happen to runners, a revery of sorts that had left me unmindful of exactly where I was. Since the route I was running was a standard one for me, I figured that I could afford to be a little inattentive, only marginally aware of exactly where I was. At this point, I had about two miles still to go.
Suddenly I found myself “coming awake,” aware again of my surroundings, and I realized, with a shock, that I had absolutely no idea of where I was! I had wandered off-course—so badly, I saw, that I had not the slightest way of taking my bearings. I found myself, in other words, “walled to a stop.” Left immobile, disoriented. Very simply, I was lost.
The consequence was stunning. Not knowing where I was, or which way would take me home, I found myself beholding what lay before my eyes —the elevated diction I employ here to a purpose: I found myself beholding what lay before my eyes—in a rapt condition of patient, attentive wonder. What I’d come to, in fact, was a T-intersection, the street ahead bordered by a row of stately homes on the street’s far side, each landscaped with care and gleaming in the August sun, the house itself, the gardens, the manicured lawn . . . I had rarely, I thought, seen anything so lovely, so pristinely new. I absolutely could not “rub the strangeness from my sight”—nor, indeed, did I want to, so captivating was the spectacle before me, which I found myself perceiving in its tiniest particulars. My senses opened fully as they rarely ever did; I’d no thought of time passing. Thus unexpectedly gifted with “intensified sight,” I was impaled, standing there, with “a wild surmise,” as “silent”—that is, speechless—as the explorers in Keats’ poem who first gaze out upon the awesome Pacific from that peak in Darien.—Keats’ means of conveying how the felicitous power of Chapman’s skill as a translator had left him agog, filled with literary wonder (“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”).
Mine, in turn, was an experience without precedent for me, as Keats’ was for him, the effect like that of the “original poetic image” we’d discussed in a previous craft note—little different, as well, from Ivan Doig’s first glimpse of the Continental Divide, and not so different either from Frost being “captive” to the “strangeness” he says he cannot rub from his sight . . .
And then it happened.
I recognized where I was. Realized it exactly. Of course! Of course. There was nothing strange here! I’d hang a left here, at the T-intersection, which would lead me down to where this street met x, and—
The deflation was as sudden as the moment in The Tempest when Prospero shuts down the thin-aired “baseless fabric” of his awe-inspiring pageant, and declares to his audience, “All our revels now are ended.” The second I got my bearings, several things happened: (a) all my reverent pleasure in the “newness” of the scene left me in a wink and was replaced by impatience; (b) I was instantly released from my stalled/walled state of physical immobility, and was ready to get moving; and (c) the luminous quality of the scene abruptly dimmed, became humdrum, depressing—depressing because now it was so “familiar”-looking.
And, most important of all—this will be crucial to what follows—my having figured out where I actually was transformed my whereabouts into a mere “way station” en route to what lay beyond, its significance, now, no more than as a “marker” on the journey I was taking to somewhere else. I was now, as you might say, “destination-driven,” all the streets, intersections, and remaining neighborhoods I would transition through as secondary to my attention, to my focal awareness, as was minimally necessary. I was now preoccupied with just getting home—envisioned being there already, my destination reached.
We begin to see, here, how moving through space, like my run that afternoon, will reflect and reenact the “journey” of reading. They’re analogous undertakings—our reading, our travel—both of which activities will, in decent measure, be “destination-driven,” our impatient wish to get on with it in each case resulting in our being inattentive to much of what passes.
The degree to which this is not a “bad thing”—that laudable “transparency” of narrative again!—and yet a limitation, too, on our appreciative powers, is what we look at next in “The ‘Journey’ of Reading and the Function of Suspense.” A dilution in our capacity for wonder results when our pursuit becomes so thoroughly absorbed in our destination that we fall into habits of “negligent perception,” reluctant to bear the requisite costs of admiration, whatever its degree, whatever “arrest” it might entail.